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