This post is longer than others – I have really gone into detail.
If you are genuinely interested in how I deal with hecklers though, you are in for a TREAT.
My methods may not be the best methods either - so firstly, a little disclaimer:
If you decide to use them, I take no responsibility for the consequences!
Heckles are a notoriously intimidating part of live performance, but they don’t have to be.
Behind each heckle is a real-life person, likely a surprisingly predictable one, whose confidence has disappeared rapidly after their initial vocal burst.
Not every heckle is a bad one either; some can really enhance your show if you jump on board and use them to your advantage.
In my humble experience, heckles can be addressed using almost formulaic methods – as if you have a mental flow chart helping you decide what to say next based on the audience member and their reactions to your acknowledgement.
These techniques can be better equipped, however, if you firstly remember a few important things when performing.
Remembering these will allow you to recover more successfully from an unsuspecting moment or heckle…
1. The audience want you to succeed.
(well mostly anyway!)
If you have someone in your audience who really isn’t very nice, (remaining polite here), the rest of the audience will probably feel just as p**sed off by them as you do.
If done gently and carefully, this alliance can be used to your advantage – ‘gently and carefully’ is key here though, so I’ll go into more detail in a moment.
2. You are in control.
The audience expects to be entertained, that’s all.
If something isn’t working, remember that the show is yours, and you can move off script –
This takes confidence to do, but when you start interacting in a spontaneous way with audiences, your sense of control and capability will grow exponentially.
3. It’s not brain surgery, it’s entertainment.
Granted, people have died during magic tricks before, but it’s very unlikely…
If a show doesn’t work out as well as you’d hoped, then it’s not the end of the world.
If it was really bad, you can at least (hopefully) say that “nobody died” at the end of it.
Remembering these things allows me to feel calm and composed when I step out in front of a microphone, or when I approach a group during a corporate gig.
However, these facts will not prevent heckles; here are my formulas for dealing with them:
Never ignore a heckle.
If someone in your audience is bolshy enough to interrupt your show, then to remain the dominant party, you need to have the confidence to address it.
Ignoring a heckle can make your audience to feel uncomfortable –
A moment ago, they were enjoying your sense of control, now however, they are slightly concerned that you cannot cope with audience interruptions.
They’ll start wondering whether you’ll be thrown off if a second heckle appears and worrying more about whether this is going to happen than what’s happening in your show.
So, with that in mind, how do you deal with…
A. A stupid joke?
This is your most common heckle, and probably the easiest to deal with.
Even though you should acknowledge the comment, it is best to do so as briefly as possible.
You may want to react with a short retort back, before continuing along with your performance.
Alternatively if, like me, you convey a lot through facial expressions, you may simply want to pause and raise your eyebrows at the comment with a gently judgmental smile – turning the audience’s attention back to yourself through your comical reaction to the heckle.
If suppressing the heckler’s first comment only pushes them to become more vocal, you probably want to move on to steps (C) & (D).
Firstly though, what if someone voices…
B. A clever joke?
If an audience member has thought of a genuinely witty retort and voiced it with perfect timing, then hats off to them!
Pause and look at them.
Repeat their phrase back to them.
Doing these 2 things will unify the audience, (you have ensured that everyone has heard the joke and is on the same page), whilst also giving you enough time to think of your own witty reaction to their comment.
Voice this reaction to the joke – failing to think of one, maybe just use a stock comment:
“Have you got copyright on that line? – No? – Thank you, I’ll add that to the next show.”
You have briefly congratulated them on their wit but are now ready to continue with your show – the audience will likely forget about them very quickly, and you’ll remain the confident performer, unthreatened by witty audience members.
But what if…
C. This joker continues?
The person who is capable of clever humour, is also usually the person who knows when to stop.
You have validated their joke, now they will let you carry on without interruption, happy with a nice story that they can tell their family when they get home.
However, occasionally this confidence boost goes to their head…
They now believe they have the skill of a comedian, and may interrupt again, this time almost definitely with a comment much less witty than the first.
If this happens, you are going to have to start putting them gently back in their place.
Pause more briefly this time, similarly to the way you would for the ‘stupid joke’ in (A).
Probably don’t bother repeating it back to them.
Instead, politely shut them down while reminding them who is in charge. Lines such as…
“You’re very funny _*insert name*_, the only difference between us is that I have a microphone”
“I appreciate your jokes _*insert name*_, but maybe you should get your own show so that you don’t need to interrupt mine.”
…work pretty well.
They may sound a little harsh, but if said in a non-threatening, jovial way with a smile, they suggest that you’re willing to have a laugh, just not at the expense of your show.
Getting their name and using it during your address is also helpful at his point –
It cements the idea that you have singled them out and are aware of them; this will likely make them wary of pushing you further as their self-consciousness sets in.
D. They still persist?
You are going to have to assert authority to prevent them derailing the show.
I normally go by the rule of 3 –
1 comment and I will entertain you.
2 – I’ll give you a firm warning.
3 – I’ll politely tell you to shut up to avoid being removed from the audience.
This third and final warning is where your audience’s alliance to you, the one I mentioned earlier, is useful.
If done correctly, you can successfully knock the confidence from them, whilst firmly suggesting that they are quiet, without turning the audience against you…
However, if you are too harsh and cross the line of what your audience deems acceptable, then you risk turning your audience against you.
No one likes a grumpy, defensive performer.
Comments that are too harsh will make your heckler seem increasingly innocent and turn them into a victim of your defensive wrath.
Depending on the situation, it may just be best to confidently and politely warn them that further interruptions will result in you asking them to leave.
This is very justifiable at this point, and you can further ensure your remaining audience supports you by suggesting it is for their benefit…
“Everyone here has paid the same amount to see the show, so it’s not fair for me to keep you in the audience if you’re going to interrupt their enjoyment of it”
…is an effective line to use.
The audience will be reminded of their own annoyance at having their potentially costly evening interrupted and agree that they too would like this person to be quiet.
If it then becomes necessary to ask them to leave, you have done so with fair warning, and you already have the audience’s support.
E. You receive a prejudiced heckle?
This could be a sexist, racist, or homophobic comment, or any remark that is prejudiced against yourself, a member of your audience, or any topic you may be talking about onstage.
This is not ok, and you would have to address this in a more serious manner.
If the comment was against you, then laughing it off will suggest to the audience a lack of self-worth or strength.
If the comment was against an audience member, then laughing will not only suggest a lack of respect for your audience, but in your position of power, you have a duty to protect them from it.
Depending on how offensive the comment is, you’ll either be in a situation of jumping straight towards asking them to leave if they voice their opinion again, or in extreme cases, asking them to leave immediately.
I realise at this point we have really ended up down the rabbit hole – if I were a new performer reading this, I’d believe I should walk out onstage as if I were going into battle.
I want to stress that (A) is your most common heckle, and that having to do much more than laugh and brush away a corny joke is extremely rare.
However, having in mind what you might do if suddenly faced with heckles is always a good idea; it will allow you to remain composed and prevent you being blindsided by a comment.
You are in the position of power; you are in control.
Without becoming a power-hungry, dictatorial performer, this is important to remember.
If someone repeatedly interrupts your show, don’t let them continue.
Your job is to entertain the audience, if one person is preventing you from doing that effectively, then your audience will support you in politely putting this person back in their place.
But what if…
You’re entire audience turns against you?
Run away. Run. Run away, and never return.