Comedians Dealing With Hecklers

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

Get off the stage!

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!”

Say something funny!

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…!!!

The best way to prepare yourself as a performer is through stage experience. Comedians, speakers, musicians… well, performers in general 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, a cell phone will go off…

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?

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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?!!

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 to verbally spar with Bobby Slayton, Dave Attell and some of my other personal favorites. It’s now called “crowd work” and there are plenty of experienced comedians that master the craft (thanks to a quick mind, an attitude – and just as important, stage time).

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.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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It’s all in the delivery

Dave – I need to work on my delivery. The time you saw me, you mentioned that it sounded like I was just reading from a magazine (thanks! lol). I see what you mean after listening to my last set a couple times. I’m working out a new bit that I’m taking care not to write out in script form, but in outline form. I’m beginning to get the laughs where I want them, and I know the confidence to ad-lib only comes from stage experience. But working on delivery seems like the next logical step. Do you agree? – DB

What do I say next?

Hey DB – When you’re just starting out in the comedy or speaking biz, having the right delivery on stage is something everyone worries about. It’s up there with getting over any nervousness you might have just standing in front of an audience AND remembering what the heck you’re gonna say.

But you know what?

It’s nothing to sweat about at this stage – the beginning stage – of your career on stage. Wow, it’s not everyday I can use the same word three times in one sentence. Guess I need to work on my delivery…

Your delivery or comedy voice, which is a term I picked up from a major player in the comedy biz while I was working in Los Angeles, will develop through experience.

It comes with getting stage time.

Right now – and again, I’m talking about the beginning stage – I’ll suggest something else to concentrate on that I’ve heard many times from working comics. Write, write, and WRITE some more.

Got that? The idea is to have something – ideas, topics, stories, whatever – that you can talk about and try out in front of an audience. Then you rewrite, edit, come up with new stuff, and repeat the process again and again.

As you do this your material will change and evolve. You’ll also become more comfortable knowing your material AND being in front of an audience. For some people it seems easy, but I’ve talked with many more who’ve said it was damn hard work. It’s doing open-mics and any other gigs as often as possible.

During this process you (should) also develop your delivery. But again, sometimes it’s not that easy. So, I’ll make a suggestion based on your question…

A lot of comedians and speakers start out by memorizing their material. There’s a great story about that in my book How To Be A Working Comic from one of the great stand-up improvisors and ad-libber’s in the business. His many fans might find it hard to believe, but he told me that’s what he did in the beginning. You must find a way to get yourself on stage and if memorizing your material helps, then try it. Then through experience you can gradually develop and grow as a writer and performer and break free of that restraint (memorizing) and have as much fun as the audience.

It takes stage time.

Memorizing your material can be a valuable crutch to use when you’re first going on stage. As you know, all kinds of things – mental and physical – are happening when you’re new at this. It’s not a normal everyday thing to walk onto a spotlighted stage, stand in front of a microphone and start talking to people.

But even if it’s memorized the KEY is to NOT make it sound memorized.

Ad-libbing and working off the audience can loosen things up and help you as a performer and writer come up with new material or learn how to deliver what you already have to get bigger laughs. In other words, you want to sound like you’re making this stuff up on the spot. It’s called being conversational, which is the opposite of sounding like you’re repeating a magazine article from memory.

Now I know all comedians and speakers are not the same. There are one-liners, physical comedy, storytellers, insult comics, prop comics and more. Just keep in mind I’m talking in general – okay?

I don’t know how many comedians I’ve seen over my career, but I know from experience as a talent booker and club manager I’ve seen a LOT during many different career stages. I’m talking about from beginners to household names. And what has always stayed with me is how they deliver their material – their comedy set – to each audience.

The successful ones are very conversational. They make it seem the audience is in on the creative process – like the comic is making it up on the spot. But what the audience doesn’t see is that most times (not all because again, I’m talking in general and don’t want the ghosts of Bill Hicks or George Carlin to do a Christmas Carol bit on me the next time I’m in a deep sleep) the next show can be almost exactly the same.

But it’s still seems different because of the comic’s delivery. They know how to involve the audience and have a conversation with them using their proven (through stage experience) material.

I know I’m repeating this story from one of my books, but I remember years ago when a VERY famous comedian was doing a set at The Comedy Cellar in NYC. It was late – the other clubs were closed, and this was the only one that would put up with us at 3 am. There were only about four “real” customers in the audience and everyone else was a comic with at least a beer or two already in them.

The famous comic was doing his act and another (who would also be famous within a couple years) jumped on stage behind him and did a mimic bit. He silently mouthed the words and did the same physical gestures. The already famous comic knew it (they were good friends) and played along. It was hysterical, but also proves my point that a skilled comedian can do his same act and make it seem new each time in front of different audiences by being conversational.

Again, I’m talking in general terms here. But that story always helps me make a point.

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So, you may know your material frontwards and backwards, but you don’t want your delivery to ever sound memorized. Since you’re still in the beginning stage and searching for your comedy voice, take a few chances. That’s what open mics are for. Try working off just an outline in your head or have a notebook (it’s an open-mic and you can do that) with key words about the topics. This means already having a few ideas you want to talk about – and then just talking about them.

It’s part of the process of finding out what works best for you as a performer. It also helps you become more conversational on stage rather than sounding memorized.

And even though you already know what you’re going to say, for instance jokes or descriptions you’ve written in advance and hope will get laughs, the method you use to get there will make it look like you’re making it up on the spot for that audience.

And as you said, you’re beginning to get laughs where you want them, so keep those moments in your set. That’s why you record your performance every time you’re on stage. When you listen, you’ll know what works (lines, words, emphasis, physical gestures – whatever) based on how the audience reacts. If they laugh, you’ll use them again because you’ll know through experience they should get laughs again from a different audience.

And for anyone who wants to be a working comic or humorous speaker – that’s what talent bookers, club owners and event planners pay for. Proven laughs.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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