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Gagging order: is it ever OK to heckle a comedian?

·3-min read

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it

Let us be clear: heckling used to be OK. Here is Jo Brand on the early days of famed London venue the Comedy Store: “You either got someone throwing up at your feet or subjected to abuse. To crack it meant that you could cut it as a jobbing comedian.” Heckling was once a standup’s rite of passage, the thing that set comedy apart from the snootier artforms. Theatre and opera had cachet and small, well-heeled audiences. No one took comedy seriously – but it was the art of the people, and the people were expected to get involved.

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This – let us be clear again – is no longer so. Comedy has muscled its way to respectability, and heckling has been elbowed aside. “Hecklers don’t make a show memorable,” says US comic Patton Oswalt, speaking for many, “they prevent a show from being a fucking show.” Comedians are highly skilled artists, we now believe, whose performances, crafted over months and years, deserve better than boorish interruption by loudmouths in the crowd. “You are a bad person,” Louis CK once told a female heckler. “You have a bad, mean heart … I really want you to think about what this is like for me, and how awful this is, to do this to a person.” Reviewing that encounter now, your sympathy is unlikely to be wholly reserved for him because, vis-a-vis women, he has zero space left on the moral high ground.

The thing is, it is hard to believe comedians don’t like heckling, far less that they actually feel vulnerable to it. The conceit of standup is that comics are hyper-confident, in control, and that they welcome a chat. This is an artform that masquerades as a spontaneous exchange. Often, it starts with unscripted back-and-forth between performer and crowd. Can a comedian rightly complain, then, when the crowd answer back?

There is even the school of thought that says heckling improves standup – because it keeps it inescapably (a)live. The most memorable moments are often those of unrepeatable surprise, happening for one audience only. Comedy has a ready access to those – so much so that many a standup (from Bob Hope to Andy Kaufman) has planted their own hecklers in the crowd.

While few nowadays go so far, it is unlikely many comics would endorse a total ban on heckling – or not without worrying about the baby vanishing with the bathwater. Comedy can ill afford to jettison its jeopardy; the quality that sustains it, just about, as the least predictable and sanitised of the live artforms. And audiences often love to see a heckle fielded with sang-froid, authority and brutal wit – which requires more subtle skills than you may think.

But heckling, if it is to survive, does require sensitivity on the heckler’s part – which is not their trademark quality. It is about distinguishing between context, comedian and genus of heckle. There is the heckle that seeks to disrupt and the heckle that seeks, playfully, to contribute. There’s the tanked-up club night (heckles tolerated) and the fringe festival (less welcome). And there are those acts who thrive on backchat (step forward, Jimmy Carr) and those who do nothing to invite it. If you know which ones are which, and are mindful of basic manners, then feel free to heckle – if you dare.

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