I’m taking a moment here to change topics from writing books to writing and performing comedy. As many of you know, for the last year or so I’ve been practicing my stand-up chops in the Milwaukee and Madison area.
There have been some high-profile incidents over the last few years with comedians trying to deal with hecklers, such as Michael Richard’s infamous N word meltdown, or Daniel Tosh’s run in with rape jokes. But one that probably hasn’t caught the average person’s attention just came out of a court in British Columbia. This one was simply a bridge too far for me personally.
Here’s the thing to remember about comedians dealing with hecklers. First off, the hecklers are in the wrong. Period. No one came out and paid the cover charge to listen to self-righteous assholes in the audience add their two-cents. The came to listen to the self-righteous assholes on stage.
The job of comics is to get in front of a darkened room full of strangers, stand under a spotlight straight out of an interrogation room, and push the line. The ‘line’ changes with every audience. Safe comics are lame. No one laughs very hard at them. They tell easy jokes that don’t challenge anyone. Real comics push the line and get the biggest laughs. Sometimes, inevitably, we misjudge where the totally arbitrary line is for that group of strangers on that particular night.
Occasionally when that happens, some self-appointed ambassador of all-that-is-pure-and-righteous will stand up and make a fuckin’ scene instead of just not laughing when we aren’t funny.
Let me make this clear. Your job as the audience of a comic is to not laugh when we aren’t funny. That’s more than enough for us to get the point. Nothing hits us harder while on stage than a room quietly staring back at us. We’ll go back and tweak the set, or drop the joke entirely. We’re experimenting every time we get in front of you. We KNOW when we’ve failed.
But as soon as you start heckling, you’ve assumed that you can do our job for us. You’ve stepped into the limelight and tried to steal the precious few minutes of experimentation we’re given each night. Guess what? You’re now on equal footing. We’re going to fight you for our territory, without mercy, because you haven’t earned the right until you’ve actually put yourself on stage with us.
Don’t like it? Stand up at an open mic and see if you can find the line.
Now, this is not to say that once the gloves come off, comedians can’t end up in the wrong also. Kramer’s response was obviously off the charts, for example, and we can debate to death, (as has already happened) Tosh’s choices in how he dealt with his heckler. But remember that when you interrupt, you’re pushing us off script and out of our rhythm. We need to improvise very quickly, shut you down, and get the audience back. That’s our job, and often the best way to do our job in that situation is to be brutally rude to you. It’s a skill that requires a lot of practice to find the balance, like mental tightrope-walking.
So the next time you’re out supporting your favorite comic, or checking out the local open-mic scene, please just sit back and let us kill or bomb on our own merits. When we’re not funny, don’t laugh. We hear the silence far more clearly than anything else you could say.