A heckler is a person who harasses and tries to disconcert others with questions, challenges, or gibes. Hecklers are often known to shout disparaging comments at a performance or event, or to interrupt set-piece speeches, with the intent of disturbing performers and/or participants.
Although the word heckler, which originated from the textile trade, was first attested in the mid-15th century, the sense "person who harasses" was from 1885. To heckle was to tease or comb out flax or hemp fibres. The additional meaning, to interrupt speakers with awkward or embarrassing questions, was added in Scotland, and specifically perhaps in early nineteenth century Dundee, a famously radical town where the hecklers who combed the flax had established a reputation as the most radical and belligerent element in the workforce. In the heckling factory, one heckler would read out the day's news while the others worked, to the accompaniment of interruptions and furious debate.
Heckling was a major part of the vaudeville theater. Sometimes it was incorporated into the play. Milton Berle's weekly TV variety series in the 1960s featured a heckler named Sidney Spritzer (German/Yiddish for 'squirter') played by Borscht Belt comic Irving Benson. In the 1970s and 1980s, The Muppet Show, which was also built around a vaudeville theme, featured two hecklers, Statler & Waldorf (two old men named after famous hotels). Heckles are now particularly likely to be heard at comedy performances, to unsettle or compete with the performer.
Politicians speaking before live audiences have less latitude to deal with hecklers. Legally, such conduct may constitute protected free speech. Strategically, coarse or belittling retorts to hecklers entail personal risk disproportionate to any gain. Some politicians, however, have been known to improvise a relevant and witty response despite these pitfalls. One acknowledged expert at this was Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister in the 1960s:
- Heckler: (interrupting a passage in a Wilson speech about Labour's spending plans) What about Vietnam?
- Wilson: The government has no plans to increase public expenditure in Vietnam.
- Heckler: Rubbish!
- Wilson: I'll come to your special interest in a minute, sir.
Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech was largely a response to supporter Mahalia Jackson interrupting his prepared speech to shout "Tell them about the dream, Martin". At that point, King stopped reading from his previously prepared speech and improvised the remainder of the speech - this improvised portion of the speech is the best-known part of the speech and frequently rated as one of the best of all time.
During a campaign stop just before winning the Presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan was heckled by an audience member who kept interrupting him during a speech. Reagan tried to go on with his speech three times, but after being interrupted yet again glared at the heckler and snapped "Aw, shut up!" The audience immediately gave him a standing ovation.
In 1992, then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton was interrupted by Bob Rafsky, a member of the AIDS activism group ACT UP, who accused him of "dying of ambition to be president" during a rally. After becoming visibly agitated, Clinton took the microphone off the stand, pointed to the heckler and directly responded to him by saying, "[...] I have treated you and all of the other people who have interrupted my rallies with a hell of a lot more respect than you treated me. And it's time to start thinking about that!" Clinton was then met with raucous applause.
One modern political approach to discourage heckling is to ensure that major events are given before a "tame" audience of sympathizers, or conducted to allow restrictions on who may remain on the premises (see also, astroturfing). The downside is this may make heckling incidents even more newsworthy. This happened to Tony Blair during a photo op visit to a hospital during the 2001 general election campaign, and again in 2003 during a speech.
In 2004, American Vice President Dick Cheney was interrupted mid-speech by Perry Patterson, a middle-aged mother in a pre-screened rally audience. After various supportive outbursts that were permitted ("Four more years", "Go Bush!"), Patterson uttered "No, no, no, no" and was removed from the speech area and told to leave. She refused, and was arrested for criminal trespass.
Later, in 2005, Cheney received some heckling that was broadcast during his trip to New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city. The heckling occurred during a press conference in Gulfport, Mississippi, in an area that was cordoned off for public safety reasons, and then further secured for the press conference. Nevertheless, emergency room physician Ben Marble got close enough to the proceedings and could be heard yelling, "Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney." Cheney laughed it off and continued speaking. The heckle was a reference to Cheney's use of the phrase the previous year, when during a heated exchange with Senator Patrick Joseph Leahy, Vermont, he said "fuck yourself" on the floor of the senate.
On 15 October 2005, The Scotsman reported "Iranian ambassador Dr Seyed Mohammed Hossein Adeli... speaking at the annual Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament conference... During his speech to the CND several people were told to leave the room following protests at Iran's human rights record. Several protesters shouted "Fascists" at the ambassador and the organisers of the conference. Walter Wolfgang, the 82-year-old peace campaigner who was forced out of the Labour Party conference last month, was in the audience."
Since 2005 heckling of performing artists has become more commonplace in Switzerland. Musicians of Basel and Zurich have become an increasing focus of hecklers. This shift is primarily perpetrated by foreigners and is often met with a positive response by the non-Swiss performers who welcome the audience interaction.
On Thursday, 20 April 2006, a heckler from the Falun Gong spiritual movement entered the US White House grounds as a reporter and interrupted a formal arrival ceremony for Chinese President Hu Jintao. Moments into Mr Hu's speech at the event, Wang Wenyi, perched on the top tier of the stands reserved for the press, began screaming in English and Chinese: "President Bush stop him. Stop this visit. Stop the killing and torture." President Bush later apologised to his guest.
On 9 September 2009, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted "You lie!" at President Barack Obama after President Obama stated that his health care plan would not subsidize coverage for illegal immigrants during a speech he was making to a joint session of Congress. Wilson later apologized for his outburst.
On 25 November 2013, Ju Hong, a 24-year-old South Korean immigrant without legal documentation, shouted at Obama to use his executive power to stop deportation of illegal immigrants. Obama said "If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so." "But we're also a nation of laws, that's part of our tradition," he continued. "And so the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws. And what I'm proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal." On December 29, 2014, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was the target of this at his address to 884 police academy graduates at Madison Square Garden in the aftermath of the 2014 killings of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
Hecklers can also appear at sporting events, and usually (but not always) direct their taunts at a visiting team. Fans of the Philadelphia Eagles American football team are notorious for heckling; among the most infamous incidents were booing and subsequently throwing snowballs at a performer dressed as Santa Claus in a halftime show in 1968, and cheering at the career-ending injury of visiting team player Michael Irvin in 1999. Often, sports heckling will also involve throwing objects onto the field; this has led most sports stadiums to ban glass containers and bottlecaps. Another famous heckler is Robert Szasz, who regularly attends Tampa Bay Rays baseball games and is known for loudly heckling one opposing player per game or series. Former Yugoslav football star Dejan Savićević is involved in an infamous incident with a heckler in which during an interview, a man on the street is heard shouting off-camera: "You're a piece of shit!" Dejan berated the man, and went on to finish the interview, without missing a beat.
At the NBA Drafts of recent years, many fans have gone with heckling ESPN NBA analyst and host of, Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith, Stephen A. Smith. Most notably, The Stephen A. Smith Heckling Society of Gentlemen heckles him with a sock puppet dubbed as Stephen A. himself.
Tennis fans are also fairly noted for heckling. Some may call out during a service point to distract either player. Another common heckle from tennis fans is cheering after a service fault, which is considered to be rude and unsporting.
In 2009, then Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Alex Ríos was a victim of a heckling incident outside after a fund-raising event. The incident occurred after Rios declined to sign an autograph for a young fan, the same day he went 0 for 5 with 5 strikeouts in a game against the Los Angeles Angels. An older man yelled "The way you played today Alex, you should be lucky someone wants your autograph." Rios then replied with "Who gives a fuck", repeating it until being ushered into a vehicle. Rios did apologize the next day, but was eventually placed on waivers and claimed by the Chicago White Sox later that year.
One of the most famous heckles in music history occurred at a Bob Dylan concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966. During a quiet moment in between songs, an audience member shouts very loudly and clearly, "Judas!" referencing Dylan's so-called betrayal of folk music by "going electric". Dylan replied: "I don't believe you, you're a liar!" before telling his band to "Play it fucking loud!" They play an acidic version of "Like a Rolling Stone". This incident was captured on tape and the full concert was released as volume four of Dylan's Live Bootleg Series.
In the context of stand-up comedy, a heckler is anyone who interrupts a comedian's set. Heckling is uncommon but does occur during stand-up comedy performances, particularly at open stage performances, and/or where alcoholic beverages are being consumed. It is regarded as a sign of audience members becoming impatient with what they regard as a low-quality performance. New comics are often underprepared to properly handle hecklers. Comedians generally dislike heckling.
In addition, live comedy venues tend to discourage heckling via signage and admissions policy, but tend to tolerate it as it creates customer loyalty. The etiquette of exactly how much heckling is tolerated differs immensely from venue to venue, however, but is generally more likely to be tolerated in blue-collar or working class venues. Some cities feature 'heckle nights' where heckling is actively encouraged.
How a heckler is handled
Some comedians ignore the heckling. Others devise a strategy for quashing such outbursts, usually by having a repertoire of comebacks for hecklers—known as "squelches")— on hand; those who handle the moment in an off-the-cuff manner do so by giving the heckler "enough rope to hang themselves." Stewart Lee treats heckles as genuine inquiries. Jerry Seinfeld is a "Heckle Therapist," who verbally sympathizes with the heckler to confuse the heckler and win the audience over. Some comedians will get hecklers to repeat themselves to take away the momentum and laughter from the heckle. The idea is to get the audience laughing at the heckler for being outwitted. Hecklers may rarely threaten or physically assault comedians.
Other comedy mediums
The comedy TV series The Muppet Show featured a pair of hecklers named Statler and Waldorf. These characters created a kind of meta-comedy act in which the show's official comedian, Fozzie Bear, acted as their usual foil, although they occasionally made jokes at other characters as well.
Another notable use of heckling in comedy is in the cult favorite series Mystery Science Theater 3000. The series involves a man (either Joel Robinson or Mike Nelson) and two robots (Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot) sitting in a theater mocking bad B-movies. This style of comedy, coined as riffing, is continued with commentary-based series such as Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic.
In one of Rowan Atkinson's plays "The School Master", a heckler interrupted his play by shouting "Here!" after Atkinson had read out an amusing name on his register. Atkinson incorporated it into his act by saying "I have a detention book..."
Bill Burr performed a set in Philadelphia where he reprimanded an audience of over ten thousand people. Michael Richards became upset with a heckler and called them the N-word several times. When a female audience member claimed that rape jokes are never funny, Daniel Tosh allegedly made an off-the-cuff retort that it would be funny if she were to be immediately raped.
- Audience Participation
- Mystery Science Theater 3000, a TV show built on humorous heckling.
- Troll (Internet)
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- McKie, David (28 April 2005). "Unplotted ripostes". Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
- Lazarus, Hayden of heckla.com (16 April 2018) : Former Martin Luther King, Jr. adviser and speechwriter Clarence B. Jones talks to WSJ's Monika Vosough about how Martin Luther King's favorite gospel singer Mahalia Jackson helped create the "I Have a Dream" speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxlOlynG6FY
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- Cassinos-Carr, Cathy (12 December 2018). "How About Those Hecklers?". Sacramento Magazine. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
You see a lot of heckler videos go viral. But that’s not because heckling happens a lot.
- Murray, Logan (25 June 2010). Be A Great Stand-Up (2nd ed.). London, Great Britain: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. p. 159. ISBN 978-1-444-10726-5.
[Heckling] usually only happens because of one of two reasons: either you have lost the interest of the audience or the heckler is an idiot.
- MacInnes, Paul (15 August 2004). "How can he show his face?". The Guardian. Logan Murray. Guardian News & Media Limited. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
For new comics, heckling is like parallel parking for new drivers, you need to know how to do it, but it doesn't happen very often.
- Oswalt, Patton (14 June 2014). "A Closed Letter to Myself About Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jokes: Heckling". Patton Oswalt. Patton Oswalt. Retrieved 3 February 2019.
Hecklers don’t make a show memorable. They prevent a show from being a fucking show. Comedians do not love hecklers.
- Billy Connolly (2011). Alan Yentob (ed.). The Art of Stand-Up (TV). United Kingdom: BBC: One. Event occurs at 40:18-40:44.
I loathe hecklers. I haven't one good syllable to say about hecklers. When you've come out of the club circuit and all that and you're in the concert hall...they should be gone.
- Fernandez, Jesse (29 August 2016). "How to Deal With Hecklers: Tips From Nine Top Stand-up Comics". Paste. Paste Media Group. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
- "Handling the Heckler". Toastmasters International. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
I asked some fellow comedians what they thought about hecklers. As you might imagine, it was tough to get a straight answer:
- Murray, Logan (25 June 2010). Be A Great Stand-Up. Pat Condell (2nd ed.). London, Great Britain: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. p. 177. ISBN 978-1-444-10726-5.
I've never met a heckler I didn't want to punch in the face.
- Zoglin, Richard (22 January 2008). Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America. Bloomsbury USA. p. 46. ISBN 978-1582346243. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
Even in the Café Wha? days, Roth remembers seeing Pryor get so enraged at a heckler that he stabbed the guy with a fork.
- Patrick, Colin (13 January 2014). "11 Ways to Handle a Heckler". Mental Floss. minute media. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
- McGregor, Nesta (29 November 2018). "Heckling: How to deal with it during a comedy show". BBC News. Ian Smith. BBC. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
I sometimes try to ignore them because it might be the attention that they're after.
- Frances-White, Deborah; Shandur, Marsha (2016). Off the Mic: The World's Best Stand-up Comedians Get Serious About Comedy. Jim Jefferies. NY, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. pp. 230–231. ISBN 978-1-4725-2638-0.
I have a list of three or four [comebacks]...and the rest will be off the cuff
- Murray, Logan (25 June 2010). Be A Great Stand-Up (2nd ed.). London, Great Britain: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. p. 165,174. ISBN 978-1-444-10726-5.
- Apatow, Judd (2016). Sick In The Head. Jay Leno. NY: Random House. p. 162. ISBN 978-0-8129-8728-7.
[G]ive them enough rope so they hang themselves
- Stuart Goldsmith (6 March 2017). "The Comedian's Comedian with Stuart Goldsmith: 200 Stewart Lee". The Comedian’s Comedian (Podcast). Stewart Lee. Stuart Goldsmith. Event occurs at 18:30-18:55. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
I try to treat all heckles as a genuine inquiry…and I know where I’ve got that from. It’s from one recording[, a track called Life on the Road,] of Ted Chippington['s album, Man in a Suitcase]
- Frances-White, Deborah; Shandur, Marsha (2016). Off the Mic: The World's Best Stand-up Comedians Get Serious About Comedy. Stewart Lee. NY, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. p. 160. ISBN 978-1-4725-2638-0.
I treat it [the heckle] like it's an honest inquiry.
- Lindsay, Benjamin (8 January 2018). "How to Become a Standup Comedian". backstage. Backstage. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
[Jerry Seinfeld is a] Heckle Therapist...when people would say something nasty...[he] would...become...sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem...to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be...understanding with their anger…[he] would counsel the heckler...'You seem so upset, and I know that's not what you wanted to have happen tonight. Let's talk about your problem,’ and the audience...[found] it funny and it would [confuse the heckler]
- Durham, Rob (2011). Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage: the stand-up guide to comedy. Middletown, DE. p. 57. ISBN 9781468004847.
[When asked to repeat what they said], the heckler will freeze up...[or if they do repeat it], it won't have as much steam.
- Conway, Andrew (11 December 1995). Collected by Robert Nelson, Scott Meltzer, Ngaio Bealum and Dave Gomez. "You're Ugly, Your Dick Is Small, and Everybody Fucks Your Mother—The Stand-Up Comedian's Response to the Heckler" (Text). Maledicta, The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. Santa Rosa, CA: Maledicta Press. 11. ISBN 978-0916500313. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
- Kettle, James (24 August 2010). "When heckling goes bad". The Guardian. Guardian News & Media Limited. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
There are numerous stories of comics being attacked by audience members – in fact YouTube footage exists of one of the biggest draws at this year's fringe, Australian comic Jim Jeffries, being punched in the head onstage at the Manchester Comedy Store.
- Leavenworth, Jesse (25 February 2019). "Police say heckler pulled knife, threatened comedian at Manchester club". Hartford Courant. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
- McGregor, Nesta (29 November 2018). "Heckling: How to deal with it during a comedy show". BBC News. Ian Smith. BBC. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
Ian says while the crowd saw the funny side of the gag, the man had to be restrained by his friends—before later being escorted out of the venue.
- Zinoman, Jason (17 July 2012). "Toe-to-Toe at the Edge of the Comedy Club Stage". The New York Times. New York Times Company. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
[A] heckler ended an exchange with Tammy Pescatelli, a veteran comic, by tossing a wine glass at her at a club in Jacksonville, Fla., scratching her cornea.
- "Woman May Sue Comedian Eddie Griffin Over Pleasanton Heckling". CBS SF BayArea. San Francisco: CBS Broadcasting Inc. 26 July 2012. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
It was a chaotic scene as a woman throws her drink at Griffin at Tommy T’s. Fiona Walshe said she was taunted by Griffin for being a lesbian.
- Atkinson, Rowan (27–30 June 1979). "The Secret Policeman's Ball". Headmaster. The Secret Policeman's Balls. 0:54 minutes in.
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- "The Single Destructive Moments That Disgraced Famous Comedians' Careers". Willamette Week. Willamette Week. 29 November 2016. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
Nov. 17, 2006: Michael Richards goes on a racist rant at the Laugh Factory in L.A.
- Holpunch, Amanda (11 July 2012). "Daniel Tosh apologises for rape joke as fellow comedians defend topic". The Guardian. Guardian News & Media Limited. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
In a blog entry posted on Tumblr, an audience member wrote that after Tosh told a series of jokes proclaiming that rape is always funny, she called out ‘Actually, rape jokes are never funny!' To which she claims Tosh replied: ‘Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her'