Sorry, Hecklers, You ARE Ruining It For Everyone

I am not proud to admit this. I am a long-time comedy fan, writer, producer, and, in my current job, a comedy editor. I think comedians are brave, important artists who almost never get the respect they deserve from audiences and industry alike.

And I, Carol Hartsell, am a heckler.

Sure, I could equivocate and say, "I only did it twice and I didn't even like it," but let's just call things what they are. I have heckled, ergo, I am a heckler. Here's a brief explanation of the two times I committed, albeit unintentionally, this egregious crime:

Auburn University, Auburn, AL, Fall 1996
Dave Attell was performing at my university to a full-house of about 400 students. It was an election year and I was planning to vote for Bill Clinton for the second time. I was wearing a hat. Attell, knowing he was on a very conservative college campus, asked, "So are you guys planning on voting for Dole?" There was some applause. I, however, reacted with disgust and in a misguided attempt to show it, I muttered "No!" and lifted my middle finger in the air, as was the style at the time. Attell, went on, "Anyone voting for Clinton?" I raised my hand and yelled loudly... pretty much alone. The comedian directed his attention to me: "Hey, girl in the hat, you raised your hand for both of them!" Uh oh. I had. That he hadn't noted the subtle difference between my gestures was not his fault. I was flustered. "No, I was just... giving... Dole... the bird or something." Attell made a quizzical face, and pantomined looking up to see if there were literal birds flying around the room. Huge laughter. I was mortified.

Luca Lounge, New York, NY, Spring 2012
A comedian friend was starting a new monthly show at the small venue where I was producing several nights a week. I was standing behind the bar, helping run some tech cues. It was the third show of the night and I had consumed more than a few glasses of wine and was feeling giddy. During his intro, he mentioned having recently been in a three-way. This struck me, for some reason, as ludicrous, and without meaning to I guffawed loudly and yelled, "No way!" He took it in stride, but had to address my reaction, which derailed his story for a bit.

In the pantheon of heckling incidents, my transgressions are mild, unintentional and probably forgivable. They're, frankly, not even that interesting. But I mention them to illustrate a fundamental point: heckling is heckling is heckling, and no one in the audience is there to hear someone else in the audience do or say anything.

Of course, there is a big difference between just reacting to a comedian and heckling one. A comedian doesn't want an audience that's afraid to react any more than they want one that heckles. There's a distinction: if you interrupt the flow of the show so much that the performer must "deal" with you, you are heckling.

Lately, I have heard numerous arguments made in favor of heckling, and none of them hold water. Here are a few:

It's more exciting when something unplanned happens at a comedy show
It's also more exciting to see a train wreck than to not see one. That doesn't make a train wreck a good thing. And it shouldn't, unless you're Mr. Glass, inspire you to create one.

When a comedian can shut down a heckler in a funny way it proves what a pro he or she is.
I agree with that. Not only do I agree with it, I have seen it many times over and have marveled at the power of an artist at the top of their game responding to something in the moment and turning it completely around.

Several years ago, I saw Tom Shillue, one of my favorite comedians and one of the most affable people you'll ever meet, close a show that had seen every single comic tormented by a large, drunken group of hecklers. The performers before him had tried everything: ignoring them, talking to them, making fun of them, buying them a round, all to no avail. Tom tells wonderful stories and does fun, interactive bits, but he's not the guy you think of as "going after" a rude audience member. But somehow, when he took the stage, he not only shut them up, he won them over. So much so that they gave him a standing ovation when he left the stage after 15 minutes. My friends and I who were there, some of whom were on the show, still marvel at it to this day.

Did that make anyone think, "It's good that those drunk people yelled over every single comic just so we could see mild-mannered Tom Shillue tear them a new one and make them like it?" Nope. It sucked. They ruined the show, they ruined the rest of the audience's time and gave all the comedians an anecdote instead of a set. Tom's brilliance saved the night somewhat, but no comedian wants to give his or her set over to damage control. It's a net loss for everyone.

If they talk to you, you can say whatever you want
No, if they talk to you, you can respond appropriately. If a comedian asks, "Where are you from?" you don't respond, "You suck, 9/11 was inside job!" And again, no one else is there to hear what you have to say. If a comedian talks to you, you should have a "get in and get out" policy with your response.

A comedian who isn't funny deserves to be heckled
No, no, no, no, no, no. This is just wrong in every possible way. If you don't like a comedian's set, you can, A) not laugh, B) leave. If you're in a comedy club -- which are traditionally 21+ -- you are a grown up. Grown ups don't throw tantrums when things don't go the way they would like them to.

I'm funnier than the person on the stage
Maybe you are. As soon as the show is over, go right out and begin your comedy career. Maybe the club you're in has a bringer night where 20 of your friends can pay $100 each to see you perform for 4.5 minutes. If you give it a shot, keep your fingers crossed that a heckler who thinks he or she is funnier than you doesn't ruin 3.5 of those minutes. That would suck for you.

In short, I've yet to hear a good defense of heckling. What makes comedy thrilling is it is a live experience where, yes, anything could happen. But as an audience, our job is not to make that "anything" happen, it's to be witnesses to it.

No matter what you think of the comedian's material, he or she did the work to be on the stage holding the microphone at that time. They're in the driver's seat. The unspoken rule is they set the course, and whether the train goes over a cliff, arrives somewhere surprising or just where you thought it was going, is entirely up to them. But to paraphrase Brian Eno, art is a train crash you can walk away from.

So the next time you're at a comedy show, just have the courage to be transported and see what happens. Failing that, shut up.