A Comedian Blogs: The Ethics of Heckling

By london_chrisc Last edited 135 months ago
A Comedian Blogs: The Ethics of Heckling

Hello Jeff!

I was recently involved in a conversation between two dear friends about the ethics of heckling. They each had deeply polar opinions on the matter, which were a follows:

- Heckling is a monstrous and odious practice, performed exclusively by troglodytes and reprobates. Its villainy is matched only by genocide, and its purveyors on equal terms with Stalin. Those who heckle have, at best, a scant understanding about the nature of timing and performance; at worst, they set out to deliberately undermine comedians, to ruin the fun of those around them, and to gain a fleeting speckle of undeserved attention. For me, hecklers spoil comedy.

- Heckling and Live Comedy are synonymous. Live comedy cannot survive without hecklers; they are intrinsically linked, wholly inseparable. The fact that a heckler can LITERALLY throw a spanner in the works is precisely what makes live comedy so raw and exciting. Watching comedians make a come-back, beating a heckler down and carrying on is often more fun than any material a comedian could write. If you want to watch a slick performance, stay at home and watch a DVD; for me, hecklers are the very reason that I go to live comedy.

Most comedy fans have quite a firm standpoint on this issue, which they then apply to all live comedy. Some believe that one should always heckle, others believe that you should sooner cut out your iris with a frozen badger than even consider heckling. As a comic, my view is rather biased, but I tend toward the latter. Indeed, at my own comedy night, heckling is banned. Heckle at my club, and you'll be "out on the street without a Luncheon Voucher to your name", as my nan never used to say. But I think that the idea of an absolute right or wrong is flawed, and I'd briefly like to talk about why.

I've only ever heckled a comedian once, when I saw a truly, truly awful male comic who was trying to tell a story about a "feminist toilet". It's terribly bad form for a comic to openly say bad things about another, but for particular jokes, I am willing to make an exception. The idea was - and I should warn you to brace yourself, because you are about to experience genius in its most electrifying form - that the comic was standing up, trying to urinate into a toilet, but that blasted toilet seat refused to stay upright!! So - and this is where I must ask you to make absolutely sure that you are strapped into your seat, lest you fall out from the uncontrollable spasms of laughter you'll no doubt have rushing through your body - the chap planned on urinating at double-quick speed, before the toilet seat had a chance to fall on him. And what do you know? He didn't manage it in time, and - disaster upon all that is disastrous - the chap experienced what can only be described as backscatter, which went all over the place. The comic reasoned, therefore, that the toilet must be feminist, because women sit down to relieve themselves.

This punchline, as you can imagine, fell largely to silence. When it did, the comic then tried to explain that it was funny because men stand up to urinate, whereas women sit down. Do you see?

You could almost hear the screams of the collective consciousness that, in this one particular instance, it was undoubtedly the correct course of action to heckle. None of the heckles were nasty, mind - people simply cried out at him "WHAT DO YOU MEAN?? IT MAKES NO SENSE!!" and "WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST PUT THE SEAT DOWN?" Uncharacteristically for me, I joined in, adding to the chorus of judgement "I SIT DOWN TO WEE", which is true. Perhaps I've shared too much; the point is that the chap had absolutely nothing with which to reply when people heckled simply to point out that the joke doesn't work on any level.

Even if a comic is deeply awful, I would generally never heckle. Even when their act relies on false stereotypes between the genders, I'll stay silent. However, when they become sexist, racist or homophobic, they are, as Scientologists say about those who dare to criticise their church, Fair Game. The growling sneer with which this comic said the word "feminist" was enough to convince me that it was the correct thing to do.

But I digress - in my opinion, it's not a binary issue. The answer to whether it is right to heckle depends entirely on the comedian, and indeed on the club. If you were at a Jongleurs style chicken-in-a-bucket comedy night, then as loathe as I am as a performer to say so, it probably is right to heckle, because at nights like that, the entertainment of your group of friends comes before the material of the comic. If you ever go to see an openly laddish comic, chances are they invite hecklers, because they are skilled at nailing them. By the same token, if ever you were to see the great stand-up storytellers like Daniel Kitson, or comics with precision timing like Stewart Lee, or comedians whose acts revolve around friendliness, like Josie Long, then clearly, heckling has absolutely no place at all.

I align my taste in comedy, and I try my best to align my own stand-up, firmly with a style of comedy which happens to be particularly fashionable at the moment, much to my immense delight - a style where people are nice to each other. The idea may sound twee to many, but I'm interested in comedy without victims, where people go to comedy because they love comedy, not because they love a bit of a verbal fisticuffs. Is it right to heckle? It depends on the comedy, but if you are a heckler, I implore you to think before you shout. Don't lump anything that makes you laugh under one sweeping definition of comedy; think about what the act is trying to do. If a comic is picking on the audience, then it's probably fair enough that you return the compliment. But if the comic is trying to tell a story, or set up a meticulously crafted punchline, then just sit back and enjoy the ride. A heckle might make things fun in the short term, but in the long term, your patience will be rewarded.

Perhaps you read this article and thought all of this was obvious. If you did, then I'm clearly preaching to the converted. Unfortunately, there are many thousands of comedy-goers who would never even give this a moment's thought.

Next week, I will be teaching you how to pick berries. Imagine that!

Image adapted from Chiceaux's Flickr photostream.

Last Updated 02 September 2007