The most common fear people have when they’re thinking about trying stand-up comedy is getting heckled. Nobody gets into stand-up because they want to spend every gig dealing with hecklers. It would be great if you could just go up on stage and do your material without any fear of some rowdy audience member giving you a hard time, right?
Unfortunately disruptive audience members are a fact of life and, if you really want to do stand-up, you need to be prepared to deal with hecklers. They often think that heckling is expected at stand-up comedy shows, and feel like they’re contributing to the night, instead of just disrupting your flow and making it harder for you to deliver your material.
The good news is that hecklers are rare, especially at the kind of open mic nights where most stand-up comedians learn their craft, because a lot of the time most of the audience is made up of other acts who aren’t there to give you a hard time. And even if the open mic does have a real audience, they’re usually politely warned by the MC that the acts are all new (or trying out new material) and it’s bad form to heckle them.
Once you start doing more serious gigs with genuine audiences, then hecklers become a little more likely, but even then it’s still a rarity – unless you’re doing rowdy town-centre comedy clubs full of stag-parties. But you won’t be getting those kinds of gigs unless you’ve proven your ability to handle tough crowds, so you can cross that bridge when you come to it.
The big fear most new acts have is that they’ll get into a confrontation with an audience member who will destroy them with a razor-sharp put-down which they can’t recover from, leaving them to shuffle from the stage in shame.
While that’s been known to happen, it’s such an extreme rarity that you can safely assume it’s never going to happen to you.
Types of Hecklers
In reality, you’ll be dealing with hecklers who are disruptive in different ways:
Drunken garble: absolutely hammered audience member, usually a bloke, shouts out something completely incomprehensible. No point engaging with them, they’re too drunk and you won’t get any sense from them. You can try to appeal to their friends to keep them under control, they’ll usually be embarrassed about the situation.
Unfunny banter: usually good natured, they think they’re adding to the show by attempting to shout out their own punchlines, but not only are they not funny, they’re stopping you from being funny by derailing your material. You kind of need to treat them with kid-gloves, because the audience won’t like you being too hard on them, but you need to acknowledge them and try to persuade them that the show will be better if they stop interrupting you. I usually try self-deprecation, saying something like “I’ve got a shit memory, and whenever you talk to me I completely forget my material, so please, do me a favour and just let me get this stuff out while I can still remember it.”
Chatters: a similar situation to the above. They’re not being obnoxious, but they think they’re at the show to have a conversation with you instead of listening to your material. Halfway through your setup they’ll start chatting to you about what you’re saying. Usually an older person who doesn’t get out much and doesn’t know how stand-up shows are supposed to work. As above, you just need to keep it friendly, but persuade them to keep quiet.
Attention seekers: usually a certain type of slightly drunk younger woman who doesn’t like being in a situation where she’s not the centre of attention. Sometimes she’ll pretend to be offended by your material, sometimes she’ll just shout out random stuff, anything to get the room to focus on her instead of the person on stage. Tread carefully with this one – there’s a risk of it escalating if they feel aggrieved. Acknowledge them, let them have their moment, give them the opportunity to feel like they’ve made their point and had their win and hopefully that will end it.
These are the most common situations I’ve personally run into, but I’m sure more experienced acts would be able to add plenty more.
Tips for Dealing with Hecklers
You might have seen YouTube videos of pro-comedians “destroying hecklers” which is entertaining (this is my personal favourite, Stewart Lee dealing with a belligerent heckler) but until you’ve got the skill to do that it’s probably not a great idea to go for the jugular every time you get interrupted on stage.
Wherever possible it’s a good idea to just try to de-escalate the situation quickly so you can get on with your set, especially if you’re only doing a 5-10 minute spot and your stage time is precious.
The easiest thing to do is just ignore the interruption at first, there’s a good chance that the audience didn’t hear it and you can just talk over the heckler because you have the microphone on your side. More often than not they’ll just shut up when they don’t get a response.
If it gets to the point where you can’t ignore them, a good tactic is to slowly and clearly repeat back what they’ve said for several reasons:
- It makes sure you’re clear what they said – sometimes it’s just a simple misunderstanding.
- It makes sure the audience knows what they said, so that your response will make sense.
- Most importantly, it gives you time to think of something to say.
If what they said was genuinely funny and got a laugh from the audience, just roll with it – let them enjoy the moment, congratulate them, and move on with your set. If it was really good, take it and work it into your material for future gigs.
If they’re being persistently disruptive and obnoxious, you need to try and shut them down, but don’t go straight off at the deep end – if you lose your composure straight away, the audience will likely turn on you. They’re at the show for a good time, and they want to feel comfortable that you have control of things. If it descends into a shouty argument, they’re not having a good time, they’re going to feel uncomfortable and just want your set to end as soon as possible.
So when you’re dealing with hecklers try to keep it good humoured, appeal to their better nature, make them aware they’re ruining the show for everybody, try to keep the audience on your side. You can try to use peer pressure from the audience with a line like: “give me a cheer if you’d like this guy to be quiet so we can get on with the show!”
But if it gets to the point where you need to do a bit of verbal jousting to regain control of the situation, preparation is your best friend. I saw Al Murray dealing with a heckler at a live gig once, and half way through it he said “The difference between you and me is that I know what I’m going to say next.”
So spend some time writing a few good retorts and put-downs you can keep in the bag for when you need them – and remind yourself regularly of what they are, because if you’re not performing them as part of your material you’ll probably forget them.
Think about some obvious lines of attack that a heckler might use based on your appearance or persona, and be ready for that. For example, I’m bald and there’s a good chance that a drunk heckler might try to use that, so I’ve got some material ready to use in that situation.
If you’ve got a few other acts you’re friendly with, you can practice with them – take it in turns to do your material for a few minutes while the others throw heckles at you, and you figure out how to respond and get your set back on track. It’s a fun exercise and you’ll come up with material that you can use for real-life hecklers.
Some comedy clubs also run nights where heckling is encouraged, usually gong-shows for new acts to prove their mettle (like the Comedy Store’s King-Gong in London). These can be pretty nerve-wracking, and sometimes the heckling is more like a wall of shouting that you’ve got no hope of responding too, but it’s a good way to develop a thick-skin.
The chances are that you’ll rarely have to deal with hecklers, but there are plenty of things you can do to prepare for the situation and feel more confident about smoothly dealing with hecklers.