I was in Minnesota when it happened.
I don’t remember the joke I told, I just remember the response. In a sold out room of 200, 199 people laughed and applauded. When the din receded, however, one lone woman shouted out her disapproval: “That wasn’t funny!”
I rolled my eyes. You can’t please everyone, and since the joke had landed extremely well I wasn’t too concerned by a single naysayer. Unfortunately, she was not to be ignored and yelled out a second time: “You’re not funny!”
Now I had to address the situation, and asked: “So everyone in here that’s laughing is wrong?”
That caused her to yell again, and from there I was off and running.
Over the course of the next minute or two–which might not sound like much, but is actually a fairly long time to have to deal with a heckler–I berated her to the point she and her sheepish-looking and embarrassed boyfriend left the showroom. In moments like this, audiences cheer. They came out to have a good time, and bitter pills in a comedy club are never appreciated.
After the show, people shook my hand and clapped my back, tossing kindness my way. Like our first president, I cannot tell a lie: flattery is one hell of an ego boost, and I was quite pleased.
Then something odd happened that brought me crashing down to earth. An audience member approached me with a wide smile across his face.
“Dude!” he began excitedly. “That was amazing! I spent all day watching heckler videos online, and was hoping something like that would happen tonight, and it did! You trashed that chick! It was awesome!”
He gave me a bro-handshake, and with a wide-smiled wave was off to drink the rest of his evening away. Over the course of the next few people, I got the same “compliment” several more times.
“You shut her up fast!”
“You nailed that loudmouth!”
While the sentiment was enthusiastic, the content was frightening.
I had spent an hour on stage telling jokes that I crafted if not painstakingly, thoughtfully. I’d tested them time and time again, tweaking each word for maximum effect, hoping to give an audience a night of laughter and escape… and what some people loved was the berating of a heckler.
Which brings us to the problem at hand: heckler videos are immensely popular.
They get thousands of views, and comedians post them with clickbait titles: “Comedian Destroys Heckler!” and “Wait until you see what this comedian did to someone who wouldn’t shut up!” There are websites dedicated to them, with lists of the “best” takedowns. Heckler videos are so popular that sometimes they’re even faked, with comedians badgering members of the audience and then editing the video to make it look like someone was talking out of turn.
That’s not what comedy is supposed to be about.
Comedians are on stage to express themselves; we have ideas, and we want those ideas to generate laughter. We get that not everyone is going to like us, and that’s OK. We’re shooting for the majority, the overwhelming majority, of any room. If one or two stragglers aren’t in the mood to laugh, there’s nothing we can do about that. We’re not cymbal-banging monkeys, wound up to amuse those who sit with crossed arms and furrowed brows.
If, as an audience member, you don’t like a comedian, or a joke, that’s fine. You are entitled to your opinion. But yelling out your disapproval during the performance? That’s pathetic. In the Internet age, there are myriad ways to express your opinion. You can blog, Tweet, Yelp!, and Facebook about it. You can even leave, but yelling out in the moment isn’t your right. Not even if you “paid to get in!”
(Which is a widely believed misconception, that paying to see the show automatically means you get to shout out whatever and whenever you want.)
If you do yell out, expect to get trashed. Expect to be insulted, shouted down, and mocked. Because you deserve it. You should be humiliated in front of everyone in the room, and if that shames you into leaving? So be it.
But even though that’s entertaining, it’s not comedy, and it shouldn’t be used to promote stand up via videos.
In full disclosure, I’m not innocent in all of this; I’m as guilty as any other comic.
Ten years ago, when YouTube was in its infancy, I posted a clip of me shouting down the bane of every comedian’s existence: a bachelorette party. They had been disruptive through the opening comic, and the middle comic; by the time I got to the stage they were out of control. Hell, you can even hear the audience shushing them right before I snap. Back then, I actually posted the video as a goof, giving a shout out to a friend of mine at the beginning.
The visual quality is horrible, the audio muddled, content lacking, yet out of 98 clips I’ve posted on YouTube it’s by far and away the most watched video of mine. Of all the time I spent writing jokes, what people flocked to was me yelling at the audience.
Because it was so popular, I tried it again years later, even going giving it a click-bait title to draw the masses in. Guess what? It worked again, drawing in the clicks.
But I’m not going to do it anymore.
I tape most of my shows, and about once a year run up against a heckler that just needs put down. I have a couple clips right now that would probably drive a ton of traffic to my YouTube channel, but I’m not going to post them. I can’t pander to base-level instincts just to get the masses riled up. That’s what people like Drumpf do, and while it works well for them, it’s not my thing. I don’t think it’s good for the craft of stand up comedy.
Oh, and if you’re a heckler and don’t like something, especially something everyone else is laughing at?
Instead of yelling out (or blogging, Tweeting, Yelping, or whining in any other way), maybe the problem is you, not the comedian.