Josh Rogin, Dan Nainan and what happens when the audience can talk back

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
National Correspondent
Yahoo News
Men are silhouetted against a video screen with a Twitter logo as they pose with Samsung S3 and S4 smartphones in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Files

Aw, you might have punched Josh Rogin, too.

Rogin is the Daily Beast writer/wag who tweeted snark about comedian Dan Nainan’s uneven set of jokes at a D.C. improv club Wednesday night: Evidently Nainan did an annoying George W. Bush impression and overplayed the tired L-R confusion in Asian English.

Comedians — or Nainan, at least — don’t exactly laugh this stuff off. When his gags were done, according to a police report, Nainan marched off stage, socked Rogin in the face, walked away to not cool off and came back and socked Rogin again.

For Nainan to sneer moronically at Asian Americans and George W. Bush — you know, those brand-new scapegoats — and then bust the chops of a fairly restrained heckler seems at first to qualify him for the he-can-dish-it-out-but-can’t-take-it award alongside prickly and washed-up bullies like Michael Richards and Bill O’Reilly.

But Nainan’s frustration was not just with a heckler: It was also with Twitter. It was with the way Twitter, when used by audiences at live shows, subverts the despotism of the stage hog. By turning every Joe in the cheap seats into a performer himself — a broadcaster, no less, with a far greater reach than anyone with merely a microphone — Twitter demolishes the power imbalance cherished by performers of every stripe.

Twitter does something that hams will never forgive: It undermines the capacity of the person with the mike and the spotlight to mesmerize.

I remember, with queasiness, when I learned this chilling Twitter lesson myself. In 2009, I sat in a talk-show chair on a giant stage at South by Southwest, the hallowed tech conference in Austin, Texas, interviewing James Powderly, a swashbuckling art star with cigarette ash for skin who’d been imprisoned in China for a noble punk act of civil disobedience. I privately thought I was killing it.

Yes, I was pregnant, 40, morning-sick and wearing a borrowed black wrap dress that looked lumpy and far from swashbuckling. And lean Powderly, who ambled to the stage on his own time, started the show by flipping off the audience and the crowd whooped. “Um,” I started. “Uh,” I said. Powderly, bless him, took over — enthralling 1,000 SXSW conferees with punk-picturesque tales of China, Berlin and troublemaking.

As I left the stage, there was some minor backslapping and a room of broad smiles. But something was off. It had been off for the full hour. A distinct note of concealed ridicule sounded in the air — even hostility. Had I puked onstage and blacked it out? Had I flopped?

I went back to my hotel room to rest my pregnant bones, but after a half an hour of uneasy sleep I sat bolt upright and grabbed my laptop: And there it was, my disgrace. While I had been dandily conducting a Q&A, thinking I had the audience in the palm of my swollen hand, the crowd was silently, and right in front of me, disseminating another story, to a much larger audience than the one in the room.

Their take on the Q&A was that I had let Powderly run away with it. That he needed to be reined in. Or that he was so charismatic and youthful that stodgy me didn’t deserve to breathe the same punk air. Ugh. My nausea redoubled.

If I could have found the tweeters, I might have punched them. As it was, I puked.

That was five years ago. In the intervening years many audiences — including the ones in the Beltway — have caught up to the ones at SXSW. All live shows — the Emmys, “Breaking Bad,” particle physics lectures at the University of Vermont, Vampire Weekend at the Barclay Center, an Orgasmic Meditation demo in NoCal — are vulnerable to being tweeted. The tweets to these things are marginalia, and like all marginalia they are by nature subversive. The competition among people live-tweeting is to catch and render incongruities (“Why does Miley Cyrus look like she’s on salvia?”) and be the first to do so.

Live-tweeters are running their own shows, riffing on what’s on the mainstage but really cultivating audiences of their own. Live-tweeters also determinedly refuse to come under the spell of the spectacle. They are, rather, like Bertholt Brecht’s imagined free-thinking audience: smoking, rustling around, chatting. Keenly resisting the tyranny of the performer. Anything but glued to their seats, spellbound.

Freethinking by audiences is a good thing, but it also breaks the hearts of narcissists who like to command from center stage. After all, showoffs — writers, musicians, speechmakers — are always vulnerable to a childlike yearning for everyone to just shut up, gaze adoringly and listen. And then applaud. Alas, Twitter has pushed back at that timeless fantasy, and people like Dan Nainan — along with many, many others who should know better — are still burned up about it.

So we throw punches, or — more commonly — claim moral high ground to chastise tweeters and texters as rude and insubordinate rather than contend with our anxieties about social media and hyper-empowered audiences. As live-tweeting becomes still more common, performers will have to learn how to cede or share stages and collaborate with audiences. Digitization exerts pressures on everything it touches; performance, like everything else, will evolve.

Twitter is not dying, plainly; Twitter is resilient. It can survive even two closed-fist punches. As for live-tweeter Rogin, he’s recovered from his thrashing well enough to retweet the WSJ columnist Jeff Yang’s take the Naiman affair:

Now that’s how comedy is done.