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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Moving up (or out) in your local comedy clubs

Here is my question, Dave. How do you get out of the open mic circuit and into the real club circuit? The two comedy clubs here in my town won’t even let you audition. They have a monthly open mic that you have to wait months to get on and then of course nothing happens no matter how good you are. There must be a better way. – M&M

Hey M&M – Just about every comedian I know will have a different answer for this. You’ll get lots of advice backed by lots of experience on how to move up a level. In your case (and many others) it’s going from open mics into paid bookings at “real” clubs.

The best advice is to be so good (so funny!) the club bookers can’t ignore you. Yeah, I know… there are a lot of experienced (and very funny!) comedians ready to shoot me some nasty emails right now. And I also know sometimes it takes a lot more than being really funny to getting bookings. For instance…

  • First impression
  • Personality
  • Image
  • Reputation

And… Oh what the heck, let’s just call it what it is:

  • Politics

That’s nothing new. It’s going on in every business – including politics. Think back to school. I’m sure you had to deal with the class kiss-up that seemed to be handed everything on a silver platter, while everyone else had to work for it.

Hate to say it, but many of us have also seen that happen in the comedy biz. I’m assuming a few of the earlier mentioned comics are deleting their nasty emails and nodding their heads in agreement.

You know what I’m talking about.

Yeah, some of it is politics. But again, if you’re so good (so funny!) there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find bookings in “real” clubs. But for whatever reasons; a surplus of great comedians, a lack of stage time, or (gulp) politics, you might consider digging in for the long haul or looking outside your home base for opportunities.

As usual, I have a couple stories to back both of these up.

But in an unusual move, I won’t name-drop (one of my favorite pastimes). The experiences for the comics turned out great, but the club owners and bookers won’t look good, and that’s not my intention. I know from experience that sometimes it takes outside influences to change first impressions and held-on-for-too-long opinions. They found out their earlier thoughts about a couple comedians were wrong and it may have come back to bite them in the “kiss up” area, if you get my drift.

The first comic doesn’t have to remain nameless. 

Her story is in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers, but you’ll need to read it to find out (cheap book plug – I know). Anyway, she broke out of the open mics in her hometown and was getting MC gigs at her local club. But the club owner’s first impression was hard to break. He considered her a good MC and kept her in that position.

She was funnier than many of the feature (middle) acts, but he wouldn’t move her up. So, she moved out – to a different city. She started booking feature spots in her new locale, but the same thing was happening.

She was seen as a “feature” and that was it. So, it was moving time again…

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, but just to be clear: she was VERY good (VERY funny) at this stage of her career. Experience and dedication had paid off and a different club owner moved her into headlining slots. Everything was going right – full speed ahead career wise – until she returned for a hometown visit.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this…

The hometown club still saw her as an MC – and that’s the spot they offered her. Frustrating? Yeah – just like what you’re experiencing. In fact, I’ve seen this happen to two comedians that had done The Tonight Show, but the only way they could get booked in their hometown to perform in front of family and friends was as the MC. (Note: that talent booker is no longer in the biz. I wonder why…)

A lot of this boils down to first impressions and politics. Some people just can’t get over it.

Another story? Yeah, I promised a couple…

Back in NYC during the late 1980’s one of the most dedicated comedians I’ve ever worked with (I’m still a major fan) worked his “kiss up” butt off to get as much stage time – anywhere – as possible and the result was that he was REALLY good. Every comic on the scene knew he was destined for stardom (he made it!) and he started scoring short five minute sets at the “real” clubs.

But one club owner never saw him being anything more than an open mic “star” and capable of only doing 5 minute sets. He was stuck in First Impression Land and nothing was going to change the owner’s mind. Then one night one of the club’s regular comics (pre-scheduled to do a twenty-minute set) got stranded in the subway.

There was a full audience and no other comedian was in the club except our five minute friend.

There was no choice, so the club manager put him on stage to fill the twenty minute spot. As the comic started his set, the club owner walked in – and immediately freaked out. He thought the show would be ruined, but after calming down, he watched. The five minute comic simply KILLED (I know, because I was there) and his material, experience and crowd response broke him out of First Impression Land with this club owner.

He was too good (too funny!) to be ignored. And when he got his break, he was ready.

Does this answer your question?

Maybe. I’m sure you’ll hear a lot of worthwhile advice from working comics, but just know you’re not alone. Sometimes it feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall to simply move up a level in this crazy biz.

The best option is to be very good (very funny!). 

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If it’s not working in your area for whatever reasons, then – if you’re serious – start looking elsewhere. The working comics I’ve known weren’t afraid to jump in a car (or train for those of you in NYC) and check out another scene. They may be working on a lack of sleep and not knowing who won The Voice or received the Final Rose, but it didn’t matter as long as they got on stage. And if they were good (funny!) there was also a good chance they could make a good new first impression on the person booking the room.

To sound corny (I’d rather name-drop) don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There are plenty of other clubs.

Also be ready in case a lucky break on your home turf falls your way. Be part of the scene and not a stranger in the clubs you want to work. As you can probably guess, I have many stories from comics that were in the right place at the right time – and had the opportunity to prove they were ready to move up. Our five minute comedian friend from NYC would tell you the same thing – if he has any time between television spots and headlining gigs.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Don’t be a jerk – respect the room!

Hey Dave – I’ve heard some comics think I’m a jerk because of how I run my open-mic room. I try to keep the show on schedule. I like comics being on time and like comics sticking to their time on stage. I’ve had to yell at a few for almost breaking my equipment and throwing stuff at other comics on stage. I’ve put a lot of work into making this successful and would like people to respect the club and the way I run it.

I don’t have to give everyone time on stage and can turn people away if I want to, but I typically don’t. And since no one has said directly to me about how much of a “jerk” I am, it’s apparent that I’m not too big of a jerk to stop them from coming back for stage time.

The way I see it, I’m doing them a favor. And if they want to find their own room and buy their own speakers, microphones, stands and wires, then they can run their room the way they want. Then, when 15 people are ignoring their light to get off stage, they can probably understand my frustrations. – Open-Mic Producer

Stick to your time!

Hey Open-Mic Producer – I LOVE your attitude! AND I think you are absolutely correct in how you’re running your open-mic room.

Comics – at least the ones who someday want to be considered professional working comics – need a lot of on-stage experience. And because they should be thankful someone is giving them this valuable experience, they must respect not only the club, but also any rules that keep it running smoothly.

This is your room Mr. Producer. You started it, you’re the one running it – and you’ve supplied the needed equipment, such as a microphone, mic stand and speakers, to make this a performance space. In other words, YOU are responsible for making it successful enough to continue giving aspiring comedians a place to gain the on-stage experience they need.

The way I feel about it – they can play the game your way or they can play it somewhere else.

Done. Period. No argument from anyone else is needed.

That’s also the way all successful comedy clubs and other performance venues are run by management. I know because I’ve worked for the best in the biz and have firsthand experience.

You break it, you buy it.

I’m sure veteran working comics would have cringed – or laughed in horror – if an aspiring comedian totally disregarded the length of time they’d been given on stage at The Improv in Los Angeles when the late Budd Friedman was running the show. Especially if the signal to get off stage was coming directly from Budd himself, who was responsible for making his club successful. And in the process of ignoring the light, the comic damaged the equipment on stage or threw something at another comic?

Oh, the horror… Oh, the humanity…

Oh, the fact this jerk just blew a chance to ever perform at that club again. It’s not smart and it’s definitely not professional.

That’s how you should run your room – whether it’s an open-mic or an established comedy club. It’s also how comedians should respond to your efforts – as professionals.

I know this sounds more like a lecture than advice and to be honest, it’s both. It’s important for aspiring comedians to know the value of what you’re giving them, even if it’s a bringer show where comics are required to bring a certain number of paying customers to get a performance spot.

Without customers the open mic can’t stay in business. When they’re not in business, aspiring comedians have one less place to gain important stage experience. If you don’t believe me – do the math.

Okay, to go along with the lecture and advice, here’s some inspiration and motivation:

As a comedian running an open mic (and I know the writer of this question fits that category) this is just a temporary situation. At least it should be. You are also putting in the effort to run a successful open mic to get necessary and valuable stage time.

At least you should be.

Whether you are hosting every show or doing a short set, your focus – besides keeping control over everything that makes the club successful, so it continues – is getting better as a comedian. Work on your material and performance every time you get on stage.

The goal is to gain on stage experience and be funny enough to get out of the open-mics and into more established – and paying – clubs.

Yeah, some aspiring comedians might think you’re a jerk when you crack down on them for breaking your rules. But if your efforts, talent, and dedication help your goals become reality, the ones who are still goofing around at open-mics, ignoring the light, throwing stuff at other comics on stage – and gave you crap – will be wondering where they went wrong.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Say Something Funny on Demand

Hi Dave – I want to ask you if you had any advice for when you tell someone you’re a comedian and the first thing they say is “tell me a joke” or “say something funny.” I think it’s a little rude of them. Also, since my sense of humor is about storytelling, they seem disappointed that I just don’t tell them a joke. Is there anything polite I can say when people say things like that to me? Thanks – K

The joke’s on you!

Hey K – First of all, thanks for driving this week’s FAQ into Audience Participation Land. I’ll have something to say about this (as usual) below, but the best answers will come from working or aspiring comics who’ve had to deal with this.

So…? This is where I’m throwing it out to everyone reading this. Have YOU been asked, “Tell me a joke” or “Say something funny” after someone found out you’re a comedian?

* You can use the contact link above or my email is at the end of this article. Let’s hear what you’ll say when someone demands you, “Tell me a joke.”

As anyone who has been around the entertainment industry will tell you, this is not a new question or dilemma. It’s been a potential headache for performers whenever word gets out about what they do for a living. An example of dealing with this from a Hollywood point of view is a classic scene in the film Lovin’ You with Elvis Presley (humor me, I’m a classic rocker). A local greaser bullies him to sing a song. When he finishes, Elvis (“Sideburns”) asks what this guy does for a living – and tells him to return the favor, “Cuz I usually get paid for singing.”

You can see how it turns out at this YouTube LINK. Fast forward to about 4:55 into the clip – then duck & cover.

What do you do?

“Tell me a joke” has also been the topic of more than a few comedy rants for probably longer than any of us has been around. I can’t remember who was on stage the first time I realized comedians dealt with this on a regular basis, but I’m pretty sure it was at the NYC Improv. And as a cheesy lounge singer in a cheesy lounge might introduce the bit:

“It went a little something like this…”

Comedian: This guy says, “If you’re a comedian, then tell me a joke.” So, I tell him a joke. Then I ask what he does. He says he’s a chef. So, I say, “Okay, now you show me what you do. Make me dinner.”

In an Elvis movie, that would lead to a fight. In a fantasy movie, it could lead to the guy fixing the comic’s dinner. In real life – the guy asking the question would probably think the comic was trying to be funny and laugh it off (with a bit of deserved embarrassment, I hope).

You can also say you get paid for your work. Making audiences laugh is your job and you don’t work for free. If they want to cough up the bucks, you’ll tell them a joke.


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My way of thinking – and this is probably from hanging around too many comedians for too many years – would lean toward the insult comic response. I can crack up just thinking of how Dave Chappelle, Jeffrey Ross, Chris Rock… or even some classics like Joan Rivers or Don Rickles would answer such a question.

I’d take a seat and enjoy the free show.

But you mentioned being polite about it. That’s also clear when you said that you tell stories and your style of comedy – storytelling, rather than jokes – may disappoint them. So, in your case… uh… well, I guess you should be polite.

I wouldn’t exactly want a seat to enjoy that type of free show, but since you’ve asked…

Thank them for their interest in your career and change the direction of the conversation. Most people like to talk about themselves, so go ahead and put the focus on them. Find out what they’re interested in and what line of work they’re in. And… uh… well, then (sorry for this, but I can’t help myself) …

Ask them to do it for you – FOR FREE!

“You’re a chef? Then make me dinner.”

Have a better comeback? You can let me know…

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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