For stand-up comics, hecklers are no joke

Critics debating the merits of heckling should ask comedians how they feel about audience trolls

January 14, 2013

 Imagine standing onstage at a comedy club, all shaky and sweaty under a blinding spotlight, expected to make everyone in the room laugh harder than they've ever laughed before. You go into your routine, praying that your punchline will at least get a chuckle or two. Instead, someone shouts an obscenity from a few rows back. You have two options in this scenario, and you must decide quickly: a) ignore the heckler, or b) unleash a verbal blitzkrieg that could either save your act or send it up in flames. 

I've seen a good amount of stand-up in Chicago, and whenever a heckler interrupts with some arrogant snark, I have to resist the urge to throttle them. I also hold my breath waiting for the comedian's reaction, wondering if they feel just as embarrassed and appalled as I am.

In my experience, these instances have been thankfully few and far between. However, a recent Tribune article debating whether hecklers actually make shows more entertaining has sparked outrage from readers in the Chicago stand-up commmunity. 

In "A Field Guide to Heckling," reporters Nina Metz and Chris Borrelli discuss the possible upsides of an audience member verbally attacking a performer on comedy night.

Metz claims that hecklers can give comedians great material to use in their act, and "from a purely selfish point of view," she judges their responses as a litmus test of true talent: "Improv skill, reveal thyself!"

Borrelli states that he is anti "audience trolls," but he is admittedly pro-heckling in terms of creating a memorable experience. "I have seen countless comedians and theater performances and live events in general, and forgotten most of them," he says, "But I remember each and every time I have witnessed a performer get into it with an obnoxious audience."

Less than a week after their commentary was published, comedian Nick Vatterott posted a scathing "review" of the article on his Tumblr blog. In addition to calling Borrelli "a spineless Yes Man" incapable of debate, he skewers Metz as "an out of touch, long time unsupportive villain of the Chicago stand-up scene." 

The A.V. Club's Steve Heisler had a negative response to the Tribune article as well, but his argument is much less mean-spirited. He makes a list of the issues to which he takes offense, and rationally refutes each one. And while he holds the writers accountable with sharp and biting criticism, he never resorts to name-calling. 

I also like how Heisler compares a boorish heckler interrupting comedian Patton Oswalt during his act to an audience member vomiting over a balcony during one of Paul Rudd's Broadway shows. Both incidents were shocking and unscripted, possibly entertaining for some people, but also 100 percent unfair to the performers onstage. The only difference between these two examples is intent: puking usually can't be helped, while heckling is intentional malice. Comedians are hard-working professionals, and they should be respected as such.  

To back up her pro-heckling stance, Metz points to a conversation that she had with Zach Galifinakis about hecklers providing a "potentially desirable" situation for a comic. However, I believe his carefully-worded reply proves that the opposite is true: "I've been heckled before—many times, actually—and it's always distracting...but it just comes with the territory, and you have to learn how to handle it."

For the sake of future stand-ups, I hope that they won't have to deal with rude hecklers interrupting them while they're trying to do their jobs. And for those who get a cheap thrill out of watching spontaneous confrontations turn ugly, there's always football. 

Follow Leah on Twitter @leahkpickett

 

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