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Why I Left My Dream Job at Second City

A former cast member says regular heckling has morphed into hate speech, whether you recognize it or not.

Peter Kim left his gig at Second City e.t.c.’s “A Red Line Runs Through It” earlier this month.   Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Just let it go, do not engage him. He cannot hurt you.

That’s what I kept telling myself as I stumbled backstage. I had less than 3 minutes to change into my costume for the next scene. A cretin in the audience had just spewed racist rhetoric, and now I had to dress in full drag and wax poetic about gender fluidity and the dangers of privilege. Lucky me.

Just moments before, we had asked a lady in the front row: “Hello, ma’am! What’s something small that happens in your life that pisses you off, like getting stuck in traffic?” Before she could answer, the audience member shouted, “Sitting too close to a Mexican!” He was seated next to a Hispanic couple.

His vicious words clung to the room, which fell silent—the immediate hush of 200 people left speechless. He turned to his buddy, who begrudgingly gave him a high-five. Even his friend knew that he had gone too far. The “casual racism” he had practiced in the safety of his apartment had grown, unchecked, into unbridled hate speech.

This was no solitary incident. Week after week, audience members just like him spilled into the iconic Second City theater at North and Wells to sniff out the next Bill Murray, Chris Farley, or someone else from a time when comedians looked just like him—back when America was not so great for a gay Korean with a sassy mouth.

Since September 2015, people in the audience have hurled increasingly racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments at me and my castmates: comments demeaning my Asian ethnicity, using the f-word to degrade my homosexuality, and shouting “whores” at the women. But this time, he was attacking another audience member, and that felt like a whole other level.

I finished the show, downed three shots of bourbon and walked out of the building. I decided to leave a dream job at the mecca of American socio-political satire.

It was a tough decision, but after a year of continued audience abuse, I started to feel anxious going into work. For six shows a week, I got on stage and made 200 people laugh—but I forgot what it felt like to have fun.

I’ve been a comedian for seven years. I know what a heckler looks like, sounds like, and feels like. For the most part hecklers are well-meaning idiots who think they are helping or being funny. I love hecklers. I welcome them! Shutting down a heckler is No. 3 in my spank bank, next to Jon Snow and Justin Trudeau.

But these were no hecklers. They were mutations, a Stage 4 cancer spreading through the entire cavity of our nation.

News came out of me leaving Second City earlier this month, and everyone had a comment. I was immediately attacked by Twitter trolls. Complete strangers went out of their way to digitally abuse me for standing up to real-life abuse. If there is a God, she must be one sick, twisted bitch.

The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones went on Chicago Tonight and said, “What Second City now has to do is find a way to create vibrant, edgy revues, because that’s their brand, but at the same time, create an atmosphere where young performers learn how to deal with obnoxious people, who are just a part of live entertainment.”

I cannot stress how dangerous it is for a white man to categorically discount racist hate speech as “obnoxious,” or “just part of” regular life. That borders on explaining away “grab ’em by the pussy” as “locker room talk.” White liberals who speak on behalf of the oppressed are more dangerous to us than any gun-toting hillbilly from Mississippi. You stand next to us as an ally, but you’d rather convince us that fear-driven hate is “obnoxious” than listen to our struggle and accept it as real trauma. Complaining that someone is “sensitive” or “too politically correct” is just another way of saying, “I wanna go back to a time when we didn’t have to be so sensitive.”

Until recently, it was taboo to be a racist. You exercised your racism like a gentleman, inside the privacy of your Thanksgiving table or Thursdays at your Klan rally. But this year, a presidential nominee of the United States of America gave his tribe a platform and a thinly veiled slogan, then fed them lies to turn them against the “others.”

It’s astonishing how many people were convinced that Donald Trump was a joke. People were genuinely surprised by how many hateful, violent, and angry people reared their heads at his rallies. Intellectual, nice, white people believed in a post-racial world because laws were passed, because we voted in Barack Obama. But the Civil Rights movement didn’t magically end racism. All it did was end the daily dialogue America used to have with it.

We cannot continue to explain away hate as ignorance. We cannot continue to accept mediocrity from our friends, family, and co-workers just because we don’t want to ruffle any feathers.

Don’t let the Baby Boomers fool you. We are the greatest generation of America, because not only are we different, we embrace our differences in order to progress as human beings. I didn’t quit Second City because of Donald Trump. I quit because I am excellent, and I demand excellence from those around me. I don’t tolerate anything less, and neither should you.

Peter Kim is a writer and performer in Chicago. His credits include The Second City Touring Company, The Laugh Factory, Zanies, and Paper Machete.
 

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