For twenty-four years, I toured the world as a comedy entertainer, and every night of it, there was a decent chance I’d get heckled.
Hecklers are some comics’ worst nightmare, but not mine.
I started out doing standup performing at small town bars that did comedy one-nighters and weekends. From Toledo and Peoria to Valdosta and Tallahassee I drove my maroon ’91 Ford Probe (shut up, from the front it looked like a vette…sorta) nonstop from gig to gig and in each town I’d have to face an entirely new group of potential haters.
One particular hell gig comes to mind.
It was a Thursday night dive-bar gig in a little town called Morris, IL (halfway between Davenport and Chicago) where the owner had us do the show standing in front of the people sitting at the bar because nobody had bothered to come into the ‘showroom’ in the back. At first, these fifteen or so drinkers were on their stools facing the bartender, but then out of nowhere we comedians came in and started our show from behind them.
I was the second comic on this two-man show and watched as the first guy, a guitar act named Paul Frisbee, stood there unlit, singing his songs. A few of the people craned their necks around without turning their stools and without laughing watched him do his silly ditties, one after the other. Not a giggle or a smile, but after each song they automatically clapped because that’s what people are trained to do when a musician stops playing.
Then it was my turn, the so-called headliner, the main act, so the pressure was on for me to turn this dead, dark room into funnyville.
At first I started doing my regular act, telling them about how my bed seduces me back into it in the morning (“Michael, I want you in me…”), about how difficult the game of golf is for me, complete with sound effects of my swing that gradually morph into Pink Floyd’s Money.
[shwoo, pck, shit, fckit – Money…I’m wasting it!]
The fine, drunken Illinoisians at the bar stared at me like they did Mr. Frisbee, except the only difference was that at the end of every one of my bits, my non-songs, there was zero clapping. Just uncomfortable staring, a silent, “What in thee hell are you doin’, boy?”
And then after a half hour of that awkwardness, something happened that changed the course of the thus-far miserable evening.
Some dude heckled me.
Now most comics fear the heckler, because nothing will ruin your onstage momentum faster than the speed bump of a drunken fool’s outburst.
Even worse, though, are the hecklers who attack when the show has no momentum, when it’s silently and awkwardly spiraling down the showbiz drain and the disappointment (and sometimes anger) of the crowd is palpable.
Those hecklers are when-they’re-down kickers who thrive on blowing holes through your already sinking ship.
Anyway, this heavy-set good-ol-boy at the bar wearing giant overalls shouts out a heckle some might consider brilliant in its cruel simplicity.
In a perfect moment of silence, he yells:
“Buff your head for a nickel.”
He said that, and because I happen to have a completely bald head, for the first time that evening, the audience laughed. Hard. One guy even patted him on the back, as if to say, “Now that’s how it’s done, hee har.”
This local took a shot at me, cracked the code and cracked them up and now every head at the bar was craned towards me (some even spun their stools now), waiting to see how I would respond.
What they didn’t know is that, unlike most comics, I love hecklers, because I had been trained at and worked doing improv for years at the Second City in Chicago. Handling a potentially show-tanking moment like this one is exactly what they had prepared me for.
My approach wasn’t to battle or berate this man as they teach you to do at the You-Suck-You-Swallow school of heckler retorts. Instead, my aim was to compliment him for getting the biggest laugh of the night.
And then to heighten that to maximum effect.
“What’s your name, sir?” I asked with a smile.
He paused, the crowd turned to him, and I heard someone whisper, “Tell him, Bobby.”
Now I had everything I needed to know.
“Congratulations, Bobby,” I said, smiling and staring at him directly. “You are now officially part of the show. And so far, the best part.”
That got a laugh, mostly because it was true.
Now it was time to heighten.
“That’s right, Bobby, you’re in the show now. You know Bobby’s going to be standing outside by the door as you leave, shaking hands, telling everybody, ‘Thanks for coming to the show, hope you enjoyed it, I was the “Buff your head for a nickel” guy, best damn line of the night. Sure, lady, I’ll sign your chest. B-O-O-B-Y.’”
They laughed again, time to heighten more.
“You know Bobby’s going to be driving home (I’m now him driving a car, steering an invisible steering wheel) with his wife there, she’s so proud of her man, (now I’m her with a lady’s voice looking over at the driver) “Oh Bobby, you were so brave speaking up like that, making everybody laugh when that bad man couldn’t. (sexy look) Umm, do it again for me, Bobby. Pleeeease?””
In Bobby’s voice holding the steering wheel I say: “Buff your head for a nickel.”
“Oh Bobby, pull over and take me now…”
Now they’re really screaming because I just got Bobby laid.
Then it was time for the ultimate heighten.
“You know ol’ Bobby here is going to be at work tomorrow, bragging to all his coworkers about how he saved the show.”
That’s when I become Bobby onstage holding an invisible mop handle and start mopping the floor. Second City teaches how to do realistic object work, so my mopping mime game was on point.
Then in an old southern voice, still mopping, I say, “You shoulda seen me at the comedy show last night. Guy had no hair attal and was not funny, so I took over and had thee best line of the night. (pause mopping) Buff your head for a nickel, I says to him.”
At that point I pretend to squeeze out the mop into a bucket and then I stand and bang three times on the microphone like I’m knocking on a door.
“Excuse me, you almost done in there, I gotta get every stall. Make it quick or I’ll buff your head for a nickel.”
“Thank you, good night.”
See why I love hecklers?
If you battle your haters you give them what they want, which is an argument where you’re forced to defend against their unsolicited attack.
Instead, rise above the heckle and bring the game back to the heckler.
Compliment them for having such incredible time-management skills that they still have enough time to mind your business, too.
Thank them for being brave enough to not hide behind time-wasters like kindness or courtesy.
Ask your hater how much they charge for their negative assessment of you so you can make sure you pay them out of your fuck-you account.
Point is, hecklers heckle and haters hate because it’s far easier than creating. And it involves very little courage or effort, so it tends to get done by the fearful and lazy.
Hecklers are loud but weak, so don’t ever let them keep you from having a great show.
Thank your haters (sarcastically, of course) for helping you grow as a creator and you’ll be surprised how quickly that shuts them up.
But never be afraid to face the Bobby’s – you’re way more creative than that.