Hecklers are to Comedians what sheep are to Shepherds and sausages are to sausage factory employees – an inevitable part of the job. Whilst you can’t avoid them you can read our top 10 tips for dealing with hecklers for some helpful hints.
The heckler is generally available in three varieties; the loudmouth, the aspiring comic and the drunk. Whilst disruptive and irritating most hecklers are harmless, but if you ever feel in physical danger as a performer you should always seek immediate assistance from security or management at the venue.
1. Don’t Invite Hecklers
The concept may sound odd, but it can be easy to unwittingly invite hecklers in the form of over enthusiastic friends and family. Even if they’re respectful through your act you will quickly gain a bad reputation on the circuit if they start causing a scene during other performers’ sets. You should operate a three strikes and out policy for inviting people you know.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Orc.” – Brendan Dodds
2. Keep Your Cool
Maintaining your composure is essential. You’ve spent months – if not years – gathering up the material for your set, mumbling to yourself and scrawling things onto any nearby surface annoying your colleagues and friends. A heckler can derail you mid sentence, which is extremely frustrating given how much time you’ve dedicated to your craft but losing your temper won’t help diffuse the situation. It’s also worth remembering you’re trying to entertain people – watching someone fly off the handle isn’t necessarily very funny… unless its part of their act!
“Why don’t you go into that corner and finish evolving?” – Russell Kane
3. Be Flexible
Flexibility in terms of your performance is a key part of being a stand-up. If you’re starting out and think you’re going to be able to deliver your full set like a sermon, you’re sadly mistaken. When a particular type of gag towards the start of your set doesn’t work you know not to use that similar one fifteen minutes in. Equally, if a one-liner is a surprise run away hit and you know you’ve got some similar material you might want to try it out. Be prepared that you may have to include the audience to a certain degree, whether they’re shouting something supportive or insulting. It’s unrealistic to expect an entirely passive audience.
Rufus Hound: (to bar staff) “Can we get some crayons and a menu for this guy to colour in, please?”
4. Don’t Rush To Exclude
You want the audience to be on your side when you’re dealing with a heckler. From the outset the audience wants you to succeed because your failure makes them feel uncomfortable and they’ve come to have a good time. Whilst they can be a pain, a heckler is still ultimately a part of the audience. If your knee jerk reaction to one heckle is to gesture for security to throw them out, it won’t reflect well on you.
“Sorry, I can’t understand what you’re saying… I’m wearing a moron filter.” – Arthur Miller
5. Pace Your Delivery
A very effective but challenging to learn strategy for avoiding hecklers is to talk without lengthy breaks. With expert breathing and pacing you can eliminate any silences in which they could heckle. If you’re not already interested in it, taking up poetry is a great way to practice rhythm and pacing. You could also try to avoid waiting for laughter as this is often the offender’s time to shout out.
“If you are going to heckle, try to wait for a gap when I’m not talking so people can hear what you are saying.” – Richard Herring
6. Give Them What They Want
The purpose of heckling is to draw attention to yourself. Sometimes the most shameful put-downs are silent; move directly behind the heckler as you continue talking so that the audience has to look at them in order to focus on you. They’ll often be so embarrassed by you taking control of the room’s attention that they’ll give up.
Heckler: “You fat cow.”
Jo Brand: “I deliberately keep my weight up so that a t****r like you won’t fancy me.”
7. Prepare Put-Downs
By now you’ll have noticed that we’ve included a selection of comedian heckler responses in this article. Drawing inspiration from the greats cultivate a collection of one liners so that you’re always ready to put a heckler in their place. Once you’re more experienced you’ll be able to think something up on the spot particular to that audience and heckler.
“Well, it’s a night out for him, isn’t it? And for his family it’s a night off.” – Jack Dee
8. Don’t Get Nasty
Observational one-liners about the heckler’s taste in drink or clothing are fair game, but try not to get too personal. Nobody likes a bully, including a comedy audience even if they start out on your side. You’re trying to make the heckler feel embarrassed not devastated and personally attacked – comments about their weight or gender for example will not go down well with the crowd.
“Ah, I remember my first beer…” – Steve Martin
9. Avoid Them
It may sound an overly simple suggestion, but avoiding the heckler detracts the audience’s attention from them. When they realise they won’t get a reaction from you or the audience’s attention this can often deter them. Try moving about to the other side of the stage and resisting eye contact.
“Did your mother never tell you not to drink on an empty head?” – Billy Connolly
10. Laugh With Them
If the heckling isn’t strictly at your expense and the audience find the heckler funny why not get involved? Good natured back and forth between an audience and the performer can make for a really memorable night. Once they’ve had their few seconds of attention make sure you abruptly draw it back to yourself by moving to a different section of the stage and assertively changing the subject.
“What’s that? You want to know where I got my boots? They’re from You Can’t Afford Them And Stop Talking TO Me.” – Amy Schumer