We’ve all seen the hyperbolically labeled YouTube videos that claim comedian destroys, shuts down, eviscerates and defenestrates heckler. Okay, well, maybe not that last one. But anybody that has gone onstage to do comedy will tell you that heckler takedowns rarely make the crowd applaud like you just scored the winning touchdown at Homecoming. Shutting down a heckler is often a laborious, tiresome and very un-funny process.
If you’ve seen your fair share of comedy shows, then you’ve probably also seen a heckler. Maybe you’ve even been one (in which case, stop). In many cases, a skilled and veteran comedian knows how to handle the situation. But what is it actually like on the front lines for newbies, open mic-ers, up-and-comers and showcase comedians that have to deal with the everyday reality of hecklers? Are hecklers frustrated artists that don’t know how to express themselves? Are they just unrepentant jerks? Can they make you better at doing comedy? How can you survive the ordeal? We asked some comedians for tips on not letting a heckler mess up your game:
Know What You’re Up Against
Hecklers come in all different flavors— from apathetic loudmouths, to aspiring comics who think they can one-up everyone on stage, to rambling incoherent drunks. Gideon Hambright, 29, Prospect Lefferts Garden, co-host of Jackknife Comedy, has dealt with them all. He hosted Pretty Cool Mic at the Super Collider (which, surprise, has since closed down to make way for condos). The mic had recently been getting a reputation for raucous crowds.
“For six weeks, the same people would come in and talk over and interrupt everyone’s sets,” Hambright said. In his opinion, hecklers need to be dealt with case-by-case. You can’t attack every one of them. Biting back with harsher words than the heckler’s own may be tempting, but the audience won’t be on your side. Instead, Hambright said, you need to assess the situation. Some hecklers are just over-excited. You can let things go in cases like these, where hecklers simply interject out of merriment, keep their jibes short, and go right back to shutting up. They may need some light admonishment, however, and are tough distinguish from the ‘I must be the center of attention heckler’ or those with a more malicious intent.
Don’t take threats seriously (unless you have to)
Ritu Chandra is a commuting comic from New Jersey that frequents New York’s open mic and shows. She runs a monthly show The Double Platinum Comedy Show in Morristown, NJ. She has dealt with some awful heckling… even by fellow comedians.
“I was on stage at a mic and asked the host how much time I had left. Before the host could answer, a comedian said, ‘Enough time to fuck her.’ And then another comedian chimed in ‘Yeah, I’d like to fuck her.'”
Chandra explained how the whole mood of the room changed with that comment. “It was clear with the silence, not one person laughed or encouraged their comment, that their stupidity wasn’t welcome. They left when the mic was over and never came back to another one. And even though those two douchebags felt the need to yell out, there was never a second I felt physically concerned for my safety. The entire room which was all men, were on my side against these two morons.”
If you do feel concerned for your safety, however, then there’s no shame in taking action. If a heckler becomes physically violent, deal with him or her the same way you would with someone who was assaulting you— tell a manager or call the cops.
We asked Chandra whether she felt it was worse for women on stage being heckled. “I’m not sure there is anything a woman can do other than stand her ground and let it be known she won’t stand for that,” she responded. “I think it’s the same exact thing a man should do if he’s being heckled.”
We also spoke to Neko White, 23, an up-and-coming Harlem-based comedian whose credits include the Apollo Theater. We asked about his reaction to someone who makes their heckle racial, which unfortunately happens in the comedy scene all-too-often.
If someone said something racist in New york, he said, “You own them. Unless you’re at a Donald Trump rally, the crowd is going to be with you.” He added that having a racist heckler gives you the upper hand, as far as comedy is concerned. “I can be a lot more than you… a lot more funny, a lot more anything creative. That’s why you’re paying for two drinks and I’m on stage.”
Be Cool: Don’t have a Meltdown
Telling everyone exactly what you think and throwing in some personal attacks would probably feel great in the moment. But don’t do it! Meltdowns may be mildly cathartic, but they can cost you no matter who you are. If you don’t believe me, just ask Patton Oswalt; or, if you’re willing to stomach him somehow, Michael Richards. Maintaining your composure is key.
Then again, we all fail at it. Andy Farnsworth, 38, of Flatbush’s What’s your yarn worth? w/ Andy Farnsworth, has some basic advice for comedians looking to not have a meltdown onstage. He used to employ standard hackneyed retorts that he’d purposely mess up in order get a heckler’s attention, but now he prefers just to be honest, saying that the best response to a heckler is to just, you’re being mean.
“They know they’re being assholes and so does everyone else, so why not just tell them not to be?”
Beware of loudmouthed friends and family
Part of the joy of performing stand-up is sharing it with the people close to you, but there is no worse feeling than being the person responsible for bringing a heckler. I have unwittingly brought friends to shows who couldn’t sit through them without heckling. They were convinced they were making the show better, and got drunk to the point of being distracting to everyone in the room. This seemed to be a theme with some the comedians we spoke to, such as Farnsworth.
“She’s saying ‘Blackhawks’ as I’m talking about my dead fucking brother,” Andy explained as we watched a 9-minute video of him being relentlessly heckled by an ex-girlfriend. He had asked the crowd whether anyone liked sports.
Hambright told us that the biggest heckler he’d ever had was his own mother—whom, at one of his shows, many called out as “that drunk lady.”
Just be aware of who you’re bringing to shows. You can express to friends or family that their talking ‘psychs you out,’ and you should give them a few chances. But after three strikes, it’s best just to stop inviting them.
Comedians’ tips on how to take down a heckler
Just tell them to shut up, offers Ritu Chandra. “I try to make a joke about trying to get them to shut up. I try to make it fun so that the audience doesn’t turn against me. Eventually I might say, ‘I am the one with the microphone, I get to do the talking.'”
Single them out, says Bob Gurnett, co-host of the No Cool Kids Show at The Three Diamond Door. “My preferred method is to start by simply asking the heckler what their name is. Then, I strike a bargain with them. ‘I will tell you, and only you, one joke. Just for you. But you have to promise to be quiet for the rest of the show. Alright. No one listen to this joke. This joke is only for Steve.’ Then I will tell them a one liner, usually something cheesy. Weirdly, it sometimes endears me to them. They don’t want to heckle their buddy anymore.”
Use stock lines. Andy Farnsworth has used stock responses with a twist as a confusion tactic. “Hey buddy, I don’t come down to where you work and suck your dick, I mean, I don’t come down to where you work and knock dicks out of my mouth, or, that doesn’t make sense I must’ve written this wrong. Just please stop it’s hurting my feelings when you talk while I talk I have no idea if you’re a prostitute or not I don’t even know why it would matter anyway because knocking dicks out of your mouth would probably get me in more trouble with your clients and I really don’t think I’m the bad guy here just shut the fuck up.”
Just wait it out. Neko White lets hecklers talk, just in case they say something funny or give him fodder. If not, he waits until the crowd gets mad and rallies beside him, then yells at the heckler to quiet down. “You can tell when someone is being mean versus not being able to control it (themselves) …I’ll get more serious depending on how disruptive you’re being.”
Show-then-tell them. I do standup too, and my own method if I have hecklers that are incessant and won’t stop talking, is that I tell them to imagine they’re at a concert with a band playing instead of comedy. Then I’ll ask, “Would you play your shitty version of Coldplay on an acoustic guitar to try to show everyone how much better you are? No? Then please shut up.”
Heckling happens, and it can test your ability no matter who you are. It’s best to just take it as it is and learn from each experience until you’re as experienced as those “eviscerating” veteran comedians you see in Youtube videos. White offered that “heckling is part of life,” that it isn’t limited to comedy, either: you can get heckled at your customer service job, or on the street. And despite what we’d like to believe, heckling isn’t always baseless.
“If you keep getting heckled, you need to take look at what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing that’s getting you heckled.”
You can heckle Ryan @Thereisnopoint.