August 22, 2013

How To Handle Hecklers

By far and away and without a doubt, the two most frequently asked questions I’ve gotten over and over since I started teaching standup comedy are: “When will I need a manager?” and “What do I do about hecklers?” I laugh every time I hear either question, but they get asked constantly. Nothing could be less important in one’s first year of comedy than these two questions, but I’m going to deal with the heckler issue now only because so many people feel they need to know the ‘secret’ when it comes to ‘defeating’ this perceived peril that will be an issue during every show.

In a word, RELAX. There are no secrets, and there is no peril. It’s all a myth – just like the one that says women love men with a sense humor best, but that’s another topic for another day. I’ll focus my energy on stomping out this fire before attempting anything else. This needs attention. First off, there are far more important things to think about when learning this difficult craft. Getting heckled should not even begin to be part of the conversation until much later. Does it happen? Of course it happens. Every standup comic eventually has to deal with this issue to one degree or another, but in one’s early stages of development it’s a non issue.

Let’s compare it to learning how to drive a car. Do spectacular, multi-vehicle, accidents involving violent injuries and fatalities happen? Sure they do, but can you ever recall one happening in a Driver Education car? Maybe they happen - but it's a very rare exception.

First Things First. 

My point is, if you’re reading this there’s an overwhelming chance you’re a beginner. There’s nothing wrong with it, and in fact every single entertainer who has ever stepped on a stage was a beginner at some point. You’re in first grade right now, so let’s worry about first grade lessons. There are plenty of lessons that need learning before you have to deal with any heckling in the next little while. It will happen soon enough, so let’s not rush it. Dealing with it on a professional level can absolutely be learned, but it’s like calculus or physics. A first grader isn’t ready for it.

Dobie Maxwell
First graders need to learn the very simplest of the basic fundamentals of everything. They will have enough to deal with learning their ABCs. After that, then they can start to work up to bigger challenges. Nobody expects a first grader to know how to dissect an isosceles triangle, and that’s equally true with a newbie comic. Audiences won’t expect a greenhorn to have to deal with that. What kind of lowlife slime would heckle a new comedian anyway? I hate to admit I’ve seen it done on rare occasion, but the audience will always support the comic. Most people have an idea that comedy isn’t easy, and seeing a rookie get heckled would be like seeing a child get attacked. Most decent people wouldn’t stand for it, and the same is true in this situation. All a new act has to say is something like “I’m very new at this. I hope you feel like a big person attacking me.” That alone usually takes care of it more than effectively, but I’ve also seen comics get frazzled and leave the stage prematurely. That’s their choice, and I respect it. Usually, the person hosting the show has some experience, and can deal with a heckler accordingly on a more even platform.

Why Does It Happen?

Why anyone would want to come to a live show and purposely try to disrupt it always has been and still is a befuddling mystery. I would never dream of doing anything like that, but I’m a huge fan of live entertainment in general. I know from years of experience how difficult it is to put on a live show of any kind. I have respect for all performers, and want to show all the support I can. Unfortunately, this is not true with a frighteningly large percentage of the public. I’ll remember a quote my grandfather told me when I was about ten years old. He said “The masses are asses.” I didn’t know what it meant then, but I’ve really learned to embrace it in my journey through life.

I thought Gramps had come up with that himself, but it was actually a quote from a gentleman named Alexander Hamilton. Does that name ring a bell? He’s the guy pictured on a US $10 bill. He said it in 1790, so that tells me a lot about the human race. We were stupid then, and still are. All those ‘asses’ from 1790 bred and we’ve perpetuated generation after generation of imbeciles. My grandmother grew up on a farm in a small town in Central Wisconsin. She wasn’t much on mincing words, and usually got straight to the point on any topic. When it came to her opinion of the masses she said “The cattle on the farm I grew up on knew how to behave better than most of the American public.” I hate to admit Grandma was right, but she was - and it’s getting worse. For whatever reason, there are idiots who walk the planet freely that seem to think they’re why the rest of us are here and it’s our job to cater to their every whim, urge or impulse. That must be why they have no qualms whatsoever about yelling out incoherent gibberish during a live show. I will say from experience that alcohol often contributes to this scenario, but not always. I have seen more than my share of sober simpletons start babbling idiocy without the aid of intoxicants. It never ceases to amaze me how often people feel a need to contribute to the collective dynamic.

Three Basic Types
I’ve had a lifetime of experience with hecklers, and I can’t think of anyone who can speak with more authority than me when it comes to this topic. I’ve gotten things thrown at me, started a riot or two and been escorted to my car by security on several occasions. I’ve played this game often, and have a rich backlog of experience on which to draw from. I know well of what I’m speaking. I’ve thought it through at length, and my conclusion is there are three basic types of heckler:
1. The Bully/Coward
2. The Intoxicated/Idiot
3. The Contributor/Helper

There can be subtle variations on all these themes, but they basically boil down to one of them in the end. I’ve dealt with all three extensively, and here is my advice from the front lines so you can hopefully get a head start for when this will be part of your world – and it will. Don’t rush it, it will get here soon enough. There’s nothing to worry about though, as you can win every time!

"The Bully/Coward’ – this is the type from which the stereotype heckler is drawn. He (rarely if ever she) is a mean, jerk type personality that brings who brings the "bag of rotten fruit" (metaphorically and literally) to throw at the stage. I must say I have never seen that in all my years, but I have had other objects hurled stageward. This type of heckler is almost always a frustrated performer who lacks the guts to get on stage or is too lazy to put in the massive effort it takes to become a professional entertainer. It’s easier to just sit in the crowd and toss out caustic remarks. I absolutely love these types, as I’ve learned to verbally squash them like the cockroaches they are. I’ve laid out countless bullies in my day. Part of the reason I can deal with this so easily is that my father was a bully. Quite often in my early years I’d go after these kinds of hecklers so badly the audience would actually sympathize with heckler after a while. In my mind, I wasn’t just squelching the heckler. I was getting back at my father, and I’m not going to lie – it felt REALLY good! I have since softened my demeanor.

‘The Intoxicated/Idiot’ – Steve Allen said decades ago that sooner or later everyone who does live entertainment will get sick of entertaining drunks. Amen, Brother Steve! I reached that point years ago, but it continues to go on. I don’t judge people, and just because I’m not a drinker I am not crusading against all those who choose to enjoy a cocktail or two. Being a drunk is different. Dealing with a bully requires one method of defense, and this requires another. Bullies are very aware of what’s going on, and they want to outsmart the comedian on stage. Drunks don’t know they’re being out of line, and depending on how far gone they are can be a difficult challenge to keep control of the show. Many venues won’t bounce them, and it’s up to you to work through it. Other times, alcohol isn’t the reason and they’re just plain DUMB. Sometimes it goes further than that and it’s just plain old mental illness. That can be extra difficult, and requires a delicate and experienced hand. I will go into much more depth in the future on all of this, but not now.

‘The Contributor/Helper’ – this has always been the most baffling type of heckler. Once in a while someone will say something out loud during a show, but it’s not a heckle at all. In fact, it’s a major compliment to the performer. The audience member relates to something the comic said and says something in response like an actual conversation. This is usually not a problem at all. Then there’s the weirdo who for some reason thinks the comedian needs ‘help’ and decides to volunteer his (and too many times her) ‘services’ as a verbal punching bag throughout the night. They’re the first ones to come up afterward and look for kudos on their ‘performance’. This has never made sense to me, but it does occur with alarming frequency. Run from these crackpots.

Embrace The Situation

It may sound crazy, but part of me really enjoys dealing with hecklers. The main reason is that I know before any situation ever starts that I’m going to win no matter what happens, and that’s a position of power. It’s like being a seventh degree black belt. I’m not afraid to walk home alone. But just like with the black belt, that power and knowledge is never to be used to hurt anybody. It’s not like I look to go around making fun of random strangers just because I know what to say. I’m just saying I know how to defend myself in heckler situations, and I’m not afraid to exercise my combat muscles when necessary. I don’t ever start it, but should another do so I will finish.

Every comedian has a different opinion. George Carlin talked about his preferential method of vanquishing hecklers. He said “Some comedians like to have a stockpile of witty lines stored to use when they need them. I always prefer to use a verbal sledge hammer to the base of the skull.” And that was his right. Jerry Seinfeld chooses to deal with it in a totally different way. He just stops the wole show and says something like “Are you alright? You seem upset. Can I help you in some way?” This is a great way to disarm almost any situation, and you can choose to use it as well if you like. Personally, I would never do this. I enjoy the challenge of barbecuing the idiot. But that’s me. Not everyone is as warped and twisted as I am when it comes to enjoying such a frightening scenario. It’s like someone walking through a bad neighborhood looking for conflict. Maybe they get off on the excitement, I don’t know. For me, I have no problem going toe to toe.

What Should I Say To A Heckler?

Students constantly ask me what to say in heckler situations. Like I said earlier, it won’t be your concern at least in the very beginning. Focus on your comedy first. My friend Bill Gorgo has one of the best answers I’ve ever heard. When someone asks him what to do about hecklers, he’ll say “Simple! Don’t get heckled.” Then he’ll wait a few seconds as his wisdom penetrates a skull. Most students don’t get it, but Bill is 100% correct. What he means is, have a well constructed funny act and get the audience laughing soon and often. If they’re doing that, nobody will have a chance to heckle. The whole idea of standup comedy is to get laughs from the crowd, not insults.

Again, does heckling happen in standup comedy? Definitely yes. Does a bear defecate rurally? Is Seven Up? It will always be a part of comedy just as accidents will always be a part of driving, but that doesn’t mean you have to worry about it every time you get behind the wheel. If you are careful and focus on DRIVING, 99.999% of your trips will be trouble free. Comedy is the same. If you focus on your act and getting laughs, hecklers won’t have time to interrupt you as there won’t be the opportunity. The audience will be enjoying your show, and their laughter will act as insulation so one lone nut’s comments will have no way to penetrate that force field. I’ll leave it alone for now, but I still have a lot more to say on this subject. Next time I’ll share combat tips.

Contributing Writer
Dobie Maxwell

Dobie is a nationally touring, award-winning comedian and has worked with such notable comedians as Jay Leno, Jeff Foxworthy, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Dennis Miller, Chris Rock, and many others.
www.dobiemaxwell.com
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