If you're going to be a working comic, there is one thing you're not going to like but have to expect no matter how good you are — hecklers.
Hecklers can be a problem, but they're usually a bit more subtle than those you've seen on TV or in movies. You've seen the scene where the comedian is tortured by an obnoxious heckler, but it's different in real life. It's still annoying, but it's definitely something you can deal with if you prepare properly.
The key to handling most hecklers is not to take their behavior personally. You need to separate yourself from the problem in order to deal with it. If you do take it personally, you'll just make the problem worse. That detachment might be hard to achieve, but it is essential if you want to deal with and recover from the problem.
There are three basic kinds of hecklers, with a million variations in between. First you have the guy who thinks that he's helping you out. He thinks it's part of the show. He's probably seen hecklers portrayed on TV and believes it's something he's supposed to do. He thinks he's helping, but deep down he just wants attention — at your expense.
Next there's the most common type of heckler — the heckler who feels that the middle of a nightclub is the perfect place to have a conversation. A small pocket of the audience talking loudly while you're trying to perform is probably the number one problem comedians have. These types of hecklers aren't necessarily being malicious — they are just ignorant. They aren't aware they're causing a problem.
The third type of heckler, and the most difficult to deal with, is the drunk. This heckler has had too much to drink and you become the focus of his inebriation. Here are six possible solutions that you can use to help you deal with most forms of hecklers:
Ignore the problem. You can do this and just hope the problem goes away, but know that it probably won't. Remember that the audience is expecting you to deal with it. If you want to be the person in charge on stage, you need to take charge.
Let the audience help you. Chances are, they will be on your side if someone disrupts the show. Let them do the work for you. Encourage this by directing your responses to them, not the heckler. If you look at the heckler and deliver a clever put-down line, you might get a big laugh, but it might complicate the problem. By looking at the heckler, you are directly challenging him to a battle of wits. You're focusing your attention on one person, and leaving out the rest of the audience. Things will just escalate and it will make the audience uncomfortable. You run the risk of not only losing the battle of wits, but the audience as well. Try this approach instead: Look at the heckler, then at the audience, and say something funny about the heckler to the audience. You do two things here. You make the heckler look foolish without challenging him directly, and you start to build an alliance with the audience against the heckler. You set it up as us against him, and the audience is on your side no matter what happens.
Use the problem as an opportunity to advance your character. A lot of comedians will break character or resort to a stock heckler response. If you do this, you are wasting a valuable opportunity to advance your persona. Use can turn this minus into a plus by showing the audience how you (your character) would deal with the problem. This will come off as an honest response and will give the audience a deeper glimpse into your personality. It will in a sense “prove” to your audience that you are who you say you are onstage. If your performing style is quiet, naïve and low key, and you respond the same way, your response will be “real.” If you respond harshly, the illusion you created with your character will be shattered.
Don't respond at all if you're not completely sure what the heckler said. Suppose you are doing a show and someone yells out from the back of the room. It you don't hear it but snap back at the person because you assume it was something negative, you might be making a big mistake. What if a fan yelled out his love for you? The crowd will turn on you — and fast.
Pick your battles. A lot of the time, the audience doesn't notice there's a problem until you draw attention to it. If a small group is talking, for example, see if it works itself out before you say something about it, and only say something if you get the sense that the audience is distracted as well.
If the heckler says something that was funny, acknowledge it! It makes him a hero and makes you look like a nice guy (a comic with a sense of humor). By giving the heckler some positive attention, you might just turn a potential enemy into a valuable ally.
When you're learning to deal with problems on stage, whether it be hecklers, drunks, or noisy crowds, you mainly have to deal with it after the show. The ride home is a great opportunity to review the situation and think about how you could have handled it differently. The next time you'll be better prepared, and remember — there will always be a next time.