One of the most important things you need to know before going to a stand-up club or comedy night: you are not part of the show. The audience paid to see the people on the stage (or in the corner of the barber shop, laundromat or storage space), not some scrub in the crowd who thinks it’s funny to yell nonsense at the professionals. Never forget that heckling is bad and pointless and exists solely to ruin somebody else’s good time.
Still, if you’re a comedian, you know that heckling will happen. Every show has the potential for audience members to go into business for themselves. And it’s not even a referendum on how you’re doing as a comedian: some people just like to butt in, no matter how into you the crowd is. It’s vital to be prepared, to know how to shut down some would-be heckler as quickly and efficiently as possible. We’ve asked some of the most talented and successful comedians around about their greatest experience with a heckler, and how to best handle being heckled. You don’t have to do comedy to learn some important lessons about human psychology from their answers, or how to handle feeling threatened and annoyed and stuck in a strip mall in Beaverton.
Whose Line Is It Anyway?, The Smartest Man In The World Podcast
A guy was at my show at the old Improv in San Francisco years ago. He was laughing way too hard at everything. Finally I asked why he was so happy. He replied he was just out of San Quentin where he had done 7 years. I said, “Fuck me.” He said, “If you had been there we would have.” I fell over laughing.
What’s the best way to handle being heckled? Zero tolerance. No one gets western with the Proopdog.
Mad TV, NBC’s Up All Night
I did a late show in Atlanta which was evenly divided between people just drinking like adults and people who had literally been doused in bourbon. People responded to me as if, with every set up, I was trying to start a conversation. When it was over I went to the bar and chugged a whole beer. Hecklers, generally speaking, are really rare. Usually what you get are people who think they’re helping you by loudly adding things to your jokes. Their hearts are in the right place, but they don’t realize how wrong they are.
Judge on Last Comic Standing, Comedy Central’s The Half Hour
I have never had a great experience with a heckler so I haven’t rated them from great to greatest. Once a guy stood up in the middle of a show and said: “You are very funny.” I asked him if he was being sarcastic. He said “Why would you think I was being sarcastic when you are so hilarious.” This went on for ten minutes. I was impressed by his ability to stay in character.
When encountering a heckler I try to determine the threat level and make sure I know where the nearest exits are. I’m not going to win any clever comeback contests. What’s the point? Are we going to tour as adversaries? Don’t encourage them is my strategy.
Comedy Central’s The Half Hour, The Dork Forest Podcast
I prayed a couple guys out of a casino gig in the upper peninsula of Michigan a couple years ago. (At casinos you can’t swear or be mean to the audience, even if they’re passing out drunk.) The two guys wouldn’t shut up, I asked nice, I made fun of them and, then, when I looked for the guard (casinos always DO have guards), sadly, the guard was gone at this time. I fell to my knees, made the sign of the cross and said, “I pray these men have a wonderful life outside this room.” THEY DID NOT LEAVE. They DID shut up. I DID have to, awkwardly, get to my feet again. It’s best, if possible, to ignore the heckler, do your time and get off. The very best is when the venue deals with them. The best venues do.
Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Eric Andre Show
I was staying a Comfort Inn in Beaverton, OR while doing some shows in Portland. I really liked staying in Beaverton. The entire town is nothing but strip malls with giant parking lots. I love strip malls (they’re nothing like malls, we should really call them something else). There was a McDonald’s with a fountain outside that shot streams of water in the shape of an M. There was a Spirit Halloween Superstore. There were two indoor blacklight miniature golf courses within less than a mile of each other (one was alien-themed and the other was pirate-themed). There was soooooo much parking. I love it.
When I communicated this to the audience in Portland, someone shouted, “Beaverton Sucks!”
I responded that Beaverton is basically an extension of Portland; they’re so close to each other, it’s like one of your fingers thinking it’s better than the other.
“They’re a separate municipality!” he shouted.
“Yeah!” I reflected back, “they’re not even human! They’ve got a separate genome!”
I was killing now.
“Portland is great and Beaverton is great too,” I said. “They have indoor blacklight miniature golf.”
“We have that too!” said the heckler.
“Yes, but does Portland have A PIRATE THEMED COURSE AND AN ALIEN THEMED COURSE WITHIN FIVE MINUTES OF EACH OTHER?”
Most people would give up there, but the heckler was stubbornly clinging to his municipal jingoism. I pointed out Beaverton’s advantage of bountiful parking lots.
“That’s why they don’t know how to parallel park!” he said.
“Why would they need to?” I retorted. “That’s like Europeans settlers seeing the Native Americans and being like, ‘they don’t even know how to treat the plague!” They live in an unspoiled paradise! People in the suburbs are the new noble savages!”
I concluded on a note of unity, saying that every place has something beautiful to offer and we should all love our neighbors, whether it’s the next city over or the next country over.
Conan, IFC’s Comedy Crib
My first notable experience with a heckler was at a house party show. One of the attendees was very drunk and kept interrupting during every comedian’s set. It was crazy. The comic would shut him down completely and then, without fail, he would start talking a few minutes into the next set. I went up last and was so pissed off that when he started talking to me I immediately went nuclear. I asked him, “What’s the deal, man? When you were a kid did your parents hug you too much? Or not enough?” Then there was a beat of silence and, no shit, the heckler started to cry. Loud and sloppy drunk tears, too. It was uncomfortable to say the least, but he left and the audience applauded. That’s probably not the best way to handle a heckler, but it got the job done. Now whenever I deal with one I try to poke fun and let them talk until they say something so stupid they make themselves look like an idiot. That typically works and keeps the show running fine without having someone experience a nervous breakdown.
Comedy Central’s The Half Hour, Here We Are podcast
Heckling is more myth than reality. It happens, but not much. And it’s certainly way down on the list of difficulties with performing in comedy clubs. Distractions are the biggest challenge for a comedian. Dealing with table talk is an art. Learning to ignore food and drink orders takes experience.
The show-halting check drop toward the end of the show when you are trying to work up to your big closer is every headliner’s kryptonite. Everyone was having fun and now they all need to do math and figure out how they are splitting their checks that are bigger than they thought and everything else. Sometimes it seems like a whole audience just suddenly broke off into their own conversations and you have to continue to do your material to a room of people not listening. As they settle their bills and start paying attention again, you need to find a way to get everything flowing again.
But at least that is kind of a necessary evil. What crushes my soul is cell phones. People are addicted to them and feel completely justified in texting throughout the show or doing whatever else. Some people have so little respect for comedians that they don’t even show basic movie theater courtesy. As a comedian, you maybe try to find a funny way to inform people that it’s not ok to be on the phone inside the showroom, but some people just don’t care.
Saturday Night Live, Comedy Central’s The Half Hour
I don’t really mess with hecklers. I just kinda ask them to chill out, and if they don’t, I ask the club to remove them and refund their tickets. I never get mad at them, I understand they had a bad day or something and maybe don’t know what they’re doing is fucking dumb as shit.
Comedy Central’s @Midnight, MTV’s Acting Out
My favorite heckle was when a “tough” guy with a tattoo of the Little Prince on his arm heckled me. He was like, “Tell me your best joke!” And I was like, “There was a guy who got a tattoo of the Little Prince on his arm!” After the show, he proudly told the MC that the Little Prince tattoo “always works with the ladies.” And he asked if the MC thought he had a chance with me. No. No, he did not.
You have two choices with a heckler. You can ignore it or you can use it. If you use it, make sure it’s funny. Don’t just be mean. And remember you’re entertaining an entire audience so don’t let the heckler take up all of your attention. I mean, unless he has a Little Prince tattoo, then you just walked into a gold mine. I mean, who gets a Little Prince Tattoo? Someone with a very small…..sense of self. Handle him with care, he might be suicidal.
Andy Kindler photo by Susan Maljan
Allen Strickland Williams photo by Joanna DeGeneres
Erica Rhodes photo by Bruce Smith
Greg Proops photo by Mike Windle / Getty Images
Jesse Fernandez is a half centaur, half man whose comedy writing has been featured on ABC, TED Talks, MSN, StarWipe, eBaum’s World, and Starbucks. Follow him on Twitter @JesseFernandez to see what’s really swirling around that cauldron of a brain.