By Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune reporter
1:21 PM PST, January 3, 2013
Let's talk about heckling. Who isn't talking about heckling? ("Shut up! I'm talking about heckling, you idiot. If we wanted you to talk about heckling, we'd give you a crayon and a sheet of graph paper!")
Anyway, as I was saying, every few months it seems there’s another comedian involved in a heckling incident gone awry. We have our camera phones — video evidence! — and an instant-upload sensibility to thank for that. Heckling has a long tradition, of course. In Shakespeare’s day, the so-called groundlings — audiences crammed into a standing-room-only space and probably grumpy about it — were a notoriously antic bunch who weren’t above throwing food at performers.
A few hundred years later, theater-goers decided that no, maybe we’ll give the high-jinks a rest and sit here quietly and behave. That same decorum, however, never settled over comedy audiences — and nothing has made me happier. I feel I might be alone in this sentiment. Heckling is the scourge of comedy clubs. Ruining everybody’s good time. Right? Not in my book. I recently cornered my Tribune colleague Chris Borrelli to see if there might be a valid argument on behalf of those of us who are actually (gasp!) in favor of heckling.
Nina Metz: All right Chris, where do you stand: Are you pro-heckling or anti-heckling?
Chris Borrelli: If you mean am I pro “audience trolls” (the preferred name now, please, decorum): Well, in theory, no. Taste and manners and ticket prices tell me instinctively, anyone who feels the need to shout at the stage also feels he or she is ahead of me in the pecking order in life and has earned a better deal, the right to a piece of the spotlight, to adjust the performance and mood of the room to his or her suiting. These people are the audience equivalent of those who walk down the street talking on speaker phone — they have violated the unspoken pact a society enters into.
On the other hand, as someone who wants an event to be memorable, yes, I’m pro-heckling. Who isn’t? I have seen countless comedians and theater 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. Someone shouts something often unintelligible — note to hecklers, be intelligible — and people lean over and ask what that person said, heads swivel, the performer stops, there is a pregnant break in the evening. The audience focuses on the stage, holds its breath, waiting for a response, which, unlike the rest of the performance so far, is unscripted.
Nina: Yes! As journalists and critics, we’re trained to stand and back observe, so I don’t think it’s ever occurred to me to heckle. But I am always secretly thrilled (and nervous!) when someone else does it. Even when a comedian is working on new material, there’s a lingering sense that what we’re hearing has been pre-thought and prepped in some way. Heckling throws a big, honking wrench into that and suddenly — record scratch! — here’s a moment that feels unpredictable. What is going to happen?
That tension can be really interesting as bystander. I also think heckling separates pros from amateurs. It gauges how fast a comic can think. It is the ultimate test: How funny are you really when your back is against the wall? Don't get me wrong, I’m sure it is miserable for the comic. I had a conversation with Zach Galifianakis last year and asked if he ever saw heckling as something potentially desirable from a performer’s creative perspective. “I’ve been heckled before — many times, actually — and it’s always distracting,” he said, “especially if you’re in a rhythm and the audience is really laughing. But it just comes with the territory and you have to learn how to handle it.”
At best, comedians tolerate it. And I can’t blame them for this less-than-enthusiastic response. To all you performers out there, I am truly sorry for the grief you endure at the hands of hecklers. But from a purely selfish point of view, for an audience member, it works as a litmus test. Improv skill, reveal thyself! The comic that turns hostile (or acts peeved and petulant) isn’t working at the top of their game. (Michael Richards’ N-word tirade directed at a heckler in 2006 is one of the more infamous examples.) But if they can zing back with a really sharp retort, they have my respect for life.
Chris: You and I have spoken to enough comics to know, despite the old line that all comics are insecure and depressive, there are funny-funny comics and funny-unfunny comics, and the paradox is, both can very funny. But the heckler pulls back the curtain and reveals which kind of funny we’re looking at: The one who can write a joke and tell it well, or the one who doesn’t need carefully considered material in his head to generate a laugh. I am not judging one over the other. But I suspect this is the discomfort for Galifianakis; he is so high-concept that a heckler not only disrupts the rhythm, it grinds the whole contraption to a halt. In comparison, there is wonderful footage in Richard Pryor’s “Live on the Sunset Strip” that shows how a comedian who is naturally funny can walk the line between vaguely hostile and charming. Pryor is talking about how cold it is in Illinois. Someone shouts, inevitably, “How cold is it?” Pryor, without a pause, says, in classic Pryor whiplash, “This ain’t Johnny Carson, mother------.”
If you are honest with yourself, what is there not to like about this? As said, heckling forces ingenuity. Of course, heckling also entertains because heckling is relatively rare. Online heckling — and a general sense of snark in contemporary life — is not. An offhanded theory: We can trace contemporary, live heckling back to “The Muppets,” to Statler and Waldorf, the old guys in the box seats who heckled Fozzie? They were always funnier than Fozzie, and children are prone to repeat the behavior they witness, so ... can we draw a line from the heckling on “The Muppets” to, say, President Obama being heckled (“You lie!”) by Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina during his health care address to Congress in 2009?
A stretch? Or is this one of the lesser, obscure reasons why Obama seemed so dislocated during his first-term: He reminded us of Kermit, trying to appeal to morons in box seats who aren’t really seeking a conversation.
Nina: Statler and Waldorf are my spirit guides. I kid! If only most hecklers were as funny as those two, right? But your point is a good one, because guess what? Heckling has spilled out of the comedy club (and the ballpark, the heckler’s paradise) and even into the hushed world of golf. I know. Golf. At the Tiger Woods Challenge not long ago, pro golfer Graeme McDowell complained about a spectator who was “yabba-dabba do-ing” after every shot, which McDowell deemed “stupid” and driven by the fan’s desire for momentary fame. Galifianakis seems to understand this and usually brings his hecklers on stage. The idea being: You want to be part of the show? OK, but be careful what you wish for. “If you talk to them very quietly and interview them on stage and make them feel really terrible, that’s really good,” he said “I talk to them like a psychiatrist: ‘Why would you do that?’ Because I really want to know.”
But there are different kinds of hecklers, so let’s break this down. There’s the Happy Heckler, aka The Fan, desperate for attention from their favorite comic. Nick Kroll sees a lot of these. Kroll plays the primo jerk Ruxin on the FX fantasy football sitcom “The League” and he is booked to perform two shows at UP Comedy Club on Jan. 13. “To call it the positive heckle isn’t really true,” he told me.
I suggested that the very format of his TV show — which is really just a well-executed heckling-delivery device — could be inspiring his audiences. Maybe, Kroll said. “People just really like to shout catch phrases from the show, so I let them get it out of their system. They’re doing it because they’re psyched to see me and they like the show. If it persists, then I find a clever, non-overly hostile way of shaming that person into silence.”
Other classic heckler types: The Drunk, shouting nonsensically (rarely interesting) and the Serial Antagonist (adrenaline-inducing!).
Chris: Let’s not forget a subset of The Drunk – the Guy Who Has a Lot to Say and is Going to Get it All Out Right Now. He’s different than the ranter because he is just trying to get to the end of his sentence. The problem is, it’s a little like a few seconds of dead air in a radio broadcast: It always feels much longer than it is. Oh! There’s also the Casual Discusser, the person who wants a clarification or needs a word repeated. This is the strangest heckler to witness. There’s a great YouTube clip of comedian Arj Barker having a weird conversation with a woman at the old Lakeshore Theater: He says the word “gym” and she replies “Gym?” It stops things cold. Barker, whose rhythm is thrown, points out that it’s perfectly normal to ask a live performer to back up and explain what they said.
Side question, Nina: Do you see more men heckle than women? I see a lot of women heckle for some reason.
Nina: Huh, I never thought to break it down by gender. Offhand, I want to say it’s equally divided — especially if we’re talking about the boozers.
My favorite flavor of heckler, though, is what I call the Productive Heckler, who has a specific response to the comedian's material. This person, whether they know it or not, is there to keep the comedian honest. Last summer, during the Just For Laughs festival, I caught a show from Chris D’Elia, who co-stars on the NBC sitcom “Whitney.” D’Elia likes to do crowd work, which likely makes him even more susceptible to those with heckling tendencies. He began a joke with this set-up: “Why is it so hard to get girls?” — this from a good-looking guy on a TV show. All I could think was, “Yeah right, you have trouble scoring attention.” And happily, an audience member (female, though does that matter?) voiced the same exact thought with a one-word response: “Bull---.”
The audience kept D’Elia honest. He was forced to stop and explain why, even for a guy in his semi-famous position, it’s not easy to meet non-celebrity obsessed women. I love Productive Hecklers.
Chris: It also sounds like a genuinely interesting moment of revelation, albeit one that was forced on the entertainer. We are now listening to someone say something they genuinely hadn’t intended. It also brings up another point: The crowd must be with you. This is true of comedian and heckler. One or both sides of the heckle must be able to read the room and understand who has the upper hand. A comedian who can’t read the mood is a comedian about to die. (Just as a heckler who doesn’t realize not everyone is with him — which is the case with most hecklers — starts at a disadvantage.) George Carlin was terrific with hecklers because, and this is super important, he could make the audience feel the anger he was feeling. Nothing organizes quite so quickly as righteous indignation.
Nina: Also, if you’re a heckler, beware the mid-show bathroom break. A few weeks ago at a club in Atlanta, comedian Adam Newman noticed there was a person heckling performers all night. When Newman took the stage and realized the guy had stepped away — but his jacket remained — Newman embarked on a mild sort of revenge by riffling through the pockets of said garment. Apparently he found a bag of cocaine. (Naturally, the moment can be found on YouTube.)
Chris: I love that clip because it’s really about generosity toward a heckler. The comedian is trying to defuse the situation; the heckler (by leaving his jacket behind) is letting it happen; the comedian could really (legally) destroy his tormentor, but backs off, visibly shaken. Again, heckler-created theater! But the heckler, let's not forget, is also fundamentally clueless. You reminded me of another 2012 Just for Laughs show, the Sarah Silverman-led comedian-palooza at the Chicago Theatre. Natasha Leggero noticed a guy in the front row reading his cell phone. I recognize this is a passive-aggressive heckle, but to anyone near this man, it felt like a heckle-heckle, a jerk who couldn’t bother to give his attention to the person standing before him. This guy, mind you, was in the front row. She ripped into him, and then brought Silverman out, who also ripped into him.
Nina: Cell phone heckling has become a real thing. Kroll told me a similar story: “I was doing a show the other day and someone in the crowd was looking at her phone — and it threw me more than any kind of heckling would have.” He called her out on it, but she kept on texting.
Chris: Shame is a tough, though. It curdles. But used well, it suggests a tough-love empathy on the part of the performer. A good comic will allow a little babbling and personal grave-digging, which hands the idiot a shovel to dig himself in deeper. I think of Louis CK, whom I once saw thoroughly disarm an annoying babbler, who was in turn being heckled by the audience. Then Louis replied: “Wow, people who don’t know you hate you. How does it feel?”
Nina: Some comedians treat heckling as an act of war. Katt Williams bolted down from the stage at a show in November and challenged hecklers to a fight. Of course, heckling as a form of audience protest became the debate du jour a few months ago when Daniel Tosh told a rape joke and got some unsolicited feedback from an audience member who voiced the opinion that “rape jokes are never funny.” Tosh reportedly parried back: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like, right now?”
To me, that’s using a flamethrower to kill a housefly. If there had been more time for him to craft a response, would he have said anything differently? Who knows? Tosh is a comedian whose persona is very much tied to the idea of taunting and pushing boundaries — and maintaining the upper hand, even when he’s making fun of himself.
Chris: It does make me wonder though why a popular comedian, a Tosh-like comic with thin material, hasn’t made heckling their entire act yet. Just think: A halfway decent insult comic, combating predictably hostile audiences, could glide through a 30-minute set – until it becomes no fun. Then you just have Ed Debevic’s. Or Don Rickles, though Rickles worked rooms at a time when shouting at the stage was just the job of the Drunk.
Nina: You would like Eddie Pepitone, who is the most cuddly crank working in comedy today. He will frequently wander into the crowd and start heckling the empty stage in order to heckle himself. Just totally ripping into his own material and failings as a human being. It’s pretty brutal. And hugely, deeply funny.
Hey, how about a lightning round of some classic heckler putdowns? Steve Martin keeps it short and sweet: “Ah, I remember my first beer ...”
Chris: My favorite: “Do I come to where you work and shake the Slurpee machine?”
UP Comedy Club
Carlos Mencia, Friday, Saturday; Matt Braunger (from NBC's "Up All Night"), Jan. 10-12; Nick Kroll (from FX's "The League"), Jan. 13; Dan Harmon (creator, since fired, of NBC's "Community"), Jan. 22; Dana Gould, Jan. 25-26. At 230 W. North Ave.; 312-662-4562 and upcomedyclub.com
Dwayne Kennedy (Chicagoan and writer on "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell"), Friday-Sunday; Paul Reiser ("Mad About You"), Jan. 18-19. At Zanies, 1548 N. Wells St.; 312-337-4027 and chicago.zanies.com
Tom Segura, Friday-Sunday; John Heffron (past winner of NBC's "Last Comic Standing"), Jan. 10-13; Pablo Francisco, Jan. 24-27. At Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg; 847-240-2001 and improv.com
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