Can Heckling Be a Two Way Street?

My buddy  posed a question to me yesterday morning.  At first it sounded to me like he was asking why it was okay for a comedian to talk to someone in the audience, but it wasn’t okay for a person in the audience to talk to the comedian.  My knee jerk response was that people pay to hear the comedian speak, the comedian never pays to listen to the audience member speak.

He then clarified for me.  Why would it be okay for a comedian who perhaps tag a joke by insulting someone in the audience, but it would be wrong for someone in the audience to perhaps tag that same joke by insulting the audience?  One is almost considered good writing, while the other is considered heckling.

It got me thinking much deeper.  Basically, why is it okay for a comedian to bring someone into the show, but it’s not okay for someone to bring them self into the show?   One of my first experiences with live comedy was at Second City in Detroit.  The entire troupe improvised a musical number about how bad it would be to be out on a date with me.  It was pretty brutal and was a thing that has stuck with me almost a dozen years later.  On the other hand, I recognize that I’m the kind of comedian who loves going to the audience and potentially causing the same level of emotional damage.   And I’ll say that having done about 1,500 shows, I think I’ve only chosen poorly three times on who to bring into the act.  Most times I have a pretty good knack of picking people who are having fun.   Sometimes though, like Thursday at Joey’s, I choose poorly.

Let’s dive into Thursday deeper and then try to get back on track.  I needed to record a pretty geek-centric seven minute set, so I opened with seven minutes of pretty hard core nerd comedy.  It didn’t go well.  In fact, it may have been the worst seven minutes I ever had on stage (until the following night)!  I not only lost the audience, but I lost the audience to the point where everyone in the room broke out into conversations at their own tables.  But I committed to my seven nerd minutes!  When it was done I knew I needed to dig myself out of my hole and the easiest way to do that was with some quick crowd work.  I think someone wrote about how audiences respond harder to reactive comedy versus proactive comedy, meaning if you make a joke about something that you and the entire audience just experienced, that generally has a better chance of hitting strong than something you wrote in advance on your own without the audience there.

Because I was focused on those seven horrific moments, I wasn’t paying to the audience…not that it would’ve helped.  My secret to picking a good sport in the audience is to look for the person who not only looks like they’ve got everything going for them, but is also having a good time.  Frankly, by the time I broke into my crowd work, no one was having a good time, so I just grabbed the guy closest to me.  He looked pissed!  I did eventually get him to crack and when I pointed that out the rest of the audience cheered for me.

Later in that set, while I was talking about Weight Watchers, a woman started asking me about the point value to her alcoholic drink, which she no doubt had already enjoyed a few of.  That conversation went on way too long and that was my fault.

So here’s the question.  Arguably, what the Weight Watchers woman did was wrong and what I did was right.  Why?  Why is it okay for me to engage in a conversation with someone who didn’t want to have a conversation, but it’s not okay for an audience member to engage in a conversation with someone who didn’t want to have a conversation, namely me!

Here’s what I think the solution is.  From time to time I’ll hear a host or hostess ask an audience member if they mind sitting in the front.  They’ll ask if they’re going to be made fun of.  The host or hostess will tell them no and then if they’re doing their job, they’ll ask me and the other comedians not to talk to that table.   And as a professional and a human, most times I’ll oblige!   I think like with any relationship, the key to a strong relationship between a comedian and an audience member is communication.

So maybe this sums it up.  It’s an understood and often times clearly stated rule that the comedian doesn’t want you to start a conversation with them.  If you don’t wish the comedian to start a conversation with you, just tell the person who seats you.  Hopefully the comedian will be cool about it.   And I promise to start respecting that wish myself.

In my interview with Mike Stanley this week we mentioned the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase being awesome because the staff there loves comedy.  I almost guarantee whoever is seating people there on any given night could tell someone being sat that maybe I’ll talk to an older gentleman and a couple as part of my act.  Bill Bushart, whose interview will post this week on here, will always talk to the male half of a couple as well.  They know comedy in Ann Arbor and they can take necessary steps to make sure both the audience and the comedian have the information they need in order to have a successful show.

And honestly, this article is all my opinion.  I’d really love to hear more people weigh in on this subject.  I just thought it was a really interesting question and I wanted to put my thoughts out there.  I realize too that my thoughts aren’t really well formed and I’m sort of ashamed that I never really put more thought into this issue before.


About Mike Bobbitt

Sometimes professional storyteller.

Posted on March 13, 2011, in More Misadventures! and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hi Mike,

    I think it comes down to this:

    – You’re right, that we go to see the Comedian. Not some random person in the audience. If you pick someone out, and they give a cute reply..that’s good. But we don’t want the person to keep going. And we don’t want to think you “planted” someone, either.

    – If a comedian does pick a random person….you gotta be tactful, and not making a joke at the audience members expense, or being insulting.

    It’s one thing to say – “You sir, what do you do for a living….” and lead into a routine that pokes fun at yourself or EVERYONE. But it’s not right to make the audience member the butt of a joke, or insult/humiliate a person.

    You don’t seem that type, so I wouldn’t worry.

    • I don’t consider myself that type either, but like I said, there are at least three people in the world who would disagree with that! I’m not an insult comic like a Don Rickles, but I do have two sort of scripted moments where I do ask embarrassing, but ultimately rhetorical questions of audience members.

  2. I was in that Thursday audience and witnessed the whole thing. To answer the direct question, I think it’s ok for the comic to talk to people in the audience because the audience is there to see the comic. But the reverse is not good because the audience didn’t come to see someone in the audience and besides, the audience member is not elevated on stage nor amplified by a microphone, so it leaves out the rest of the audience because they can’t all see and hear the person. Plus the audience member might not be funny or worse, drunk, incoherent, etc…

    I was wondering why you were doing that geek centric bit in front of an audience of 40somethings and older who were gathered for a lymphoma fundraiser. It may have been a better choice to film it in front of a younger audience who would be more likely to get the references you were making. My personal experience with fundraiser audiences is since they mostly know everyone in the room, talking is more likely to break out if they are not engaged in the show. That show was the first time I saw a bouncer come in and shush a grandmother.

    I would like to improve my banter with the audience. I tend to shy away from it. I’ve seen it done great and I’ve seen it go bad. The worst time was when the comic pointed out a woman in the audience, she had a messed up face. He said to her ‘if you and I were on a deserted island and I was the last man on earth…well, I’d be the last man on earth because you are…ugly’. So not funny, just mean. To top it off, the woman broke out crying and ran out of the room. That was the end of the show for the audience, unfortunately the comic still had more show to do but the audience hated him for the duration. I haven’t seen that guy on stage since that night. I hope he went to charm school.

    • Ooh! You’ve gotta tell me who that was.

      Yeah…I agree that Thursday was a weird call. Those particular jokes didn’t work well in that order. I changed it up second show at the Castle Friday night, taking out the Spider-Man joke and replacing it with my story about peeing in the coffee cup and things worked much better.

      • I’m glad it worked out better for you at the Castle.

        I would tell you who that was, but I have no idea. It was the one and only time I ever saw him, it was a long time ago. It was the only time I saw someone leave a comedy show crying their eyes out. I felt really bad for her.

  3. Bret R Boulter

    Awesome question. Jen and Germaine’s comments are right on target.

    I think we’re there (I’m speaking as an audience member) to see the work of a performer. Since it’s live, there’s always the possibility that the audience may become involved… magician bringing someone up on state, dancers coming offstate and dancing in the aisles… there is precedent. If the performer does incorporate the audience, even if they’re engaging someone in a back and forth, we’re still watching a performer do their work. When they’re done with the audience participation, the audience is still the audience, and nobody is there to see anyone but the performer.

    And who’s picking the avatars on this blog?

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