When it comes to dealing with hecklers you can’t go with a ” one size fits all” approach. The goal is obviously to shut the heckler up while keeping the audience on your side. This is tough because as comics, sometimes we’re too mean in our rebuttal for the crowd’s taste. Let’s face it, the way we talk around each other would be too much for a lot of audience members’ tastes. So there are a lot of variables when dealing with a show disruption (location, type of gig, how many are there, how long your set is, how tight the crowd is, etc.). For this entry, I’m just going to focus on the types of hecklers. There is one thing that 99% of hecklers have in common: They’re drinking. That means basic logic and etiquette doesn’t always apply (just like when you deal with children).
1. The fan heckler–I first witnessed this as a doorman when Christopher Titus was perfomring. With a special out and a sitcom on Fox he was packing the clubs (as he still does, I imagine). A few guys in their 20s were so excited during his act that they started yelling out bit requests. Once he could make out what they were yelling he actually stopped and explained to the crowd what they were doing. He told them he was glad they were fans, but to be patient and enjoy the other material that they hadn’t heard yet. (Most of us won’t have to worry about this happening to us.) If you develop a trademark bit and it’s played on syndicated radio show like Bob & Tom, there’s a chance. Dave Chappelle is the ultimate sufferer of this type.
2. The loud talkers–This is the most common type of disruption I have to deal with. The hard part is that sometimes you just have to ignore it. Sometimes people are just putting in their drink orders which obviously involves talking, so they have no choice. It could even be a server if the guest is having trouble hearing. Often times it’s just a crowd member or two who have lost the ability to focus on the show. They’ll have a private (which becomes public) conversation at their table unaware at how loud they are. This has been happening a lot lately so I worked on two methods to overcome this in my last week of work. The first option is just just pause between bits and make eye contact with someone in the vicinity (if you can’t see out that far give it your best shot). A lot of times someone at the table who is still sober will realize your hint and shush their buddy for you. The second method is to lower your voice almost to a whisper during a setup. This gets the entire room quiet and the loud talker will become self aware on their own (depending on their BAC at the time). Another danger, as they were discussing on Never Not Funny a few weeks ago, is that sometimes the rest of the crowd doesn’t hear people talking up front. You don’t want to look like a jerk to the back half of the room, so be careful.
Eventually you might have to say something to the table. “Is everything okay over there, it’s pretty chatty…” is one way. I’ve heard some comics use a stock line, “Did you learn to whisper in a sawmill/helicopter/etc.” This will also (hopefully) get the doorman’s attention. If it’s a one-nighter, you won’t always have that luxury, so you’ll eventually have to start a verbal conflict. Remember…when people are embarrassed they’re more likely to fire back and make it worse. This applies in my classroom as well. The most effective way to shut a student up is to walk over and whisper to him/her. If I call him/her out in front of the class, it’s on.
3. The “loud agreement” audience member is having the time of their life. Unfortunately, they need to verbalize that after every punchline. They’ll repeat it, add their two cents or whatever. It’s the equivalent of someone yelling Praise Jesus! or Amen! at a sermon…or maybe a “You know that’s right!” at a movie theater. This heckler doesn’t mean to disturb you, but it is annoying and can throw some comics’ timing off. This is really hard to ignore because it can even make you laugh, but at the same time, it’s nice when it’s not there. For this you just have to make them aware that they’re doing it. Sometimes they forget or perhaps don’t see anything wrong with it. Hopefully a friend or doorman will give them the heads up on their habit. If you’re a comic who can tolerate it and even make it part of the show, go right ahead.
4. The conflict heckler is the worst because they’re trying to disrupt the show. It’s usually a drunk male (or a bachelorette party) who directly yells something out. Even though these should be immediately taken care of by the club or bar, they aren’t always there for you. As far as how to handle hecklers, there are tips throughout previous entries in this blog, but the two easiest ways are in my book. With these, the crowd is almost always on your side right away at least.
Part of the thrill of comedy is that each show is different. You’ll encounter all kinds of odd situations other than just hecklers. (You’ll always remember your first stage located within a half-block from some railroad tracks.) For more detailed help on all of these situations, check out Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.