For the next installlment of No Punchline, I skipped across the border into Co. Down, where I finished up the show in the Bric Cafe in Warrenpoint. Unfortunately, the combination of a Bank Holiday Weekend and a Funfair across the road meant that there wasn’t many people in the crowd, but myself, Aaron Marshal and Morgan Hearst tackled the whole thing with a “The-Show-Must-Go-On” mentality (peppered with a bit of “Fuck-it-We’re-Here-Now”). I don’t mind small crowds, God knows I’ve played enough of them… they give you a chance to work on audience interaction, banter, new material, and other things that you may not have room to try in a packed room.
But of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and Tayto; one of the crowd had a bit of a lip on her. Most audiences will have at least one mouthpiece that chimes in on your set… but you’d be forgiven for thinking that in a room that had (including comedians and bar staff) twelve people, everyone would keep their opinions quiet and listen to the nice man onstage. But no, here she was, front and centre, giving a DVD commentary on everything that was said.
Hecklers, eh? Hecklers are to comedians what the Raccoons were to Cyril Sneer (google it); our life would be a lot easier if it weren’t for them. It seems that if you want to get onstage and tell jokes, you’re fair game. In no other art form are hecklers such a problem, something that bugs the fuck out of me. I was in the Sheebeen Chic one Sunday night, where as you may know the Comedy Crunch is downstairs, and there is usually a jazz night upstairs. This jazz groupie in her late forties came down to go to the bathroom and popped in to have a look at the comedy on her way (I should stress now that this is NOT the jazz lady you’re thinking of, the Miss Havisham-looking one that sits to the left of the band giving it socks to those crazy rythms… she is unable to leave her seat while those crazy smokey jazz cats are going boomboomboombadamdamboom yeah). Anyrate, this lady strolls into the Crunch and INSTANTLY starts heckling, calling up shite and hassling the comedians. I ushered her to the back of the room and told her in no uncertain terms that her behaviour was not welcome, and that she should leave. She was TOTALLY bemused, and a little offended, as if I had taken away her God given right to heckle comedians, as if a comedy show was some sort of medieval punishment whereby everyday people who had caught commiting crimes were sentenced to the “stocks” of a comedy club, to be ridiculed and humiliated for 7-10 minutes.
The killing thing is, you just know that lady went back to the jazz night upstairs, and didn’t say a peep during the musical performance. If I had gone to the jazz night, and started shouting random “play some Tiesto” heckles at the band, you can rest assured that I would have never made it out of the building without a brush drumstick stuck up my arse. I have NEVER seen anyone get heckled except comedians. Actors don’t get heckled. Circus performers don’t get heckled. Spoken word artists and poets don’t get heckled… shit, even “Living Statues” don’t get heckled, and those guys DESERVE it.
So alright, if you’re going to be a comedian then hecklers are something you have to deal with. But there are different types of people, and different ways to deal with them. You don’t hunt duck with a Howitzer, you don’t kill a mouse with a sledge… so here’s a list of they types of heckler that I’ve encountered, and what I feel is the best way to deal with them.
1- The Foghorn
Although we couldn’t really class them as Bona fide hecklers, every so often you’ll have a foghorn in the audience. The kind who, at the slightest hint of a joke, will PISS THEMSELVES laughing, usually a noticeable, distinctive bray of a laugh. And there’s nothing I’ve found that works, unless you want to look like an asshole chastising an audience member for enjoying themselves too much. I try to just laugh along with them, or give an eye-roll to the audience, or try and include them a wee bit, but most of the time I just try and plow on. I was in the Mish-Mash last week, and this guy at the front went into PEALS of laughter at a joke, and continued to corpse right until the end of the set. What set him off? I said I was from near Crossmaglen; that was it. “Crossmaglen!” he roared, and then lost his life laughing for seven minutes, rendering the rest of my set pretty much inaudible to the crowd. It was hard to be angry though; it was a very funny laugh.
2- Your “Partner”
This is about as much of a heckler as I can stand; someone who has no malicious intent, but just gets caught up in the fun so joins in with you. That’s nice, really that the audience is so relaxed and having such a good time that they start to chime in… until it goes too far. So there’s no need to destroy an audience member who thinks he’s part of a double act, but do try and keep manners on him to stop them from yelling out punchlines before you do. Most of the people that have chimed in along with me have been fairly sound, so just to acknowledge them and move on is enough for them to think they’ve had their fun, now let the show progress. These are the kind of people who come up to you after a gig and ask how you get started in comedy, which is a lead up to asking how THEY can get started in comedy. Fun, but don’t let them hijack your set.
3- The Sniper
Yeah, show yourself you asshole. This is the kinda guy who won’t show himself, just skulks in the crowd, harping up at the stage. It’s never constructive, it’s never helpful, it’s usually some random nasty bullshit that just set the whole audience on edge, like two drunk guys who start bickering in a chip-shop after a nightclub. There’s the kind of tension that suggests a fight could kick off at any minute, so it doesn’t matter how funny you try to be onstage, this fucker will ruin it. So here’s your chance; raze him to the ground. Here’s where you can use all your anti-heckle material, and do it quickly. If this guy is being an arsehole to you, then he’s probably been doing it since he sat down, so the crowd are sick of him too. This is the guy that if you zing him right, the whole crowd will give you a round of applause. if you zing him wrong, he’ll just continue to bitch at you and you’ll look like an idiot. So if it takes a few goes to shut him up, so be it.
4- This Show is all About MEEEEE
This is the kind of heckler that I encountered in Down… someone (usually a woman) who thinks the whole night should be about them, and tries to draw all the attention. Heckling because they want to be interacted with, they will chirp in after EVERYTHING; these are the kind of people that’ll say “that’s racist” or “that’s offensive” at the slightest opportunity (people who are actually offended never heckle, they just leave). To deal with this type is difficult; if you acknowledge them, they win. If you don’t acknowledge them, they keep harping at you till you do, then they win. If you get involved with them, then it’s just between you and them; the rest of the crowd gets ignored and loses interest. I always try to talk to the people around them; that drives them NUTS.
Sloshed. Smashed. Fucked up beyond all recognition. There’s nothing you can do when some drunk starts roaring and yelling. They cannot be zinged, they cannot be quietened, they don’t give a shit. They just wander in (usually at free-in venues) and start prattling away. All you can hope for is that the security staff will escort them out. If there is no security staff… you’re on your own, get ready for a very uncomfortable set as you try gamely to plow through your material like a golfer trying to take a putt as some cunt throws rocks at his face.
Those are my experiences with hecklers; feel free to add your own horror stories in the comments below. As long as we’re doing comedy, there runs the chance of getting heckled. I try to keep my set free of things that draw heckling (for example, I don’t mention sports teams, as that tends to get a few boozy lads to start heckling), but sometimes you’ll just meet someone without the social skills necessary to keep their mouth shut when a performer is onstage. But the killing blow comes AFTER the gig, when a heckler approaches you and shakes your hand to tell you how good you were, and how great the night was! WHAT THE FUCK?? They tell you how much they enjoyed your set, after doing their damnedest to ruin it. Baffling!