People should research comedians before they go see them perform, plain and simple. This isn’t an original idea of mine, either. This is common knowledge among comics, but not among audience members. With any other form of entertainment, or art (and yes, comedy IS art) people at least do a Google search before spending their money. For some reason, with comedy that is not the case.
Over the past few months there have been several stories about audience members who got offended by things that a comedian said or did on stage. If you are the type of person who doesn’t like jokes about murder, apples, fat people, or sneakers, then don’t go see a comedian who talks about those things. Furthermore, if you don’t do your research before PAYING to go see a performance then don’t complain or act surprised that something unexpected happens (because really, you should have no expectations at all, since you didn’t do your research).
All that said, is there a place where comedians should draw the line? My act isn’t super edgy, and isn’t profane at all, but that’s me. I don’t usually get heckled as a result of my content, and if I am heckled I’m not the type to “go off” on the heckler. My material is fairly laid back, and it would be near impossible to get back into it after screaming at someone for interrupting. For comedians who are more edgy or “controversial” in their acts, I do feel that there is a line that should be drawn when handling hecklers.
Is a comedian in his or her “right” to rip a rude audience member to shreds? If they are the headliner, sure. But is it necessary? I don’t think so. Being kind is always a plus in my book, but I agree that nobody should have to go to work (yes, comedy is work) and be called names or disrespected. For big name comics there is a point where they can get away with a lot. They could walk half the crowd and a venue would still bring them back, because they are a draw. In most cases they have labored for years to get to that point, and yes, they have the right to verbally respond however they please to someone who is being rude.
For audience members there is a simple solution if you don’t like what a comedian is saying/doing on stage; walk out. Leave. But please do so quietly. If you were seeing a play that sucked or was offensive, you would never imagine yelling at the actors would you? So why is yelling at a comedian any different. Once again, I have to wonder why someone would pay money to go see someone talk for an hour without learning about that person in advance. Also why would someone act surprised when a comedian who talks about kicking animals (or whatever) responds in a less than kind way to being screamed at by an audience member.
Movies have ratings, restaurants have Yelp, and comedians (ideally) have websites and youtube clips, or at least a description of their act on the venue’s website. The comedy club, theater, etc may have a great reputation, but that doesn’t mean their act is necessarily for you. Do your research.