Heckling is an art form.
It's not a very appreciated art form, but it is still a creative vocation deserving of our attention and respect. Unfortunately, it's also one of those amorphous, pretentious art forms. You know, like jazz fusion or interpretive dance. It's not very fun to watch, I'm always surprised when people say they like it, and those who practice it usually smell like hot, wet onions.
I may not like it, but I respect it. I'm sure a lot of my comedian friends will take great issue with this, since even alluding to being in favor of heckling is strictly verboten in the comedy world.
But hey, I'm not here to tell anyone how to express themselves. Heckling is as pure and true an expression of emotion as stand up is. Maybe one is done with a little more planning and finesse, but both are done with the same amount of passion and conviction. Both are done publicly, and for the approval and amusement of others. Both are, at their core, people yelling in public about things that annoy them. Both comedians and hecklers are usually drunks and/or drug addicts with a bevy of other issues we should probably be working on instead. We're not so different, in a lot of ways.
Whether I'm comfortable admitting it or not, it's undeniable that the drive hecklers have to make me feel like garbage is just as intense and raw as the one I have in myself to make them laugh. Curse my bleeding heart, but there is a kinship between myself and those belligerent jackasses, and I would be a fool to deny it.
If you think heckling is universally hated, you would be dead wrong. This article from the Chicago Tribune in defense of heckling irked many in the comedy world, causing this eloquent retort from the Onion AV Club. In all fairness to the Onion, I don't think an official response regarding heckling from a comedians point of view was anything the world was really in dire need of. Thanks for sticking up for us, but I'm pretty sure it's safe to assume all comics hate hecklers with the burning passion of a million suns.
Still, evidence that it is looked upon fondly in circles beyond comedians is undeniable. YouTube videos of comics taking down hecklers get thousands, sometimes millions of views. The top viewed videos of Todd Glass, Jimmy Carr, and Zach Galifianakis are not of their actual comedy, but of them dealing with hecklers.
The intricate dance of heckler and hecklee is, I will admit, quite beautiful. Now, when I say 'beautiful', let us not forget what the creepy kid in American Beauty taught us, which is that sometimes beautiful things can often be overlooked by regular society. Magnificent works are often woefully dismissed as simply tragic, pointless, and/or ugly. Hecklers are most certainly all of these things, but that does not make their interactions with comics any less the unique snowflakes of bile and venom that we all know they are.
When the heckling debate is brought up, it raises the profile of stand up for a few tense weeks, which leads many to come to its defense. Some video goes viral of a comedian destroying a heckler or having a public meltdown on one, people start talking about it, the "When Is It Appropriate To Heckle?" argument gets brought up again for the billionth time, and suddenly people start talking about stand up again like it's still the last frontier of free speech.
Some would argue that high profile incidents of heckling give stand up more attention on a national level, and that any attention is good for it in the long run. I would counter that argument by saying I never hear about NASCAR in the news unless some guy crashes and sets fire to the first four rows of spectators. It's a shame that the only time the general public really wants to talk about what I do it's in regards to the worst elements of what it entails from time to time. It's like inviting someone over to your house for a party and having them compliment you on how much they loved the big mushroom cloud of fire in your backyard when the barbecue exploded.
Talking about heckling does not elevate stand up, it elevates heckling. So I say fine, let's elevate it. Drop the facade, people. Just admit you love it. It's gone on too long without being recognized as the beloved institution that we know we've all made it out to be. Let's not kid ourselves and pretend we don't love that tingling forbidden pleasure in hearing two strangers who genuinely hate each other exchange insults in public.
Not all heckling can be considered art, of course. A drunk guy at the front of the stage mumbling racial slurs in the audience is not an 'artist', per se. The again, I've seen drunk guys mumbling racial slurs ON stage, and they have websites, business cards and careers built around it, so what do I know?
When people think about heckling in a glowing way, they seem to only have an affinity for one of two specific kinds of heckling scenarios. The first is when an unfunny comic gets told what's what by an audience member quicker and wittier than they are, also known as the Nutty Professor 'women be shopping' defense. The other is the triumphant tale of the bulletproof comic with the uncanny ability to dodge, deflect, and fight off heckles like a verbal ninja, striking down the heckler with stinging accuracy. I'll concede that yes, sometimes seeing those things happen can be amusing. In a sick, sadomasochistic sort of way.
Here's the problem, and where a lot of people get confused. Heckling, and dealing with heckling, is not 'stand-up comedy'.
You may think it is, because it happens in comedy clubs, and in the middle of comedy shows. Nope. Sorry. It isn't.
People think that since dealing with hecklers is part of what we do, it is something we inherently want to do when we get into it. At the very least, we want to be good at it. Wrong again. If given the option, we would never actively work on that particular muscle. Most of us would much rather focus on, you know, being funny. Nobody gets into the stand up racket to show off how great they are at defending themselves. We would have become an aikido sensei, if that were the case.
The common perception is that whatever happens on that stage is something we worked hard on, and that when heckling is dealt with swiftly and in our favor, we take pride in presenting that to you as part of 'our show' and 'what we do'. I don't mean to keep blowing your mind here, but it's not. It never is.
At the risk of depriving us of those sweet, sweet compliments that we need to survive, please stop commending us for being good at it. A comedian who is great at dealing with hecklers is like a skier who always jumps into the bushes instead of the trees when he's about to bail. It's a fortunate attribute to possess, but it's nothing to boast about.
Hecklers take our shows and mount their own productions, separate to what we had planned to present to you. Heckling is it's own unique, separate creative piece, completely detached and unrelated to our act. The fact that its a creative forum that happens in the middle of another creative forum is unique, but incidental. The skills required to engage and react to a heckle are completely different from the ones required to write a good joke. Some comics may have a pre-written witty retort to handle hecklers in their back pocket, but just like learning karate, you hone that set of skills hoping you are never called upon to use them.
When you see a comic interact with a heckler, what you are seeing can't even be considered 'entertainment' in the same way stand up is. It a bizarre form of daredevil debate theater, where either the heckler or the comedian leaves the exchange defeated and humiliated.
There should never be a part of a comedian's set where either they or an audience member is declared a winner and the other is declared the loser. If the audience is enjoying themselves, so should I. If I fail, we all suffer. This is, however, the very definition of heckling. It switches the script, and turns what was once an evening of lighthearted live entertainment into the Kobayashi Maru.
Heckling is tragedy in the truest theatrical sense of the word. People are put at risk of humiliation, degradation, and of being turned into quivering broken masses of humanity.
In other words, artists.
Heckling is art. It has to be, because it sure as hell is not entertaining, and it's too damn self-indulgent to be considered anything else.
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, and producer from Oakville, Ontario, now living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He runs and curates The Placeholder Show (www.theplaceholdershow.com), an up-and-coming comedy empire that features live sketch, improv, video programming, stand-up, and game shows. He is in this way too deep to go back now.
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, producer, and visual artist originally from Oakville, Ontario. You can follow his weird thoughts on Twitter at @jdrenaud.