How to Handle Hecklers without Ruining the Gig

Jun 18 / Alfie Noakes

Newer performers are darkly fascinated by the Boogey Man/Woman/Other* that we call “The Heckler”.


Before drilling into the details, let’s scratch the surface of our definition. After all, Hecklers come on a sliding scale.


The broadest characterization of a Heckler might be “an audience member who interrupts a show by shouting out negative comments”.


Further, heckling is commonly seen as an aggressive move. The audience member is likely mocking the person on stage.

Perception is that this human distraction is also laying out a public challenge.

With this much established I must point out that there is so much more to consider. It’s that “sliding scale” aspect…

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There are different types of “Heckler”.


Some hecklers aren’t even hecklers, anyway. A good MC, a decent comedian, knows the difference.


The very most basic heckler move is the act of shouting out at the performer. Not all shouts are created equal. Not everyone on stage is equal.


Shouting abuse at an open-miker is a dick move and extremely rare.


However, dealing with people who shout out, is a matter that all committed developing acts will encounter and learn to handle.


The few audience interruptions that do happen in an open mic room tend to be so “mild” that I would argue they don’t even constitute being “a heckle” at all.


It is essential that I be smiling, 
friendly, throughout. 

As an MC, I might be doing some crowd work and ask an audience member a simple question such as, “What’s your name?”


If there is a pause, a moment that I can see them pondering their reply, I already know they’re going to lie. They have decided to try and get a laugh themselves. Weird, yet kinda innocent.


Finally, they answer. It seems to me that these people tend to grab onto a “funny” name from a remarkably small list.


A wildly “posh” name is reasonably common, “Tarquin”.


If I wasn’t already certain of their deceit, the confused looks cast by “Tarquins’” companions will confirm it for me.  


I’m not dealing with a heckler. I’m dealing with a “derailer”.

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Derailers are not malicious. They are usually trying to make their companions laugh at their “audacity and wildness” as opposed to directly challenging.


If I follow up their answer with, “And what do you do for a living, Tarquin?” they will pause some more, again, slowing down the show.


They are trying to think of a “funny lie”. Quite probably only funny to them. Once more, the list of “funny occupations” seems to be a small one. Yet is broadly available to these deluded little tinkers.


“Tarquin” will finally offer up something like, “Gynaecologist”.

I now need to call him out, get a laugh and quickly move on. For the sake of the show.


“You’re Tarquin? A gynaecologist? I don’t believe you mate. You know why? Because just by looking at you I can tell that no female, even in a dire medical emergency, would ever show you her fuffy.”


I could drill in harder. I could call him out for lying and persist in getting his real name and occupation, but why would I?


I would discourage newer acts from 
verbal jousts with audience members

By now, the audience are almost certainly wise to his fictionalised nonsense.


Maybe I’d ask his companions to “get a rein on Tarquin” while I speak to some “normal people” and move on with the show.


It is essential that I be smiling, friendly, throughout. This sustains the upbeat and fun tone of the show that it is my job to help generate.


The derailer would “win” if they actually managed to suck me into their ill-considered world.


Derailers are merely trying to do what so many school kids have tried to pull on their teachers over the aeons. To amuse themselves by getting the “leader” as far off-topic as possible.


These people are broadly easy to manage and move away from. However, they have also just “volunteered” themselves as a target for mockery and “calling back” on them. Which can be most fun.

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The harshest heckles and battles tend to occur in the professional arena.

This is great news for open mic acts. For they will get to slowly “build their chops” on interruptions of a gentler nature.


Hard work and experience will ultimately see “Heckler Management” added to their skill set.


a walrus-man shouted something incoherent and then started giggling madly

In an open mic room, the dynamic is most different from paid professional shows.

First, there is a broad understanding that the acts are, generally, reasonably inexperienced. It would be especially dick-ish to abuse them. Most audiences innately understand and respect this.


Further, unlike a professional club, other acts are seated throughout the audience, near the interloper. Their vibe towards someone who keeps shouting out is likely to be one of disapproval rather than encouragement. After all, it could be one of them getting interrupted next.


There are “shout-outs” that are neither challenges nor abuse. These largely benign “blurt-outs” are more common in open mic than in a pro room. Inversely, the abusive challenging heckle is more common in the pro arena.


I consider aspects of hecklers in the professional scene in Part 2 of this article, a “sister” posting you can find here.


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Some audience members blurt out a thought, something they think is funny. While it may, or may not, be funny, there is no malicious intention. At worst, a mis-guided attempt to “help the show”.

Occasionally they are trying to impress companions with their whacky boldness. Or some lame “in-joke” that makes sense to no one else.

The scope of “blurt-outs” can be remarkable. They range from out-of-nowhere comments on your appearance, “Nice shirt”, through to a bizarrely extended and enthused “Boo” or “Yay”.

More than once it has just been a case that something said on stage reminded “the heckler” of a thing that only they know, and they literally say aloud what they thought was just in their head. “Yeah! Ibiza 2010!”

I’m not a Dr, right?  So, here’s my diagnosis for such behaviour. I think it’s often a kind of audience apprehension based around the fear of being picked on, from the stage. Blended with a latent desire to be the one on stage. At time of writing, it’s still just a theory.

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A new act would do best to just brush off any such interruptions and move on.

There may be room for a brief pause and glance in the direction of that person. Maybe a roll of the eyes or a wiggle of the eyebrows. Then just crack on.

In those earliest gigs, just remembering your words and trying to read the room is plenty to focus on.

Where possible, I would discourage newer acts from verbal jousts with audience members. Run your set and have faith that the MC will handle the matter.

After all, the open mic act likely has just 5 minutes on stage. Why waste even 1% of that time (3 precious seconds) engaging with a witless muppet?

now the social pressure was on his
companions to mute him directly


More seasoned open mic acts should certainly be willing to engage with a “heckler”. This is the start of gaining experience of unexpected audience engagements.

First mission is to acknowledge what the interloper did, get a laugh, and move on swiftly.

There is a military expression, “mission creep”. It’s a concept that recognises when an objective has not been clearly defined, there is a risk of just meandering and mindlessly waste resources.

Remember the mission objectives. Acknowledge. Get a laugh. Back to your set.

Initial responses should be proportionate.

Heckler: “Do you know what time the person who tells jokes will be on stage?”

Comedian: Responds with brutal, scathing, evocative 3-minute tirade about the heckler experiencing lessons in maternal carnality.

Such a response (while potentially hilarious) is unnecessary, harsh, time-consuming and a potent way to lose the audience from being onside.

Immediately hammering a “heckler” or a “blurter” is overkill.

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When it comes to dealing with those who insist on shouting out, as an MC and not a comedian, the dynamics are somewhat different for me.

         The MC has more of a dialogue with the audience.

         Typically, the comedian is delivering a monologue to the audience.

Therefore, it’s easier for me to get the audience involved. For example, have them applaud the person for agreeing to “stop talking and start laughing”.

It could be that I am addressing a heckle aimed at me as the host. I could be picking up and defending the act who has just left the stage. Either way, my objectives are the same.

1.              Sustain the positive mood in the room, ideally with a gentle jab

2.              Convince the problem person to stop causing distractions

3.              Let the acts know they are protected

4.              Keep the show moving

5.             Be obviously gracious, open and friendly

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Here’s (the beginning of) a true story. From just a few months ago.

In the show opening monologue I ask that audience don’t shout out or heckle.

During the 2nd act of the night, a walrus-man aged around 50 years old shouted something incoherent and then started giggling madly.

The act paused. Looked confused. And went back to his set, just about a gear lower than he had been running seconds earlier. Some wind was lost from those sails.

When I re-took the stage, I made a point to gather added applause for the act, “Because it’s tricky when you’ve got the newest jokes and someone shouts out. It’s distracting”.

I then, with a friendly smile, turned to Walrus-Man and said, “Please help us. Don’t shout out. It’s not that kind of show. I promise you, the people on this stage tonight have thought how to entertain you with their words. (Turning to the audience) Surely you want to be able to hear that, right?

Audience: Yes. Hurrah. For sure. Certainly we do. Etc.

Me: “A small, I mean small guys, small round of applause for this chap for agreeing to not shout out”. (It did not matter that he had not openly agreed to shut up)

Audience smatter applause

Me to Heckler: (With a big smile) “Thanks. I just wanna hear you laughing mate. (Back to the audience) So, Finbar who was just on, I loved his bit about hunting rogue carpentry enthusiasts. It made me realise…”

Done.

Often, that would be enough.

In this instance, it wasn’t. He would not reel it in. Thus, I escalated the mockery. He ultimately came to remonstrate with me at the back of the room during a performance.

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Here’s an outline of where he and I had been.

·       When I returned to the stage, I highlighted he had broken his “deal”. (Low audience “boo”)

·       Turned to the people he was attending with and engaged them. “Do you approve of your friend? Not just his shouting out. I mean, in general?” The audience giggled, and now the social pressure was on his companions to mute him directly.

·       He started claiming to be a famous person (understanding it was beyond belief). I challenged him to answer a basic question based on the famous person. If he got it right, I suggested he could shout out at me. If he got it wrong he had to be quiet. Just one look at the fool made me feel confident of winning the bet. I did win. He did not honour the bet.

·       I insulted him. Very much. Lots of put-downs. Quick succession. He did not laugh. The crowd roared.

Pretty much the only way I could lose the exchange would be if I lost my cool, became angered. Making it clear that I was enjoying every second of rinsing him made the experience entirely fun and palatable for me and the audience.

I mentioned he came to confront me, right? His main complaint was that I had been rude to him when he was just “helping the show”. This unrepentant womble clearly didn’t “get it” even as he was thrown from the venue.

Such a situation is very rare. In an open mic room, it's more likely that a polite appeal, a single zinger, is often all it takes to handle the distraction and get the show back on track.

This is not so true in a professional comedy room.

For more, please s
ee Part 2 of this article, "Professional Stand-Up Comedians Vs. Hecklers"

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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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