The annual RAW national stand-up comedy competition is a joyous occasion filled with hope as 12 budding amateur comedians strive towards a life performing comedy. Or, more likely, a life performing comedy for a short while before realising how hard it is to make a living, then quitting.
The audience at RAW is one of the most supportive a comedian can hope for, with crowd members conscious that the participants are new to the craft. Sadly, as a comedian soon learns, not every crowd is so friendly. Hecklers are out there, waiting to yell things that have the potential to destroy careers, make you rethink your entire life, or at least ruin a show a little bit. Fortunately there are strategies a comedian can employ to handle the situation when the need inevitably arises.
Given how much time and effort can go into creating even the dumbest of jokes, breaking stride to engage with a heckler can seem far less appealing than, say, loading the heckler into a cannon and firing them into the sun. The good news for comedians is that the smarter someone is, the less likely they are to yell something during a live comedy show. The chances of winning a battle of wits are therefore quite high, especially when aided by the support of the audience who will typically be on the side of the performer.
Given an opportunity to speak, there is a reasonable chance a heckler will dig their own grave by simply being themselves. Pointing out their inadequacies or discussing intimate details about their mother are also common approaches, although not every interaction has to be brutal. Here’s Russell Brand engaging with a heckler and responding with a pointed, but ultimately positive, message:
Nail that heckler with a comeback
Rather than engaging in conversation, a quick retort can immediately shut a heckler down, allowing the show to continue without losing momentum.
When dealing with a belligerent audience member, Steve Martin’s response “I remember my first beer” has become comedic folklore. George Carlin, on the other hand, preferred the more direct, “F**k you and your sister and your wife. If you got a kid, I hope your f***ng kid dies in a car fire.”
Before resorting to threats of infanticide, it is worth remembering that some hecklers genuinely believe they are helping the show. Deranged though this thought process may be, attempting a playful yet firm response may be worth a try, as too harsh a comeback can result in a tense environment that is non-conducive to laughter.
Still, referring to someone’s mother again seems the most popular approach and you can’t argue with results, as demonstrated in this clip featuring Jimmy Carr:
For the most part, if a heckler is ignored the first time, they will get the message and keep quiet. Hecklers also rarely bring their own microphone to gigs, leaving the comedian with a decisive advantage in volume. If the heckler is determined to be obnoxious, this approach may not work. But in most cases, like a summons for jury duty or a text from a friend asking you to attend their jazz gig, ignoring it can be a great option.
Reminding people that they are at a comedy gig
There are different kinds of heckler. Some may hate the show, some may be the clown of their friendship group who feels the need to prove they are funny, while others will simply be drunk. Yet perhaps the most difficult heckler to deal with in modern times is the person who takes offence at something. As Joan Rivers points out in this clip, however, sometimes all it takes to shut down a heckler and keep a crowd onside is to remind people where they are:
Find the nearest window and jump out
Bad gigs and heckling become easier to handle over time but no matter how skilled and well prepared a comedian is, the possibility of humiliation and embarrassment never disappears completely. When struggling with a heckler, diving through a window may not be the safest approach but the heckling will almost certainly stop as the audience switches their focus to your wellbeing and the task of calling an ambulance.
A Kramer style meltdown
Michael Richards’ infamous racially fuelled response to a heckler at a Californian comedy club all but ended his showbiz career. Accordingly, unless you are intent on being violently offensive and never working again, this is not recommended. That being said, if you are determined to destroy your career, going down in a fiery train wreck while burning as many bridges as possible is at least a memorable way to bow out.
Comfortingly for the contestants in RAW, nowadays hecklers are uncommon as most clubs will kick people out if creating a disturbance. But there is always a risk someone will feel the need to yell something out, interfering with rhythm, atmosphere, and being generally unhelpful. As a comedian, violence may seem the most appealing option, especially while holding the metal cudgel that is a microphone, but remaining calm and establishing who’s in charge is arguably the best approach.
If you are a potential heckler, there may be incredibly rare occasions where comments are welcome. Some comedians even invite and thrive on the interaction! But to avoid ruining a show for everyone else and earmarking yourself as a giant turd who deserves to be publicly humiliated, the safest rule to follow is: don’t.
The Raw Comedy Festival 2018 airs on SBS VICELAND at 8:30pm on Sunday 16 September. It will also be available to stream at SBS On Demand.