Comedian Lee Hurst is the latest performer to succumb to "stage rage" according to reports, after last week mauling the mobile phone of a punter who was paying him undue attention at a gig in Surrey. Hurst's fit was sparked by the winking lights of a mobile phone somewhere in his audience last Wednesday at the Stoke pub in Guildford. The ex-They Think It's All Over pundit then unleashed the standard-issue "four-letter tirade", seized the phone, threw it on the floor and flounced off.
Apparently Hurst thought the punter was secretly filming his gig. Which would have been quite understandable – who wouldn't want 20 grainy minutes of cockney comedy in their collection? In fact, his victim claims to have been texting a babysitter. Police are now deciding whether to bring charges – a decision I'm happy to make for them, if that'll ease their workload. No. Don't bring charges. That would be stupid.
Even if the punter was indeed messaging the childminder, that's a very annoying thing to do in a darkened room full of people trying to be entertained, and a battered hand-set sounds like just desserts. I'd even say his fellow audience members had more cause for rage than Hurst, whose job, after all, is to be so amusing that no one's thinking about the babysitter in the first place.
And yet, the psychology of stage rage is quite understandable. Performers – stand-up comics particularly – are totally exposed on stage, and they live or die by their ability to compel and calibrate the attention of the audience. A persistent, focus-hogging irritant in the crowd can jeopardise everything. The skilled performer will defuse this threat with the firm-but-fair reprimand. Witness Richard Griffiths in The History Boys. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," he told a woman whose phone kept ringing. "I am not going to compete with these electronic devices. We're going to start this scene again. If we hear one more phone go off, we'll quit this performance." Or Kevin Spacey to the owner of a ringing mobile during The Iceman Cometh. "Tell them we're busy," he said.
Sometimes the angry approach works. The actor Laurence Fishburne apparently won applause from the crowd when he barked "turn that fucking phone off" during a Broadway performance of James Goldman's The Lion in Winter. But there will always be performers who – catch them on a bad night – can't keep their fury in check. The most notorious recent incident involves Michael (Kramer from Seinfeld) Richards' racist tirade against hecklers in his audience at a West Hollywood comedy club in 2006. Richards claims that his outburst was a misguided effort to be funny. He's had two years of subsequent pariah status to rue the misjudgment. Next to that fate, a "grievous digital harm" rap from the Surrey police seems an entirely acceptable punishment.
About this articleClose Brian Logan: Mobile phones and the psychology of stage rage
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Wednesday September 10 2008. It was last updated at 11:22 on September 10 2008.