Updated: Dec 3, 2021
Hecklers often believe that heckling is all part of the fun and that comedians welcome it and that it helps them. While there are some comics who relish taking on a heckly audience, most comics want to do their act without it being interrupted by shouted interjections that they have to deal with. (And you do have to deal with it – ignoring them is not an option). When I interviewed my friend and top compere Barry Ferns for my book (in a quote I didn’t have room for in the final draft) he had this to say on hecklers:
“I see audience members as individual neurons that together make up the brain of the audience. But they're all individually firing in their own way. If you get one neuron that's firing a little aggressively, you might need to find some way to get the other neurons to help bring it in line. Yes it can look like it’s the comic who is dealing with the person who’s heckling, but in fact there is the whole social pressure involved from the other people around them. If the audience are really on the side of the heckler and the heckler is right in what they're saying then the comic can't do anything.”
So if the heckler is shouting something like “you’re rubbish get off” and they’re voicing the view of the whole audience there is nothing much you can do about that. It probably IS time to get off and lick your wounds. But assuming the rest of the audience are engaged with your act and are as distracted by the heckler as you are, they’ll want and expect you to deal with the situation and will be your allies in this.
Whatever the heckler does, from an unexpected unhelpful contribution to a strong attacking insult, one response that has numerous advantages: GET THEM TO REPEAT IT. You ask them, as if you’re interested, to repeat their heckle. This achieves several things:
• They may well not repeat it. In which case you can just say something like “I must be hearing things” and continue. • If they do repeat it, it will be unlikely to be with the same power as the first time. • If the said something funny it won't be funny a second time. • It turns the audience's attention away from you to them. • It buys you thinking time. • And if you are going to work with it you need everyone to have heard it.
You could then even repeat it once more yourself. The heckle diminishes with every repetition. By his time you might have thought of something apt to respond with – or you could deliver a prepared put-down. Responding with prepared put-downs is the most common way a stand-up will react to a heckler. (And if everyone has heard it and you have the line ready to go you needn’t go through the ‘repeat it’ process.)
It can be a good idea to learn two or three of these put-downs and have them ready if it suits your style and persona. You can find these online and Rufus Hound has even edited a book that collects a selection of them. Some of the Rufus Hound selection may be too well known to use, but unlike material there is an unwritten agreement among comics that put-downs are common currency that all are welcome to draw on. And of course you can write your own… which might eventually enter the shared pool of such lines! Here are two examples. The assumption here is that the gig is going well, aside from the heckler. If the entire audience are against you, it's time to get off...
“Thanks but I do my act the way you have sex – without help from anyone else.”
“For you it’s a night out. For your family, a night off.”
(That second one I heard Jack Dee use so perhaps he originated it). Most hecklers are drunk and excellent compere Geoff Whiting shared these these put-downs with me that are for drunks (for pissed stag-do punters and the like):
“This is what happens when you drink on an empty… head.”
“You look like you’ve been drinking since six. Or even younger.”
The authors of the put-downs are mostly lost in the mists of time but I seem to remember Geoff crediting Dan Antapolski for originating that second one. Thinking in terms of ‘come backs’ rather than ‘put downs’, they needn’t be harsh. Here’s one of mine that acknowledges a heckle and gets a laugh but isn’t putting the person down:
“Any heckles, can you put them in writing please. I'll put you down within seven working days.”
If anything this is a joke at my expense for not understanding the time frame in which you’re meant to respond to a heckle. And I've heard a lovely one a couple of times that goes something like:
"Thank you for your heckle. It is important to me. It's being held in a queue. A comic will put you down as soon as one becomes available."
There are of course other approaches beyond using prepared lines. You might for instance critique the heckling, pointing out the various ways in which they are failing as a heckler. Take apart their heckling shortcomings; e.g. "Is this your first time heckling? Next time try and say something funny". A high status approach. Or if your persona is low-status, you can come back with lines that knock yourself.
You might also do to them what they are doing to you. Eg: if they are interrupting your joke, get them to tell a joke and interrupt in the same way. Another high status approach. And if you find yourself in the (rare) position of having to deal with a drunken heckler that really won’t shut up – and you’ve run out of options and everyone is as annoyed with them as you are – you can isolate them by showing the rest of the audience is against them. E.g., “by round of applause, who'd like this guy to shut up.” This is drawing on the audience as your allies as Barry discussed right at the outset.
And of course you could always just respond spontaneously in the moment; and some comics eschew prepared lines and rely on their wits. But the advantage of having something prepared is that it makes you more relaxed about heckling and so in fact more likely to come up with something spontaneous in the moment. (As an aside, it's usually better to abandon a joke that's been interrupted by a heckle, especially if it's not integral. Just say "well that's fucked up that gag" and move on.)
And finally, if the heckler makes the whole room laugh, you just have to acknowledge and enjoy it. The best response is to develop their gag and top it, but failing that a reliable response is to mime writing it down in a notebook and say something like: “Thanks, that’s going in the act.”
First of all, if you’re a newer act, don’t fancy relying on your wits and haven’t yet got some lines ready to go… get some! Either write them or choose some from the great pool of shared put-downs. Geoff Whiting once told me that before going on a new act nervously asked him what to do if someone heckled. Geoff gave him a standard line. As it happened he was heckled. (Perhaps the audience already felt rowdy which brought on his concern). He skilfully delivered the standard line and got a round of applause.
On my course, I always suggest to the new comics that they prepare lines for anything else they are worried about. For example: people in the audience talking. Talking while acts are on stage should ideally be established as being not the done thing but of course it does happen (again alcohol is often involved). A standard line is: “This isn't TV you know, I can hear you.” What else might an act want to have lines ready for? A common one is a phone going off (comics usually have great responses to this) and also drink spilling, people coming in late, people leaving, getting up to go to the bar, to the toilet, walking across the front of the stage… So you're not just preparing your act, your preparing lines for all the other stuff around it too.