Comedians dealing with hecklers

Hi Dave – How should a clean comedian respond to hecklers? – A.B.

Who’s the loudest?

Hey A.B. – Clean comics respond to hecklers with the same comedy voice (language and who they are on stage) they use in their sets. Don’t start dropping F-bombs, swearing or lowering yourself to their level – if their level is lower because they’re rude, using foul language, or might be drunk (hecklers usually seem to have a few drinks in them).

That’s not how clean comics perform. And if a clean comic suddenly decides to use that type of material on stage, then bookers won’t look at him or her as a clean comic in the future.

Dealing with hecklers is always a big worry with many of the newer comedians I work with. It’s one of the first questions asked in my workshops. But to be quite honest and basing this on my experiences managing major clubs in New York City, Los Angeles and Cleveland, I don’t think of hecklers as a big problem.

I’m sure they’re more of a concern at poorly run open-mics and the very low-rent clubs that comedians play as they work their way up to better venues. But for the most part, allowing hecklers to disrupt shows is not good for business. And one thing you always need to remember is that club owners are not in the business to lose money.

As Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) said so eloquently in The Jerk: “Ah… It’s a profit deal.”

This means that business-minded club owners don’t want paying customers to have a lousy time because of loud-mouthed jerks in the audience heckling the performers. The paying customers will bad-mouth the club to their friends and never come back. That means they’ll spend their entertainment dollars somewhere else.

The loss of returning and potential customers is a sure way to go out of business. Smart club owners don’t want to go out of business.

That’s why the more established comedy clubs have bouncers and security to prevent this from happening. Believe me, at the clubs in the cities I mentioned above, we had big security guys hanging around the back of the showroom and a police officer floating through the crowd. If anyone in the audience got out of line and started heckling, their next opportunity to yell at someone was from the sidewalk outside the club – which is where the security guys escorted them (after they paid their check, of course!).

Now, that being said – I’m not naive.

I know there are times when someone in an audience – even in the better comedy clubs – will start heckling the comic on stage. And check this out – seriously – a lot of these loud-mouths actually think they’re helping the comedian do a better show. I’ve even seen hecklers approach the comic afterwards looking for a bit of fame or at least a thanks. They assume they were part of the act and the comic should be glad they were there to help.

Duh…!!!

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The best way to prepare yourself as a performer is through stage experience. Comedians, speakers, musicians, etc… literally do hundreds of sets per year (if they’re serious about a career). Chances are something unexpected will happen during one of these sets. Someone will yell out, a server will drop a tray of drinks…

I’ve even seen a comic at The Improv in Los Angeles have to switch material because of an earthquake while he was on stage. Talk about a disruptive heckler… Mother Nature?

When something unexpected happens you learn through stage experience how to deal with it. You might ad-lib a line on the spot and if it’s funny (and works) you’ll keep it in your set to use again next time. If you stand there with a blank look on your face as a heckler (or an earthquake) disrupts the show, you might want to write a comeback line later and keep it ready in case the situation happens again.

Many comics have their comeback lines in their back pockets and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Don’t believe me? Then read the chapter with Jeff Dunham in my book How To Be A Working Comic. He tells about the only time in his career when he never wrote a comeback line as a result of something that happened earlier in a club. It’s a great story – and I use it as an example in all my workshops.

If you truly have a fear of not being able to ad-lib or think on your feet while on stage, I recommend taking a class in improvisation. It’s all about being in the moment and working off what is given to you.

But to get back to your original question, as a clean comedian don’t lower yourself to a heckler’s level. Again, this takes stage experience, but stay in your comedy voice.

Do your best to keep control of the situation. You have the microphone, so you’ll be heard over what a heckler is saying.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever seen in dealing with a heckler was when the comedian gave up the microphone. Seriously – I’ve seen it. The comedian said, (thinking he was putting the heckler in an embarrassing situation):

“If you think this is so easy and you’re so funny, let’s see you do it.“

And then he handed the heckler the microphone?!!

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The honest truth was that the heckler was drunk, was not going to give the microphone back – and actually thought he was funnier than the comedian. The show took a nosedive and for the comedian on stage, it was a lesson learned the hard way.

Never give up the microphone.

If a heckler becomes a problem there’s no reason why you can’t ask for assistance from the club manager, door-guys, bouncer, bartender – or whoever is in charge. I’ve seen comedians end their sets and walk off stage because a club didn’t take care of the problem. And I’m not just talking about beginning comedians – I’ve seen headliners do this. Their reasoning was that dealing with hecklers is not part of their show, not what they get paid to do – and if the club doesn’t have control over the room, they’re not performing.

And I’ve seen these comics get very angry about this. They leave swearing never to return – and warn their comedian friends about the potential problems.

You have the right to do the same.

Again – smart club owners don’t like to lose business. And when comics start bad-mouthing a club there’s the potential to lose good performers and therefore, also a lot of business.

If that is how a club is run, then it’s no more than a notch or two above a crappy open-mic and good comedians wouldn’t want to play there anyway.

On the other hand, I’ve also had some great comics tell me before they went on stage NOT to shut-up any hecklers. These performers have the attitude and experience to turn any interruptions into excellent comedy by verbally destroying anyone who would dare heckle them. As a word of warning, think twice before you have a few drinks and decide verbally spar with Bobby Slayton, Dave Attell and some of my other personal favorites…

So when it comes to hecklers? It doesn’t matter if you’re a clean comedian or raunchy – either be prepared and experienced in thinking on your feet, or have your best comeback lines in your back pocket and ready to go. And trust me, it doesn’t happen as much as you might fear in the better comedy clubs.

Badly-run clubs can be another story. They’re also another incentive to continue getting on stage experience, get funnier – and get booked into better clubs.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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