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.
- Evergreen Comebacks
- 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.
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.