On January 3, 2013 The Chicago Tribune published a piece that portrayed the despicable act of heckling in a positive light. In a world where nothing is sacred, the one thing comedians treat with high reverence is the implied social contract between audience and performer. In an attempt to process my visceral, emotional reaction, as well as maintain a basic understanding of human decency, find hope for future generations of comedians and fans alike and inform the general public, I am writing on behalf of comics and journalists.
First and foremost, it is never a comedian's intention to hurt somebody's feelings or to bore anybody. A comedian is going for laughs. It is that simple. Within the form of standup there are endless possible variations of style and taste. It is mathematically impossible to please all the people all the time, and every standup knows that. The actual act of standup comedy is something that takes much preparation and an intensely high level of concentration. The notion that it is acceptable in any way to disrupt a live performance is absolutely deplorable and obviously untrue.
I have done standup at comedy clubs, art galleries, diners, cafes, pizza parlors, bowling alleys, theme parks, movie theaters, theatre theaters, lesbian bars, dance clubs, warehouses, rented hotel halls, country rock shows, colleges, casinos, backyards, street corners, public parks, birthday parties, churches and a local suburb's Japanese-fusion restaurant... and I have done risky, experimental, improvisational, audience participatory sets... There has never been one experience where a heckler enhanced my performance. Even while this is being written in the back of a comedy club, I can clearly hear Bill Burr onstage right now scolding an audience for being on their phone.
Kyle Kinane addresses the crowd at The Downtown Independent. Photo Credit: Jessica Hallstrom. Courtesy of Dave Ross & Holy Fuck.
As an audience and performer, I love to see a comedian taking risks and doing things that are different or memorable. In fact, those are the comics I go out of my way to see. However, for the show to be enjoyable, the person onstage talking must be in control. One of those creative comedians I go out of my way to see is Brent Weinbach. Every time Brent performs it is special, memorable and interesting. He's been on Conan, Lopez Tonight, WTF with Marc Maron, and is one of the most well respected standups performing today. I sent him an e-mail asking him if he had any thoughts on the Chicago Tribune article. This is what he had to say:
For me personally, I don't like heckling. It's distracting and frustrating. I have a show that I spent a lot of time preparing for, which I am putting on for everyone who paid to see it, and the heckler wants to prevent that from happening. Heckling is pretty much always bad -- even when the heckler says positive things. Don't get me wrong, I love watching comedians do great crowd work, but heckling is unwanted audience participation. It's rude and disrespectful, not only to the performer, but to the rest of the audience. The author of the article writes "It is the ultimate test: How funny are you really when your back is against the wall?" But she's wrong; it's not a test of how funny you are, it's a test of wit, which is something different. Most standup comedy is a monologue theater performance, sometimes with controlled audience participation. Heckling, by my definition, is undesired audience participation.
I have personally witnessed heckling that turned into an uncomfortable, potentially violent situation. Dave Ross was the producer who had to deal with that particular disastrous disruption. Dave runs one of the best indie shows in LA called Holy Fuck. I asked for his response to the Chicago Tribune piece and here's what he said:
To crave heckling means you are broken in some way. We shouldn't be craving heckling, we should be craving better comedy. If the bar has been raised for us; if we've gotten bored with the performance of pre-written material (which is what stand-up comedy is, by the way), then we should be seeking out BETTER performances of BETTER material, not the disruption of the stuff we're used to.
Also, if you think things like "I want to see how this guy deals with hecklers," then you're an asshole. And I'm saying this as someone who's dealt with hecklers successfully before. Whether you're winning with a heckler or not, it feels terrible. The pressure and the disruption of your insanely difficult craft -- a craft you toil and suffer about -- is panic-inducing. And for that same reason, I don't think anyone who's not a comedian can give valid commentary on a specific response to a heckler. I don't like ill-formed rape jokes or misogyny at all. In fact, I hate it with every fiber of my soul, but in the article they smash Daniel Tosh for going overboard with that heckler, and they have no idea how it feels to be on stage. When you're heckled, it feels like war. I thought he did fine. Plus, going overboard is FUN. Who CARES? Go try stand-up and stop critiquing something you have no experience with.
Being at a show where someone gets heckled is interesting, that's true. But we shouldn't encourage it, and we shouldn't seek it out, and we shouldn't put it on a pedestal, because we're here for standup comedy, not a circus. Let's develop the craft and celebrate art and leave the disruptions simply to be dealt with.
Jeff Wattenhofer & Dave Ross enjoy Holy Fuckcakes! Photo Credit: Eric Dadourian. Courtesy of Dave Ross & Holy Fuck.
The purpose of comedians and journalists are rather similar in many ways. A journalist's job is to inform and comment on society and the human condition in an informed manner. A comedian's purpose is to comment on society and the human condition in a humorous manner. The biggest difference between the two, and I say this having several years experience in both, is journalism is much easier. Comedy is extremely difficult and even the worst comedians have my respect for doing it, night after night. It is also the most rewarding thing a person can do. It is understandable that somebody with no comedy experience could see heckling comparable to angry comment threads. However, it is inexcusable and irresponsible for a writer to present uninformed theory as an article, and it is even more astoundingly reprehensible that a respected newspaper would publish such utter bullshit.
Writing is not a live form. A writer thinks out their ideas, writes them down and it is published in print or online. Comedians do not have the luxury of anonymity. I won't ask the so-called journalists to step into the shoes of a performer because it is clear that they are not able to look outside themselves (and perhaps lack the imagination and creativity to even try). So instead I ask these "writers" to imagine they are themselves. Imagine you were trying to write something hours before a deadline, and somebody stood next to you and every 30 seconds just yelled out, "That sucks!" There is no way you'd be able to concentrate and complete what passes for writing and have it published in what passes for a newspaper. Now even on top of that, imagine (if you can) you had to be funny and likeable. No writer could "perform" under such circumstances.
The bigger issue with the Chicago Tribune piece is it reflects where we are and where we are headed as a society. We are living in a time in which misinformation is not only accepted, but spread by those who's responsibility is to confront and clearly counter misleading anti-truths. We are building a future in which people believe opinion as fact, and in which the general public welcomes rude, intrusive, ignorant behavior as commonplace, recreational activity. The world is capable and deserving of something better.