January 9, 2013

A Heckler’s Offensive: A World of Assholes By Hank Thompson


A Heckler’s Offensive: A World of Assholes

There’s more of us than them. For now…

This happened Thursday.

While driving to see my mother in a nursing home, I was approaching a busy intersection at about 35mph when I was forced to slow down and wait for a woman, in casual defiance of what was a mature green light, diagonally crossing the street across the middle of the intersection. Concern for my car and day prevented me from hitting her. As I slowed to around 5mph I expressed my frustration by shrugging my shoulders and outstretching my hands. What Gives, lady? Her reaction, sadly, didn’t astonish me.

She gestured back similarly, as if somehow I was in the wrong, swinging her thick ankles at the exact same speed as before. How else am I supposed to cross the street, buddy? “It’s a road! There’s traffic! There’s traffic!” I shouted at my windshield, karate chopping my hands back and forth. She raised her arm in disgust and gave me the finger. “Yeah, fuck you, too!” I yelled at my passenger window as I drove past her, extending my bird at full salute, belching as much sound and smoke as my 8-year-old 4-cylinder Subaru can muster.

I’d encountered one of Planet Earth’s great abundances: assholes. An asshole is a person whose disposition invites strife, unease, argument and stress. They’re alive and well and the worse things get the more they’ll flourish. Here’s the thing about assholes: assholes think the world is filled with assholes. Let that sink in. To them, it’s a dog-cheat-dog world out there, a whole planet of unhappy jerks. This is because a majority of their interactions with people are negative. It’s a terrible way of life, surrounded by a poisonous fog that causes constant meaningless conflict with strangers provoked into participating in your sad manner of existence.

I caught the poison. I went straight to her level. I became an asshole. To her, I was yet another sonofabitch she’s forced to share the planet with until she dies, proof that the human hive is full of jerks. She didn’t know my form of it was temporary. (though the stress wasn’t; I was mildly upset for hours.)

Here’s the recipe for instant assholes: Add one asshole. Done. Fortunately, there are more of us than there are of them, however occasionally assholes (let’s call ‘em ‘fuckheads’ for short) get a platform they do not deserve and they use it to do what they do: bring the world down to their level.

Two such assholes did that on Jan 3rd in the Chicago Tribune. Their names are Nina Metz and Chris Borelli. Their only credit is in the sub-heading, “The Tribune’s…” Shrug. Appearing in the Arts & Entertainment section, the piece is titled “A field guide to hecklers” but the browser tab calls it “A defense of heckling.” It’s a conversation between the two in which they outright encourage disruptive audience participation at stand up comedy shows. I don’t know anything about either of them but after reading the article I know they are simply bad people. Like, really bad. Unflavored oatmeal bad.

A better title would be “Ruin Fun: Because We Are Evil and Have No Soul”. Right off the bat these two numnuts (sp?) make clear that it’s all about them. During Nina’s intro she writes:

“Heckling is the scourge of comedy clubs, ruining everybody’s good time. Right? Not in my book.”

Oh, aren’t you adorable? Allow me to translate: “I’m conscious that most people hate it but it’s all about me me me me! Me! Also, I’m a stupid bitch!” (Don’t worry, Nina, Chris is also a stupid bitch. I’m actually quite fond of your gender.)

Then the “conversation” begins. It’s a back and forth of inane, self-indulgent bullshit in which our proud antagonists reveal their secret affection for hecklers.

During Chris’s first chime he states:

“On the other hand, as someone who wants an event to be memorable, yes, I’m pro-heckling. Who isn’t? I have seen countless comedians and forgotten most of them. But I remember each and every time I have witnessed a performer get into it with an obnoxious audience.”

I’ll tell you who isn’t, Chris, you stupid bitch: The performer, the rest of the audience, the venue owner and staff. ALL DECENT PEOPLE. EVERYBODY ELSE.

I’ve forgotten a lot of movies I’ve seen but I’m not going to set fire to the theatre so that I remember the event. To defend public assholery. In fact, to call for increased fuckheadism– it’s irresponsible and it’s weak. Cowardly. You’re unable to remember fun so you’re actively advocating ruining other people’s fun so you can get a shot of memory juice?

Nina’s next:
“Yes! As journalists and critics, we’re trained to stand and back observe, so I don’t think it’s ever occurred to me to heckle. But I am always secretly thrilled (and nervous!) when someone else does it.”

Yes, tension can be great. It’s why jokes work, why flirting is fun and why divorce is hilarious. But it’s not up to an [often inebriated] audience member to decide when and how tension is invoked. That’s the performer’s right and privilege. That’s why we go out and practice night after night and claw our way up the ladder– for the opportunity to say words into microphones. We earn it. Not hecklers. Here, have my drink tickets.

In the next paragraph she shows a little bit of her coal heart:

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it is miserable for the comic.”

Well, aren’t you Mother Fucking Theresa? The conversation turns to how heckling separates the men from the boys, how it’s useful in determining who is truly funny, how it lets the audience see what the comedian does when his “back is against the wall”. Chris completely agrees!

“You and I have spoken to enough comics to know, there are funny-funny comics and funny-unfunny comics, and the paradox is, both can very funny. But the heckler pulls back the curtain and reveals which kind of funny we’re looking at: The one who can write a joke and tell it well, or the one who doesn’t need carefully considered material in his head to generate a laugh. I am not judging one over the other.”

Yes, you are, Chris! Funny-funny? Funny-unfunny? You make it seem as if the funny after the dash is the important one, the one where loud, obnoxious people are now part of the show. Three words: FUCK YOU. AGAIN. To be fair, you did use the word “paradox” so your argument clearly is brimming with intelligence. I suspect that’s just how you hide the fact that your brain is made of cake, and by that I mean the gross yellow kind.

Paradox. See? I’m so smart. Somebody blow me!

Some comedians are better at dealing with hecklers than others. That’s true. It doesn’t make the one who struggles a bad comedian or not funny. Thanks to people like you (assholes), though, we all get plenty of practice. Good work.

Nina, three words for you as well: Fuck you, too.

We’re not rats in an experiment. The idea of live stand up isn’t to bully the performer into revealing his or her true self, testing our emotional limits, seeking breaking points, challenging our stage persona so you can slice our bellies open and root around with a butter knife in search of whatever pound of flesh you feel you have the right to extract.

I’ll break it down for you. It’s actually quite simple: Stand up comedy is an exchange between an audience and a performer with an inherent agreement that the audience listens and the performer speaks. If what’s said provokes/induces laughter, then it’s good. If it doesn’t, then it’s bad. We train and practice to maximize the good and minimize the bad.

Me? Who am I to speak with authority on defining stand up? I’m a stand up. I’ve been doing it a little over three-and-a-half years, mostly here in Chicago. I’ve performed around 900 times. I’ve watched thousands of sets. I’m fully aware that in the Laughter Industry I’m a certified nobody but even though I might be a toddler comedian I’m smart enough to wipe the finger paint off my hands before I diddle myself. Take that!

Here’s what heckling is: It’s theft. Stealing. Robbery. People pay to see a comedy show and they deserve the best the performer can deliver. When a person heckles he or she is taking value away from people who paid to see a person tell jokes, not see someone be an asshole.

A comedy show is a swirl of intricate psychological exchanges between the audience and the performer that ebbs and flows as the night gets on. Many complex factors are in play that only people who do it are aware of. Part of the design is that it’s a casual, take-a-load-off-and-have-fun kind of thing, and it should be exactly that for the audience. For the performer it is anything but.

Some of those factors? Sure, I’ll try and be quick. Expectation is everything. People are more invested if it’s not free. A full room is better because it increases the likelihood of laugh-leaders (people who laugh easy and vocally), which helps the anonymity effect and leads to a group-mind, a positive collective experience. Sound checked. Phones off. Seats forward. Attention focused. The performer should be elevated and illuminated. Comedians introduce themselves (the opener), generate laughs, sustain interest and build to a strong finish (the closer). Bookers make choices on room design, hosting, as well as constructing the show based on the various flavors each comedian offers. There are numerous others. I hope to learn them all some day.

What it comes down to is distraction. The best comedy venues are designed to minimize distraction. Minimize, not eliminate. Elimination is impossible. Unlike music, listening to a stand up show requires the same focus and concentration as reading. You can go to a concert and scream your bloody fuckin’ head off the whole time and walk away happy. Do that at a stand up show and it’s a quick escort to the door. A single syllable can be missed and the entire joke can be ruined. That glance down at your phone to see if your ex-boyfriend is horny can be a deal-breaker. The question to your friend about how much you owe for half the vodka fishbowl and suddenly you’re offended by the second half of a comedian’s joke. You missed the part where he said, “Here’s what you shouldn’t say about baby seals.”

All forms of heckling serve the evil of distraction. It distracts not only the performer, but also everybody who’s trying to enjoy the show. Even the lightest talking is noise-pollution. A cellphone light is universally irritating in a dark room where people are trying to focus. I don’t have to list ‘em all.

Here’s another suggestion for you two misery sluts. Try it. Do stand up. Do it for 3 months. A week. Once. You won’t. Cowards. Shit shadows. (At least shit has substance.)

There’s a reason people fear public speaking more than death or snakes or death snakes (see: Australia). The truth is people don’t fear public speaking. People fear public judgment. Stand up comedy is the ultimate form of public judgment. I will stand alone on stage and make you laugh for x amount of minutes and you will pay me for the privilege. What utter lunacy!

But when it works, it’s beautiful. It’s one of the most wonderful things in the world. Laughter. Joy. Happiness.

And you pieces of shit want to take that away from other people simply because you have a bad memory? Because tension is exciting? You strike me as the kind of people who bought those DVDs of alcoholic bums fighting that those assholes were selling awhile back. What happened? Did your parents have a shouting match the first time you masturbated? Is that what locked it in? You sick fucks. The good news is there’s a much better alternative to heckling: Silence. Been there, heard that. Or… not heard that, as it were.

You’re both writers (“The Tribunes…,” right?). That’s a form of expression that invites public feedback, but unlike from behind the safety of a keyboard you haven’t the slightest idea what it’s like doing stand up. Does someone you can’t see yell, “Wrong!” when you press Q instead of W? Do you have to interrupt your train of thought because a drunk is arguing with a waitress in your office? Does your boss shine a light at you to let you know you have 60 seconds to finish your article?

The feedback stand up comedians receive is both its greatest asset and worst feature. Failure (what we call a joke bombing) is instant, personal and public. And you’re expected to shrug it off and move on, which we learn to do. Along with Jazz, stand up comedy is one of two truly American forms of art. Because they’re the only two in which we pretend we didn’t practice. Well, it’s not easy. And we do practice.

We do it because the joy of getting a laugh slightly outweighs the pain of not. More than just having a sense of humor it requires a unique psychosis, a blend of delusion, drive and durability, especially to survive the first years which are filled with embarrassment, isolation and failure. I’ve sucked my pride dry countless times, gone home angry, drank away the anguish, stood on stage staring into the maw of all-consuming silence after a joked bombed. I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve seen start comedy and are gone in three months. I couldn’t, because their names aren’t worth learning. Most who try quit. Most who don’t quit fail. Stand up comedy is why I get up every day. My depression would have long ago sucked me down if I didn’t discover the joy of other people’s laughter. Fuck you.

Back to the “article.” When not name-dropping (Oh really? You spoke to Zach Galfianakas? Nick Kroll? Your journalism professors must be so proud! Fuckheads.), the two take turns name-creating. They define the various types of hecklers they’ve observed, ascribing cute names such as The Happy Heckler, The Drunk, The Serial Antagonist, The Casual Discusser. Good ones! I’ve got another name for a very specific type of heckler. Ready?

The Irresponsible Journalist.

Here’s another one: The Lazy Reporter (Really? A conversation? You got paid for this?)

Mina and whatshisface’s argument is this: “Let’s take what is regarded as one of the most, if not THE most difficult performance arts and make it even harder. It is our right to control the stage because we are incapable of genuine fun and require the discomfort of others for something to be worth remembering.”

Oh, why don’t you both go heckle each other in the pants!? I don’t know what that means but do it where no one can hear your ugly moaning. You make my teeth hurt. Or better yet, jam a tampon down your throats so you’re the only ones who have to choke on your bullshit.

What a couple of cunts. Yes, you’re both bitches and assholes. Motherfuckers. Fatherfuckers. Get out of here! I feel sorry for you both. I’ve been a complete asshole this whole time but for me it’s a temporary condition. You’re stuck with it.

Love,
Hank Thompson, Comedian and defender of happiness.
P.S. Here: Of course Louis CK says it and shows it way better than me.
Special Guest Contributor
Hank Thompson

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