Man vs heckler

Andrew Doyle takes a stand...

Hecklers never cease to fascinate me. Sometimes they think they’re helping. For some reason, a small minority of audience members believe that witless outbursts will be funnier than a comedian’s carefully scripted material. This is almost never the case, unless the comedian is extremely weak and the heckler is Oscar Wilde. And last time I checked Wilde was very much dead.

Of course, I’ve been on the receiving end of heckles before. It’s an inevitable part of being a stand-up comedian. However, during my Edinburgh Fringe show on Thursday night, a group of rather drunk people decided to sit on the front row and chat with each other continually, quite oblivious to the annoyance they were causing to both the audience and myself.

This kind of low-level disruption can, if anything, be more damaging to a show that an outright heckle. Punchlines don’t tend to work so well when they are underscored by the inane chatter of people whose intellectual capacity is akin to that of the average domesticated turkey.

My first approach was to make light of it. I joked with them, trying to defuse any potential hostility. I did my best to explain that, although they were very welcome, perhaps the proceedings might be improved if they didn’t involve themselves so vocally. For people like this, such advice is probably applicable in all social situations. They would be better off taking a vow of silence and living in the woods.

I suppose it’s my own fault for being too cocky. Before I got on stage I had been in high spirits. The run was selling out, the audience responses had been overwhelmingly positive, and it looked as though my hard work during the year was paying off. But after asking the group to keep quiet for the umpteenth time, I realised that I was getting nowhere. I knew that if I were to carry on in these circumstances the show would be a failure. In short, I had to get them out.

Some would argue that there are no circumstances in which hecklers should be ejected from a gig, that if a comedian can’t shut them up through withering put-downs they have, essentially, failed. But for put-downs to have any real effect the recipient must have the necessary acuity to understand them. If stern words to a crying toddler fail to silence it, this doesn’t mean that the toddler has won.

I also accept that this particular group did not enjoy my material. As a comedian, I have limitations like everybody else. My most obvious limitation is my inability to entertain the semi-literate. I am never well received by the sort of people who think that skimmed milk comes from thinner cows. I have accepted this shortcoming and have made my peace with it.

Earlier this year I was speaking to Susan Calman about this question of drunken hecklers and, as she so succinctly put it: ‘The old adage that a comedian should be able to handle any room is entirely wrong.’ There’s a reason why the best comedy clubs don’t permit disruptive audience members, and why those who are drunk and obnoxious are turned away at the door. Stand-up is a live performance. It is a theatrical experience. No serious theatre would tolerate audience interruptions during a performance of Waiting For Godot. And, quite frankly, as an artist, my work is infinitely more significant than Beckett’s. Everybody knows that.

Anyway, after repeatedly asking the drunks to be quiet, and after numerous interjections (each one less coherent than the last), I told them that they would have to leave. They were ruining the show for everybody else, and I wouldn’t continue until they had gone.

The problem was that they didn’t want to go. The combination of alcohol and a poor education meant that they didn’t understand that they were totally sabotaging the evening. The tension in the room was palpable. It was at this point that the beta male of the group – a rather dim-witted, ursine creature – attempted to challenge me in his sweet little monosyllabic way.

Unsurprisingly, language failed him. Behind the wrath in his eyes, I could see a kind of desperation, a struggle to formulate some kind of linguistic approximation of his emotional state. Alas, he wasn’t up to it. Like Lennie Small fumbling with a newborn puppy, he panicked. For a moment it was clear that he was about to Punch me. I actually saw him clench his paw. But something – possibly the sixty spectators – prevented him from going through with it. So he did the next best thing: he threw his pint of lager in my face.

It could have been a lot worse, of course. With no bouncer in sight, I was lucky not to have been beaten to a bloody pulp.

I do object to the lager, however. I’m more of a Pinot Grigio kind of guy.

Watch what happened here:

  • Andrew Doyle: Whatever It Takes is on at Just The Tonic At The Caves at 20:00

Published: 21 Aug 2012

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