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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Shake things up in 2024

Hi Dave – I’m one of those people who will always wonder, “What if?” I’ve fallen behind in my stage fright quotient and will definitely tackle those fears and hit the stage once I get a solid five minutes (of comedy material). I may sink, swim or neither, but it’s time to shake things up. I was just watching what I consider to be the underrated Stardust Memories with one of my favorite lines: “You wanna help mankind? Tell funnier jokes.” Much obliged – P.J.

Hey P.J. – I like your attitude. It’s a new year, which for many people can signal a new change or a new direction in life. Personally I don’t see why changes can’t be made anytime you feel you’re ready and it’s needed, but the New Year’s Countdown and ball dropping in New York’s Times Square can be like a starter’s pistol going off. For some, it’s time to start running in a new direction.

Three, two, one… Happy New Year!

Wait a minute… another year? “What if…?”

How often have you thought that? We’d all like to swim rather than sink, but to do neither sounds like a step backwards to me. So, I’m going to kick-start 2024 with a bit of a challenge:

Let’s shake things up.

Since you’ve read this far AND if you’ve read any past FAQ’s And Answers, I’m assuming you have a sense of humor AND a flair for creativity (and that’s a creative word: flair). You’re either a comedian or a humorous speaker – or both – or aspiring to be one or the other – or both.

How do you stand out from everyone else? What separates you from the pack? Maybe it’s time to shake things up and take a risk.

Taking a risk can mean different things to different people. If you’ve never been on stage for whatever reason (stage fright quotient?) but it’s burning a BIG “What If?” in your brain – do it now. If you’re waiting until the ball drops next year, you risk losing this year. Go to an open-mic, take a class, form a writing group – whatever, there are tons of options. There are also plenty of good books on the market (and not just mine – search around) on how to write, perform and find work in this crazy biz.

Let’s shake things up.

If you’re already on stage doing comedy or speaking and your career is not where you think it should be – make a change. Take a risk. Try something different. It could be different topics, different energy, different venues, or even a different location.

You never know until you try.

One of my favorite stories in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works is from comedian Christopher Titus.

He described himself early in his career as being the “happy-go-lucky comic.” He was funny, but there was nothing that separated him from any other observational comic.

Then his manager challenged him to take a risk. He suggested he be real on stage.

Titus was one person (happy-go-lucky) on stage, but off stage he had a dark, edgy – risky – style of humor. Accepting the challenge, he wrote a bit about stabbing his boss with a letter opener. It worked BIG time. This change in his comedy voice separated him from the pack, made him an in-demand headliner and star of his own television sitcom, Titus.

Now, I’m not saying to write material about stabbing your boss with a letter opener.

If you look back at the above paragraph, it’s been done. Copying someone else’s material is not going to get you anywhere in this creative business. In fact, it would be a step backwards. And it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to go in a more edgy direction if that is NOT where your true humor is based. Some comics like more family-oriented material or working in the corporate (clean) market.

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All I’m saying… suggesting… (motivating?) … is to make this YOUR year. Accept the challenge and shake things up.

If you’re waiting to start, take that important first step and get on stage. If you’re looking for help in preparing for that first step, are too nervous, or have a full-blown case of stage fright, take a workshop and let someone with experience help you ease your way into it. If you’re already performing, remember the famous line from Stardust Memories (a Woody Allen film if you need to know):

“You wanna help mankind? Tell funnier jokes.”

Have a happy, peaceful, productive, successful, and laugh-filled 2024.

Your Pal – Dave

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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How Long Should You Do The Same Material?

Dave – How long can I keep doing my current material and how often do comics usually change their act? Since I plan on doing a lot of clubs locally, I wonder if people will be hearing the same act over and over. – M.

Lots of writing!

Hey M. – Your goal is to get your comedy set really, REALLY good. That means you should be working on improving your material – your act – whenever and wherever you can.

Usually, this means you would be working on the same bits over and over and over….  And I know that sounds boring, especially for creative artists like stand-up comedians. But the idea is to treat your act as a creative work, like writing a novel or painting a masterpiece. You always want to “tweak” it and make it better. Make improvements, change words, add, subtract, etc…

In other words, make it funnier.

BUT I also want to repeat myself (boring?) in saying comedians are creative artists. They are not (and should not be) robots programmed to say the exact same thing show after show after show… If that’s the goal, then become an actor and memorize a script. Most comedians have topics or bits they use in their acts because the material is practiced, and audience tested. They know it “works” and can get a good response during a show they’re being paid to do.

And in case you missed an earlier FAQ And Answer, I’ll repeat a good business tip for you.

Talent bookers pay comics to perform sets that “work.” 

What else can I say?

A talent booker’s business depends on satisfied customers. For newer comedians trying to reach that career goal, becoming working comics, they perform for free at open-mics, lower paying gigs, and anywhere they can get time on stage. Once their material has been audience-tested and gets laughs, that’s what talent bookers will pay for.

For this reason, you shouldn’t try to do a completely new set every time you go on stage. Unless the performance is improvisational, no comic does unless they’re hosting a late night (or daytime) television talk show. But you need to remember television hosts have writing staffs, Teleprompters, and cue cards.

The idea is to learn what material works based on audience reaction. Even if you’re only playing in front of a few people at an open mic, find out what gets a laugh every time and keep it in your act.

As the late Richard Jeni said in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers, you build your act “brick by brick” (laugh by laugh / bit by bit). This is how most comedians create their act.

And most entertainers, not just comedians, have an “act.” If you don’t believe me, go see your favorite arena rock band do a couple shows and try to see what – if anything – is different between the two performances. I doubt there would be much if anything.

When I was managing The Improv, we would have three comedians for each show. Often all three would do their same set every show. They were doing their “act,” which is what they were being paid to do. You must remember the audience is different for each show, so it’s all new to them.

Management and staff might be the same, but that shouldn’t worry you because they’re not listening all the time. They might stop and watch a bit now and then, but don’t worry about them hearing your act over and over. If they’ve been working at the club long enough, they know it’s the nature of the business. And besides, they’re also professionals and are there to work and make money, and not to watch your set.

Tweaking and perfecting your act will keep it interesting for you. Like a novelist and painter, you’re making changes – subtle or huge – toward your finished creation. The idea is to keep improving your act. As a creative artist I doubt you’ll ever consider it “finished,” but when your act is regularly earning laughs it might be time to start contacting talent bookers to get paid for what you’ve created.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Living in a “relatively” small comedy town

Hi Dave – How do you possibly adjust your comedy act or speaking focus on abstract concepts of humor, when you are in a relatively small town that has a large amount of pressure on people to not stand out, nor to think things that are upsetting to persons with high social titles? – Regards, Ric

Where is everyone?

Hey Ric – I have all kinds of thoughts going through my mind based on this question. You say “relatively” small town – but it sounds “very” small to me. Different areas regardless of size have unique lifestyles and tastes that sometimes don’t mesh with others. I’m not knocking it – I’m just pointing out what I’ve learned from my own relocations and working with various entertainers.

For example, we used to talk about New York comedians vs. Los Angeles comedians. There were obvious differences that might include topics, language, attitudes, and stage presentation. And when I started working in the Midwest, I learned what might “fly” on the east or west coasts sometimes didn’t get off the ground with the local audiences.

Everyone knows I’m a name-dropper in my workshops and books (with the performer’s permission), but not in these articles. But I’ll say here I was quite shocked when four headliners (three appear in my books) that had packed east and west coast clubs appeared in front of half-filled audiences at clubs in Cleveland. It didn’t mean they weren’t funny because all four went on to become major comedy stars.

But at that time the focus of their material didn’t appeal as much to audiences in this area.

Don’t say that!

There are all kinds of reasons for this. Some areas are more open to diverse lifestyles and ideals than others. Again, I’m not knocking it – I’m just pointing it out. When I booked comedians for the television show A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, I told them our biggest demographic (audience) was in The Bible Belt. So don’t go on stage and make fun of God or religion because that segment of their set would be edited out.

That “rule” wasn’t true for comedians performing in New York or Los Angeles.

Those cities had more diverse audiences than those tuned into The Arts & Entertainment Network. And I could give other examples of audience demographics concerning various markets such as colleges, corporate, and cruise ships, but that’s not addressing your question. It’s just making a point.

A hot topic in the entertainment world is how to address today’s political, social, and yes, humor climates. But I don’t see it as anything new. If you look back at the history of comedy – from monologuists, through Vaudeville and silent movies – you’ll find some audiences had laughed loud and hard, while others were outraged and called for censorship over what was meant to be “entertainment.”

Sort of like the banning of books that is happening today.

Some people are offended by the written words, while others will recommend “those” people just don’t read “those books”, but don’t stop others that want to. Like a television show you might find offensive – just turn the channel. But when you go into someone’s home (area) they have the right to make the decisions what books, shows or comedy are welcome. There’s no point in arguing – they’re the boss of their own domain (same as you).

It sounds to me like a similar situation to what you’re dealing with. You’re the minority in a “relatively” small town that might not accept your abstract concepts of humor.

My advice is to find an audience that does.

Professional comedians and speakers travel. That’s part of the gig and if you want to be successful, you’ll need to get used to it. You can’t play in front of the same audience over and over. They’ll tire of you, and you’ll tire of seeing the same faces as you try to grow as a creative artist.

Where else can you go? Is there a town nearby that is not so “relatively” small? How close is the nearest city with a diverse comedy scene? Your goal should be stage time and you might need to travel to find it.

I know from working with many aspiring performers that day jobs, families, school, and other responsibilities might have kept them from pursuing their desired careers. But you know what? That’s true with just about every comedian I’ve worked with that has “made it.” What is the closest “not” small town within driving distance that has open-mics or other venues to perform? You might need to sacrifice some of your personal life right now to travel, but it could be an investment in your future.

As I’ve been known to say in my workshops: You might have to skip finding out who gets the final rose or Mirror Ball Trophy (TV shows for the non-viewers) for a long drive to do three minutes at an open mic. If you don’t, keep in mind someone else will.

I have examples of this in both my books, How To Be A Working Comic and Comedy FAQs And Answers. You’ll need to read them to find out the names I’ve dropped, but here are the lessons…

One comedian realized the travel requirement needed to develop a quality set. He cold called every comedy club he could find until someone took a chance on hiring him as an opening act. It was a long drive; the pay was minimal, and he ended up sleeping in his car. Sounds tough, I know but many comedians have similar stories. In this case, that week’s headliner recognized his desire and talent, and asked if he would like to open his next week of shows. It required another long drive, but he was dedicated to giving comedy his best shot.

He ended up being “on the road” for over three months. But when he returned, he was ready to do it all again – only this time with the experience and credits to book better (and higher paying) gigs.

Another comedian worked her way up to being a solid opening act in her area (a bigger city). But the talent bookers kept her pigeonholed in the opening slot and wouldn’t consider bumping her up to feature. So, the answer was to find another audience.

She moved to a different city, and it happened. She also had to follow the same scenario to become a headliner – which she did. The funny part (think comedy) was when she returned to her hometown as a known headliner, but her original bookers still wanted her to open shows.

She wasn’t about to let that happen – and didn’t. She took a chance and found other areas to perform.

Even though I don’t know your situation as far as access to larger and more diverse audiences, all I can tell you is to follow the experienced advice from many working comics. Look beyond your area. It’s a large world out there with a lot of people looking to be entertained. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to get there.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Don’t waste a golden opportunity to be “seen”

Dave – I have a question for you. I know who makes all the booking decisions for a club I want to play. It’s local, but I’ve never met him so can’t say I know him personally. I wanted to see if you had any suggestions on how to go about getting a guest set there. I had another comedian friend who already plays this club email the booker a clip of me from another club. How should I follow up on this? Just wanted your take. Thanks – JW

He’s the guy!

Hey JW – I hope you read last week’s article about getting a Golden Ticket. If not, scroll down because you might have one. Most of these FAQs And Answers are about the business side of the business. Yes, you must have talent both as a writer and performer with on stage experience before you’ll really need to concentrate on the business.

But once you’re ready, you’ll need to think about promoting your career.

A big part of promoting is networking. And as I’m sure you’ve heard (because I don’t make this stuff up) sometimes it’s “who you know.”

It’s great you’ve already had someone that works for the club put in a good word for you. Performers need to protect their own reputations in this competitive business, and I highly doubt someone else would recommend you to an important talent booker if he/she didn’t believe you were “ready.” To repeat what I said last week, a good recommendation from a comedian or speaker already working for a talent booker or event planner YOU want to work for is like having a Golden Ticket.

It’s not a guarantee you’ll be seen (given an audition or showcase), but your chances are better than making a cold call or sending blind emails.

So… you have the referral – correct? How should you follow up on this and make it really work for you?

Here’s a suggestion:

Booking Local

According to your email, you live in the city where this club and the talent booker are located. And since your referral (Golden Ticket) performs at this club, she/he either lives in the area or is working there on a somewhat regular basis.

BUT the referring comedian EMAILED your clip to the talent booker!

Okay… that’s better than nothing. But when an opportunity arises, you sometimes must kick it up a notch. As I’ve said, this is a competitive business.

Most of the talent bookers I know are busy people. They’re booking not only clubs, but also colleges, corporate shows, cruise ships and other events. The ones that work solely for the independent clubs are usually also the club managers and in charge of the staff, kitchen, box office, running the shows and a lot of other “stuff.” So sometimes watching unsolicited videos (cold calls, blind emails, etc.) is not a priority.

I’m not saying they don’t watch, but it can take longer to be seen than you’re probably hoping for. It can be easier and more time efficient for them to book the performers they’ve already been working with and know they can rely on.

BUT I also know from being there if a comic or speaker the booker is already working with (and respects) pops by to say hello, they won’t scream for them to, “Get out!

Okay, maybe some will, but every business has its share of (insert your own derogatory adjective). Usually, they’ll take at least a few minutes to make small talk or trade a few friendly insults (again, experienced from being there).

So, here’s where you need to step up your networking game…

You, the club, the talent booker and (at least on occasion) your Golden Ticket contacts are all in the same city at the same time. BUT again, your contact EMAILED the booker a clip of you performing! The best scenario is to have your contact provide you a SOLID Golden Ticket (I just made that up by the way, not bad…).

That’s another name for a personal introduction.

Yeah, I know… Some of my friends that are talent bookers read these articles and are not shy about emailing me their thoughts. I’m already thinking of a few that will say, “You’re crazy! You can’t have comics stopping by. We’re too busy!

True, but again from being there I’ve seen it happen – and I’ve seen it work.

A headlining comedian will bring in a friend and ask if they can do a short, five-minute showcase before his set. If it’s not a big weekend night – Friday or Saturday – it’s always a good possibility. Also coming by the club early with your Golden Ticket for an introduction and to meet personally can make a difference in how fast your video will be watched or showcase scheduled.

Again, there are no guarantees. But you never know unless you try. And a personal touch is always better than a cold call or blind email.


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In fact,…

Just a few minutes ago – as I’m writing this – I received an email from a comedian who wants me to hire him. Everyone who reads these articles know I’m all about promoting and getting your name out there, so emailing is not bad. After all, no one is going to find you unless you know how to promote yourself. I’m a big believer in networking, but also a big believer in doing it correctly and finding an edge over the competition.

The email I received from this comedian didn’t offer any type of personality. Like when I talk about using a hook in your promotional material and all that other useful and proven promotional advice I’ve shared. Again, I don’t make this stuff up – it works for advertising companies, publicists, and working comedians and speakers.

I have yet to meet a successful publicist that didn’t include a healthy dose of personality in their promotional campaigns.

Anyway, this comedian just sent me his credits with a list of websites, Facebook, and online video links. Also, one sentence that says he’s available for bookings. There’s nothing else. There was no personal touch (or personality) and therefore – no edge over any other email looking for the same results.

So, let me see… the email didn’t come from anyone I know, so there’s NO chance I’ll open any of the links. It also didn’t come off as professional (think short cover letter), interesting or unique. And here’s something else that will back up what I’ve mentioned above about busy talent bookers:

It’s the third email I’ve received this week from a comedian looking for work and I’m not even booking anything! Can you imagine how many emails are sent to active talent bookers every day?

That’s why a “delete” key is so important.

Most bookers use it more often than you’d like to know. So, when you are in the same city as the club, the talent booker, and your Golden Ticket contact, you need to take advantage of that edge over the competition. Pick up the Golden Ticket at his/her hotel or pay for the cab or Uber, buy lunch, dinner – whatever – and ask for a personal introduction to the talent booker. If the referring comedian is truly a fan and agrees, ask if she/he can also help you score a guest set.

Again, I’ve seen it happen.

I remember a then-new comedian (very well-known today) making his first visit to the Los Angeles Improv (I was there). He was introduced to us by another comic (that worked for us) as one of the “funniest guys in New York.” Before he was even done shaking hands, he was offered three minutes on stage that night to “prove” he was so funny.

He was ready, he did – and was on our regular roster from that night on.

Again, this is a competitive business. If you can find an edge – a Golden Ticket – don’t be afraid to use it. As some of my talent booker friends will tell you (and hopefully they’ll be nice to me in the emails I’ll probably receive) it’s easier and more accurate to watch a live showcase than wade through a long list of online videos. It’s also the best way for a performer to be seen – in person – which is the best way to get hired.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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