Heckling the Hecklers

When someone’s an asshole to you, what kind of asshole do you get to be back at them? Can you find enough in the situation to destroy their position without destroying their personhood? Such are the weighty questions I pondered after watching some videos on a comedy site. Like ya do.

The premise of Splitsider’s “Eight Types of Hecklers and the Comedians Who Shut Them Up” by Megh Wright is great–what are the different types of people who interrupt stand-up comedy routines and how do comedians respond? But too many of the comedians Wright chose as examples of great heckler shut-downs were unmitigated assholes. I don’t mean they were mean; most comedians have a scale of “a little to a lot” when it comes to being mean in their acts, and frankly that’s usually why we find them so funny. And especially if some jerk in the audience is going to interrupt your carefully crafted routine and your limited stage time with some inane comment or drunken insult, I say rip ’em to shreds. And then call security.

But there’s being mean and funny, and there’s being a bigoted asshole. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that so many comedians choose the latter, since I don’t watch a lot of stand-up precisely because they include terrible jokes in their acts, but it still got to me. With few exceptions, if the heckler was male, the comedian joked about his supposed homosexuality and also about fucking his mother, and if the heckler was female, the comedian called her a bitch/slut/whore and usually crazy too. Ugh. I went from being on the comedian’s side to wishing the video would end sooner so I wouldn’t have to hear the audience laugh at the awful attacks.

Here’s a sample [TW, definitely]: Joe Rogan called his female heckler a “fucking crazy bitch.” George Carlin said his male heckler was “a cocksucker in disguise” and that he only had his mouth open “because he wants someone to come in it.”  Bill Hicks, whose profanity is a normal part of his routine, went way too far when he screamed at his female heckler, “you fucking cunt, get the fuck out of here right now, you’re everything that America should be flushed down the toilet, get out you fucking drunk bitch.” But definitely the worst was Ari Shaffir, whose response to his female heckler was, “I wish upon you the greatest success in 2008 and hopefully you will get raped many times before you leave here tonight. But I don’t wanna give the rapist any VD that you have… what did they do? all they wanted to do was get laid, they didn’t know.”

Whew. That was a whole lotta ugly.

And there’s no need! Other comedians in the list had great comeback lines without once employing homophobia or misogyny.

Jacqueline Novak rolls right with her male heckler’s comment and explains just how wrong he is, while remaining in the same joke she had been setting up before she was so rudely interrupted. Steve Hofstetter similarly riffs on his male heckler’s stupid interruption without once making reference to the heckler’s sexuality or his mother’s sexual proclivities. Amy Schumer shut her female heckler down quickly, and then told her to be like the losing chess player in “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and “take the draw” if she felt like talking again. My favorite was Patton Oswalt, who went on a lovely long rant about what a douchebag his male heckler was and how his future was filled with douchebaggery.

Being a stand-up is hard work, I know that, but once you have an audience on your side, it’s real easy to get laughs out of them by dealing low blows to a heckler. Why be satisfied with that? Presumably you actually want to be funny, so skip the bigotry and go straight for the withering put-down.

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5 thoughts on “Heckling the Hecklers

  1. My all time favorite comeback to a heckler is Steve Martin’s, which came in the form of a joke: A heckler yells something unintelligible/irrelevant, and Steve Martin replies, “Yeah, I remember my first beer.”

  2. Hey, thanks for writing this post, I really enjoyed reading what you have to say about the videos. A couple things — first, the gender gap bugged me just as much, believe me, but I was only choosing clips based on what was available on YouTube as far as comedians vs hecklers, and on top of that I chose the clips that were funny/entertaining/will make people think — I wasn’t going to put a lame video in just because the comedian is female, you know? I certainly wouldn’t be doing any favors for “female comedy” with that. Also, the moments aren’t necessarily all hilarious, but I think it’s fair to say that ALL of them create a strange moment where the comedian’s true nature (well, as far as being forced to be spontaneously funny AND keep their audience from turning on them) is exposed. That scary vibe I get once some of those videos go to a weird place (Carlin and Ari Shaffir made me feel that way especially) really fascinates me…sometimes I laugh and sometimes I want to hide my eyes for a few seconds. An awesome feeling. Anyway thanks again and I loved reading what you have to say.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Megh! What a thrill, to have the author of the piece respond.

      I don’t think I mentioned that the gender disparity was an issue; there are a whole lotta dudes doing stand-up, that’s for sure. There were actually more female comedians than I was expecting to see on such a list!

      Comedy is a strange beast, certainly, and we all have such different reactions to the comedian’s personality, or choice of material, or manner of delivery. My reaction to some of them just happened to be a physical stomachache. But there it is, like I said I watch less stand-up than sketch comedy, precisely to avoid stomachaches. Probably that makes me a bit too comfortable with the comedy I enjoy, and I know a lot of comedians want to push their audiences farther and farther to the edge, but personally, I’m only willing to go so far with them.

      Thanks for the article and the reply. I love the discussion.

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