How to Crush a Heckler Without Ruining the Show

When I first started doing comedy, I used to do these shows during breaks in between sets of my friend’s band when they performed in nightclubs around Los Angeles.

One night I was doing a set and it wasn’t going well. There were these three guys that noticed me failing miserably. I could hear one of them say, “Look, he’s bombing! Let’s get him.”

They approached the stage and stood like four feet from the stage and started heckling me. When one of them ran out of breath, one of the other ones took over. It was like being verbally gang banged by hecklers.

After that miserable set I went to the bar and thought about getting drunk, but then I realized that I had audio recorded that entire experience.

I record every set. Mini-tape recorders, digital recorders or the voice memo app on my iPhone is the technological equivalent of an airplane’s black box. It records every event that leads up to a crash.

I said to myself, “That shit is NEVER gonna happen to me again.”

I took that recorder home, listened to to each line those assholes said to me and I wrote comebacks for every single one of them.

That was totally empowering. It was a true-to-life example of taking a negative experience and turning into a positive one.

During the nearly 30 years of doing stand-up I’ve learned a lot about hecklers and most of the stuff I learned is counter-intuitive to most of the stuff we hear from other comedians.

One thing I have learned is that preparation is essential. Having an arsenal of response lines called “comebacks,” will help you overcome your fear of hecklers.

Some comedians insist that you don’t need to prepare for hecklers. But then you have to ask yourself why the number one joke type stolen from comedians is heckler comebacks?!

How do you Prepare for a Heckler?

Dealing with hecklers is not something that comedians get enough practice with.

Heckling doesn’t usually happen often enough for us to have enough time to get any reps in. Think about it. You can spend hours honing and rehearsing five minutes of material, then you get up on stage in front of an audience and you rehearse and hone that five minutes.

There’s usually no heckles. Once in a while a heckler shows up. A heckle is a blip in the overall stand-up experience. So literally what time do we have to work on hecklers?

Very little, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t get the practice in.

Your overall practice for a heckler comes with the practice you put in writing your jokes. If you have a good grasp on how to craft a joke from scratch on any given topic, you’re already ahead of the game when it comes time to deal with a heckler.

Think about it this way: a heckle response is a comeback to something someone says in the audience. Usually that something comes from somebody who’s trying to somehow disrupt your show.

As a comedian, your writing is usually a cynical comment on a fact, statement or announcement, incident or situation. So if you’ve been practicing your writing, you’re going to be more prepared to respond to a heckler.

The first skill you must acquire when dealing with a heckler is what I like to call active listening. That means really listening to every word the heckler says. When hecklers speak they usually give you enough fodder to develop a quick incongruity response to a joke, a paired phrase response to a joke or a wordplay response to a joke. But it’s not only limited to those comedic comebacks.

Hecklers comments are like any line you might write a joke on. There’s endless possibilities, but when you just give yourself a few structures to work with it makes faster with your comebacks.

The good news is that the tension is so high in the room when there’s a heckle, that the audience will usually give you accolades for coming up with anything that makes sense in response.

Two Basic Types of Heckle Comebacks

There are two basic types of Heckle Comebacks.

  1. Evergreen Comebacks
  2. Ad-lib Comebacks

The Evergreen Comeback

The Evergreen Comeback is a response to a heckler that the comedian uses that may or may not (usually not) have anything to do with the subject matter the heckler is talking about. It’s just a line to shut him/her up. Here are a few I’ve heard over the years. They’ve been recycled by a variety of comedians…

“I remember when I had my first beer.”

“Why don’t you wear a full-body condom? If you’re gonna act like a dick, you might as well dress like one.”

“Has your father stopped crying?”

“Your bus leaves in 10 minutes. Be under it.”

“Your mother could’ve done us all a favor and just swallowed.”

Those are standard lines they are there in case the moment doesn’t provide me with enough fodder to respond to the comedian effectively in an ad-lib situation.

You’ve probably heard comedians use one or more of those lines, but I was never a fan of using someone else’s heckle jokes so I wrote a bunch of my own…

Here’s one I usually use to keep it playful…

“What’s going on at that table? Are these all your friends or are you the only one in the trailer park with a car?”

I might follow it up with, “Because I’ve seen your house and I love what you’ve done with the Michelins.”

The fun part is keeping it playful. Usually after I would say this line and do the tag, the heckler behaves.

Ad-Lib Comebacks

The Ad-Lib Comebacks are lines that a comedian uses that are direct responses to what a heckler has said. It could be prompted or unprompted by the comedian.

I remember being at a show and Howie Mandel had a heckler. Howie just said, “So what do you do for a living?”
The guy said, “I’m a carpenter.”
Howie said, “That’s cool, because I was just thinking, “If I had a hammer…”

It’s not even a put down. It’s just a comeback. But it diffused the moment and as silly and innocuous as that was for a comeback, the audience not only laughed, they applauded.

The audience laughed at the simple coincidence that Howie came up with something that related to the subject of “carpenter.” In addition, the added coincidence that Howie’s response was a song that was relatable and familiar and it fit with the subject matter. Audience’s will not only laugh at the coincidence that those two ideas fit with each other, they laugh because the tension is high and they are craving a release point.

This technique by Howie Mandel is used quite often when the heckler is not providing any fodder. When the heckler says what they do for a living, the comedian now has something to work with. At that point the comedian can choose to go on the attack or be playful.

A Professional Should Keep the Show Playful

I prefer the comeback that keeps the show playful. In my experience being playful is much more effective at quieting the comedian for the rest of the show than going on the attack.

There’s a misunderstood psychology behind the heckler that most comedians don’t bother to understand. It’s a subject that’s beyond the scope of this post, but I will address it in another one soon.

I also cover it in a half-day Heckle & Comeback Workshop that I do.

I think club owners and audiences expect more from a comedian these days.

There are times you can carry something too far. If you corner someone and don’t give them anywhere to go and it’s not comedic, you’re doing yourself, your act, the audience and the club a disservice. If it turns into a fight, you’ve killed the night and probably your chance of getting asked back to that club.

I’ve done all that.

I’ve shredded someone to the point that I had a beer bottle thrown at my head. I’ve humiliated someone to the point where they went out to their truck and got a gun. I’ve burned a heckler to the point where a group of KKK put a brick through the rear window of my car and I’ve throttled a group to where I got cracked in the jaw by a couple of dudes after the show.

I’ve since learned ways to be prepared and keep it fun, while still being edgy. There’s a way to diffuse, deflect & pivot so that you can still “WIN,” while still keeping the show moving and not have a fight or get a bottle thrown at your head.

Preparation is key but understanding the intrinsic nature of the heckler and the audience empowers you to be in charge of whether the night is a night of funny or a night at a bar fight.

There’s more to come on this subject of hecklers, so keep an eye out for my next post on the heckler. In the meantime, check out my Heckle & Comeback Workshop and learn some secrets to crushing the heckler every time.

how to deal with a heckler workshop by Jerry Corley

Revenge may be Best Cold, but Success is Best Always.

Joe Dungan - Winner, Clean Comedy Challenge 2017

One of the biggest joys of running the Comedy Clinic and imparting what I’ve learned through these many years in comedy is when one of my students has a success moment. It’s rewarding in so many ways.

First off, it’s just totally cool to see one of your students succeed… just that. I remember when I was in that same position and I remember the feeling of winning something or succeeding at something in comedy. That sense of accomplishment is sublime and when one of your students achieves success, it’s like having that feeling all over again.

Joe Dungan, one of my hardest working students and one of my master teachers just won The Clean Comedy Challenge 2017 at the Ice House in Pasadena, CA!

Joe competed against a litany of other comedians. And he must’ve done great because at the end of the performances one of the other comedians said to him, “Get ready to collect your prize money,” implying that it was clear who won the Clean Comedy Challenge.

So how did Joe do it?

As many of you know, it can be a challenge to come up with clean comedy that pops. The primary way to make it work is with tightly structured material so that there’s clear, crisp surprise.

The primary way to make it work is with tightly structured material so that there’s clear, crisp surprise.

Joe’s opening line gets them laughing right away “My name is Joe ‘Successful Career’ Dungan, but you can call me Joe Dungan because the ‘Successful Career’ is silent.”

This line accomplishes two things. It self-deprecates, presenting Joe’s dilemma, while using the superiority concept in comedy, instantly letting the audience know that Joe doesn’t take himself too seriously. It also gives us surprise and incongruity because Joe juxtaposes the words “successful career” with a letter that might be silent in a person’s name.

But the structure of that joke is tight. It’s a great opening joke and has the audience on Joe’s side right out of the gate.

Lorne Michaels, the genius behind the success of Saturday Night Live, says that an audience has to be confident in the comedian on stage and there’s nothing better than a well-structured joke right out of the gate to immediately inject a large dose of confidence into that audience.

And that’s the primary focus of the curriculum at the Comedy Clinic. I want you to learn the science and structure of comedy so I empower you with the tools to write comedy that is designed to get laughs by helping you learn the proven structures of comedy and the science behind why people laugh.

I encourage my students to be able to write clean material. You don’t have to do clean material if it’s not your persona, but you should be able to. This way you don’t have to simply rely on shock value to get a laugh.

When you learn to be able to work clean you can work anywhere. It makes you more versatile as a comedian and makes you more likely to succeed as a comedy writer or performer.

Let’s face it, one of the quickest ways to get on the map in comedy is to appear on television and whether it’s Kimmel, Conan, Fallon, Colbert, Meyers or Corden, your material needs to be able to fit in the parameters of that show’s requirements and although many of the shows are showing much more flexibility, you’re still required to be ‘clean.’

Once you have a few appearances on network TV, you are more likely to be able to book higher paid corporate work, get a solid agent and begin developing your professional career even further.

A national TV credit almost instantly thrusts you into the headlining position in most clubs around the country and gives agents a reason to represent you.

But if you’re not able to work clean, the network TV gigs will continue to be off-limits to you as a performer.

If you are able to work clean, almost nothing can stop you.

So congratulations Joe Dungan! Get that video and start getting it out to the talent coordinators booking the Late Night shows on TV.

And to those of you reading this, start learning to write and perform clean. Remember you don’t have to be a clean comedian, but you create exponentially more opportunity if you are able to.

Add More Laughs by Putting On Your Comedy Toolbelt

comedy_tool_belt

Looking to add more laughs into your act? Sometimes just applying some deliberate writing you can use mechanics to add some quick laughs as you advance the routine.

According to Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live, one of the crucial things an audience looks for in a comedian who first steps on stage is confidence.

Confidence is a two-way street; you as the performer have to have confidence in yourself for the audience to have confidence in your ability to make them laugh.

Immediate Laughs Build Confidence Fast

One way to build confidence in your act is to have a quick laugh within the first 10-15 seconds of taking the stage.

Economy is key. Challenge yourself to a game of how fast you can get to the joke. How many words before you can get the audience to laugh?

We built a laugh into Eugenia Kuzmina’s act by using her the emcee’s intro as a set up. The emcee says, “Ladies and gentlemen, coming to the stage now is a fashion model who wants to be a comedian. Please welcome Eugenia Kuzmina.

Eugenia enters the stage doing the fashion model’s scissored gate like she’s on a fashion runway. She walks to each end of the stage and poses just like she’s on the runway. Then approaches the mic, sighs, and then says, “I’m so hungry.”

So she gets a big laugh with as little as three words. Most of the time the audience begins giggling on her entrance, which helps to build the laugh on the line.

Years ago I did a show at a casino/resort in Nevada that had a fire the week before that threatened the cancellation of the show. That news was in the paper (remember newspapers?). It was also on the news.

When I was introduced, I walked on stage with a fire extinguisher, set it down next to me and… before I said anything, the audience laughed, then broke into applause.

Zero words.

Problem with that is if I want to rely on that gimmick to get laughs, before I come to town I would have to arrange for the venue to have a fire.

Applying the Maxim of the 5 w’s to Add Laughs

The good news is that many times the jokes are already sitting there in your existing act. You just need to use put on your comedy tool belt.

Using one of my students recent intros, watch how we took introduction and added 3 more quick laughs, giving her 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.

Here is the intro to a set written by Laura Breech, one of my students:

“So I moved here recently and decided to check out the LA dating scene, so I dusted off that online profile…again. I’ve been on a few dates, and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Hahah, JK, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but dude, I live in LA now. I’ve gotta count calories…”

It’s a good opening and has three laughs, but I took a look at the draft and thought there was a possibility to add a few more laughs.

I looked at each sentence and utilized the maxim of the 5 W’s (Who? What? Where? Why? When? And How?).

This was the result:

“So recently, I moved to L.A. for the same reason as most people; just to make absolutely certain that I’ll never be able to afford a home. And recently I decided to get into extreme sports; you know, the LA dating scene… so I dusted off that online profile… again. I’ve been on a few dates–okay, seventeen of them–(ahem)… and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Ha!, Just kidding, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Dude! I live in LA now. I gotta count calories…”

So just by asking questions like Why did I move to L.A.? and How is the “L.A. dating scene” different from other dating scenes? “What do I mean by a ‘few’ dates?, We were able to add about 3 more laughs to this opening for a total of 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.

That averages out to a laugh every 4.2 seconds. That’s a great start and executed properly that opening will assuredly demonstrate ability and give that audience a hypodermic filled with confidence.

Go Even Further

But, wait, there’s more! Just because that’s the opening bit she performed at her show, it doesn’t mean we can’t evolve the piece even further.

The first thing that pops into my mind is that Laura compared L.A. dating to extreme sports. That tells us that there are two dissimilar ideas converging and that we can do a listing technique to generate some associative jokes to flesh this piece out even more.

So go ahead. Take your existing material and develop it further just by utilizing the comedic tools you have at your disposal and build that confidence in your comedy with more laughs.

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Another Common Misconception About Writing Your Comedy

misconceptions on comedy writingI recently posted an ad on Facebook promoting my comedy writing workshops. If you haven’t attended, these workshops are intense. You get powerful tools to write comedy on just about anything. But that’s not the point of this post.

When those ads run there’s a place you can leave comments, click “like” or “share.” When people click the ad they are taken to a page and invited to watch four writing tutorial videos.

The first video is on how to write 15-20 jokes on a single headline during breakfast.

What fascinated me was how quickly this ad was shared and liked. It received some really heart-warming comments like, “Amazing work, man!” and “Wow! Loved this video! When can I see the next one?” But again, that’s not exactly what this post is about.

The real fascination came from the skeptics. I try to avoid using the word “haters,” (it seems overused and a bit cliche), but the vitriol coming from the skeptics really urges you to lean toward the word “haters.”

The stuff that spilled into the comment box! People calling me a “hack” and “idiot,” or my favorite “aging comic.” Lol! Like you would take comedy advice from someone who hasn’t put in the time?

My mentor was George Carlin and when he mentored me 25 years ago, he was 8 years older than I am right now!

Imagine if I would’ve said, “Like I’m gonna take this advice from some aging comic!”

But instead of just discarding the ridiculous and under-examined claims from these skeptics, I decided to use them to address some misconceptions about writing your comedy.

One guy wrote, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, comedy comes from the depths of your soul.” Like that’s it. My first thought was ‘really?’

Comedy comes from the depths of your soul? That’s it? I just gotta get up on stage and talk about the depth of my soul and people are gonna laugh with me? Problem solved? Comedy gold, right?

Who needs any experience? Let’s just get up on stage and talk from the depths of our souls!

In the vast horizon of possibilities of where comedy can come from, why would anyone who’s taken any time to study this art make such a definitive and limiting statement?

Not only that, just look around! Jerry Seinfeld, “What is it with bugs?!” or “I don’t know if horses really know they’re racing. I think horses are sitting at the starting gate going, ‘I know there’s a bag of oats at the end of this and I wanna get there first.'”

Does that sound like it comes from the depths of Seinfeld’s soul?

Or take Anthony Jeselnik: “The best way to break up with a girl is like I take off a band-aid, slowly and in the shower.”

Depths of his soul? Or just a incongruous association joke about breaking up with a girl?

When you buy into the misconception that comedy only comes from the depths of our souls, you discount the silly, the ridiculous and the wildly insane.

Of course there are pieces the “depths of the soul” comment that make sense. It’s cathartic to talk about things that are deep and you have an emotional connection to. But how limiting is that statement?

It’s missing something, like, where the laugh comes from! So basically sometimes the idea can come from the depths of your soul but the comedy comes from the multiple stimuli that create laughter.

Maybe the initial idea comes from some place deep in your soul, but somewhere in the depth of your soul, some kind of laugh should occur, or guess what? It’s not comedy, it’s just sad or scary, or worse, creepy.

The relationship with my Ex is an example. It was a dark time. So the initial thoughts that inspired the material may have come from the depths of my soul, but the laughs have to be achieved through structure. In this case I use analogy and incongruous associations.

“My Ex was like a funny car; alcohol-fueled. She had the worst mood swings.
I called her the ‘Ice Princess.’ When I used to come home from a gig–before I went in the house– I would put my tongue on the front door. If it stuck, I stayed at the neighbor’s.”

One of the worst things that ever happened in my life was when my Mom was dying. The topic comes from the depths of my soul, but the laughs come from wildly exaggerating.

“Before my Mom died she had bouts of dementia. Which was a boon for me on my birthdays. She would always get me a birthday card with a hundred-dollar-bill in it. She’d be like, ‘Jerry, did I give you your birthday card?’ I be like, ‘No…’ I swear, if she was having a really bad day, I could net about a grand.”

The jokes are good. They get consistent laughs with audiences. The subject matter starts with something that may have come from the depths of my soul, but they have to engage the stimuli that triggers laughter, otherwise it’s just drivel.

In other words, the claim that comedy comes from the depths of your soul, can help us understand ONE of the possible places from which our comedy can be inspired. But stating that it’s the only place, misses the main point and it hides a vast horizon of other opportunities from our view.

Ever since the beginnings of the first attempts at comedy and comedy writing, there hasn’t been a single way to write or present comedy. There are only choices among an infinite palette of possibilities.

When You Do the Work…

joshua-jackson

Just wanted to post a quick shout-out to my boy Joshua Jackson.

Joshua just won the Clairmont Comedy Competition in–of all places–Clairmont, California.

I was humbled that Joshua thanked me in his celebratory post on Facebook.

Josh attended the Stand Up Comedy Clinic for a while and busted his butt developing his act.

Week after week Josh went from a guy who didn’t do a lot of stand-up to really developing into someone who understood the fundamentals.

Every week Josh showed up to class early, asked questions before class, was not afraid to disagree when something wasn’t working, and applied the new lessons he learned to his material.

Then what happened?

Every week he would get better. His act got tighter.

He had a terrific showcase set at the end of the class session.

Then he’s continued to develop by performing and learning and finding his voice, knowing that stand-up comedy is a blend, a craft of comedy structure and genuine persona.

Stand-up is not just getting up there and telling stories. Stand-up is about consistency; being able to get up there night and after night and deliver.

Comedy is about your character trying his best and continuously bumping into obstacles along the way. That is the underlying structure to all comedy.

It’s structure that gets the laughs gets the bookings and wins competitions. If you look at the sets on T.V., they are structured. You look at all the successful comedians, they use structure.

Which is why we teach it at the Comedy Clinic. Structure pays off and it’s what gets you the laughs per minute that are coveted by talent coordinators and bookers.

Laughs. That’s an interesting concept, huh? Trigger the laughs in the audience consistently–every 18-20 seconds, (that’s what they want at the clubs and on T.V.), and you will find yourself winning more competitions, booking more gigs and getting more work.

At the Comedy Clinic, we have broken comedy down into a science. Combining the science of laughter, (the 9 psychological laughter triggers that are hard-wired into our brains), with the 13 proven comedy structures that are used by all the top comedians.

Using the mechanics of comedy combined with your true persona and performance, delivers the best, crisp, laugh-filled comedy.

Our comedians prove it time and time again.

Great work Josh. I appreciate the shout-out, but remember I just gave you tools; YOU did the work!

Rock on!

Checkout our new upcoming classes and see if you’ll be the next winner of the next competition.

And while you’re at it, give a shout-out to Josh over on his page on Facebook.