Why heckling is still terrible, no matter what pundits say
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I don’t envy what Patton Oswalt had to do at one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever seen. It was in 2007 at the Lakeshore Theater in Chicago. The lineup began with John Mulaney and Janeane Garofalo, and closed with an unbelievable set by Patton Oswalt, paired with Garofalo—presumably to promote Ratatouille. Mulaney was great, Garofalo kicked ass, but Oswalt had it rougher. He was dealing with a very vocal heckler in the front row. This boorish, annoying person had a gravely voice and a sharp temper, like the female equivalent of Frank from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. She repeatedly shouted things that made absolutely no sense. Oswalt dubbed her “Gravel-puss.”
Gravel-puss had a polite friend who was aware the show was being ruined, so she apologized, and engaged Oswalt in cordial dialogue. She was transgender, and Oswalt started asking her genuine questions about her life, wanting to know more about this saint of a person who was apparently the Gravel-puss Whisperer. “Fuck you,” shouted Gravel-puss. Oswalt remained adroit and shut her down. This repeated until Gravel-puss stormed off. The crowd cheered. Oswalt was our hero. It was hilarious.
You know what else was hilarious? When that guy vomited over the balcony at the Broadway production of Grace.
I see virtually no difference between those two stories. Sure, the former ended in humor and embarrassment for Gravel-puss, and the latter ended with people covered in puke and a quick zinger by Paul Rudd. And sure, that guy couldn’t dictate the timing and velocity of his vomit, as much as the orchestra section might have wished he could.
But in no way whatsoever should either act be condoned. In both cases, people—professionals—were trying to do jobs they’ve been training their entire lives to do, for people who paid money to attend a show, and were interrupted by an audience member doing something irrational or uncontrollable.
Oswalt’s quick thinking saved that show, but he’s the exception, not the norm. Yet Nina Metz and Chris Borrelli from the Chicago Tribune have fashioned a pro-heckling argument that assumes otherwise. It’s offensive and out of touch. Here’s basically what they’re asserting:
1. Heckling makes shows memorable.
Borrelli says, “I have seen countless comedians and forgotten most of them. But I remember each and every time I have witnessed a performer get into it with an obnoxious audience.”
Nothing screams, “I am a jaded comedy critic!” more than those sentences. You know what’s memorable? Good comedy. Honest comedy. Really great comedians doing their job of making people laugh. Hecklers make comedy memorable in the same way muggers make vacations memorable. The victims are forced to make lemonade out of lemons. But make no mistake, they are still lemons.
The real problem is that two ostensibly knowledgeable people have forgotten the difference between correlation and causation. Oswalt was heckled, but the show was a success. That is a correlation—but there’s a third variable at play, which is Oswalt’s extensive skill-set, honed after countless years on the road. That doesn’t mean the heckler made the show better.
2. Comedians’ ability to deal with hecklers is somehow a true test of their skill.
Comedians have a job to do. They make people laugh. Comedians must master the infinite nuances by which they elicit binary responses from people—laughter or no laughter. That’s what they’ve worked their entire lives to do. And that’s how they should be judged.
Some people are great at coming up with off-the-cuff retorts. Others—sometimes the same people—meticulously craft comedy sets with arcs and stories, much like plays. A stand-up act presents the illusion of a conversation, but really, it’s a one-man show.
Watching a comedian dealing with a heckler means watching someone wrestling with embarrassment because the thing they’ve worked so hard to craft is coming apart in front of them. Some retreat into themselves and ignore the person. Some lash out with anger. Some maintain composure and become the source of stories comedians tell as examples of how to deal with hecklers.
But regardless, hecklers are something comedians deal with. They are speed bumps. They are roadblocks. They are in no way a barometer of anything, other than how insensitive it is to attend an event that might as well be in your honor, and metaphorically or literally vomit all over everyone.
3. Heckling keeps comedians “honest.”
Nina Metz recalls watching Chris D’Elia perform at 2012’s Just For Laughs festival in Chicago. When D’Elia talked about how hard it was to get dates, an audience member called his bluff. He’s a mildly famous person, after all. This led to D’Elia explaining how, no matter what, it’s a battlefield out there.
But who’s to say that D’Elia wouldn’t have touched on that later in his act? Personally, I’d rather wait and see, because D’Elia is a professional comedian who likely has figured out the exact right time to address that elephant in the room. It is not the audience’s job to keep a comedian “honest.” That is the comedian’s job. An audience’s job is to listen. Anyone who doesn’t like what they hear is welcome to leave, dissatisfied. Would Metz and Borrelli jump up into the lighting booth of their least-favorite black-box theater to tell the actors they were doing a shitty job of reimagining All’s Well That Ends Well?
Metz and Borrelli also spoke to a few comedians who have learned how to deal with hecklers. Wonderful. Presumably there are also vomit-covered theater patrons who would love to hear poncho recommendations—just in case.
The Tribune article is a series of anecdotes that highlight what happens when critics thinks that willpower will give them control over the uncontrollable. Heckling will never be an acceptable form of behavior.
But can it be entertaining? Let’s put it this way: Traffic jams are sometimes caused by gaper’s block, meaning an accident has occurred, and even though the damaged cars are off to the side, everyone else slows down to see what happened. One time I got stuck in traffic for an hour, only to pass a bag of clothes. Then things cleared up. I was late to work because someone’s trunk opened on the way to the Salvation Army.
I mean, I found the lost clothes entertaining…
4. Metz: “As journalists and critics, we’re trained to stand and back observe…” [sic.]
I sympathize with Metz if she has been trained that way. I’ve seen her at shows and enjoyed some of her writing. She once wrote that something I did onstage was “one of funniest things I’ve seen all year,” so I thank her for that.
But c’mon. This is a vibrant, growing art form that benefits from a deep understanding of what it takes to craft a set. What it takes to hone a joke. What it takes to devote a life to a career that is 99.99 percent rejection, and still keep going.
Metz and Borrelli are welcome to their opinion, but they shouldn’t pretend they aren’t part of the comedy scene. If they love comedy, they have a responsibility to help it grow. They might not always enjoy a show, but that isn’t an excuse for remaining oblivious to how hard it is to be a comic. And heckling is one of the hardest things comedians have to deal with.
Don’t encourage the encourageable. As a fellow journalist, one who takes great pride in being a critic who is an active member of the comedy world, I have two words for you: “Internet commenters.” Isn’t it great when critics go into the comments to defend their opinion to a bunch of people who are jealous they aren’t professional writers? It sure shuts up those commenters—never!
Let’s let Oswalt’s treatment of Gravel-puss be the absolute last resort. For the good of comedy. For all those Gravel-pussies who might think twice before willing themselves to throw up.
Note: A version of this column originally appeared at steveheisler.com.