If you’re a comedian, you will be heckled. The vast majority of the time, heckling isn’t “You suck!” or something like that. I define heckling as anything that obviously interrupts the show. Even someone accidentally stepping on a punch line by yelling “we love you!” still steps on the punch line, which prevents a comic from doing what they set out to do.
Some comedians choose to just ignore interruptions and steamroll past them. I don’t do that partially because my on-stage character is dominant, and thus letting anyone in the crowd get the best of me makes my character untrustworthy. The bigger reason is because I want to set an example. Embarrassing a heckler is the comedy equivalent of putting your enemy’s head on a spike in front of your castle.
The first step is to figure out why they’re interrupting you. There are three basic reasons a crowd member interrupts. One, they don’t like you. Two, they think they’re helping. Three, they’re unaware as to what they’re doing. In all three scenarios, the solution involves using psychology.
The psychology behind someone who doesn’t like you can be combated in two ways – either showing them that they’re the only one who feels that way, or by making them feel bad about it by showing your own vulnerability. These are two vastly different strategies, and which one you employ will depend on your character on stage, how well you’re doing at the time, and the general vibe of the situation.
The psychology behind someone who thinks they’re helping (which I believe to be the most disrespectful heckler) is a need for attention. What they don’t understand is that it is not their time for attention, and explaining why will typically get the crowd on your side. I like to point out the details of the situation: they didn’t work for the attention, no one bought tickets to see them, their timing is terrible, it’s easy to come up with half a joke, etc, etc, etc.
The psychology behind someone unaware is typically fueled by alcohol or blind obliviousness (sometimes both). Usually this leads to blurting out a word that a joke made them think of, or ignoring the show and talking super loud to their group. In this scenario, they’re not purposefully harming the show, so I’d advise you to be a bit nicer to them. You can talk about the silliness of what they’re doing. You can extrapolate what they must be like in other situations (i.e. a business meeting with someone who just blurts out everything they think of immediately). You can talk to them as if they’re a child, since they’re exhibiting childish behavior. There are many, many ways to handle this type of interruption.
Now that we’ve gone over the most likely scenarios, here are my basic principles of handling hecklers:
1) “Win the crowd, and you’ll win your freedom.” The crowd hates when you’re being interrupted more than you do. So if you give the heckler enough proverbial rope to hang themselves, you can say anything to them and get away with it. I once told a woman that I hoped her husband left her and she died alone and unloved. And the crowd cheered, because they were thinking WAY worse things for her.
2) As a corollary to that, don’t pounce too quickly. Let the annoying person establish that they’re annoying. Otherwise you look like a bully picking on someone innocent.
3) Repeat what they said back to them. You can hear what the crowd says because they’re facing you. But most of the crowd can’t hear each other. So repeat what they said to bring everyone up to speed. It also gives you the added benefit of another second to think of your response. And confirms that what you heard is what they actually said, so you don’t look stupid responding to something else entirely.
4) Out-clever them. They are not used to thinking on their feet, and you are. So play around with the literal meaning of what they’re saying. They won’t be able to keep up.
5) Trust yourself. Say what comes to mind – don’t spend time searching for the perfect response. The quicker you reply, the more leeway the crowd gives you just for being quick. So if you can swing quickly, you don’t have to swing as hard.
6) Know that they brought a knife to a gun fight. Keep them talking. A clever person is comfortable in silence and won’t heckle in the first place. So a heckler won’t have anything particularly clever to say, and it will give you way more ammo (and turn the crowd further against them).
7) Give them more attention than they can handle. Imagine a parent catching a child smoking a cigarette, and forcing them to smoke a whole case. Similar premise.
8) Have some responses ready. Sometimes you can write them in advance, and sometimes they come in the moment and you can remember them for next time. Either way, having a few bullets in your gun never hurts. I was dealing with a belligerent drunk man who eventually yelled “I’m wasted!”. I responded by saying, “No. Your education is being wasted. My time is being wasted. Your father’s sperm and your mother’s egg is being wasted. You’re just drunk.” Now when a drunk person won’t shut up, I will ask “are you wasted?” And when they inevitably cheer, I have my response.
9) Don’t ever call anyone up on stage unless you have a plan. Calling them up takes away your main advantage over them. Simply hoping they’ll embarrass themselves? They can do that from their seat. Feel free to call them up if you have a direction in mind – but don’t level the playing field unless you know where you’re headed.
My heckler clips on YouTube happened by accident – I didn’t want to post current material, so instead I posted outtakes. This was at the same time that “heckler” was becoming a popular search term on YouTube, and it all just blew up. Am I thankful for my YouTube views and what they’ve subsequently led to? Of course I am. But I would be thrilled to never have another heckler again. Heckling is a selfish act that is a disservice to a comedy show.
When I am on stage, I am up there to try to entertain people AND to work on becoming a better comedian. Hecklers get in the way of the second part. But unless comedy clubs stop serving alcohol and selfish delusional people stop buying tickets, there will always be hecklers. Since neither of those things will ever happen, it’s best to know how to handle them.