Monday, September 3, 2007

The Myth of the Heckler (Part 1 of ?)

Unfortunately, the myth of the heckler is not "mythical" enough. To a comedian, they are very real, very dangerous, and must be hunted down and annihilated immediately. Why do we need to take such drastic measures when battling this beast? Well, think of it this way. Let a heckler off the hook or out of your sight for a second, and you'll see in due time increasing damage on your routine, on your audience, and on your mental well-being--the latter being the most damaging because you'll question your abilities and motivation behind why you became a comic, even to the point of reevaluating whether or not you want to get on stage ever again. You'll be a lot worse off if you give a heckler any leeway at all.

...he may be just vocalizing the sentiment of the audience...

The phrase "Give them an inch and they'll take a mile" comes to mind. Dismantle the heckler immediately or else he will put an end to your routine and perhaps even your career.

Sadly,the heckler will never become extinct, and you will never find the heckler on the endangered species list. Like a host-parasite relationship, as long as there are comedians, there will always be hecklers. You can work years and years to be a good, solid comedian. It only takes one night to be an expert heckler.

But do remember this:

Pay no attention to what the critics say, no statue has ever been erected to a critic. ---Jean Sibelius

Now substitute the word "heckler" for "critic." That should be enough motivation to keep you returning to the stage.

What is a Heckler?

Anyone who deliberately interrupts the flow of a performance (in this case standup comedy), most often in the form of an outburst, expressing themselves in a distasteful manner and usually directing their comments to the performer.

If you didn't like that definition, maybe this definition will lend you more clarity.

...Maybe that heckler actually speaks the truth...

Some Hecklers are more egregious than others. Some don't even know that they are heckling--those being the incoherent and incorrigible drunkards. Belligerent drunks are also a part of the game. However, this post aims to address how to strategically destroy the heckler and his motivations. Read on and I will provide you the proper armor necessary to take them all down.

- Step One - When a heckler makes his first unruly comment, believe it or not you must listen, in the manner that a psychologist listens to a troubled patient. In fact, that heckler may not be a heckler at all and he may be just vocalizing the sentiment of the audience.

What do I mean?

Perhaps, this routine that you're doing really does suck. Either you weren't polished, you're nervous, you're dropping lines, mumbling, etc. Maybe that heckler actually speaks the truth.

Ouch, Lucy, that's waaaay harsh!

...That heckler is your barometer....

Remember, I'm giving you steps to adhere to. This is only "Step One." And I'm teaching you the method by which a classy, sophisticated, and level-headed comedian approaches the situation. (This is not unlike being provoked in the middle of the street or in a public arena.) The entire time the situation is occurring, you should always be aiming to diffuse it, skillfully diverting the skirmish from heading into uncharted territories.

In this case, by taking a step back and thinking, "Well, maybe something just isn't right tonight. Maybe it is me." This is a humbling thought, and in retrospect highly, highly respected.

Comedians do often get cocky and so full of themselves that they think their "sh-t don't stink." But take a step back. Maybe this isn't your greatest set. Guess what? That heckler is your barometer. You should perhaps thank him for letting you know.

I do maintain the stance that is it a battle to remain even-keeled on stage. It is very difficult to not either a) fly off the handle or b) cower into submission. It's important to understand that either way, handling an heckler is an exercise in social psychology--don't get psyched out!

But, I deliberately state, "When a heckler makes his first comment..."

I, repeat... first comment. The situation calls for you to respond accordingly.

The best advice I've received about handling the first objection or outburst made by the heckler is this: The first thing that comes out of your mouth that is not out of anger, is going to most likely be comedy gold and put you back into favor with the audience. (Understand the audience never was out of favor with you, but you will become a champion in the audience's eyes when you use this rule.)

Unfortunately, Michael Richards never got a chance to read this blog before he hit the stage at the Laugh Factory. And many comedians say that his being labeled 'comedian' in the first place is debatable. He never did standup. He's only done improv. That doesn't make him qualified to be a stand up comedian. But apparently, his stint as a peripheral cast member on a 9 year-running national sitcom, overrides that. Last time I checked, that just makes you a comedic actor--not a comedian.


Did you enjoy this post? Buy me a warm cup of joe.


Michael C said...

While I have never been heckled, I could imagine I would react with some degree of anger. I like what you have to say about striking comedic gold with the first words in response that are NOT out of anger.

Another great post!!!

RAFFI said...

i can understand how a heckler can serve as a gauge or 'barometer' of your performance. but, such a person can be used to your advantage, especially if you're up to it, to battle wits and get the ball in your court. sorta using the person's ammunition as your own to fire-up the show. i'm sure it takes a quick mind, strong stomach, and courage to step out there. yup, michael richards bit the big one that day. that was completely distasteful and rude.

~*SilverNeurotic*~ said...

If anything, I suppose they keep you on your toes. I watch the occasional stand up show on Comedy Central and I tend to like watching how the comedian deals with the audience...even the negative bantar that comes out of that setting can turn into good stuff.

the domestic minx said...

The very thought of intimidation and potential humiliation by some brazen and nasty sod in the audience is a frightening concept!!
I am a lover of live comedy and truly admire the stand-up comedian for their sheer nerve!!
Handling the heckler is an artform in itself!!
Reading your blog announces you not only as incredibly funny, but witty, insightful and intelligent, Lucy.
Good armoury for the callous little shit who wants to rain on your parade!!!


Crushed by Ingsoc said...

I think hecklers possibly allow you the chance to kep in touch with the vibes.
I suppose they are kind of like omens, a tiny number are normal, battling against you for the soul of the audience.

Its up to you to win.

Steve said...

I guess hecklers can fine tune your instincts... they're a test of your powers of recovery, your reactions. Most of all I imagine they test your belief in yourself and your confidence. That's damn tough! I can't think of any other profession where you are tested to mercilessly. Respect to you.

Sidhusaaheb said...

Listening carefully to the other person before replying and not saying anything out of anger can help you get out of any tricky situation, besides the one described here, I believe.

ZUBA said...

There's an art to heckling. a good heckler can add to the performance, just as a bad one can ruin it for everyone.
I've seen a performance ruined by a female heckler of the lowest intellectual order. The comedian is a very sharp and witty bloke but even he had trouble taming this feral.
In the end he resorted to 'shut the fuck up' and it was well warranted and applauded by the audience.

Ambre said...

Awesome post! Very well written! I enjoyed it a great deal! I am linking you to my blog under 'comedian blogs'

Thanks again!

The Mushroom said...

While I hate it when a comedian gets heckled or has to babysit a drunk, it is at least a gauge for the comedian's skill and tenacity, plus adds a little bonus material the audience wasn't ready for which makes it even funnier if the comedian handles it well.
Good example, years ago when somebody got mouthy to Geoff Young and he responded "I'm building an asshole, and I'd like to use you as a blueprint." Which I think was a better reaction than how George Carlin handled an audience contributor at a show I was at in the late 1980s, which was a controlled yet consternated backslap like "people paid good money to see this show, and it's not our fault if you can't get laid", because as genius as he is he doesn't deal well with interaction unless he requests it... it seriously breaks his concentration, and it's his show.
Last week Jim Heneghen was playing in a small room (120 seats, 75 filled) and he had a couple drunk ladies to report to up front. Second one came right up to the stage, which you don't want to see, and he somehow defused her while her friends nabbed her by the elbows. First one was pretty funny in how he handled it -- it was a calm "Let me put my act aside for the next hour and we're going to talk about YOU. I have one rule when it comes to dealing with people and that is: if I'm not fucking you, I don't have to listen to you." Audience was doubled over.

Niki Nielsen said...

Makes me glad I don't act in front of an audience, just in front of a camera. :)

Mark Alread said...

I'll never forget the first time I was heckled during public speaking. I was so young and I'm not sure I handled it. I was getting yelled at form the audience and all I could say was "Dad, will you please stop?!"

Pawlie Kokonuts said...

I wasn't exactly heckling but I was being a wiseguy, at the Bitter End, circa 1968, while David Steinberg was performing, doing an improv on the names of Biblical characters. I said, Nebuchnezzar (or whatever the guy's name was), but badly mispronounced it, saying something like Na-booook-a-doh-nah-zar. I was in the first row, showing off to my friends. Steinberg naled me, "If you're going to be a smartass, know what you're talking about." He said it kindly but taught me a lesson. Gulp.

Leslie said...

This post is solid gold. You are providing the learning experience for stand ups. Bravo.
I am not a candidate for stand up comedy. I would not be able to channel anger constructively. I would be calling for a bouncer immediately :)

Hobbes said...

Great examples of handling hecklers in the comments here. Jay Leno's LEADING WITH MY CHIN has some harrowing accounts. I bet it's harder to deal if you are actually being pelted with something.

Rhonda said...

Hecklers aren't just for the comedian. Oh no they lurk in the office, in the classroom, in the PTO meetings...
Hecklers are mean. I don't think they should be allowed to heckle.
I say we ban ALL hecklers.

Lucy said...

Michael C - Comedy Gold happens to us everyday. I'm sure we've all had this experience while waiting in line at the local eatery. The wait becomes little too long for the customers' liking--not that much, but everything seems to happen too slowly when you're late. And tensions are high. Depending on what side of the counter you are on, someone makes a curt comment. You remain calm, give them "what for," via some smart-ass remark, and put them their place. They are quickly rebuffed and reminded by you not to cross that line ever again. In this situation, you didn't fly off the handle. You didn't feel threatened at all. You could see that curt comment coming from a mile away. You felt it. And responded accordingly, much to the detriment of the smart-alec.

However, now you just have to imagine that situation happening to you on stage. It's really no different. But it does require extra effort to remain calm, because now in you're in a medium were you're completely vulnerable. Plus, you're memorizing jokes and set-lists of jokes--and now you have a heckler?!? Yeah, it's a tough medium. But you can do it! I know you can!

RAFFI - Heckler's are great because they truly show how balanced and well-practiced a comedian you are. A heckler will ferret out the weak from the strong. There are so many comedians out there that have a schtick and rely on that to get paid. (It depressing, really.) And Michael Richards falls into that category--minus the reference to him being a comedian. He has never had a standup comedy career--simply improv. That's why the situation is so detestable, because the Laugh Factory completely changed for the worse--banning the N-word!?!? Now I know I should be offended, considering the fact that I am black. But I don't believe in any form of censorship. And I will be so bold as to quote Cher Horowitz and say that, "...there's no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value."

The Laugh Factory needed a headlining performer to "pull in an audience" (aka to make $$). At this point in comedy history, big name clubs will bring anybody that is even mildly related to comedy to swell the crowd. Often comedy clubs will get strong performers, but nobody knows their names. So they'll get a name "Cosmo Kramer" as top billing just to showcase the other performers. (They do it out of desperation--comedy clubs had their heyday during Seinfeld, and have since fallen into a slump.)

So think about it. You enter a club, knowing "Kramer" will perform, eventually. You watch 2-4 solid, polishedcomedians who have been doing this for minimum 5-7 years (because that's what Laugh Factory requires), and you laugh your ass-off, as you should. And then "Kramer" gets on stage, having no real standup comedy experience, and inevitably doesn't live up to the expectation, and bombs--and the crowd is going to feel a little betrayed. Hence, the heckling and the return 'N-word' comment. My point: He shouldn't have been on stage at the Laugh Factory in the first place. He should have been on stage at the IMPROV, or the GROUNDLINGS theatre. He was working on pure ego and desperation. How long has been since he's had a solid paying gig? Plus, he's out of the limelight. That's a knock to his ego. Case closed.

A battle of wits is always amazing to witness. That's why the Dozens became so popular as a urban entertainment.

~*SilverNeurotic*~ - I think the impromptu delivery from the comedian is what makes for an exciting performance, which can't be duplicated. The true comedian will rise above, like the mythical phoenix. And to be there witness it is an honor, I believe.

the domestic minx - You're right. It can be intimidating. But it's the same as learning a martial art. People learn it with the hopes of never having to use it. (But it's always there in your back pocket, if ever a situation were to arise.)

Crushed by Ingsoc - Omens indicate something lifechanging is about to occur. To me overcoming a heckler is a rite of passage. You know you've earned your badge once you've done it. And other comedians, the ones you interact with every day to vie for that stage, now respect you.

Most comedians aren't performing for the audience. They're performing to earn the respect of other comedians. (Much like the dozens, see my return comment to Raffi's above), it's boys club. And, as a comedian, you don't get respect until you endure a few cuts and bruises. Other comedians want to see your battlescars heal over. They want to see you pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and continue to get right back on that stage.

And, yes, "its up to you to win."

Steve - Thanks, Steve. And yes, you hit the nail on the head. Standup comedy is a weird medium, whereby it forces someone who is normally introspective and observant to be extrovert for 5, 10, 30, 45 mins at time. That's definitely a test of confidence, as you say.

Sidhusaaheb - Oh, of course, I agree. But unfortunately most people weren't taught to use this method in every circumstance-- hence we have road rage, and flinging full pints of alcohol at strangers in bars.

ZUBA - When the heckler's a pure dumbass--they are soused or not comprehending anything, then you have a different situation. She sounds likes like she was just drunk and loud. At that point, wit, humo(u)r, sharp comebacks aren't going to be effective. One should just call over management/security at that point. A wise comedian has to pick and choose his battles.

Ambre - Thanks you! A link is always an honor. Thank you for joining 'the cause.' whatever that may be. (I still haven't figured it out myself.)

The Mushroom - When a comedian can digress from the set material and completely immerse himself with the audience, that to me is divine! It's almost as if he has each audience member's heart in his hand. He is no longer vulnerable, it's the audience who is. And they don't even realize it.

Niki Nielsen - Well, you're an actress right? You should be able to act in front of a video camera, a film camera, and in front of a dramatic theatre audience--like Shakespeare or Broadway, no? I'm sure you'll get the hang of it once you try.

Mark Alread - Good one! Are you sure you aren't a comedian?

Pawlie Kokonuts - Niiiiice. I'm sorry to say, but you deserved that one. David Steinberg has a show on TV LAND, called Sit Down comedy with David Steinberf. Watch it. I'm sure it'll bring back memories.

Leslie - Glad you enjoyed the post. My intention was to write/start a blog about the inside scoop and a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to become a standup comic. Ideally, I'm trying to make a step-by-step instructional manual. Have you heard the phrase, "In any field, it takes ten years to become an overnight success." Well, I would like to document that 10 years right here. Glad, you're here to witness it.

Hobbes - Thank you for that reference--always appreciated. I will definitely take a look. And have you seen the documentary on Seinfeld, about him heading back on tour, post-the ending of his sitcom. It's called, Comedian (2002). It's not specific to hecklers as your reference indicates, but if you like "behind the scenes" comedy-related films, you should see it. I haven't heard a bad review.

Rhonda - You're right. Hecklers are all around. However, we do have to learn to co-exist. And just as the comedian is, we as humans should be just as cognizant of them and their purpose. What are they trying to communicate? Are they speaking out because of something you did or said or it is because they just like the sound of their own voice? All I'm saying is that we should be mindful of the comedian. I don't believe in banning anyone's voice. I believe communication as much a part of the human experience as breathing. Who am I to say to you or someone else, "Stop breathing!" It's not a responsible approach. We still have to be MINDFUL, right Raffi?

Rhonda said...

oh I was just kidding...

The heckler is sometimes a better voice than the one of praise that we try to surround ourselves with.

Lucy said...

Rhonda - I hope you didn't think I was attacking you. I simply want to make sure all the relevant issues are addressed. It's hard to pick up on sarcasm over the net. Thanks again for your close read of the post.

Guilty Secret said...

This was really interesting... can't wait to read the second half :)

Mark said...

Love what you wrote here. Great advice for people of all walks of life. We must remember to become the observer, which means having the ability to step outside yourself and watch and listen, for who knows it may be true what the heckler is saying.