Professional Stand-Up Comedians Vs. Hecklers

Jun 18 / Alfie Noakes

The first part of this blog focused on hecklers in an open mic environment.

This time, we’re considering more of the professional comedy setting. To be clear. There are many ways to skin a cat (such a lush expression).

This writing was never designed to try and address the myriad differences in audiences, acts, clubs, cultures, abilities, styles, experience, even, the need-to-not-get-beaten-up…

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Heckling a performer in a professional club? That’s an altogether different league from open mic.

At a pro night, the audience member has paid to gain entry. The comedian has gotten so good at stand-up that they are being paid. Right away, the stakes are all much higher.

Some of the audience just won’t have that much experience of going to live comedy. There are some who believe that adding their commentary or challenges will add to the entertainment.

The sad truth is that “heckling” can add to the spectacle.

The happy truth is that the odds are not in the favour of the ones who shout out.


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“Heckling” at pro comedy nights varies from club to club, region to region, country to country.


The nature of the heckle tends to be somewhat more hardcore than in the open mic nights.


In a pro comedy room, the heckler commonly understands that they are “punching up”.


That is to say, they are publicly challenging a professional speaker whose speciality is in directing where and when people laugh and is experienced in squelching agitators.


Most hecklers are far too dumb to understand that last sentence.


If the act or the MC lose their temper, they “lose” altogether.


Often, in the heckler mind is a hope to “shake things up”. Many truly feel that they are helping the show. They have a delusional belief that they are practically sacrificing themselves as a target-rich environment for the comedian, or MC, to unleash their imagined “best stuff” on.


Of course, some are just drunken mouth-breathers with lousy character.


In my experience, professional comedians do not appreciate hecklers. Whatever kind of act they are, most often, they have worked hard to have a polished and paced plan for what they want to say on stage. And a limited time to say it!


Uncontrolled distractions are not welcome. They become a distraction by the very nature of having to be controlled. Leaving, at best, a controlled distraction. Whichever way you cut it, there’s a bloody distraction.


All of this said, the spectacle of the joust can be delicious.

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The difference in class, experience and verbal acuity can be enthralling. Comparisons could be made to the notion of Michael Cera giving Conor McGregor an aggressive wedgie, and somehow thinking he’ll remain unscathed.

In the opening companion-piece to this article, focused on hecklers in open mic comedy rooms, I gave account of those who fall short of actual heckling on account of their mildness. More a tendency to “blurt-out” or try and chat with the performer.

In this instance, while contemplating the professional comedy rooms, we shall assume that any heckle is indeed designed to be rude, probably a public challenge.

Some hecklers do have genuinely funny comments.

Heckler: “Everyone hates you. Surely you remember that from school?” *

The moment someone shouts out, there are numerous considerations for the comedian or MC.

What was the tone?

Was it meant to be funny?

Was it funny?

Do I know who said it? Or do I just think I know?

Can I actually see them?

First impressions?

Funny first impressions?

How mad/drunk do they look?

Who are they sitting with?

What was the audience reaction?

Is it a one-off?

Can it be ignored?

Should it be ignored?

Address it quietly?

Address it loudly?

How long can I spend on this distraction? (I wanna finish this show on the bit about the drug-happy Orangutang)

What would be too aggressive?

What might this do for the mood of the whole room?

Who’s my real audience?

How was it going before? Can I benefit from shifting tracks for a while?

Etc. Etc. Etc.

That is a lot of questions to contemplate. Especially while focused on delivering a crafted joke.

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Just as in open mic, a verbally abusive over-reaction is rarely the smartest opening gambit.

While matters can escalate, a moderate opening response is usually best.

The mighty Harry Hill is known for delivering a wonderful, catch-all response, while staying perfectly in character. One would be hard-pressed to even call it a “put down”.

Heckler: “This bloke isn’t funny. He’s shit.”

Harry Hill: “That’s as maybe sir, but when I get home, I’ve got a lovely roast chicken in the oven”.

That’s a funny line. It probably works against any negative comment. Coming from a master like Harry Hill, fast and live, it would surely be hilarious. It is also non-confrontational and very hard for the heckler to coherently respond to.

Eddie Izzard is known for one of his own angles designed for a similar situation.

Heckler: “You’re rubbish. Are you going to just keep talking?”

Eddie Izzard: “Check what you want to say with your friend first. If she finds it funny, maybe then give it a go”.

Over the many years it has taken to get onto that paid stage, the MC/Comedian will have built solid skills, and the material, to deal with hecklers.

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There can be no accounting for the teeny amount of relentless, drunken, myopic lunatics who just don’t know when to quit.

Which is often when club security steps in and the whole show/set doesn’t get sabotaged by one demented oxygen thief.

For most acts who want to perform their hard-developed set, likely the best strategy is to swiftly address that noise the heckler made with their mouth. Get a laugh at their cost. Smile (if appropriate) and get back-on-track.

It’s important to remember that when a Heckler announces themselves, loud and clear, much of the audience are immediately on the side of the person on the stage.

Heckler: “You’re shit!”

It could be that the identity of the heckler is unknown to the performer. Just a voice in the crowd. A solid gambit for the comedian can be to warmly ask the interrupter to identify themselves.

Because the immediate outcome is predictable.

They will.

Or.

They won’t.

Pro Comedian: (In the general direction of the culprit) “Who just said that?”

Pause. Audience waiting. No reply.

Pro Comedian: (To the audience) "Very good. They passed the test. Blurting out madness really should be restricted to once a night. Which, I admit is a bit rich, considering what I do for a living. Carrying on. I was painting you a picture of a concept mated with an actual animal…"

And the show moves on… probably the optimum result.

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Or, Heckler: “It was me. I said, “Why are you shit at comedy?"

The person is purely rude. Not funny. The audience know it. The heckler has clearly asked for whatever “it” is.

Pro Comedian: “Actually. You originally only said "You're shit". Now you've turned it into a question. You are so banal, my friend, that even you don't pay any attention to you".

That is a pretty vanilla means to try and shut the heckler down fast and reasonably kindly.

or

Pro Comedian: "Why am I shit? These people are sure laughing plenty. One of life's curiosities, I guess.  In the same way that with your current facial expression, you bring to mind a bulldog licking piss off a nettle.

Presumably, dear reader, you have already judged this version to be a tad stronger.

Whatever, the first warning has been given.

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If the heckling continues, the odds are ever more in favour of the savvy performer. The audience have picked their champion and are rooting for them.

Just a modicum of time engaging the Heckler will have helped the comedian, the MC, study the culprit some. Get some ideas. Change gear.

With a considered tone, repeating through the microphone almost anything the bad egg shouts out, ensures everyone in the room is on the same page. It’s a controlled move. This also buys the performer some thinking time. Split seconds can truly make a difference.

The act has possibly chosen to ignore a first interruption. Tried to briefly acknowledge and move on from a second shout-out. If the heckler is so determined to disrupt the performance by yelling out once more, well, on their own heads be it. Depending on the act.

Most pro comedians have a litany of insults. They may choose to immediately bombard the heckler with awesome abuse and hilarious invective.

Pro comedian: "That is the dumbest thing anyone has ever said to me. That includes an entire evening babysitting a coked up philosophy student. So dumb. Hell, I've had to endure discussing maths with your mum. She just couldn't figure out she owed £5 change from the £10 that my rugby team paid her".

The act may prefer to engage the heckler in some form of conversation, gather some personalised ammunition, prior to the onslaught.

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The come-backs can come from anywhere, that’s one of the awesome wonders of stand-up comedy. Every advanced act will have their own unique artillery.

Some might loudly focus upon the imagined day/history of the Heckler.

Others could speculate on the motivations for them shouting out.

Here is an example of a classic/stock put-down. Like “The Aristocrats” joke, it can be easily adapted for potency and appropriateness.

Heckler: “Can I get a taxi for… oy, what’s your name?”

Comedian: “You know you’re interrupting me at my place of work, right? I don’t come down to your place of employment, causing distractions, knocking all those cocks out of your mouth”.

Here’s a brutal put-down from a world class professional. An insult comedian who actively invites heckles.

Heckler: “You are as funny as a broken leg, rubbish!”

Jimmy Carr: “You want my come back? You’ll have to scrape it off your mums’ teeth”


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How long the comedian spends dispensing the withering put-downs is entirely at their discretion. Surely influenced by the zeal of the crowd and the response of the target.

Having handled the interloper, the act needs to get back to the prepared material and move on from the episode.

It may be hack, but a comment like, “You said you weren’t coming to my gigs anymore, dad” is lighter and draws a line under the incident. Finally, the show can go on.

It should be borne in mind that there are lines of attack, even against the most annoying heckler, that the audience will typically not accept. Indeed, the act will likely lose the audience if they go “there”. 


Certainly, irritation and disgust can be expressed, though the exchange does well to end with a clearly upbeat and evidently satisfied performer.

If the act or the MC lose their temper, they “lose” altogether.

Once the situation has been mastered, the act has the unenviable task of remembering exactly where they must pick up from. They need to re-establish the mood, recovering whatever they were saying from the time they were so rudely interrupted.

For the most part, the audience will have been enthralled by the exhilarating crushing of a self-announced fuckwit. It’s a thrilling, unpredictable part of stand-up that is truly unique to the live experience.

Heckling is not helping.

All the same, watching a heckler being ruined... eye-of-the-beholder!

Part 1 of this article, "How to Handle Hecklers Without Ruining the Gig" can be found here

 

*A notorious heckle delivered upon David Baddiel

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Photos courtesy of Steve Best at https://www.stevebest.com/ and Gary Manhine at https://www.garymanhine.com/

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