Musings arguments and gig reports from your favourite Goth lesbian transsexual vegan recovering alcoholic and drug addict sceptic rationalist atheist comedian chameleon and caricature.

Monday 14 March 2011

What I think about when I think about Heckling

What's the worst heckle you've ever had?  That is amongst the most popular questions asked by journalists, people at parties, civil servants, the Police, whoever; When you tell them you're a stand-up comedian that's the question they want to know.  Partly it's down to the fear that people have of doing stand-up themselves, their biggest fear is that they'll get up on stage and no one will find what they say funny.  As Oscar Wilde might have quipped, the only thing worse than being laughed at, is not being laughed at.

The embarrassment that the average person thinks they'd feel is enough to deter most of them from trying out the business that I work in, as they convince themselves that when you go on stage it's a battle between you and the audience who are only ever a few short seconds away from shouting something horrific at you that you'll never be able to deal with.  That you deal with hecklers at every gig.  For some people they think the whole point of going to a comedy night is to heckle.  In fact I know for a fact that some people get nervous all day before going to a gig that evening because they think heckling's expected of them and they're already trying to think through what they're going to say.

I know that for a fact because before I did stand-up that was me.

I was the worst type of audience member, I was a comedy geek who knew the names of everyone who'd won the Perrier from the Cambridge Footlights with Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Tony Slattery in 1980, through to at that point Daniel Kitson.  I knew who'd been on what TV shows doing stand-up and watched as much of it as I could.  What I didn't know at that point, and wouldn't learn until I started doing stand-up myself, was absolutely anything about live stand-up comedy.

The fact I was still drinking at that point really didn't help me.  In my days as a heckler I heckled the best the circuit had to offer at the time, I heckled Daniel Kitson and ended up looking a massive fanny after a bunch of put downs, I heckled Bill Bailey, Rob Newman and Jeff Green all on the same bill for a charity night which was my first ever proper live stand-up gig. (I had been to see the Comedy Store Players a few weeks before, but I've realised I'm not really into improv).  Bill Bailey I liked so much I went to another gig to heckle him.

I got thrown out of one club in the East End after drinking 3 pitchers of Grolsch on an empty stomach and heckling all three acts, only being quiet for the MC, I won't mention any names either of the acts or the club because frankly, whilst I remember who was on that night it was a lifetime ago and I was such a bad and horrific heckler I think I ruined the night for 200 people, I also know that every act on that bill that night is still on the circuit and I've gigged with all but one of them since, one of them regularly, and I'd hate for them to know.

I think the high point came when the closing act was someone I'd seen on the TV a fortnight earlier, and with an almost Lisbeth Salanderesque memory that I've always had until the booze and drugs slowed it down, I could remember every single line of this guy's routine.  I then did the worst thing a heckler can do, and started shouting out the punchlines just before he did.  Rightfully I was thrown out of the club after an argument with the MC.  And the following months I suffered from such an horrific sense of alcoholic paranoia and anxiety that I emailed the club about 30 times to apologise for my behaviour.

It was strange that this didn't let me know that comedians use the same set of jokes more than once, but it didn't.

Anyway, here we are over a decade later and I'm earning my living from stand-up, and I now see hecklers as my penance for the times I got pissed and heckled.  And mostly I'm good at dealing with them, occasionally I have nights where the audience and my brain just seem to work on different levels and speeds, and on those nights the heckler ruins a good evening, but those are few and far between, an unfortunately usually when I've got a reviewer in.

But as I said, heckling happens rarely, and most of the time it's unintelligible, and when it's not unintelligible it's an audience member who's not quite got the joke and shouted out what you meant by it, thinking that they've been funnier than you by thinking of a topper for the joke you've just told, when in actual fact they've just explained it the joke.

Other times it's just remembering that it's a conversation, they talk to you, you talk to them the only difference being you've got 180 people eaves dropping and providing you and they forget that everything's going to be fine.

Then once in a while you get a weird one.

Well usually once in a while.  In the last fortnight I've had a weird one every other gig.  From the gig in Essex where 20 coppers raided the place just after the show started and sent their drug dogs round finding nothing before they left and took half the audience, who it turned out were all undercover police, followed by having two guys who I think may have been local drug dealers, (not wishing to stereotype anyone, but from my days when knowing how to spot these people felt like the difference between life and death, you learn to be able to tell.) walk in and have one stand next to the stage and try to threaten me.  You can't win a heckle battle with a local drug dealer when the entire audience knows that's what he is.  Right through to the Gig on Friday night which I'll tell you about in a second, they have been strange gigs with strange heckles.

I was asked about heckles for an article for the Holla Back network, an organisation based out of New York who are urging women to stand up to street harassment, and which heckles I'd had did I think I'd had because I'm a woman.  And two recent ones came to mind.

One was at a gig in Leeds about 6 months ago where there'd been two guys down at the front who'd been heckling all night, and I was closing the show so I went on and immediately had to deal with one of them saying "Oh shit, a female comic, they're always shit." and then we went back and forth for about 20 minutes, after about five he called me fat, and then went down a route of saying that if I lost weight I wouldn't have to shop in the maternity section, I kept winning, because (here's the secret) I'm on a raised stage with a microphone and lights on me, and the other 200 people in the room have all paid, if not to see me specifically, then to see some professional comedians be professionally funny, not to listen to a teenager with far too much misplaced self confidence try to be the centre of attention.

After about 15 minutes I was getting furious with him, to the point I was shaking with anger.  He noticed and suggested I was scared, I told him it was quite the opposite and was wondering if I booted him in the face, whether the 199 other people in the room would back me up and say it was an accident.

Then in an angry tone he shouted "Fuck off you FAT LESBIAN!"


He'd gone too far a while back but I'd tolerated him, because often if you give a heckler enough rope they eventually have the self awareness to realise that the cheers, laughter and applause are for the act on stage, and the silence and the boos and the burning eyes of people who've paid anything up to £30 for their night out before they've even bought drinks boring into the back of their heads.  In this case it didn't happen, because he was with 2 friends who were equally cunty.

But now that was as far as I was prepared to allow too far to go.

Quietly.  Calmly.  I put the microphone back in the mic stand.  and stood there in silence looking at him for a few seconds.  I could feel the atmosphere in the room, you could have heard a pin drop.

Then in a low voice I said "I think you'd better go."  he looked confused and upset.  "what?"  I said "You heard, I'm not continuing until you've gone, I don't have to put up with this at work, we were having fun and a joke and you went too far, and I'd warned you, now I'm not going to carry on until you've gone."

Suddenly there was a rush as everyone in the room was behind me and cheered.

I said "It's fairly simple, we'll do this as a democracy.  Who here wants him to stay give me a cheer?"  Him and his two friends, then they suddenly look a bit shocked, like they thought that the audience would be on their side.

"who wants him to go?"  Then the loudest cheer you've heard in a long time.

"I think that says it all really, now fuck off." he hesitates and from the back of the room someone shouts "If you don't fucking leave now I'll kick your arse"

I reference that with a look and he goes to leave.  His friend who'd been as tricky sits there sheepishly and I tell him to go as well, he stands up and turns round as if to play to the gallery and suddenly sees that the club's security has turned up and he starts to look frightened and they drag him out.

The gig finishes in a much nicer way than it had begun and everyone had a great time.

But for the first and only time I'd been properly affected by a heckle, when I tell you what the second worst heckle was in a minute you'll think it strange that this one affected me more, but it did.  It wasn't the fact that he'd ended his tirade with calling me a lesbian, I am one, all he's done there is correctly label me.  The thing that really upset me was that he'd called me fat.

That's upsetting for two reasons, one is that I don't think I was particularly fat at that point, and the other is that since then I've lost a stone (I was already changing my diet and exercise so that I would start to lose weight) and I can't fully enjoy that feeling that I'm getting fitter and healthier and slimmer without feeling like I let that little bastard win.

So that was the third worst heckle experience I've ever had.

The second, was, well, it's strange, because whilst the heckle I got is so much worse, I let it slide off me, because I've had it before a number of times and I assumed it was one of those heckles that female comics got frequently, I then found out that it wasn't a few weeks back when my friend Tiffany Stevenson came to stay and I told her about the gig I'd been at.

See, in this industry often promoters won't put two women on the bill together, some are up front about this, some aren't so, and some deny that they do this whilst actively doing it.  So it's not very often that you end up on a bill with other women, and when you do it's often a Womens' comedy night or a charity night, and there they don't heckle ever.

Well apart from that one in Newcastle where I upset a heckler who was pissed by suggesting when he was slurring his speech so badly that he'd had a stroke.  He took offence at this as did his friend who told me that it wasn't funny as his dad had died of a stroke two weeks earlier.  They got up went to leave and one of them threw a pint of lager over me.  Which as a recovering alcoholic felt like some sort of closed Kharmic loop.

So like I say you rarely get to work with other female comics, and rarely do you get to see how they deal with hecklers, or what heckles they get that often.

See the great thing about this job, is that you know when you have an argument and as you're walking away you have that perfect idea about what you should have said, the killer blow?  The French call it L'esprit de l'escalier the spirit of the staircase, this is the only job where that's useful because when you think of that perfect witty come back you will, at some point in the future be able to use it as if you've just thought of it there and then and to the audience it will look like that too.

This is partly how comics deal with hecklers, we do it often enough to know what we're doing, and hecklers will often use the same heckles in the same place.

Now I've been told that often female comics get heckled with "get your tits out" I've never had that, however the one heckle I've had often enough to have thought of the perfect come back for happened.

I told Tiff about it matter of factly and she was horrified.

It happened at a gig I did a few weeks ago which was a bit of a bear pit, but in a fun way, they heckled but they were responsive so it was a dialogue which made the night fun rather than it being people making noise who you can't interact with, that's like someone turning up at a gig and playing their stereo at full blase.  anyway at this gig there was a table of 10 people in their late teens and early 20s who were hammered and had been drinking all day who just wanted to heckle, that was all they were there for they wanted to be as much a part of the show as they could.  and the ring leader was a guy at the front who was drinking bottle after bottle of wine.  Again I was closing so I went on and started chatting with them and he quickly got heckly, so I did as I always do and played along a bit, made him feel a bit stupid, but let him know he was involved, he made a couple of pops at how I look, but they were only in retaliation to things that I'd said, at one point calling him stupid and pretending to throw a ball for him to chase, he said "that's funny, you've switched it round, usually it's the dog  that would chase the ball not throw it."  And to be fair I had to give him that one, obviously being called a dog isn't nice, but it was no worse than any of the stuff I'd said to him. 

Then about a minute later I said something else and I can't remember what it was, but it got a big cheer and a round of applause, and that was when he said "Someone's getting a raping once the show's over."

It was a few days later when I was thinking about that and thinking, it's strange that in any other job if a member of the public, or a customer said something like that you'd call the police or do something, but in the job I do you become blas√© about it.  I once had someone threaten me in the street with those words and it terrified me for weeks, but in this situation it seemed perfectly acceptable.

Not only acceptable but I've heard that line enough times on stage to know that the correct response to that is "Yes, you once the royhipniol kicks in and I get the dildo out my bag.  And don't worry I'll drop you near to the hospital so you won't have to walk far to get your stitches."

So I was talking to Tiff about it and it turns out that that isn't a usual heckle for women. 

As far as I can tell it turns out that this is the third step down the thought process by young men who feel sexually threatened by a strong woman who isn't interested in them sexually.  And that's really horrific.  Like they've gone "Ok she's trying to be funny I'll be funnier.  Oh she's put me down and they like her, I'll have a go at her looks.  Oh she's ok with that, she's taken the piss out of herself for that and it's not affecting her. I'll show her I can be the dominant one and win in the end, I'll threaten to rape her."

And whenever I've had that heckle it's always been around that point, when they've realise that taking the piss out of how I look isn't going to work.

So that's the second worst heckle I've ever had.

The worst, isn't as horrific as that, or as confrontational as the first, but it's the weirdest, and on the night it threatened to ruin the whole gig.

I wish there was some way to scientifically measure the mood in a room, as a comedian it's your job to gauge it and to work with that and make the audience laugh, and before you go on you can feel how the mood of the room is.

When you're on stage you can also feel when it changes, you can feel when focus has been pulled away from you and on to someone else, and whether that's ok or if it's distracting.  There as as many variables as there are audience members about what can change the atmosphere in a room, and most of the time as a comic you learn how to navigate that and how to change it. 

Sometimes it feels like you're operating a very complex piece of machinery and you've adjusted all the dials and valves and got it working a treat.  Things can go wrong but you're on top of it you know what you're doing, but you know that all it takes is for someone to tap it in the wrong place with an exact amount of force and it'll fall apart.

Last Friday night, again in Leeds I was hosting a show when that happened.

The venue was packed, the audience were chatty, looked like they were going to be fun and up for a good night, I was the host.  How good a host is can be life or death to a gig, it's like spinning plates.  You go on to a cold audience, whip them up into some sort of frenzy, get them all facing the same way, talk them through the rules, let them know how many comedians there are going to be, raise or lower the energy level in the room so that each act goes on to a room suited to their material, and you've got to do this and be funny.

And the night started off great, they were everything you want from a Friday night audience, and the energy in the room's going great, I do all the things I need to and start getting them clapping and cheering ready to bring on the first act.

"So if you could start clapping your hands, stamping your feet..."

And from off to one side suddenly someone shouts out "Hello! My name's Patrick!"

I had to stop everything, and start to try to deal with this guy.  I had a brief back and forth with him I asked who he was and where he was from, turned out he was Polish and had lived in Leeds for a few years.

"That's lovely, but we can have a chat during the break if that's what you want, I'm a bit busy at the moment."

Then he shouted something that came so out of left-field that it threw me for a second and completely changed the mood in the room.

"I have cancer."  he said.  "I will die soon."


Nothing can clear the mood out of a room like something like that can. 

Fortunately when he said "I have cancer." I said "you have cancer?"  so when he said "I will die soon."  I was able to say "you and me both." which got a bit of a laugh.

Then he said "You're the comedian, make something funny out of that."

He then got really disruptive and got thrown out.  It was the first time I've ever been at a gig where a heckler's been thrown out before the first act's been on.

Cancer's not usually a comedy gold mine, I'd never tried to make jokes about it, except one terrible pun when I first started which was "I tried to write jokes about cancer but some people have no sense of tumour"  There's a reason I stick to telling stories.

But that was it, he'd picked the worst possible time to say the one thing that would suck all the atmosphere out of the room.

Over the course of the evening I got it back, and "I've got cancer" became a running joke, although towards the end they sounded less like he did and more like Alexandr Meerkat from the compare the market adverts.

So that now tops my list of worst heckle, not because it was horrific, but because it was perfect.  At the time it seemed like there was no get out, and it turned a gig that would have been lovely all night into a bit of a struggle, but a gig that the audience enjoyed anyway.

But next time I'll know what to do, and it'll look like I came up with it there and then.

Being heckled isn't the scariest part of the job by a long way and it happens infrequently enough for stories like these to be easy to remember.


lis0r said...

Guh, you played Leeds recently? :(

Is there a list of your upcoming gigs anywhere? I feel like I must be blind.

katemc39 said...

Horror stories to tell by a campfire! Glad the first one ended with the audience well behind you. It's nice to picture the disappointment on their faces as they registered that they didn't have the audience on THEIR side.

Bethany Black said...

Hi lisOr I'm afraid I don't have a gig diary up online yet, but will do before the week's out! sorry about that. I am at The Fox and Newt in Leeds on Sunday night though where I'll be hosting, so do come on down to that.