Backstage: How to Handle a Heckler
How to Handle a Heckler
by Red Grant
[As originally featured on backstage.com]
There are a lot of things a comedian needs to deal with. One of them is that you never know who will show up, so you have to be prepared for anything that might happen while you’re on stage—especially hecklers.
A heckler is “a person who interrupts a performer or public speaker with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse.” Okay, that’s one way to look at it. But I view them more like the “disease” of your audience and like any disease, you have to know how to cure it, sometimes by any means necessary.
A heckler leaves their house intending to destroy your show. In their mind, it’s their job to make you “funnier.” They feel like they are funnier than you but just haven’t gotten on stage yet. So the audience becomes their stage. And as long as they can make the audience laugh more than you can, they will continue to heckle.
In my experience, there are three ways to handle a heckler: ignore, join, or attack. I prefer not to use the latter but remember, cure by any means necessary. Here’s how I handle them:
Rule #1: Never give a heckler the power over you.
How do you give him power? By acknowledging him. Hecklers interrupt you. They disrupt the show. The best thing to do is ignore them by moving to the opposite side of the stage and continuing with your set. Usually, this will embarrass them and they’ll just stop. If they don’t, you’ll need to move on to the next step.
Rule #2: Join them.
Hecklers are searching for attention, so attention you may need to give. I like to use the “nice way” first because you really never want to attack your audience; they pay the bills and you want them to have a good time. So I hit them with a quick, “You’re right,” which usually stuns them since they never think you are going to pay them any attention. And while they’re in that stunned state, ask some questions. “Where are you from? Oh, I love Texas. Are you by yourself? Oh, I see...with your friends.” This is typical.
A heckler is usually with friends trying to show off. “Well, thanks for coming out and I hope you continue to have fun tonight.” Most of the time they recognize you’re trying to spare them and they settle down. When they don’t and you can see they are out to destroy, you have no choice but to resort to number three with no care of sparing them.
Rule #3: Attack.
I recently had to resort to this. A woman had heckled every comedian on stage before me, so I was prepared. I first asked security if they could please speak to her, but she was too drunk to listen. (If your heckler has been drinking, then you’re dealing with a whole other monster.) I took the stage and no more than 30 seconds in, she started yelling incomprehensibly. I said, “You’re right,” hoping she would back off. But she didn’t. “Where you from?” I asked. “I’m from you,” she responded. So I asked her if she was by herself. “Nope, I’m here with my girls celebrating a birthday.”
Immediately I could see the embarrassment on her friends’ faces. So I brought them into the conversation by asking if this young lady was always like this. They said she was. I said, “You probably told her not to wear that vest too, right?” They all cracked up and I was back in the driver’s seat. But even though the heckler was now visibly embarrassed, she kept on. She was ready for battle. So I just started firing every vest joke I had until the crowd was going nuts. Her friends soon left. After 20 minutes of non-stop vest jokes, realizing she was fighting a comedic bear, she eased herself out as well.
The remaining crowd was in such a frenzy that they never even brought on the last comic. I’d done what is known in the comedy world as shutting the heckler and the room down at the same time.
So there you have it, my cure for the disease. Hecklers come in all shapes, forms, and fashions so keep an eye out and if you find yourself facing one, use what I taught you well.
Red Grant is an American comedian, actor, writer, and producer. Known for his infectious laugh and his unrelenting work ethic, Red spends a solid 48 weeks a year on the road doing standup and is currently hosting Katt Williams’ 11:11 RNS World Tour. Red’s career began in 1996 performing at New York’s Apollo Theatre. He’s since gone on to star in such films as “American Hustle” and “First Sunday” alongside contemporaries as Katt Williams, Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan. He’s performed on “Shaq’s All Star Comedy Jam” and appeared in Comedy Central’s “Reality Bites Back.” He’s written for such shows as Snoop Dog’s “Dog After Dark” and Comedy Central’s “Roast of Flavor Flav.” And he’s graced the small screen in his own hour-long Showtime special "Caught Red Handed” as well as Comedy Central Presents’ half-hour special “Red Grant.” For more information on Red, please visit redgrant.com.