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How to Deal with Difficult People: Use Standup Comedy Techniques Deal with Life's Hecklers

As a standup comic, I've had to deal with a lot of hecklers: audience members who feel the need to give me on the spot, negative feedback about my work -- usually starting with something constructive like, “You suck!

When you’re performing the same shtick every night, for sometimes two, or even, three shows a night, having a heckler isn’t always as scary as it sounds. In fact, sometimes it’s a welcome opportunity for spontaneity.

After all, the odds are in my favor: I have skills developed from 35 years onstage, and hundreds of comeback lines in the joke Rolodex of my mind. Even more importantly, I have a mic in my hand. I might not always be clever, but I will be louder. When it’s me and the power of a sound system versus a really drunk person with nachos spilled in their lap -- I say, “Bring it on!”

But -- there is one heckler who still frightens me – because it’s the one heckler who usually whips my butt: the heckler in my own brain. She’s an inner voice that degrades me daily, and without mercy.

In the morning, I’m barely waking up and she’s in full force. “I thought you weren't going to have that cheesecake... and weren’t you supposed to stay away from tequila? Charlie Sheen has more self-control.”

Oh – and, seriously – you have THIS splitting of a hangover from three shots of Patron? News flash: you’re a lightweight.”

I try to stumble to the bathroom, but we’re not done.

P.S. -- watch out for that scale, jumbo. None of your clothes fit for a REASON.”

As I get ready to do a gig, with each joke I think of I hear, “Really? That tired bit again? You’re like a 1950s vaudeville comic – except you’re still alive.”

Right now, she’s trying to convince me to stop typing my blog.

Stop frittering with this jibber-jabber and write something useful -- like a recipe book for breakfast cereals.”

As the day goes on, no wonder I feel depleted and defeated.

Lately, it occurred to me, why not use the same anti-heckler techniques I use onstage ... offstage? Why not have a comeback?

So, I say, “Breakfast cereals? That doesn’t even make sense. Who writes your material? Oh wait – I do ... bitch!

Prozac is your kryptonite ... isn’t it? One tablet and boom -- it’s a writer’s strike. No answer? Hmm ... maybe your teeny tiny portion of MY brain doesn’t have a comeback for that.

Quiet. She's gone. It works!

You don't have to be in comedy to have hecklers. Hecklers can be your family, your customers, or even your boss. And in many of those cases, you can't really say out loud what you want to say. But – you can think it.

And, to those of you whose worst heckler is in your own head... don't let them have the last word.

Fight back. You’re building your sarcasm muscles. And just maybe, if you really get good at those heckler comebacks, you might want to use your skills to pay some bills.

Check out our free teleseminar on “How to Write for Late Night” with Gabe Abelson, former head writer for “Letterman."


Dinkster said...

My heckler almost prevented me from leaving a comment! But here I am! Thanks Judy. What a clever way to keep fighting the good(interior)fight!

Anonymous said...

Saw you at the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking event and you were hilarious! Thanks for sending this very funny blog!

JulieMac said...

I love this idea! Some days the heckler in my head just won't shut up...see you in LA in a couple of weeks with my personal heckler in tow!

Lisa O! said...

Excellent viewpoint. You've inspired me to start carrying around my Mister Microphone to yell at my stinkin' thinkin'. Luv ya! :o)


Michael J. Herman said...

A heckler is fine in the audience, even in your head, but when they bring their friends and it's like 6-to-1, it can get a bit crowded.

I don't have 1 heckler, I have many, and yes Judy, they're all in my head. There's a guy who sounds like the guy I buy fish from t the market, only instead of telling me the fish is dead, he insists my jokes stink worse than yesterday's fish.

There's an old Jewish woman too. It makes sense, as I grew up in NY and have spent a lot of time in Miami, but she is hard of hearing and misconstrues every joke I tell myself.

"A man goes to the locker for his inspection? That doesn't make any sense. Melvin, what's this guy talking about?" The funny thing about that is that Melvin stayed home and isn't in my head.

And then there's someone who only heckles in Farsi. How this happened I have no idea. I don't speak Farsi. So I have no idea what he's saying, I'm scared out of my mind, and he won't pay his tab.

It's a lot of work when you have an internal heckler, but it's a fulltime job when you're head is open to the public.

Michael J. Herman, Speaker, Author, Humorist, and at this point Humanitarian.

Trudi said...

Hmm, recipe book for breakfast cereals---would that consist of how to make breakfast cereals or how to use breakfast cereals in other dishes? One of my favorite throw away jokes in the Simpsons was Homer taking the cereal box to bed with him to read before he went to sleep

Devo Cutler-Rubenstein said...

"Hang in there, eventually I will listen!" - Devo, Adj. Prof. USC, Stand-up Cancer Survivor, Founder

Devo Cutler-Rubenstein said...

Love your POV... going to be my mantra for the day... Thanks Judy, awesome quote from you... - Devo

Peter Margaritis said...

Sometimes my heckler takes up so much room, I have to buy two seats on an airplane. Thanks Judy! Great perspective.

Adam Kessler said...

Please never stop writing your blog! Don't let your heckler get the last word. Your insights into the world of comedy & the comedians mind are the best. I don't always comment but I always enjoy everything you share with us.


Good discussion about heckling. The inner heckler sounds like a manure fly that spoils everything that's pristine.
Something in me wants to give the inner heckler credit, possibly as a critical voice that can help to sharpen my ideas and deepen my perception.
Maybe the conflict lies between open creativity and critical judgement. So we acknowledge the inner heckler as a skeptical voice to help us fine tune our initial creative impulse.

Greg Scheirer said...

I love reading your blogs. I get a lot from your insights in comedy.
I haven't had a heckler experience yet...but I know their out there.
I think you need a inner bouncer to throw out the inner heckler. Please keep those blogs coming!

Randy Broad said...

I've listened to my share of comedians and the best ones always have great oneliner heckler handler''s a few of my fav's...

Do I have to screw you to get you out of my life? Sandra Bernhardt

I remember when I had MY first beer. Steve Martin

Excuse me, but are you source of embarrassment wherever you go? David Letterman

I'd call you a cocksucker but I know you're trying to quit. Jeff Fox

As you've stated, coming up with your own personal brow beaters is a great suggestion. I'll work on mine. ;-)