Heckler 101

Above all, in standup it's vital to keep your dignity.
Above all, in standup it’s vital to keep your dignity.

The number 1 question I get from newbie open mikers is how do you handle hecklers? That is a tough question. Let me go over a few angles on the subject.

There is definitely a segment of the audience who is hoping for heckler. It’s kind of like that secret desire that NASCAR fans have that there will be a crash. Be careful, though, as you never know what type of burning fuselage might be coming your way during the crash. When the heckler loses control, there is no way to know what will happen after that. (I’m done with the race car analogies. Continue on.)

Don’t think that comics aren’t complicit in this, though. Lazy comics who pick on someone in the front row all the time help perpetuate the heckler. This creates an atmosphere where the only people who want to sit up front are hecklers. By going after an innocent bystander, the comic is opening up the give and take between audience member and the stage. I try hard not to take a shot at anyone in the audience, as I didn’t come there to have a debate–I came there to give a funny speech. Sometimes, though, if a person is dressed like a peacock or gives you the stink eye for a long time, I can’t hold back. That seems like a fair business agreement to me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can’t ask the audience questions. I think improvisation with the crowd is great to liven up things from just being a recitation of your material. As long as you make sure they aren’t the focus of the joke and instead just a conversational component, very few audience members are going to throw some heckle comment your way in response.

Here is a truth you might not know about the standup biz. Most comics aren’t very good at dealing with hecklers. If your act consists of being quirky, neurotic, ironic, (or god-forbid–all three), even if you are capable of trading blows with a heckler, you will then be taken out of your element for awhile, if not for the rest of the show.

Another sports analogy. Some basketball teams will put on a full-court press, not to cause the offense to turn over the ball, but instead to force their opponent to get out of their natural rhythm. Hecklers are basically the full-court press of standup comedy.

There are some comics who are good with hecklers. These are generally people from the East Coast or the South Side of Chicago, who grew up in a busting balls world. I grew up about as far away as possible from that, in a small-town in Iowa, but if you have an abusive Father constantly coming at you–your defense mechanisms become finely tuned to the point where your survival instinct is to lash out. Not great for most professions, but a beneficial trait in a standup comic.

I did a show recently where the feature act was getting heckled pretty strongly. It was a strange type of hecking, though. It was basically coming from 2 behemoths who looked like they were rejects from Duck Dynasty. The club manager didn’t know exactly what to do, as it was a tough situation because even though she was being heckled, the heckling was not mean-spirited, more drunken enthusiasm. He asked me my opinion and I told him that there was no energy at all from the rest of the room, so even though these guys were disruptive, they were providing something for the feature act to play off of, which was the only thing that was really working with this group.

Now I know many of you would say that it would be better to have a dead room, then leave someone there who was getting in the way of the comedian’s act. I guess I would say that just depends on the situation. In this situation it was a small, dead audience who by the time these dudes would have been kicked out, the feature act would have struggled to survive it. Instead, my opinion was to leave the disturbance there and use it as a learning experience.

My current show was not designed for audience interference. Because of the way the show was going, I knew that I would not be doing my current show that night, instead I needed to go right at them and not worry about longer stories. I would like to tell you that this is a unique situation, but even shows that don’t have hecklers have audiences that are not looking to hear some diatribe about your inner-most thoughts. It’s important to know how far you can go with your creativity onstage. You don’t have to be hacky or patronizing to create a show that connects on some levels with the majority of your audience. You can try to thread the needle and create your own audience, but it’s my belief that just getting steady standup work is nearly impossible, without adding that to it.

I spent at least 5 minutes discussing everything about what was going on in the club before I ever really got into my material. This did not shut the hecklers up, but it gave them an idea that I was in fucking charge. That is another reason why a lot of comedians don’t do well with hecklers. Like the school bully, the heckler can sense your fear and trepidation and they will pounce on it. If you are unable to demonstrate you are not to be fucked with, you will be fighting uphill the whole time.

Now I know a lot of you read that and think well that isn’t fair. I mean you got into comedy to share your witty insights, not be a substitute teacher, right? I get that, but I’m just telling you that a few times a year you are going to face the demon in the dimmed lights.   As I mentioned, during my childhood it was like I grew up in a laboratory designed to help me come back at bigger, stronger lunatics. (See my Father) I’m good at taking them down. Not all of these shows are the artistic masterpieces I had planned them to be, but it’s a skill that keeps me from having bad shows.

I know no one in the biz who knows the history of standup better than my buddy Al Canal. You name a Funny Bone, he has probably managed it at one time over the past 25 years. Al nicknamed me the human paper shredder because of the way I take down hecklers. It is still one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given. 

I wish I had better advice for you if you are not someone who can handle some disturbances during your show. All I can say is there are many things that make up a working standup comic. While you might not have to be as razor sharp as Nick DiPaolo or Jimmy Pardo, you do need to be able to keep control of the room when the heckler surfaces. You need to be confident and demonstrate they don’t have you flustered. Slowing down and smiling some will buy you some time, while you come up with your response/plan of defense. For me my system of aggressive/passiveness works well. Rip them, then compliment them, telling them they didn’t deserve it. That’s my method, figure out your own:)

So what was the rest of the show like that night, Scott? Well, it was one where the Duck Dynasty brothers kept in with their efforts and I would respond back. It worked well. Towards the end, as they became even more inebriated, their offerings started to hit right in the middle of my jokes. Finally the 1 insult I will not accept was sent my way. A slurred comment that happened right in the middle of my punchline. I snapped. Told the guy his time as co-host was fucking over. This 300 pound Kyle Kinane look-alike, apologized and told me he was going to step out for awhile because he couldn’t control himself. (You see, this guy didn’t come from malice, more from Wild Turkey and poor parenting.) His buddy joined him outside the doors at the bar.

Towards the end of the show the main defendant came back in the room and announced that he and his buddy were being kicked out because “the club doesn’t want people who like to laugh and have a good time at their shows.” He then offered up to me before he walked out, “but Dude, you are hilarious. Keep doing what you are doing.” Then he walked out. It was the greatest walkout of my career. As a comedian it moved me more than the walkout scene at the end of an Officer and a Gentlemen. Everyone who was at that show will never forget it. Remember. The meaning of life is who leaves with the best stories–wins. Put another in my victory column.

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