The biggest misunderstandings in regards to standup comedy is that comics like to be heckled. While most of the audience understands this, there are a surprising amount who don't. Very few comedians are very adept at dealing with hecklers. Some comics have a character they inhabit, others are very low-key in their delivery, while most have a set routine and heckling wrecks the timing of their act.
I'm one of the exceptions when it comes to hecklers, as even though my goal is to do the act that I have planned, I'm more than willing to verbally evicerate whoever gets in my way. Dealing with hecklers is not my goal, though. Let me explain it this way.
Outside of psychiatrists, I can't think of a profession where people get uncomfortable having a conversation with you, as many believe they will somehow wind up me analyzing them and then put them into my act. There was a woman who lived in my neighborhood, who would always bring this up saying “I bet you will end up putting me in your show.” Finally, I decided to alleviate her fears. I explained that “don’t think for a second that anything in your life would be interesting enough to make its way into my act.” I think I can speak for most comedians in saying that we are not trolling for material and most of what does come to us is when we are by ourselves. Same goes for hecklers. You are not going to help our show, unless it is a completely dead audience and the comedian you heckle just happens to be adept at the art of roasting.
Last Friday night, I had a drunken heckler. (And yes, there are sober hecklers, sometimes.) I slammed the guy a few times, but he kept jumping in during the middle of a joke, wrecking the timing of the material. I finally got so pissed off that I went off, savaging him to the point that the audience was cheering me to go for the jugular. One thing you learn early on is if you are a funny comedian, the audience will behave like they are at a Roman Coliseum, wanting you to go for the kill. Considering that they have paid a cover to watch the professionals, the tolerance for some a-hole who believes he is “helping the show” is very limited.
After unloading a couple bombs on my heckler, I hoped that this would be the end of it and I could back to the regularly scheduled portion of the show. Feeling wounded, my heckler offered up the excuse that “I’m going to Afghanistan next week.”
This was a pretty crafty response, as almost every comic I know would back off and instead act like the guy was some kind of hero. I’m not that guy. I have what can be a fatal flaw and that is that I don't pacify people I should often ignore. Since I’m not like the Comedians of Comedy, who go around performing only for audiences who generally agree with their political points of view, conflict does happen sometimes at my show. I’m a touring standup who goes basically where I can get work and who will pay me a decent wage. I’m not a great comic, but I do feel some pride in not just preaching to the converted. Here is what I offered my heckler.
“So you are telling me you are going to Afghanistan. Normally I am very strong in my support for our troops. I am not a flag-waving robot, though. Just like in any profession there are good people and bad people. I know a load of comics who are egotistical dickheads. I would sometimes put myself in that category. I’m guessing you are the type of soldier who would have been setting up pyramids at Abu Ghraib prison. Now, I don’t want anything fatal to happen to you, but if you lost a limb, I can’t say I would be that broken up about it.”
Youch…that is some cruel stuff to say to someone, let alone someone who is serving our country. I’m not sure it is completely defensible, but I will offer that this jerk would not stopping interrupting the show. I gave him a couple mulligans, but he wouldn’t stop. After I offered up the quote from above, I was a bit concerned how the audience would respond. They were very supportive, laughing and hooting. Now, just for a little bit more info, I wasn’t performing at a Moveon.org rally. The audience was just a bunch of middle-class Americans from a small city (less than 40,000) in northern Wisconsin. I’m guessing the city votes overwhelmingly Republican. After the show, I had a man who looked like he stepped off the cover of some “Greatest Generation” book come up to me and offer this point of view. “I fought in the Korean War and I can tell you that guy who was heckling you was an embarrassment for me. If that is the kind of soldier we have fighting for our country, I don’t think we will ever solve our problems overseas.”
Now, I want to mention that I don’t think for a minute that my heckler that night was a good example of what our troops are like. I’ve done comedy shows at military bases and have had nothing but good experiences, as these soldiers are not the Sean Hannity-lovin’ robots many Liberals think they are. While they might not be as diverse politically, as the general public, they are often more aware than anyone how larger policies have put them in a state of constant FUBAR.
I decided to relay this story, as I know 4 years ago, my words would have caused a different outcome from the audience at this venue. I think it is good that many Americans have stopped blindly leading with their patriotic hearts. We should support the troops, but not pretend that they are all outstanding human beings anymore than we should do the same with politicians. While your job might give you a little bit of extra credit, it shouldn't be a teflon for all of your actions.
After my final slam of my dim-witted heckler, I didn’t hear anything more out of him. At the end of the show, I mentioned that I might have been hasty in my words when I had said that (him) losing a limb wouldn’t tear me apart. I wished him the best of luck and the safest of travels. Not exactly a “We are the World” type moment, but I’m all about giving people a chance to redeem themselves. Well, except for this guy.