How to deal with Hecklers

18 08 2011

Ahh the heckler. The interrupter. The flow disturber. The bastard! How does the comedian respond? Get it wrong and the audience will turn like a Tory with a policy, I’ve seen experienced acts floored by just one comment from the crowd.
But you can prepare for heckling and that combined with willingness to engage can take you a long way. For a new act this is daunting but here’s the big news. If a heckle comes in and you don’t deal with it, you’re going to have a bad gig. So you might as well try then at least you have a chance of a good gig and if not, learning something from it.
So how can you prepare? First of all think about what you are most likely to be heckled about. For me this was my frizzy hair, lanky demeanour and black clothes. Other potential hazards were men shouting out that they fancied me or more often that they didn’t, being told I was a lesbian and finally, ‘Show us your tits’. The latter was near the top of my list of heckling worries but actually only happened twice in 11 years.
Having made the list I then sat and wrote jokes just to deal with them. These jokes became my personal armoury. I didn’t do them every performance, which kept them very fresh. They always got bigger laughs than some of my usual gags, because they looked like they were adlibbed – even other acts were fooled until I explained in the dressing room that they were my ‘reserve’ jokes.
So think about the worst thing a heckler can say to you. Where are you vulnerable? Big nose, receding hair line, fat, middle aged, gappy teeth? You’re going to need to be honest with yourself – sorry!
Next you need to think about circumstantial heckling. When I was compering, my biggest fear was being heckled the moment I got on stage. So I sat down and wrote some potential responses, the best of which was to say:‘Ladies and gentlemen. Normally it can take me up to 15 minutes to find the wanker in the room. But not tonight, Look there he is, he’s having a little shout…’
This had the advantage of me being able to talk over him while he keeps shouting, because it looks like I’m acknowledging him, and it very much set me up as being in control. I think I used this line in one in ten of my compering gigs.
HI know I’ve been assuming all the hecklers are male so far, because in my experience eckling girls were another big worry for me. Especially tenacious, drunk and disruptive ones. Eventually I came up with: ‘Did I once nick one of your boyfriends or something? No? I expect he left of his own accord eh?’
I only used it twice, so if anyone out there wants to borrow it, feel free.
The next thing to accept is that not all hecklers are trying to ruin your show. Some of them are just joining in. If you go in heavy when they are being friendly, you can quickly turn the gig. When I teach comedy class I make the class do ‘friendly banter’. One student tries to do their act and the rest are told to shout things like ‘I love you,’ and ‘you’re great’. I tell the student just to acknowledge them, to respond nicely, they don’t have to be particularly funny but they do have to be real, and strangely being real often leads to being funny anyway.
You can practice this kind of acknowledgement at home by rehearsing your set and imagining someone in the audience saying. ‘Oh yes I agree’ or anything positive but interruptive and try and deal with it nicely. And you might as well prepare for this, because it WILL happen to you at some stage.
If you’re a character act dealing with hecklers can be harder, because you have to stick within the range of the character. When Harry Hill was still on the circuit, he used to rise above any heckling in the room with one or two choice putdowns that stayed completely within his character. Catherine Tate used to go into her ‘Nan’ character and argue with whoever was heckling her. Believe me, no heckler can beat ‘Nan’. So character acts need to think in advance about what’s appropriate for their act and deal with interruptions through the different personas.
Responses to hecklers get bigger laughs than other jokes because the energy in the room rises once a heckle has been shouted, by taking a little bit of time you can ride that.
The best way to buy time is to learn to repeat whatever the heckler has said. This simple action will get your brain engaging with the heckle and give you thinking time. This gives you your best chance of getting something funny back. Having started speaking, it is easier to keep talking rather than standing there frozen.
Not all of the audience might have heard what the heckler said so it brings them up to speed and puts you very much in control. Once you’ve repeated the heckle, if nothing obviously funny comes to you and it’s not on one of your prepared subjects, you have various options.
Firstly tell the audience what kind of heckle it is. Is it a pedantic heckle? Was it a bit harsh? Is it clearly gobbledegook or is the heckler mumbling? If so, you can say that. All you are doing is stating the obvious but that can get laughs in itself and might start you off on an improvising trip.
You can practice at gigs by watching the other performers. The moment they get heckled think about what kind of heckle it, is and how you could comment on just that. This will get your brain used to analysing the situation so that when it happens to you, you will be more ready. Obviously if it’s a funny heckle, acknowledge it. The audience will love you for it, especially as you can be mock upset that the audience has bought their own material.
Your second option is to come back with a standard put-down. Most comics see this as a last resort but use them when they have to (I notice that both Jimmy Carr and Billy Connolly have written their own versions of the old chestnut ‘I don’t come to your workplace and shout at you, I just say Big Mac and Fries please’.)
There are many standard putdowns, my favourites were ‘that was a hit and run heckle’ (for the one liner hecklers) and ‘Are you happy with that or do you want to go for a whole sentence.’ (for the incoherent heckler). If you hear a comic do a great line and you are not sure whether you can use it too, just ask them. They’ll quickly tell you if it’s their own or whether it’s a standard.
Learn put downs off by heart, practice them every now and then (I used to run through them on the train to the gig). If you use a lot of standard putdowns, you need to watch everyone who’s been on before you to make sure they haven’t used them already.
Probably the biggest fear for the new act is the heckler who just won’t shut up. Unless you’re a stunning improviser who can weave a magic spell around everything they say, or your act is so weak that you welcome the interruption, you need to learn to shut them down.
I once saw Mark Billingham do a couple of great putdowns to no avail. So he changed tack and said ‘I don’t know about you Steve (the hecklers name), but when I …(goes into a routine but keeps mentioning Steve’s name.) ‘So Steve when I…’ and the silly old heckler was so mesmerised by seemingly being in a conversation with the act he was lulled.
Some acts use the rest of the audience to try and guilt the heckler into submission. ‘Who wants to listen to him, who wants to listen to me?’ Getting the whole audience to shout at him/her to shut up. This is high status and you have to be sure that the audience is on your side. Dealing with hecklers really is walking the line and sensing the crowd and what they will respond to. Fine-tune your antennae by watching other acts and thinking about what you would do in their situation. Most of all think about your own act, your own stage persona and how you can deal with things in your own way.
To sum up, preparing for being heckled is as important as writing your act. It’s well-known among comedians that you’ll think of the perfect heckle putdown on the way home from the gig when it’s far too late. This happens because you brain has been thinking about it in the background all that time. It’s been engaged, it’s trying to learn algorithms of thought that will help it next time. Give your brain a hand by doing a bit of prep beforehand. It might take you a long way. You’ve got to find a way to deal with hecklers, it’s part of your job as a comic.