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“You SUCK, Buddy!” The Art of Heckling Part 1

December 6, 2010

“You suck, buddy!”

“Get off the stage!”

“Don’t quit your day job!”

That’s right, today’s post is about my mom’s opinion of me.  Jokes jokes jokes, it’s about heckling.

What is a heckler?

My definition: “A heckler is an audience member who interrupts a performance, for any reason.”

That last part, “for any reason,” is important. The intent to harm or criticize is not.  An audience member becomes a heckler merely by interrupting the show.

Wikipedia has an interesting article that covers the origin of the word:

“The term originates from the textile trade, where to heckle was to tease or comb out flax or hemp fibres. The additional meaning, to interrupt speakers with awkward or embarrassing questions, was added in Scotland… where the hecklers who combed the flax had established a reputation as the most radical and belligerent element in the workforce.”

Hecklers Vs. Comics

Much like the mongoose and the cobra, the hippy and deodorant, or the grad student and money, stand-up comics and hecklers are natural enemies.

That’s a triple burn, kid!

A heckler can singlehandedly ruin a show, shake a comic’s confidence, and totally derail a set. They strike without warning, and if not handled properly, can turn an entire audience against you.

I was hesitant to write a whole article about heckling. For whatever reason, I have not been heckled very much. Maybe I am just lucky. Or maybe the hecklers see my bald head and figure I have enough problems already. In fact, the closest thing to a heckle that’s ever happened to me is that once I made fun of Christian Bale and some of his fans took umbrage:

I did not handle this situation very well.

I once also got a nice little boo when I made fun of francophones using this joke:

“I think it’s weird that the US calls itself ‘the land of the free,’ but they had slaves. That’s like Quebec calling itself ‘the province that pulls its own weight.’”

But the booing was in French, so I couldn’t understand.

Leave Quebec ALONE!

I have, however, witnessed a lot of heckling, both at open mikes and online:

Speaking of Jamie Kennedy, he made a documentary on just this topic called “Heckler.”  It’s a bit self-involved, but he does get some great interviews with famous comics sharing their thoughts on heckling.  Worth a watch if this topic interests you, fo sho.

We’re going to look a little closer today at heckling, and investigate why it happens, who’s doing it, and what we as comics can do about it.

Why does heckling happen?

For the same reason that we live in a society that tolerates and encourages stand-up comedy. It is a leveller. Just like the comic making jokes at the Prime Minister’s expense, so too is he or she vulnerable to being mocked in return.  The hecklers are the people who rise to this challenge.

Also, heckling is a lot of fun for an audience member.  It adds drama, conflict, and the potential for all kinds of public humiliation.  Plus, a lot of times the heckler is giving voice to what everyone in the crowd is thinking.  It is for this reason that everybody loves Statler and Waldorf from the muppet show:

And what is The Daily Show other than a series of heckles about political events?

So we know why heckling happens, but who are these people?  Why do they feel compelled to heckle?  Here are 5 reasons:

1) The heckler is mean

Bullies walk among us.  They are looking to stick it to someone. Or they got burned at some other show by a comic and want revenge.  Other times, they might personally dislike something about your appearance or act, and want to punish you for it.  The good news about these types of hecklers is that you can rip them apart and still retain audience sympathy.  The bad news is, this is the type of heckler that will wait around after the show and try to stab you.  So verbally obliterate them at your discretion.

2) You said something really offensive

Here’s a clip where a woman in the audience took serious offence to a comic’s act and punched him in the face.

Without endorsing or panning the comic in question, I would like to address the woman’s behaviour.  My advice for people like this is to stay out of comedy clubs. You were the kid who begged join in when everyone was roughhousing and then ratted us out to mom after skinning a knee. Here we are as adults, and I would like to offer an update: just like you ruined everyone’s fun as a kid, you are doing it now.

Stand-up comedy clubs are a safe haven for the truth, no matter how unpalatable and offensive. Do you believe that some topics just shouldn’t be joked about?  Then stay home, ’cause someone is going to.  There are lots of less intense things you can do.  Why not check out a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond?  The tall, sad guy is pretty funny, and Patricia Heaton is a babe.


3) Attention whores

This type of heckler is compelled, much like stand-up comics, to be the centre of attention.  They want to be in stand-up comedy, but are unwilling to endure any of the hardship of the lifestyle.  They are often drunk, and past the point of caring what effect their actions have on the show.  They usually can’t be reasoned with because any acknowledgment is just fuel on the fire.  The best solution is to have them removed, because they will never stop, especially if encouraged.

4) Some hecklers think they are helping

Once I was performing at an open mike and a friend had come along for support. Midway through the show, a drunk guy in the audience started shouting things.

He wasn’t this drunk…

The MC decided to make fun of the guy all through the show, essentially rewarding his behaviour with lots of attention. I’m not going to lie, there were some great laughs that night centred around that drunk heckler. However, a lot of comics had to abandon their planned sets and just riff with the guy ’cause he wouldn’t shut up.

After the show, my friend praised the host and said she thought he did a good job dealing with the heckler. I explained that the MC had actually failed at his job miserably. Regardless of whether the drunk antics were funny, the role of the MC is to control the show, which includes the audience. To my friend, the MC he had appeared versatile, funny, and witty by making the most of the disruptive audience member. From a comic’s perspective, he teamed up with a heckler to sabotage our sets.

Sometimes heckling comes from an innocent, if ignorant place.  Stand-up is a scripted performance that is meant to give the illusion of spontaneity. It’s supposed to appear as if the comic is making everything up on the spot. In reality, every joke, sometimes every word, is painstakingly designed.  This is why comics don’t appreciate it when people decide to “participate” in what appears to them to be an interactive art form. Most of the time this type of heckler will be horrified to learn that their comments were not welcome.  You might even get a free beer out of it.

5) You actually suck.

Exhibit A.

If a person paid money to come to the show and they think you are terrible, they might let you know it. If you get heckled by people saying that you suck frequently, maybe work on your act.


Come back tomorrow for part 2 of this article, where I will cover some DO and DON’T strategies for dealing with hecklers, and a couple of stock lines to get you started on your way to comeback town.

I like to end these posts with a video. So. Want to see what it looks like when a cocky heckler just gets verbally pulverized?  Sure you do.


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