Let me start by saying that I get it. I've performed in stand up comedy settings, and you'd better believe that as my act is rooted in dance and performance art, I have been heckled. It's sometimes proven deeply unpleasant for me as a performer. Plus, I'm relatively new to comedy, so my skills to shut the heckling down are akin to a dog with a new pair of roller-skates. It's awkward, and while there's usually plenty to laugh at, the dog is totally out of control.
So it was in a spirit of solidarity that I clicked on a few links comedy pals posted on Facebook detailing exactly how much they hated heckling and its newly declared champion, Nina Metz of the Chicago Tribune.
But upon finally going to the source, Metz's "A Field Guide to Hecklers," I was pleasantly surprised.
Nina Metz has written comedians a love letter citing something specific she loves about us, and some of us, so crazed by the mere sight of the words "heckling" and "like" near each other have lost our otherwise finely-honed appreciation of nuance. Some of us have decided to use Metz's love letter as toilet paper. And then uncrumple it and smush it onto the Internet. And that's a weird bummer. Nina Metz is saying "I like how you deal with unpleasantness at work! It's entertaining for me! Thank you!" and some of us are shouting back, "SHUT UP! You're only allowed to like us in the way we want you to like us! And besides, you don't know enough about my hard job to like me (huh?) YOURE NOT MY REAL MOM!"
As many of the respondents have noted in their missives, comics have a grinding and often thankless job. But, my friends, I say this with boundless love for comedy and comedians in my heart, lots of jobs are hard. Almost every professional person must deal with heckling in some form or another. We are not exceptional in this way, with the notable caveat than our professional convention allows us to tear a heckler a new asshole if we like/can, and reframe the disrespectful hijacking of our work into something satisfying and interesting for an audience (oh hey, Nina! Great to see you! Thanks for coming!).
Rather than calmly sitting down for a parent-teacher conference where, as the teacher, you'll have to politely listen as some twerp's dad bashes your painstaking attempts to teach his kid to multiply, or grit your public-defender teeth through a disciplinary hearing where you've got to apologize for the fact that in blocking your face from a defendant's attempted punch, you broke his wrist. Rather than swallowing the reality that another person was inconsiderate, ill-mannered, and possibly even malicious, we get to be an arbiters of justice, and provide our audience (Nina! What a pleasure!) with a measure of satisfaction seldom had in their everyday lives. How cool is that? Is it hard? Yes. It feels impossible. But can't you understand why an audience member might be really excited to see it? This unique thing that they have so little access to and such a deep longing for in their everyday lives (from which they come to a comedy show to take a breather) is available. It seems reasonable that Nina gets jazzed. I understand how her desire for that magic sometimes trumps caring about what is and isn't socially acceptable behavior.
"But no because science!" the respondents say. Yes, there is a science to what we're doing, and it's often delicate work. But just as some of science's best discoveries have come about through interruption, malice, and general having to put up with weird bullshit, so Nina Metz's experience confirms: sometimes the science you set out to do is upended, and sometimes, rarely, but sometimes the result is good news for science's audience (the world). I'm not saying it's often that a show is at all improved by heckling, but I'm saying that when it is, I can understand why an audience feels something magical. So magical, in fact, that they get excited even at the prospect.
Sometimes you set out to hear a signal from the Milky Way, and instead hear a bunch of annoying humming that just won't shut the f*ck up, and rather than throwing a hissy fit and telling the internet that you will have no more of this humming - ANYONE WHO DISCUSSES THE HUMMING WILL BE SILENCED WITH THE FURY OF MY TWEETS! I'M TRYING TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE MILKY W.. Oh holy shit! I just discovered the origin of the universe, you guys!" The Big Bang theory. That annoying humming, that disrupted the important work of hearing signals from the Milky Way (a legit project, no doubt) is what led scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson to discover the Big Bang. Coincidentally, it's also how they won a Nobel Prize.
Maybe those guys were onto something really incredible with their Milky Way project, and I'll bet that if they wanted to, they could do that project another time under more agreeable circumstances. Maybe it will be the best thing ever. But I think we can all agree that stumbling upon the Big Bang theory was pretty great in its own right. And maybe it's even more amazing because it started with failure and ended up changing the way we understand the world. Is there any greater, or more human hope?
Of course I'm not suggesting that hecklers are humanitarian saints. Or scientists. They're annoying, rude, and oozing with entitlement that sometimes makes me loose faith in humanity. They're the worst. But I want to be the kind of comedian who is smart enough to take the worst the world has to offer and spin it into something that fills an audience with a sense of boundless possibility, or righteous indignation, or any number of life-affirming, change-making sensibilities. I aspire to what Tig Notaro did this summer at Largo. And while I'm certainly not saying that this means that cancer or hecklers are welcome and invited (or comparable in scope of awfulness or means of distruction), I am saying that should I have the misfortune to meet the worst the world has to offer me, be it a drunk, rowdy table of bachelorettes, or a life-altering, grim diagnosis, I hope I'm able to work like Notaro, Penzias, and Wilson.
I don't think any of the folks declaring Notaro's set on August 3, 2012 to be the most memorable and incredible performance they've ever seen are implying that cancer is awesome and should be encouraged to wreak havoc on humanity. Just like I don't think Nina Metz is saying that heckling is, in itself, wonderful. I think what Metz and that unbelievably lucky audience are saying is that heckling and cancer are things that we've all got some degree of acquaintance with in our lives, and seeing someone meet disaster with a revolutionary engagement is like fresh air rushing into our life-worn, asthmatic lungs. They're saying they imagined for a minute that even in their most awful, vulnerable, difficult moments, perhaps there is a way to thrive. Because, weirdly, they saw a comedian do it with their own eyes.
So while this is certainly not an argument for the goodness of hecklers (I don't think Metz's piece is either, actually) -- those most entitled, doucheriffic, deeply sad, confused, self-loathing, loud, bags of useless dicks -- it is to say that I understand a craving for the sort of unexpected triumph of humanity that a masterful comedian engaging with a heckler can spark. I understand that when Nina Metz sees one of us interact with a heckler, she falls a little bit more in love with watching live comedy. A thrill travels up her spine that she seldom experiences anywhere else. For a moment, she sits on the edge of her seat, alive with the sense that anything is possible, and is totally transported from her everyday life into a magical, liminal space where she can imagine dealing with her hecklers, whoever or whatever they are, fully empowered to rip them to shreds, calmly ignore them, or haul them up on her stage and expose them to the world. I can't imagine not wanting to be part of that incredible experience with my audience.
She's not wishing us the worst, guys. She's saying that when it finds us, she'll be there rooting for us on behalf of humanity, tingling at the possibility that we might usher in some new magic.