Know your enemy

Milo McCabe's guide to hecklers

I think some hecklers are great. I love the ones who who play along with you and respond to your counter ad-libs in a good natured way. I especially love the hecklers who, when questioned, turn out to be extremely candid about their private lives, giving you room as the comic to riff with them, show some skills and set up callbacks. Other times I am overwhelmed by the ill-conceived stupidity of what I’ve just heard.

I was playing a gig recently that was full of people there to enjoy the night. The opener did well and the newish middle acts had been buoyed by the goodwill of the crowd into an optimal level of performance. In the second interval an obviously drunk guy arrived and started talking too loudly to the barmaid, his voice cutting through the chatter of the pub quite clearly.

He was mid-late forties, dishevelled, and had a well-worn face with the look of having made many wrong decisions in his life. Soon enough his brain decided that it was time for his presence to be felt by all.

‘Yeah’ he said to the compere, cutting him off: ‘It’s alright for you to say that’.

The irony being that I don’t think the he’d even heard what had been said. His agenda seemed to be to get involved, despite having nothing significant or interesting to say.

He came out with a few more, witless, charmless utterances before the compere realised that normal tactics wouldn’t operate with this guy and he had to go into damage limitation mode before the disruptive influence ruined the atmosphere in the whole room. Suitably chastised, the heckler skulked by the bar and was quiet but seething for the rest of the night.

Thinking too deeply about this on the way home (amateurly and with prejudice) I theorised that the guy had engineered a situation where his low sense of self-esteem was re-affirmed. His subconscious mind had told him: ‘Hey…here’s a great chance to prove what a wanker you are in front of everyone. If you do that, the world can confirm to you what you already know about yourself and then hey presto! You get the self-loathing and anger that justifies your position in life. The bonus here is that you can blame it on the compere, not take responsibility and then actively not change your behaviour. Ever.’

Basically, he was never going to win and somewhere deep down he knew that and threw himself into the situation anyway. Low self-esteem guy is one of a number of different types of heckler that you will find at comedy nights all over the country.

Many comics find the experience of heckling beyond irritating. Audiences do, too, a lot of the time. I remember dealing with a table of persistent hecklers for several minutes, thinking to myself, ‘Christ, I’m on fire here. I’m slamming them. Boom, boom, boom,’ then hearing a woman from another table shouting out, ‘Is this all it’s going to be?’ I ended up dying on my arse because I’d concentrated my attention on them too long, thinking I was really clever.

They have to be dealt with but, as I’ve learnt, not to excess. As well as Low Self-esteem Heckler, there are a few other generic types that pop up. Here are a few but by no means all.

Alpha Male

There are different types of Alpha Male hecklers to be enjoyed. One type that stands out is the guy who will whisper his heckle to his girlfriend / mate as you are onstage, prompting a loud laugh from an audience member in the wrong place, normally during a set-up.

This type of behaviour can be a result of the male feeling somehow ‘demoted’ by your onstage presence and the attention you’re receiving, but not quite having the stones to confront you directly. When questioned on the whisper a standard response is ‘Oh nothing mate.’ Or the dreaded ‘Carry on.’

‘Carry on’ is the one that gets me the most. The audience member’s fear at being ridiculed manifests itself in a directive. By telling you what to do, he in some way assumes ‘control’ of the situation. (I say he, as I’m specifically talking about an alpha MALE…more about female hecklers later). As a comic, if you press the issue, a few different things can happen:

1. The guy reveals what he said and you can bust it open and throw it back at him because it’s shit. Often when someone is formulating a heckle (or repeating it in this case), there is a syntactic error or verbal tic that renders the whole thing meaningless. Usually this is because of nerves on the part of the heckler, overplanning their timing, or overthinking. At this point, hopefully, the guy takes the beating and doesn’t keep throwing good money after bad. Unless he’s particularly insecure or drunk, which will result in a fight to the death. The ‘death’ in this case being his ceaseless awkward replies to your putdowns destroying the atmosphere, you as the comic getting emotionally riled to the point where you lose control of the night, or the guy’s girlfriend or mates telling him to ‘shut the fuck up.’

2. He just clams up and doesn’t say another word for the rest of the night.

3. The guy’s girlfriend and / or mates misguidedly get behind him and they collectively fuck the atmosphere up.

4. The thing he whispered was actually hilarious and gets a huge round of applause from the audience. At this point, I believe the best thing to do is to give him the win and move on. Your ego takes a knock, he’s had one of the best experiences of his life and everyone is happy. This is pretty rare.

In my experience, a persistent alpha male heckler can often be brought into line by some kind of inclusion, acknowledgement or smile…a tacit offering of peace by way of a nod in his direction…if you create a ‘you and me’ sense with the guy or guys, often this is enough of a sacrifice at the temple of their ego.

The Office Joker

This is the type of heckler most discussed on the circuit… the guy who’s the ‘funny’ one in the office and has probably suggested that a good idea for a Christmas party would be a comedy night. He has suggested this purely to provide himself with a platform on which to demonstrate to his friends that he is infinitely more hilarious than the comics onstage.

The office joker considers himself the reigning heavyweight comedy champion of his office and he needs a new challenger. The difference with this kind of heckler is that he has probably been training, maybe by heckling his comedy DVDs in the privacy of his front room.

A common characteristic of the Office Joker heckles is speed. He will start things off with a generic ‘tell us a joke!’ or ‘when’s the comedian on?’ and respond to your battle tested counter-strikes quickly, but very little content. If there is any content, it is normally of the following type. ‘Yeah, that’s what she said’… ‘that sounds like Dorothy! Ha’ (reference to someone at his work that nobody else in the club knows) or another pet hate of mine, a repeated ‘What?’

Sometimes this is a good excuse for the rest of the office to have a go at the joker, as they have no doubt longed to for long periods of time. Other times (and this is especially pertinent if the joker is also the boss) they will back their table joker and sometimes can been seen clapping him on the back after a show for his ‘performance’. A ‘performance’ which has probably disrupted the enjoyment of every other paying member of the audience in the room.

This is a guy who would kill to do what you, as a comic, do for a living. But he can’t. What he’s going for is a sense that he went toe to toe with you and survived or beat you, because then he can tell himself on some level that he could have done your job, if he’d wanted. He will doubtless tell himself this anyway.

How do you deal with this guy? Often there is no way but to completely ignore him. What can be really tough is a room with maybe four different office Christmas dos in them. Then you’re dealing with four different versions of this guy. At the same time.

Hen Party Heckler

The difference in my experience with stag and hen hecklers is that when a heckler from a stag party is put down, the guy’s mates are often delighted. You’ve made Stuart look like a bell end. Well done. Ha ha. With hen parties, you have to be very careful while responding to their interruptions…most times, especially if you get a big laugh from your riposte,  the result is a group of women bonding together to defend the poor defenceless lady from the horrible comic.

‘Yeah, she did just shout something nonsensical just before a punchline, but it’s a hen night! What do you expect mister comedian! Hey! Don’t slag off my mate and make her feel bad! Yeah, what an asshole. You’re not funny anyway. Let’s just chat loudly amongst ourselves now until he fucks off. If he keeps talking about us we can tell him he’s not funny again, or imply that he has a small dick. Then we can drunkenly complain to the management and try and get some money off or free drinks, because it’s a hen night.’

But to be honest, I don’t really blame them, no matter how ridiculous they are. I just think you should never EVER book your hen or stag night at a comedy club unless all of you are aware that it will require you to sit down and pay attention to something for an hour and a half.

Very Attractive Lady Heckler

I’m hot as. Everyone knows it. I’m going to sit in the front row and get up a lot so everyone can feast their eyes…hang on…why isn’t everyone looking at me? What the fuck? It’s like I’m invisible. Why are they looking at him / her? That person isn’t even attractive! Shit, I’d better remind everyone that I’m still here…

The very attractive lady heckler is an interesting one. Bear in mind, I’m not generalising about good-looking girls in comedy clubs here, I’m generalising about the type that can’t bear the spotlight to not be on them for 30 seconds.

The heckles that come out of this situation are some of the lamest you’ll ever hear. Women who trade exclusively on their looks CAN (can, not do…and bear in mind again I’m talking about a specific sub-group within the area of very attractive females) tend to have underdeveloped social skills, because they’ve never really had to use them.

Couple that with the fact that guys ‘always seem to laugh at their jokes’ and you have a devastating combination of confidence and ignorance. The same is true of men as well, but I haven’t noticed the same trend amongst really attractive blokes heckling in comedy clubs because they’re not being looked at.

Other women HATE this type of lady for obvious reasons.  The very attractive socially retarded lady often can’t and WON’T give up until she is taken out by her red-faced partner or asked by security to please keep quiet one too many times and removed. She has maybe never faced this level of social disapproval before and can’t accept being in the wrong, so misguidedly fights against it with everything she has. Which normally again consists of implying the comic has a small dick and/or is ugly, if male…and well, probably the same with female.

If anyone is questioning the assumed confidence that I have so far in this post that comics will generally deal with hecklers, I have a clichéd analogy: Even if you are a naturally strong and talented fighter, you will lose a sparring session with someone who has accumulated years of training in their particular discipline. This is the general rule of thumb with hecklers and professional comedians.

Fundamentally, at the time of a comedy gig, there is only room for three or four socially inept ego-maniacs in the room. They are obviously the compere for the night and the acts gathered backstage. It would be folly to suggest that the motives driving hecklers all over the world are different to those which drive us to be comics.

Personally, I wouldn’t want all heckling to stop at comedy clubs, just refined a little. For all those audience members bristling at a coked up interruption, there are others thrilled with the frisson of something unplanned happening. Just please don’t tell us to ‘carry on’.

Published: 31 Oct 2012

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