Usually when people find out that I perform standup comedy they want to know about hecklers. How frequent are they? How bad are they? What do I do to them? Afterwards, where do I hide the bodies?
Actually, heckling isn’t much of a problem. Audiences want you to be entertaining. They’re rooting for you to succeed. When an MC introduces a brand new comic, audiences are generally very kind and encouraging to an otherwise abysmal act. I’ve been doing it long enough that my jokes are generally going to go over well, and I’m nice to the audience and they’re nice back.
When hecklers do pop up, they’re irritating but not frightening. Most of the time hecklers can be dispensed with in a sentence or two. They yell something, realize that they’re either being a dick or at least sound like dibble heads, and silence themselves. In this capacity the comic has to have a good grip on proportional retaliation, because if he responds to a minor outburst by spewing forth hatred and bile, he will alienate the audience.
Well-meaning drunks are by far the most common form of hecklers. The last few times I’ve performed in Georgetown, there have been different shitcanned weirdos hanging out at the bar, blowing whisky fumes at the stage. These people are always annoying, but they’re at least innocuous.
Standup comedy properly executed appears to be off the cuff. If you’re performing well it appears spontaneous. The audience is caught up in the moment, as if you’re buddies and you just happened to wander on stage, and just happened to come up with some funny observations, right there, without flushing them out beforehand. That never actually happens in comedy. A comic might have a good improvisational response to an audience member or some glib comment about the bar’s decor, but he or she has practiced their set time after time. Most comics instinctively know how long each of their jokes is, down to the second.
During a particularly good performance the audience is unaware of this preparation and feels as if they are part of a spontaneous outpouring of humor. Excellent comics incorporate the audience into the act, a little, so that each act is a unique experience. When this happens, if anyone is stupendously drunk, they begin to think they can add to the mirth of the evening by yelling out inane bullshit.
Because these idiots are well-meaning I usually go easy on them. Most of the time it’s best to ignore them, because opening up a dialogue encourages them to think that they’re some sort of hilarious sidekick you’ve happily discovered in the crowd. If they keep blurting out stuff, you can generally subdue them by fixing a serial killer eyeball their direction, smiling pleasantly, and saying, “Hey pal, let me do the comedy, okay?”
If they keep trying to help you can get gruffer. A microphone is the psychological equivalent of a sledgehammer. I can stand on stage and be pithy at a normal tone of voice, but you have to shout extra loud to keep up with me. You also sound like a dipshit the louder you shout. If it’s not funny, the audience will shout you down, because they’re not amused by your drunken ramblings half as much as you are. If you keep it up, the MC will remove you. Afterwards I will wait for you behind the club, and beat you senseless with a sack of oranges, so that there are no bruises you can report to the police.
The other less frequent form of hecklers is jealous males. I have no sympathy for these assholes. They are out on a date with a girl, maybe their girlfriend, maybe someone new, and they grow jealous when their date laughs at other men.
This is beyond stupid. Most comics, myself included, are up on stage exposing our insecurities and varying levels of self-loathing to a room full of strangers. Women aren’t likely to fling themselves at me after I crack jokes about how I look like a meerkat when I take my shirt off, or that I haven’t had a relationship longer than a hotel shampoo bottle since college.
Yet, insecure men sometimes percolate when they see their date laughing at another guy. Using the reptilian core of their brain, they decide to shout stuff out to try and throw off the comic, or prove they are as funny, or some other dumbass idea.
That spreads all the cards out on the table, and instantly mortifies the young lady. The man realizes that you are holding his date hostage to his own stupidity, and quietly seethes.
My eventual goal with standup comedy is to arrive at the point where I am more comfortable on stage than is the audience around me.
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Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.