It never fails when you’re doing comedy; you’re trying to get the audience warmed up and you get heckled. How do you handle them? First of all, most hecklers aren’t there to hurt your show. Believe it or not, they usually think they are trying to “help you.”
Each heckle is a new opportunity to hone your ad-lib skills and work in some formula so that a surprise appears in your response and results in a laugh from the audience. The last thing you want to do is spend too much time with a heckler this ensures that the heckler won that battle, because a main portion of your act was focused on giving him the attention that he was seeking in the first place.
I was at the M-Bar in Hollywood last night watching one of my students, Josh Weinstock, do a show. The M-Bar is a lovely lounge with great lighting and sound. The M.C. was working hard to get the audience warmed up. He was doing his set, not getting great laughs and at one point, got frustrated. He looked at a guy sitting in the front and said “what are you doing here?”
The guy said, “Pretending to watch comedy.”
Well, the M.C. was stung, but he riffed it away the best he could in that moment. But you could tell that the comment wounded him. He spent too much time trying to respond to the heckle and didn’t get much laughter from it. The best way to respond to a heckler–well besides hitting them with a sledge hammer–is to give them the equivalent of that in a funny response. The more experience you have the better you master the art of heckle-responses. But there is a process that you can use too:
- Listen to what was said. In this case it was “I’m pretending to watch comedy…”
- Process the information. Repeat what the heckler said so you can be assured the audience heard it.
- Use your knowledge and skill in creating surprise to get laughs and respond.
I heard the heckler that night. “I’m pretending to watch comedy…” If I was the comedian I would’ve said, “You’re pretending to watch comedy? (Look at him.) That’s ironic, because at that exact same time I was pretending to watch an asshole…I’m just kidding, dude…I wasn’t pretending.”
That’s going to get a laugh from the audience. It’s simple. It’s a reverse so it creates surprise. And it reaffirms to the audience that you are in control.