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Working with Hecklers

I used to be scared of hecklers. Now I see them as a potentially useful part of the environment, if I know how to work with them.

Normally what a stand-up comedian wants is to get on stage and make people laugh. It makes the comedian feel good, and the audience gets something out of it, too. But sometimes there is a heckler in the audience. The heckler wants to throw a wrench into this whole process. They might yell at you to get off the stage, they might respond loudly to some of your jokes, and they might just be drunk, belligerent and nonsensical. Whatever the case, it can be a total nightmare to be on stage, trying to get into the flow of telling jokes, while someone in the audience is hell-bent on distracting you. 

I have seen some comedians spiral out of control in the presence of a skilled heckler. They lose confidence, and the audience with it. They get angry at the heckler. Suddenly everyone is uncomfortable. It can be excruciating to watch a comic lose the audience to one loud drunken jackass. But I have also seen comedians deal with hecklers in a way that incorporates the distraction into the show.

I talked last week about "yes, and..." which is an improv comedy method of addressing the material you are faced with in a scene. Instead of shutting the other person down, you build on their material by accepting it and using it. This can be applied to hecklers as well. Instead of fighting the fact that someone is yelling at you while you're on stage and instead of reacting aggressively, a comedian can 'yes, and...' the heckler and diffuse the situation. Something that often stops a heckler dead in their tracks is if the comedian can get the entire room to laugh and clap at the idea of the heckler leaving, or being quiet. But how do you do that without flipping out and just telling them to shut up?

First say "yes" by accepting the fact that the heckler is part of the environment of the show. Embrace the heckler. Accept the heckler. Here they are, offering you the precious opportunity to respond in a hilarious way. Then, move on to the 'and...' portion of the equation. Build on the presence of the heckler. I was once doing a show when a man at the bar yelled 'SHUT UP, YOU'VE BEEN UP THERE FOR 20 MINUTES!' I responded, "thank you sir, for alerting me to the fact that we're approaching the half-way point of the show, and we'll now be entering the singing portion." I launched into a rendition of Cher singing 'If I Could Turn Back Time,' and the dude left.

If I had fought back and engaged this gentleman in his aggressive negativity, I'd have been feeding into it and giving HIM the fuel. By accepting his presence and building on it, I allowed a 'yes, and...' approach open up the situation. The fear of the heckler is worse than the heckler himself, because he's really just offering up an opportunity to respond.

We all have our hecklers no matter what business we're in. Whether they're a critical relative, or an internal voice, or a negative Yelp review, we deal with these disturbances. But they're all workable, and learning to respond, rather than to react, can help. We have all experienced the way that trying to push away negative thoughts just makes them explode in number and force. So instead of pushing away, can we just embrace them, and then let them go? The problem isn't in the heckler himself, but in the way I work with disturbing thoughts. So maybe the disturbances aren't a problem at all. 

Below is a video of comic Amy Schumer handling a heckler particularly well. 

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