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Monday, April 1, 2013

Don't be the Fool: 4 Perspectives from Comedians On How to Handle Hecklers

Since today is April Fool's day - I decided to ask some trained professionals on how to deal with a problem some public speakers have.

When you think about the biggest fears that people have "Fear of Death" is usually at the top and typically "Fear of Public Speaking" is not far behind. If you're one of many who would rather die than speak in front of a group, think for a second about not only speaking in front of a group but a group of people who feel they have the right to critique you and even insult you if you don't entertain them immediately.

Congratulations, you've stepped into the shoes of the standup comic. I asked several seasoned comedians about their experience dealing with hecklers - people (fool's really) who interrupt them as they try to tell jokes. I was fortunate enough to get feedback from four great comedians from across the nation on how to handle hecklers. I've also attached clips of their comedy and/or them handling the hecklers as they do their set. 

***WARNING: Some of these responses are NOT suitable for work.***

1. Marvin Lee -
Bio: Marvin is the winner of the 2006 Long Beach Comedy festival. Finalist for NBC's Last Comic Standing in Atlanta (season 1). One of the New York Underground comedy Festival's New faces for 2007. Only U.S. Comic Chosen for the Great Canadian Laugh Off" three years in a row (2007-2009). Featured performer for Funny Fest 2009 in Calgary, Alberta Canada. Featured performer for the 2007 "Charleston Comedy Festival". Finalist for the 2004 Laugh is Hope Comedy Festival." Finalist for the New Orleans Comedy Festival. Club pick for the Las Vegas Comedy festival.

Here's a clip of his act:

Marvin has taught a college course on how to handle hecklers and here are some of his insights:

"The three types of Hecklers:

1. The loud Mouth Jerk/a**hole-

This is what most people consider a heckler. This is someone who thinks is funnier than you and constantly lets you know it from the safety of the audience. VERY few hecklers are ever by themselves or just with one person.

How do you handle this type of Heckler?- Actually they are the easiest because as a professional comedian you have SEVERAL jokes, or comebacks to thwart them. Also a professional comedy environment will have people in place and code words that the comedian can say to the management to let the management staff that this person needs to be thrown out.
What most people don't know is that you have to get permission from the rest of the audience before you really light into the loudmouth jerk or risk the audience turning on you.

2. The Drunk Heckler:

This type of heckler is just that... drunk. A drunk heckler can also be a loudmouth/a**hole type too but can be a person who usually would never cause a problem when sober. (As a side note I see more women as the Drunk Heckler type since men in this scenario tend to get thrown out fairly quickly but even most management has second thoughts about throwing women out.) ... I once had a guy yell out right in the middle of my set: "I wanna have sex with a starfish!" This was such a crazy statement that it stopped me right in the middle of my set. Also keep in mind that I was not talking about sex, or starfish, or anything sea related at the time.

How do you handle this type of heckler? Usually you can make fun of how drunk they are and the possible dumb things they have done and will do being drunk. It's a playful way to get them to calm down but if they get worse then management needs to just throw them out.
3. The Positive Heckler
The positive heckler is by far the hardest heckler to deal with during a comedy show. This type of heckler can also be a drunk heckler too. What makes this heckler so hard to deal with is that he/she is agreeing with you and digging EVERYTHING that you are saying! But because of their zeal they continue to throw off your timing. For example: If you are on stage talking about something that women do that really makes you mad the drunk heckler will be the one going: 'YEAH!, YOU TELL 'EM! WOMEN ARE ALWAYS DOING DUMB CRAP LIKE THAT!'

How do you handle the positive heckler? This is hard and I still find myself tackling this one. Basically you have to take this on a case by case basis. Basically you acknowledge that they are digging your material and you might want to even give him/her a few high fives on the things you say from the stage. Then you very kindly ask them to calm down so that you can tell them 'OTHER' things that women do that make you mad.."
Please check out his site to learn more:

2. Steve Hofstetter:

Bio: Author, columnist, and comedian Steve Hofstetter is often called the hardest working man in show-business. With all due respect to the late James Brown.
Hofstetter's national TV debut came on ESPN's Quite Frankly, where Stephen A. Smith yelled at him for three minutes. Hofstetter has also appeared on CBS' "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," Showtime's "White Boyz in the Hood," VH1's "Countdown," Sundance's "On the Road in America," and ABC's "Barbara Walter's Special," where he thankfully did not cry. Having appeared on networks from Boston to Miami to Denver, his local television appearances are too numerous to count, especially if you're using your fingers.
Here's a clip of him handling a heckler:

Steve says "The trick is to wait until the crowd hates the heckler more than you do. Once you're past that point, you can say anything and they'll be with you. I once told a woman I hope her husband leaves her and she dies alone, and the crowd cheered wildly."

Check out his website:

To check out his upcoming shows - click here

3. Rob O'Reilly:

  Bio: Rob is  a 28 y/o stand-up comic who's been on Comedy Central, Last Comic Standing and the Tonight Show. He's  toured almost 300 colleges and was recently named one of LA Weekly's "Top 10 Comedy Acts to Watch in 2012" and one of Funny or Die's "30 Comedians to Watch Under 30."

Here's a clip of him handling a heckler:

Rob Says "When someone interrupts me, I usually ignore it at first and hope that it stops.   It's important to still seem likeable as a comedian, and if you get aggressive too early, you lose likeability.   But if the interruptions continue, I will usually interact with them.  And kind of tell them to stop, but in a joking tone.  Like I'm not upset, but you need to shut up.
There's two types of hecklers.  Those that like you, and think (incorrectly) that they are helping the show or trying to be funny themselves.   The other type of heckler is someone who doesn't like you and is intentionally messing with you or booing.  99% of hecklers are in the first category, and will shut up when you ask them to.  But when it's the latter, things can become aggressive. 

One time, I said I was about to get off stage, and this guy started clapping.  As in, he was happy I was leaving.  It was rude, and I'd had enough of him, so I walked off stage and knocked the hat off his head.  I asked him if he'd like to take it outside, but he cowardly shut up."
Please check out his site: 

For more about his upcoming shows - click here

4.  John Deboer:

Bio: Having appeared at comedy clubs, colleges, three federal penitentiaries, the Daytona 500 Experience, as well as on Comedy Central, XM-Sirius Satellite Radio, and in national TV commercials, with a brief (very brief, yet heartwarming) shot on Last Comic Standing, John DeBoer might be the funniest comedian you never heard of.

Here's a clip of him handling a heckler: 

"(One) time I had a guy right up front who was making trouble from the second I went on stage. I used every heckler line I could on him. We had a 'see who can piss each other off' contest, and I guess I won, as was obvious when he threw the beer bottle at me and told me that 'When the shows over, it's on outside bitch!' How was I to know his mother just passed away a month ago? Oops.

There are two ways that a heckler can ruin the show, and two types of heckler that do it.

One type of annoyance may be someone who is having a conversation with someone else at their table and doing it very loudly so as to interrupt the people around them and make a comedian lose their train of thought. The second type of annoyance is the person who will yell things out directed towards you.

Sometimes the heckler is just a little buzzed and doesn't realize that what they are doing is visible or audible to the other people around them. You address them, play with them a little bit, give them the attention that they seek, and with any luck you can make them your friend and get them to watch the rest of the show.
The second type of heckler is one who is so completely wasted and such an asshole that they are determined to ruin the show so that everybody has as miserable a day as their life usually is. You can find who these people are by going through the [aforementioned] steps and trying to get them to come around. But sometimes it just doesn't work. They are determined to ruin the whole show.
What I do now when I find that they have no intention of becoming a productive member of the audience, is ... announce to the crowd that I will be taking a five-minute break while these people get their check. This is usually followed by applause and people high-fiving me on the way off the stage. Yes, there is five minutes of awkwardness. But can have another 45 minutes to an hour of people actually laughing at your jokes.
I was doing a show at a weekend comedy club once, and there were two women upfront who were talking louder as I got louder. When I finished with the joke ... I very nicely asked them what [their] joke was? One of the women stood up and grabbed the microphone from my hand and said, 'I have no idea what the f*** you said because it's all about me!'

That being said, there is another commonality that all hecklers house. I have never met a sober one."
 Please check out his site:

For more on his upcoming shows - click here.

As a bonus - here's EXACTLY how NOT to handle a heckler:

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