Heckler Skelter

hecklers

Repeat after me: Heckling does not help a stand-up comedy show!

To get an idea of how unhelpful hecklers are, imagine if you were forced to read the above sentence while trying to read something else for pleasure. Let’s say, a Dan Brown novel:

“That’s it,” thought Langdon. “The answer was right in front of me the whole time. If one translates Beowulf from the old English into Portuguese using a code key hidden in the original handwritten lyrics of Francis Scott Keyes’ ‘Star Spangled Banner’, then the name ‘Grendel’ changes to ‘Dick Cheney’, which means the murderer has to be…” –Repeat after me: Heckling does not help a comedy show!

See how frustrating that was? Just before you could confirm your hunch that George W. Bush is the scion of Jesus of Nazareth, hell bent on destroying the Catholic Church so that he can paint over Michelangelo’s  work on the Sistine Chapel with a giant portrait of himself dodging a flying shoe thrown at him by a rogue Iraqi assassin as revenge for the time he tried stealing the original Declaration of Independence as an initiation prank for the Skull and Bones Society in an attempt to uncover the conspiracy to murder General Patton, who was actually a high-ranking secret member of the Free Masons, the Druids and the Illuminati—I had to go and ruin it by thinking that what I have to say is more important or entertaining than the carefully written and edited prose of the bestselling author you paid good money to read during your valuable free time.

Why? Because I’m disrespectful and self-centered. And a member of the Illuminati.

Although the average headliner can make crushing a drunken redneck under an avalanche of well-rehearsed stock lines look easy and fun, as well as therapeutic, comedians don’t need hecklers to help them get laughs.

That’s what jokes are for. Jokes: you know, those things comedians write and perform every day for a minimum of five years before becoming a paid professional?

Hecklers always think they’re helping the show. Sometimes, they even feel as if they are the show. Unfortunately, hecklers want to be part of the show without putting in any of the hard work required to prepare, produce or promote the show. Most hecklers are so egotistical they actually think that the interplay between themselves and the comedian is somehow superior to the material the comedian has spent the past decade or so honing.

I don’t spend hours at the computer perfecting a piece of material just so an audience member who shows up five minutes late to a show can interrupt me and force me to make fun of the lime-green tank top he’s wearing on Formal Night just so he can feel like a superstar for the rest of the cruise every time somebody yells, “Hey, look it’s ‘Lime-Green Tank Top Boy’!”

We comics don’t slam hecklers in order to get laughs; we slam hecklers in order to embarrass them into silence so we can get on with our acts. Problem is most hecklers have a simplistic sense of humor. So, when a comedian whips up a witty comeback right off the top of his head, what most comics would consider a run-of-the-mill heckler slam comes across as pure comedy gold to the heckler. Therefore, the heckler reasons that in order for a comedian to drop the boring crap and start with the real jokes you have to heckle—or help—him. This reasoning is illogical because it totally ignores the opinions and preferences of the other three hundred people who paid to see the show. Without having any affiliation with the comedy club other than clipping a free coupon out of the newspaper, the average heckler decides that he knows what’s best for both the comedian onstage and the rest of the audience. The product of a perfect blend of narcissism and Long Island Iced Tea.

If heckling is so integral to an act’s success, then why don’t comedy clubs audition hecklers and book them six months in advance just like comedians? When was the last time you walked into an Improv or a Funny Bone and saw a poster that advertised: “Tonight: Marc Maron! With special guest: ‘Some drunken redneck in a Nickelback T-shirt’ ”?

Once a heckler opens his mouth, the show’s focus transfers from the performer onstage to a member of the audience who may or may not have paid to be there. Most people who pay to see a comedy show do so because they’re either a fan of stand-up comedy in general or a fan of a specific comedian:

“Jim Gaffigan is coming to the Civic Theater next month. I love that guy—let’s go online and buy tickets… (so we can sit in the front row and shout, ‘Hot Pockets’ every five seconds until Jim throws the microphone at us before running offstage to put his head in a microwave oven).”

Nobody who buys a ticket to a comedy show is paying to see the audience:

“Gee, I hope that same drunken redneck in the Nickelback T-shirt who heckled Brian Regan at the Hard Rock Casino last month shows up at the Jim Gaffigan show tonight. His non-sequiturs about Bud Light and bass fishing were way funnier than anything two of the best joke writers in North America who make millions in ticket sales every year have to say. Better yet, I hope there’s a loudmouthed bachelorette party sitting front row center. I pray that, as soon as Jim launches into a hilarious bit about how much money he spends on groceries every month feeding a family of six, some barely coherent bachelorette does one too many shots of tequila and tells Jim straight up how unfunny he his. That way he can abandon the material he’s spent the past year perfecting in order to make some hysterical, off-the-cuff comparisons between plantains and the giant penis hat that demure flower  is wearing.

“Now that’s comedy, cousin!”

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Shut Up and Laugh!

No Talking

My main duty as a comedy club manager is to monitor table talk and heckling during a show. The reason “policing the room” is so important is because stand-up comedy is a delicate art form. In fact, the only thing more delicate than stand-up comedy is the ego of a tipsy redneck who thinks stand-up comedy is neither delicate nor an art form. That means I constantly have to be on the lookout for potential disturbances that can interfere with a comedian’s performance. A skilled comedian’s punchlines are so precisely timed that distracting him for even a second can cause the funniest joke in his act to become painfully unfunny and then, before you know it, Larry the Cable Guy’s doing it on TV.

They say that dying is hard but comedy is harder. Harder still is trying to get cruise ship passengers to shut the hell up for half an hour. The difference between a well-rehearsed joke killing or dying can be caused by the slightest change in the inflection or pronunciation of a single word in the setup or punchline. Believe it or not, a comic can’t concentrate on the nuances of delivery if his inner technician is being drowned out by a bachelorette party seated ten feet from the stage arguing over who has the classiest tramp stamp.

So it’s my job to go from table to table begging the self-centered and inebriated to act like grown-ups for thirty short minutes. But, on a cruise ship, where guests have paid a pretty penny for the privilege of being obnoxiously drunk in public, getting them to give their respect and attention to a professional entertainer is sometimes a mission even “The Expendables” would turn down.

That’s why the average audience member gets defensive when I shush them. Rarely does anyone ever apologize for getting caught up in the moment and not realizing how loud they’re being. Rarely does anybody say, “Oh, I’m sorry. This is my first time in a comedy club. So when I heard your offstage announcement asking me to keep my table talk to a minimum, I thought you were joking. And so when the comedian onstage told me to pipe down and the entire room erupted into thunderous applause, I thought he was joking. And so when the table of half-deaf blue-hairs in front of me turned around, screamed ‘Shut the @#$% up!’ and started pelting my abnormally sloped forehead with gin-drenched ice cubes, I thought they were a geriatric flash mob. It never occurred to me that I’m not actually supposed to chit-chat at full volume while others are trying to enjoy a professional comedy show. Thank you, sir, for inspiring me to become a better—and quieter—person. I beg you to reach deep within your heart and find the mercy to forgive me for breaking the unwritten social contract of “he talk, me listen” which has existed between a boat act and his audience since time immemorial. Now may I please have a glass of water to take my lithium with?”

Actually, nobody ever says that.

Instead, they say: “What do you mean I can’t talk in a comedy club? Oh, so only the comedian is allowed to talk, is that right? I’ve never heard of that before. What is your name, sir? I’m going to have you hung, drawn and quartered for ruining my cruise and scarring my soul with your unreasonable and unthinkable demand for silence during a live presentation in a theatrical setting! How about crying—is crying OK in a comedy club? Because that’s what I feel like doing now that you’ve embarrassed me in front of my equally drunk and inconsiderate friends by politely and gently reminding me of a policy you clearly mentioned a dozen times in your preshow announcements!”

Although I can understand somebody not knowing how to behave in a comedy club, what I can’t understand is how a grown adult can argue with somebody who works someplace about something only a person who works at that place can possibly know anything about. I was raised Catholic. Not once did I have to take off my shoes or put on a yarmulke upon entering my church. Therefore, it wouldn’t occur to me to take off my shoes before entering a Buddhist temple, just as it wouldn’t occur to me to put on a yarmulke before entering a Jewish synagogue.  But even though I’m not a religious person anymore, I wouldn’t think twice about losing my shoes or wearing a yarmulke upon entering another’s house of worship. I’m a guest on their turf and, therefore, good manners dictate that I respect their traditions and customs without question. You’ll never hear me say to a rabbi, “Sorry, dude, but I put a five-dollar bill in the collection box before entering, so that means I paid to be here, Chuck. And since the customer is always right, I’ll waltz into this dump wearing a Nazi helmet and a Speed-o if I want to. A man wearing a yarmulke in a synagogue? I’ve never heard of that before.”

Policing the room is normally much easier in a land-based comedy club. At my home club, Hilarities 4th Street Comedy Theater @ Pickwick & Frolic, in downtown Cleveland, there’s always a showroom manager and anywhere from two to six ushers in the showroom at any given time. The moment customers start heckling or chatting too loudly, Usher #1 goes over and says something. If the behavior continues, it’s Usher #2’s turn. If that doesn’t work, the showroom manager asks one more time—very politely—for the customers to settle down, sometimes handing them a business-card-sized note explaining the club’s No Talking / No Heckling policy. If that doesn’t work, the showroom manager radios for backup in the form of an off-duty uniformed policeman, who then escorts the guests out of the showroom. The guests then have their choice to continue their conversation out in the martini bar or upstairs in the restaurant. If, however, they give the cop a hard time, they can continue their conversation in the back of a squad car.

In the Punchliner, on the cruise ship I’ve called home for the past five years, it’s just me. What the showroom manager, doorman, ushers and off-duty police officers at Hilarities do in unison, I do all by myself.

The only thing I don’t do is put talkers into the back of a squad car.

Instead, I just throw them overboard.

Getting thrown overboard for talking during a comedy show? I bet you never heard of that before.