Following a recent stand up gig I thought I’d share an experience I had dealing with hecklers.
[Note: This was not in a theatre environment where the comedian is unseen until the show. It was in an informal environment at a football club where the acts mingle with the guests until their spot. My solution relates to this environment.]
I was closing a show, meaning that I was on last which gave me an opportunity to get a feel for the room and watch the other acts.
Right away there’s a quick tip to comedians:
Where possible, when headlining, try to get there early enough to watch the other earlier acts. You can learn so much about the room, the logistics (mic/lighting/stage) and of course the audience.
Arriving early helped me enormously. I watched as a heckler continually interjected mistaking the show for a 2 way conversation. Unfortunately, he was seated right next to the stage and worse, to the side where the performer least directed their attention. The stage was in an odd position meaning that 90% of the audience was to the left unlike the heckler tucked in to the right. The heckler’s location meant that much of what he called out could only be heard by the comedian and a few others. This is the most frustrating fact. It’s better if a heckler can be heard by everyone because then the whole audience is affected and supports your predicament. When you continually stop due to a disturbance only you can hear then you need to either ignore it and move on or spend time explaining what’s happening to the audience up the back.
Throughout the night, the heckler was dealt with by the earlier acts to varying degrees of success. At one point the heckler calmed down only to be replaced by another at the same table. I watched this knowing that I was still to perform in over 30 minutes time – plenty of time for the audience to smash down a few more beverages and completely lose the plot.
What was going to happen? This was a footy club gig and the audience were all friends. Would they all turn on me as one?
Through experience I knew I had something in my favour – a 20 minute break. After the 2nd bracket the audience were scheduled to have a dinner break. It was to be very informal though with people milling around the room chatting. This was my chance to quickly and easily negate the hecklers’ power.
I simply went up to the two hecklers at the bar and introduced myself as the final comedian of the night. I asked them their names and then I peppered them with the least alpha male questions possible: “Do you have children at the football club?” “How old are your kids?” “What are you raising funds for?” After a few minutes they dropped their macho crap and I was their best friend.
At this point I’ve also removed their anonymity. I now knew them and they knew me. I released a pressure valve allowing them to chat to me now rather than later.
A few minutes later I started my 30 minute set. I began with a quick reference to each of them by name. I didn’t look at them while doing this, I simply included them in my opening and moved on. Something like “I was chatting with Brian and Mick at the bar and they told me…” etc) Not only did this empower the hecklers in a positive way but it also showed the rest of the crowd that I was in control of the situation.
At this point it’s very difficult for the hecklers to play power games with me (i.e. heckle) when they both know me, like me and have no need to force their way into the show when I’ve already included them.
In the end the two hecklers sat back looking content and laughed their way through my set.
The lesson is: Don’t think that hecklers always have to be dealt with from the stage, if you get the opportunity, deal with them earlier off stage. It’s easier and more effective.