Heckle: definition – “to interrupt a public speech or performance with loud, unfriendly statements or questions.”
We’ll get on to the subject of the heckle (a pretty good one), the heckler (an irritating, smug man) and the hecklee (me, unfortunately), later.
After the success of the open mic set, I put my name forward for a slot at Smoke and Mirrors. This is a comedy pub in Bristol. It was a weeknight gig, with a cover charge and a paid headliner. And that’s not the only way I could tell it was a bigger deal; they also had a curtain which you emerged from behind.
I got there feeling pretty confident, arrived early and met the compere. At my request, he gave me the second slot. Opening can be difficult, as the crowd is not warmed up. I didn’t want to go on later, either, as I felt the nerves might get to me, so I was pleased with second.
As the show started, I learnt it was a sell out (just over 50 people) which set my nerves on edge a bit. Worse, because it was a sell out, myself and the other comics had to wait outside the room, rather than inside watching the show. The other reason I was nervous was because the audience had paid good money, well, £4, to see the show.
I waited outside till I heard my name and entered the stage. The lights were in my eyes, which was a bit different, and I could only see the front row (which explains why it’s so often the front row that gets picked on).
I did my emoji opener, and since the crowd work seemed to go well last time, added in another bit which included picking on an audience member. That seemed to go well too, as I came up with a quick retort, and kept moving. Then I told my bike story, and this is where it started to go wrong. The story goes on for about four minutes, and requires the crowd to stay with me for a bit of dramatic tension. I could feel the laughs dying away, but stuck with it.
As I got to my end bit, which is some surreal wordplay, I said, “There is an upside to all this,” at which point I lost my heckling virginity, as a smug man in the front row replied, “It’s going to end soon?” Ouch. Not a bad heckle sir. It got a small-ish laugh, and I could feel the tension in the room rise markedly.
Fortunately, he was on the front row. I glared at him and said something to him which was a bit something and nothing. Even better, a couple of lines later, I had something in the set which I could turn to my advantage. I have a line which goes, “It doesn’t matter if we haven’t achieved anything in life.” I was able to say this and then gesture at the heckler, making it clear to the crowd that I meant him. It was pointed but still playful. It actually got a big laugh, and allowed me to end the set on a high.
To be honest, heckling is something that’s going to happen to every comedian. It had to happen sooner or later; I had just hoped it would happen a bit later than my third gig. Strangely, though, while I’d been annoyed by it, and it ruined my evening, by the following day I felt good about it.
I think I learnt a few important lessons. Firstly, heckling isn’t that bad. As I’d read, you have the microphone, and they don’t. Secondly, it introduces tension to the proceedings, which you can use to your advantage. A lot of comedy comes from tension and then relief. (Think of cringe-worthy comedies like The Office). If you can keep it playful, then having a heckler really livens it up.
I think the important point is this piece of advice from Jerry Corley (full article here). “The good news is that the tension is so high in the room when there’s a heckle, that the audience will usually give you accolades for coming up with anything that makes sense in response.”
I think I did that, so strangely, the whole thing gave me some confidence. That said, I don’t think someone who is doing a killer set gets heckled, and it did force me to look at the material again. Ultimately, I think the bike story was just too long (and not funny enough), so I decided to dump it. Another comedian, who’d seen me previously, gave me some really good advice after the show, so I had something to think about to improve the next time – which is what it’s all about.
N.B. I happened to run into the heckler in the interval. He grinned at me widely, and we had a short conversation, in which I sarcastically thanked him for his intervention. His response was, “I actually thought you were quite good. It’s just when I think of something funny to say, I have to say it.” Just my luck.
I did think it was quite amusing to have had a conversation with the heckler afterwards. Perhaps if I made it clear that this was my heckler policy as I entered the stage i.e. any hecklers would need to reserve time at the interval or after the show so we could go over the finer points of why they heckled together – then I would be able to dissuade anyone from bothering to do it in the first place?
Until next time!
Gigs done – 3