Handling the Heckler
Be swift, be certain, and above all, be funny.
My kindergarten teacher had a stuffed microphone that she passed around during "share time." Only the person holding the mike was permitted to speak. The system worked great until Jimmy Pitzer, the bully who once punched me for looking at the sky too long, chewed out the stuffing.
So began my lifelong war with hecklers. That's what we call them in stand-up comedy, but bullies go by many names: naysayer, skeptic, mother-in-law. For the sake of argument, I'll call them hecklers.
When you and I are holding the mike, it is our turn. We have some-thing to say and the guts to say it. The audience has two choices - listen or leave. Note that these options do not include "make bombing noises during pauses."
I asked some fellow comedians what they thought about hecklers. As you might imagine, it was tough to get a straight answer:
"Personally, I'm against them." "Boiled or fried?"
"I've got one in the trunk of my car. Let's ask him."
Which brings me to Lesson #1: Always have a snappy one-liner prepared in case you're asked a silly question. Silly questions are, in fact, another form of heckling. "Is that the best you can do?" hollers a heckler. "No, I'm saving my good stuff for the grownups," you reply. Even if it doesn't shush the guy, it makes a statement to all in attendance.
It says, "Don't mess with me; I'm a professional."
Keith Dion, owner of Hornblowers Comedy Club in Ventura, California, warns us not to sweat the heckler. Every audience has them, he says. If you're lucky, they just sigh extra flamboyantly; if you're not so lucky, they drink their way to swearwords. Some people aren't officially bitter until everyone knows about it.
Keith says, "There is one thing you can count on: No matter what you say, somebody out there has a problem with it."
Who knows why the hecklers arrive in the first place. Whatever brought the Grinch to Whoville, I suppose. They come to disagree with our politics or our clothes or the -fact that we're getting all the attention, just as their kid brother did growing up.
Fortunately, heckling is mostly confined to nightclubs. The rest of us contend with similar sabotage on a sliding scale. In formal settings, it may be as subtle as whispering or clearing the throat, or the classic folded arm stare-down.
The best way to beat the vibe is by playing to the Ideal Audience. Every time you're on, you should speak to the same people: the people who like you! Sometimes they're not even present, but you must see them out there hanging on your every inflection. I can't tell you how many times I've performed for Crowds of Stand-up Past.
If you can't sustain the visual, build on existing support. No matter how ghastly it gets, there is always someone - many someone's - who are still on board. They may be cheering only from within, but they are with you. Cater to them and they will multiply until, hallelujah, the Ideal Audience becomes a reality. Viva le positive thinking!
One night I was bombing so badly that you could hear people ask for their checks, save for a man at Table 2 who laughed at everything. I decided to do my act exclusively for this savior of mine. "But seriously, Jack...." Before long the crowd was chuckling at the spectacle, and eventually I included them again.
Veteran touring comic Chas Elstner told a racy joke that landed rather hard. As the audience squirmed, Chas giggled like a madman and said, "Do you ever get the feeling that I'd be up here doing this with or without you?" Tension burst; connection restored.
This devil-may-care attitude may not come swiftly to you, but it will come. Before stand-up, I would get dizzy any time someone didn't worship me. Then I watched the pros, who carried them-selves as if they were around only to tell a few jokes before returning to the mother ship. If someone can't take a joke ...you know the rest.
According to Keith Dion: "You'll never get anywhere if you need the entire room to like you."
Case in point. Irish comedian Ardal O'Hanlon was performing for a patchy (i.e., self-conscious) crowd. In the front row sat two executives who were not just ignoring him but having a conversation of their own.
Ardal asked, "Is there a problem, gentlemen?"
"Yeah," said one. "We don't think you're funny."
And Ardal: "That's good, because if the two of you found me funny, I'd quit the bloody business today."
Whatever your profession, the lesson holds true: "Don't get mad; get funny." Ardal's line was a masterpiece. Feeling the weight of the room, the hecklers piped down and everyone forgot about them. Had Ardal made a scene, those two would have been the only thing the audience remembered.
Of course, you have to give the heckler a chance before gunning him down. I mean, we comedians are not gangsters. Fire a warning shot. Remind them that you have the mike. In standup it might go like this: "Is this your first time heckling, sir? I know how hard it is and don't want to throw off your timing."
Get a laugh and get back to business. If you strike too hard or fail to state why you're striking, you end up being the bully. Another tactic is to tap your foot like a school-teacher. When the chatter-bug catches on - and it may take a while depending on blood alcohol level - you say, "Okay, class, recess is over. Back inside."
Wayne Dyer, the "father of motivation" and a Toastmasters Golden Gavel recipient, is especially good at deflecting bad attention. When someone tries to join his act, Wayne laughs along and then says, "Okay, I'll be doing the comedy here." His voice is kind but somehow dangerous. The disruptive audience members always seem to get it.
Another pro is Jay Leno, host of NBC's Tonight Show. When his audience boos a joke, Jay can just shake his finger and say, "I'll turn this car around right now...." The people for-give him, and Jay keeps on truckin'.
The fact is that people want you to succeed. Even if they're not chanting your name, everyone wants a pleasant trip. Everyone, that is, but the hecklers. They're not so happy with this whole life thing. Your job, as facilitator, is to spot the hecklers up front and protect the common-weal. If they continue to defy the Stuffed Microphone Law, you have no choice but to act. Be swift, be certain and, above all, be funny.
In the words of Keith Dion: "We all just win over the ones we can. I mean, c'mon - even Jesus didn't get everyone."
To which I say, "Amen."