There’s a post in Dave Schwenson’s newsletter “How to be a Working Comic,” about hecklers. It’s worth a read and you should definitely check it out. I’m a huge fan of Dave’s and I have a lot of respect for him. He was the manager of the Improv when I got my first T.V. spot and he was largely, (if not entirely), responsible for all my bookings in Vegas.
But I’ve got to address some myths about hecklers and attempt to put them to rest. So in this post I will attempt to bust the top 3 ridiculous myths about hecklers.
You, my devout blog readers (all three of you), will help me get the word out by hitting the like button and tweeting the the post to all your comedian friends and other friends of comedy… right?
Considering that most of you also have about three friends, we can easily paper the world with this important info!
So let’s get to it.
As stand-ups,we deal with a dynamic that almost no other entertainment professionals deal with. That dynamic is the heckler.
I receive lots of questions about hecklers. The information culled from these emails is interesting. The new comedians have a fear of hecklers and the experienced comedians want advice on how to properly handle hecklers.
Over the years, I’ve heard hecklers called “jerks,” “A-Holes,” and even “the ‘cancer’ of comedy.” But in my 27 years doing stand-up, I’ve learned a lot about the heckler and here in this post I want to give you some tools and bust the top 3 ridiculous myths about hecklers.
The heckler is, of course, the person in the audience who yells out something during your act. The yelling out has a tendency to throw off a comedian. Comedians can be thrown off their game, forget their material, get all riled up, angry, yell, scream profanities at the heckler.
I don’t believe that helps the show at all.
Not that the heckler should do the talking out in the first place, but the comedian should be able to handle a situation like this comedically.
Once in a great while the occasion arises when you do need to be a little more brutal in your heckle responses, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
Sun Tzu in “The Art of War” said “know thy enemy.” And although I don’t necessarily consider all hecklers my “enemy,” it’s a good rule to follow because it’s far easier to understand and handle this situation if you, as the comedian, understand the heckler.
So first, let’s deal with that.
Myth #1: “It’s Us Against Them”
In a comedy documentary called “Alone Up There,” filmmaker Sean Patrick Shaul interviews many comedians and other comedy professionals to find out what makes a comedian tick.
In the documentary, veteran comedian Bobby Slayton, (The “Pit Bull of Comedy”), boldy says to the camera, “It’s us against them.”
Isn’t that a little dramatic? I have a lot of respect for Slayton. He’s one of the fastest comedians on his feet today and he’s a super helpful guy with other comedians. But the theory that it’s an “us against them” dynamic is shaky at best.
Let’s bust this myth, right now.
I don’t think that theory has been examined even at the most basic level. I mean think about it. You’ve sat in those seats watching a comedy show, right? Have you ever thought it was an us against them thing? Have you ever sat there, as the next comedian is being introduced saying to yourself, “Make us laugh, idiot?!”
Probably not, right? I mean, I usually wait till the comedian is several failed jokes in to say, “Oh boy, this guy doesn’t get it.” But that’s about as close as it gets to us-against-them.
When a comedian is introduced and while he is taking the stage, I’m curious. I’m thinking something like, what’s this guy got? or something like that.
In other words, the typical audience member is rooting for the comedian to do well, not hoping they’ll wanna throw down.
We’re at a comedy club because we want to laugh, not because we want to fight.
I’ve run into very few situations where there was an us-against-them mentality. And the closest it ever got was more of a ‘it’s a me-against-him mentality, or it’s a me-against-that-table mentality. But that situation was rare.
So the “us-against-them” thing? Let’s get rid of that idea right now. The audience is rooting for you to make them laugh. They want the ticket price to be worth it.
Myth #2 “Hecklers are Jerks or A-holes”
Some people automatically jump to the conclusion that hecklers are jerks or “a-holes.” That’s not necessarily true and the comedian has a huge advantage in keeping that interaction with the heckler positive and funny.
First the comedian should understand that the overwhelming majority of hecklers are not trying to ruin your show. Most hecklers are just wanting to embellish or engage. There’s a psychology behind this that may help support this notion.
There’s an old saying, “It’s impossible to dislike anyone who makes you laugh.” Also, when someone laughs they released the same hormones someone does when they fall in love. So when you’re making them laugh they actually have an innate thought that the comedian is their ‘friend.’
So when you have a heckler, think about it this way: Who in your life insults you the most? Probably your best friends. They know everything about you. They do it in a teasing way because they love you, but they can certainly get pretty brutal at times.
Most hecklers are not brutal, they just want to engage or embellish. Sometimes they even tag a joke. If you just treat them like your best friend, (usually with a stinging response and a smile on your face), they will usually laugh with you and you keep the show at a level that can still be identified as “comedy” and not “barfight.”
Myth #3: Hecklers are the Cancer of Comedy
Quite the contrary! Don’t fall so much in love with yourself as a comedian or performer that you forget you wouldn’t exist without that audience. You’re on stage in front of people. It’s a live a event.
Part of the nature of this business is that comedy is a conversation. It’s supposed to be a one-way conversation, but it’s still a conversation and if you say something that offends or something that someone in the audience disagrees with, then you might get a response. It’s your job to be prepared.
Some people don’t have a lot of experience with comedy. Some hecklers think it’s “part of the show.” And some hecklers actually think they are “helping” you.
I don’t know how many times I had a heckler and had to deal with them then after the show they’ll come up to me and say, “I really helped you out tonight, huh?”
To call them the “cancer of comedy” is counter-productive. Think about it. Each time you have a heckler you have to deal with, you become faster on your feet. You learn how to engage with the heckler, while keeping the audience laughing. When you have a heckler you have a great opportunity to engage some of the most powerful laughter triggers in comedy. Embarrassment, Superiority and Release.
- The audience feels superior to the heckler you are addressing.
These psychological laughter triggers working together can create powerful laughter and applause from the audience
- The audience recognizes how embarrassing that situation would be if it was them, and…
- The audience is releasing tension because it’s not them!
All of these working together can actually make the show more memorable, more energetic while adding a totally unique dynamic. This gives you a chance to be a rockstar. But you have to do the work and prepare for hecklers.
What do you do to prepare?
In my early days, I was heckled once where I couldn’t recover. Three guys were heckling me and when one ran out of breath, the other one picked it up. It was brutal!
I went home that night and vowed that that would not happen again. I did a few things to be more prepared for hecklers. You can do some of these too.
I sat down and wrote about 30 generic heckler responses.
One of the most memorable heckle responses in memory is from Steve Martin. Someone in the crowd shouted something out and Martin responded by saying, “I remember when I had my first beer.” So I thought to myself; how can I respond by insulting the hecklers ability to be out in public?
I wrote: “Looks like someone’s wife gave someone back his balls for the night.” If it seems like that alone won’t work, I might pile on a little by saying, “I’m just kidding, he’s not married. I mean, look at this Dude. That would have to be one rude bitch to be able to tolerate a grown man who has yet to learn how to behave in public.”
Keep in mind. I’m not being too brutal. Just stinging a little as I would my best friends.
If it’s a table of people the guy is in I might ask a rhetorical question like, “So what’s going on here? Are these all your friends or are you the only one in the trailer park with a car? Because I’ve seen your house and I love what you’ve done with the Michelins.”
These lines are time-tested and usually work to shut the heckler up. They’re not brutal lines. They’re playful and they don’t put the heckler into a corner where they feel the need to retaliate.
What happens if you get too brutal?
If you’re too brutal, things can get ugly. I’ve gone too far a couple of times, because of my stubbornness and I’ve gotten a beer bottle thrown at me, gotten punched in the face and threatened by a heckler I brutalized who wanted the last word so badly, he went out to his car and returned with a gun.
Fortunately, the bouncers kept him from returning.
One thing you can do to write heckle lines is to watch YouTube and search hecklers. Write down what the hecklers say and write at least 10 comebacks, because odds are you’re going to hear that same heckle from some other heckler at some point.
The second thing I would highly recommend is to read outside your comfort zone. Comedians should be more well-read than the audience. In reading stuff outside your comfort zone, you open yourself up to new ideas.
I read Popular Mechanics while at the dentist and the article talked about how Harley Davidson patented the sound of their motorcycles.
About a month later I was the hired comedian for the Laughlin River Run where about 10 thousand bikers show up for a retreat and take over Laughlin.
At one point during my show, there was this biker who kept spouting off about his “Ole Lady.” At random points in my act he would respond by always referring to “My Ole lady!” At one point some of the other bikers didn’t want to hear it so one guy shouted to me, “Git ’em!” (Meaning he wanted the comedian to deal with the heckler).
I didn’t know what to say at first. Then I remembered the article from Popular Mechanics and said, “Did you know that Harley Davidson patented the sound of their motorcycles? They own the sound!” Then I looked right at the dude who was heckling and I said, “I wonder who owns the queef, because I fucked your ‘ole lady’ last night and I think I owe some royalties.”
The entire place exploded with laughter and the heckler raised his hand in a fist and said, “Good one!” Then he shut up for the rest of show.
Sometimes hecklers just want to be acknowledged. He wasn’t trying to be mean, but he was being annoying. When the audience let me know that they were tired of him, I hit him with a response that was related to the niche of the audience I was performing for.
The point of that story is that I wouldn’t have had that information available if I didn’t read outside my comfort zone.
In the end, it’s your job to keep that energy in the realm of comedy. Not turn it into a fight. It’s better for you, it’s better for the crowd and it’s better for the comedy world in general.
Think about it this way: If there are people in the audience who’ve never been to a comedy show before and the energy of the show turns from the positivity of a comedy show to the negative energy of a bar fight, then odds are they will never come to a comedy show again. That’s bad for all of us.
So remember to do your work and keep it funny.
Love to hear your comments and if you enjoyed this piece, give it a “like,” okay?