American comedian Lenny Bruce performs on stage, late 1950s. Photo by Julian Wasser/Pix Inc./LIFE /Getty.


The comic’s quandary

Does heckling let the real comedian stand up and shine, or does it trample a punchline and mangle a routine?

by Lary Wallace + BIO

American comedian Lenny Bruce performs on stage, late 1950s. Photo by Julian Wasser/Pix Inc./LIFE /Getty.

Probably the closest thing you can compare it to is the fighting in ice hockey. Think about it: an activity somehow both integral and non-essential that many in the audience consider more entertaining than those parts of the performance that require actual talent. But here’s the difference between fighting in hockey and heckling in stand-up comedy, and it’s an essential one: the former is all about the players, while the latter is all about the fans trying to be the players.

That’s why it drives comedians nuts when it’s asserted – as it was at length in the Chicago Tribune a couple of years ago – that heckling is often not only the best part of stand-up but often, indeed, the only memorable part of stand-up. Chris Borrelli – who, with another writer at the paper, Nina Metz, engaged in a forum-type discussion on the subject – went so far as to write: ‘I have seen countless comedians and theatre performances and live events in general, and forgotten most of them. But I remember each and every time I have witnessed a performer get into it with an obnoxious audience.’

The article got noticed in the comedy community, where it was regarded with contempt. The US stand-up Patton Oswalt wrote a post on his personal blog expressing ‘disgust’ with the two writers, characterising the piece as ‘an asinine, pro-heckling space-filler article’, before specifying: ‘hecklers don’t make a show memorable. They prevent a show from being a fucking show. Comedians do not love hecklers. They love doing the original material they wrote and connecting with an entire audience, not verbally sparring with one cretin while the rest of the audience whoops and screams, disconnecting from the comedian….’

An even more elaborate rebuttal to the article was provided by the comedian and journalist Steve Heisler, who wrote: ‘Hecklers make comedy memorable in the same way vacations are made memorable when you get mugged on them. You’re forced to make lemonade out of lemons. But make no mistake: there are fucking lemons.

‘This is a vibrant… art form,’ he continued, ‘that benefits from a deep understanding of what it takes to craft a set. What it takes to hone a joke. What it takes to devote your life to a career that is 99.99 per cent rejection, and STILL keep going….’

All of which is capable of making you feel pretty guilty if, like me, you’re a fan of stand-up who’s sometimes entertained by what happens when somebody heckles.

It’s not like this whole idea of heckling-is-good-for-comedy is some imaginary construct of journalists and other outsiders. It has very earnest proponents among stand-ups themselves. Billy Crystal – the furthest thing imaginable from a comedy outsider – made and starred in a movie, Mr. Saturday Night (1992), in which the fictional comedian Buddy Young Jr finds his voice as a comic precisely because of a heckler. He’s a young kid, up there on the big stage doing his shticky routine, and bombing terribly. A guy starts coming at him from the crowd with insults, and the insults Buddy volleys back are what bolster his material and his confidence, and put the crowd on his side. A career is born.

It’s not just in the movies, either. The comedian Franklyn Ajaye has written a terrific book called Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-Up Comedy (2002), in which the following words appear: ‘Sometimes a heckler can be good for your show, particularly if you’re at a point where you don’t have any new material and you’re a little bored with your act. Dealing with a heckler can be a chance for you to play around and see how your mind handles fresh stimuli.’

It’s worth emphasising that what Ajaye says here isn’t that heckling is good for comedians because it helps them prepare for dealing with other hecklers; what he says is that heckling is good for comedians because it helps improve their actual comedy.

comedians have been known to hire hecklers, planting them in the audience because of the frisson of danger they can give a show

The Canadian-born comedian Harland Williams, who is interviewed in the documentary Heckler (2007), says: ‘I just like the challenge of a heckler. I like it when people yell out, because basically they’re just shooting a bullet at you – it’s like a verbal bullet. You’re in the middle of something, and all of a sudden – pshoo-oooww – and you can either, like, do a Matrix [leaning away from and underneath the bullet], or you can catch it [catching the bullet with one hand] and go: “Let’s go buddy – it’s party time!”’

And we shouldn’t ignore the undeniable fact that comedians have been known to sometimes hire hecklers, planting them in the audience because of the frisson of danger they can give a show. Granted, these plants are working from scripted material, entirely on the comedian’s own terms, often written by the comedian himself. Two examples from Richard Zoglin’s biography Hope: Entertainer of the Century (2014) illustrate perfectly what I mean.

‘What’s going on behind the curtain?’ one of Bob Hope’s hired stooges might yell out during a show, to which Hope would reply: ‘Nothing,’ which gave the heckler the perfect opportunity to get in the last, best line: ‘Well, there’s nothing going on in front of it either!’ Or Hope might say to one of these stooges who’s been heckling him for a while: ‘Don’t you know, boys, you can be arrested for annoying an audience?’ and the stooge would reply: ‘You should know!’

Now compare all this to another heckler Zoglin identifies, from much later in Hope’s career when he was on one of his tours entertaining the troops in Vietnam. Someone in the audience shouted out at him: ‘Draft dodger! Why aren’t you in uniform?’ Hope responded as well as anyone could in such a circumstance, but his response was still pretty weak: ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on? A guy could get hurt.’

And that, right there, is the difference between the heckler as facilitator and the heckler as foil – between the kind of heckler you hire and the kind of heckler you don’t.

Not every stand-up is an insult comic, or a master at handling unruly crowds. The effectiveness of some stand-ups – of a Steven Wright or a Marc Maron or a Kyle Kinane – relies so heavily on the pace established and the atmosphere created that to make the show about banter and badinage is to make it a different kind of show entirely. The same is true of the storytelling comedians, the kind who develop narratives rather than simply bounce along from punchline to punchline. For this type of comedian, a heckler can be downright destructive.

If the system worked properly – and if there were any kind of system at all – the only comedians to be heckled would be the comedians who heckle. I don’t mean heckle from the audience, of course; I mean heckle from the stage. Because this is another aspect of stand-up, and it’s one that the stand-ups themselves tend to forget about when complaining of hecklers.

A common refrain heard from stand-ups is that no one considers it appropriate to yell things at the opera singer, the convention speaker, the jazz player or the stage actor, so why is it considered appropriate, customary, even expected to do so at the stand-up? Why do audiences disrupt comedians? And one answer among many is that comedians very frequently disrupt audiences.

The best stand-ups consistently manage to engage the audience without directly addressing particular members of the audience – to create the illusion of dialogue in the midst of what is actually a monologue. Which is its own kind of problem, ultimately. These comedians create a conversation – or seem to. And it’s a conversation in which funny things are said constantly, inducing you to believe that somebody has to be the next one to say something funny, and so it might as well be you.

No wonder stand-ups are the only live performers who regularly deal with this issue. It wasn’t always so. In Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, the groundlings (so-called because they paid a mere penny to stand in the theatre’s pit) were such a nuisance that the playwright – on his way to coining their name, in Hamlet – took the time to rue their being ‘capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise’. Hecklers were in fact such an integral part of Elizabethan theatre that performers were expected to be prepared for retort and repartee, and the best usually were.

only in stand-up is the performer deemed ill-equipped if he does not respond to such interruptions with deftness and dispatch

Other than the stand-up, no live performer is any longer burdened with such a responsibility. We know why heckling went out of fashion in the theatre, which became more civilised when cheaper modes of entertainment prevailed. And we know why heckling seldom appears in any consequential form at political venues, which are usually either dominated by rabid supporters or take place in a sober, respectable context. Even at so-called town-hall meetings, where the people’s collective voice ostensibly receives its clearest and fairest hearing, that voice is rigorously vetted to reduce the possibility of spontaneity and surprise – to reduce the possibility, principally, of heckling.

At musical concerts, such verbal interruptions are so jarringly out of place that they’re seldom tolerated, and usually are not heard by the performer anyway. Athletes have to deal with some of the most egregious hecklers of all but, because sport is a substantively non-verbal medium wherein communicating with the audience is pretty much impossible, the athlete isn’t burdened with the expectation of a rejoinder or retaliation. Public speakers will have to deal with it sometimes, and so will other varieties of live performer, but only in stand-up is it expected – only in stand-up will the performer be deemed ill-equipped if he does not respond to such interruptions with deftness and dispatch.

The comedian is supposed to make an audience feel comfortable and communal – to make an audience feel it’s in the midst of a conversation even though it’s not. So it is that the better he does his job – his primary, ostensible job – the more he’s liable to have to perform this other, secondary, auxiliary job, for which he will also be stringently judged.

This is a dilemma unique to stand-up.

Comedians are sensitive. We forget this. We see them on stage, scoring their laughs from disease and genocide, natural disaster and sexual assault, and we begin to think, most of us, that anyone who could dish out that can certainly take anything. This must be what sometimes seizes the mind of a heckler who otherwise, out of sheer propriety, would never in even his drunkest moments think of interrupting a performer onstage.

But comedians are sensitive. Although it’s an extreme case, anyone who witnessed Michael Richards’s career meltdown when he shouted racial abuse at his audience in 2006 knows how rattled comedians can become by the interruptions of a heckler. Ellen DeGeneres told Ajaye that hecklers ‘used to upset me all the time. I’d just walk off crying sometimes. I mean, they wouldn’t see it, but I would be backstage crying.’

‘Comedians can’t take criticism. Comedians are big pussies’

Louis C K, in the documentary I Am Comic (2010), says: ‘I get really upset when people heckle. It’s a thing I can’t get over.’ Then he tells the story of when he said to a female heckler: ‘You are a bad person. You have a bad, mean heart. And I know you don’t think so – you think you’re having fun – but I really want you to think about what this is like for me, and how awful this is, to do this to a person.’

Or, as Louis C K once said to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show: ‘Comedians can’t take criticism. Comedians are big pussies.’

But it’s not just about criticism. It’s about a train of thought interrupted. It’s about a crafted monologue mangled. It’s about a punchline stepped on. It’s about an audience’s attention drawn away. It’s about all of these things. And it’s about putting the whole thing back together after the distraction has been dealt with.

We take it for granted that comedians are imperturbable, with the microphone and the literal elevation, not to mention the courage and talent that gave them both, and we think that nothing can throw them off. We see clips on YouTube of comedians destroying hecklers and begin to believe that not only are comedians not fazed by hecklers, but comedians should actually welcome hecklers – that if they’re not hiring hecklers right now, the way Bob Hope used to, then they certainly should be.

But one of the best-kept secrets of stand-up comedy is that even when a stand-up deals triumphantly with a heckler – even when he conquers and crushes a heckler – he will think of it not as a victory but as a draw – as territory re-gained rather than gained.

A heckler might sometimes make a show better or more entertaining, but he will never be anything more than Ringo. This axiom was confirmed in the most literal way possible one night in the late 1970s, at a comedy club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, when Ringo Starr himself decided he would heckle a young, pre-success David Letterman.

‘It wasn’t a fair fight,’ as William Knoedelseder tells the story in I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era (2009):

In the spotlight, Letterman couldn’t see who the heckler was, so he showed no mercy, and Starr was too drunk to appreciate how badly Letterman was beating him up. Finally, one of the comics took pity and called out, ‘Hey, Dave, it’s Ringo.’
‘Oh, that makes sense,’ Letterman shot back in the direction of Starr. ‘You ruined your career, and now you’ve come here to ruin mine.’

Ringo, on that night, might have provided some essential accompaniment from the shadows, but Letterman was John, Paul and George all in one.

Letterman’s riposte was even more ingenious than it at first appears, for the way it managed to be both vicious and vulnerable at the same time. This is the holy grail of heckling comebacks – it’s what comedians aspire to in practising the delicate surgery of putting a heckler in his place without losing the sympathies of the audience.

‘A well timed “put-down” can be very funny,’ writes the Caribbean-born comedian and magician Keith Fields in How to Handle Hecklers (2006), ‘but if you overreact and fire off a few lines at the first heckle[,] you risk having the audience turn against you. Even worse than that, you can start a trend.’

This is another thing not sufficiently appreciated by those of us who’ve never had the courage or craziness to get up on stage and tell jokes – this dynamic of just how easy it is to disrupt a show’s equilibrium. Let any single component or reaction dominate, and the whole thing could be ruined, possibly even explode. It’s happened to the best comedians; it always will.

When Don Rickles was asked in a 1968 Playboy interview how he deals with hecklers, he responded with a classic bit of inverted Rickles: ‘I say, “Please try to be more polite. Your frequent interruptions have a deleterious effect on my timing and thus diminish my over-all effectiveness as a humorist.” He [the heckler] generally runs off crying.’

Rickles’s irony here isn’t nearly as effective as it would be if it didn’t so closely resemble what Louis C K actually did say to the heckler in the exchange mentioned above. Granted, that exchange wasn’t a complete success – she angrily approached him after the show – but it seemed to have shut her up momentarily, and it certainly must have gotten the audience on Louis’s side. It restored the right dynamic. It allowed the equilibrium to hold.