How to Shut Down A Heckler Without Ruining the Show

Ever heard those loud, demeaning shouts in the back as you are just trying to give the people a good show? How do they not understand it's rude to carry on a conversation during a live performance? You wouldn't be the first to have these questions.

There is no need to shut down the show due to hecklers. There will always be critics and people who try to drag other people down due to their own insecurities. The best comedians will handle it with grace and poise, and prepare beforehand how they will handle the situation.

Shouting at the hecklers or demeaning the heckler back does not solve anything. The best thing you can do is just to let it slide off you like water off a duck's back.

What is a Heckler?

By definition, a heckler is someone who interrupts a performance and/or show. They often make abusive, aggressive, or derogatory comments towards fellow audience members or the performer.

Active Heckling: This is the worst of the two categories of heckling. This refers to when the heckler deliberately interrupts the performer in the middle of their performance by saying something to the performer directly. This is particularly difficult because of how sudden it starts and how abrupt it can tend to be. It can interrupt a joke that took a lot of time and buildup.

Passive Heckling: This type of heckling thankfully isn't nearly as rough or difficult of a situation to handle because it isn't so forward and upfront. This refers to when someone does a more indirect form of disrespect such as engaging in a conversation with the people sitting next to them or distracting others with the light of their phone.

On top of the two categories of hecklers, there are typically four different kinds, or subcategories, of hecklers:

  1. The Know It All: These people have a lot of information and want to interrupt and share it with the audience and performer. This can be incredibly repetitive and certainly strains a performer's patience.
  2. The Griper: They do not want to be there and want to let everybody know about how they feel about the "terrible" show. Because of how deliberately rude they are, it can be even easier to be thrown off in the middle of performing, and the domino effect is never pretty.
  3. The Whisperer: Typically this is a more passive approach, but they tend to distract other audience members from the performance. At least this tends to be the gentlest kind of heckling to address and handle, but that still doesn't mean it is necessarily easy.
  4. The Aggressor: These people are insecure and the most dangerous. They want to get angry and hurt people. The hardest part of handling people who are aggressive hecklers is that there is no successful way to handle the situation, especially with how much potential physical harm there can be.

Helpful Strategies to Use for Alleviating Heckling During Performances

Performers everywhere know that when something does not go according to plan, they need to come up with a new and improved strategy. A great strategy to use is to turn the cruelty into a part of the performance. There are a lot of different approaches to handling this situation., and some of them are worse than others.

Anger coming from both the audience and the performer ruins the performance and the atmosphere. Do not get angry no matter what! Rather, set up healthy boundaries, and use security whenever necessary. The reality is, security can truly be your best friend if someone is causing a scene.

Performance Heckler-Avoiding Strategies for the Owner of the Venue

As a business owner, it is important to keep in mind that a good security system, a good location, and good staff all play a crucial role in running a successful comedy show. A good backstage crew can be incredibly useful in helping to keep an eye on things, especially if the comedian on stage is not giving a very good performance.

Another idea is to have a system to determine how the potential performer would handle such a situation. For example, there can be a mini simulation they have to do in the interview, or the owner can even ask for a demonstration or role play. This can help bring up any potential red flags and alleviate what would have been a very rough performance on the performer, the audience, and the owner's business.

Security Strategies

Security can and will be a great tool to use whenever things get aggressive either in the audience or the performance. Hire someone who has demonstrated a keen eye for what a calm audience looks like and what an aggressive audience looks like.

Honestly, anyone who is hired for a role in security should have an especially keen eye for drunkards as those are the ones who tend to be the cause of more drastic heckling. The more prevention that can be done beforehand, the better.

Strategies Regarding Escalating vs. Deescalating Hecklers

The best way to keep the problem under control is to deescalate the situation. The audience will tense up in anticipation whenever a heckler says something nasty to a performer waiting to see what happens. If the tension continues to spread, who knows what other hecklers are out in the audience just waiting for their moment to "shine" and ruin the show?

The last thing the audience, the performer, the business owner, and anyone else applicable needs is for multiple hecklers to build off of and encourage each other in their heckling endeavors. All that comes from it is everyone leaving frustrated and annoyed. Do not hand over the mic (aka the power) to the hecklers. Take the mic, and keep the show on the right track. Derailing is just going to create a mess that, again, no one needs or wants to deal with.

If the performer says something derogatory back to the audience, the performer is just doing exactly what the heckler was doing in the first place... and doesn't that make the performer a heckler too if they are being derogatory? Once the performer joins the heckling, everything goes down to the dumps and gets very ugly. Fighting fire with fire just makes the situation even more dangerous. Yes, that is correct, hecklers can and will be dangerous.

Here is a good example of a comedian handling a situation that keeps escalating. He goes on to say that he was glad it was over, expressing genuine concern about his own safety.

Here is a wonderful, non-abusive approach where both the heckler and the performer end up deescalating the situation. This was a rare shining moment where the heckler actually apologized for what they said. Now that is a true adult right there ladies and gentlemen. Watch this.

Heckling Scenario

The best performers learn how to improvise. This covers not just comedians, but also public speakers, leaders, business owners, and shop owners. Improvising is a necessary tool in all parts of life. Now let's set the scene:

Comedian: I was driving up to see my grandma this morning. Nice old lady, keeps a couple creepy china dolls in her closet and constantly is hitting guys who look like Jack Black with her eleven-ton purse. I keep wondering if she keeps a few bricks in her purse as I watch their heads grow a goose egg the size of a soccer ball.

Audience laughs. One guy is snorting like a freight train.

Heckler: Boo!

Comedian: "So grandma told me to get some ice-cream. I said okay" he shrugs. "I can do that for you grandma. Keep in mind I am trying to look as 'not Jack Black' as possible whenever I visit Grandma for obvious reasons."

Audience chuckles.

Heckler: "You're a bastard! You son of a *****"

Comedian: "I do not know if anyone else can hear this, but I keep hearing the sound of my deceased grandpa ringing in my ear." He holds up one hand over his ear as if listening for something.

Heckler: "I'm going to beat your ***"

Comedian: Yeah that's him.

Audience laughs.

Comedian: You know, there is no reason why anybody should try to belittle or hurt another person. Or worst, hurt themselves. My grandpa was an angry, abusive man. Maybe that is why my grandma hits men with her purse as an instant reflex. We have taken her to so many doctors when her brain started getting messed up and crazy. There has been little to no results for her possibly getting better.

Heckler: "You're grandma is disgusting, I hope she dies."

Comedian: Sir, I wish you would stop hurting yourself. The rude words coming out of your mouth are hurting your mother and your grandmother as well as your wife and kids. Now, can you please stop projecting so the show can go on? Thank you, I'm going have to ask you to leave sir.

See! That was a much better example of how to improvise whenever there is a need to deal with heckling during a performance. It is so easy to get carried away and caught up in frustration towards all of the hecklers and what they are saying, but just like in the example right above, it will always go so much better when the heckling is handled in a more mature manner instead of given fuel to set off the fire.

What Not To Do

The worst possible scenario is when both the performer and the heckler start cussing each other out and get into a physical, brutal fight. That is definitely a very dangerous, escalating situation. Security definitely should have intervened before the fighting broke out, but that doesn't leave any excuse for allowing things with heckling to get even remotely close to that point.

One tip to always keep in mind when handling people who are heckling during a performance is to make sure to read into the situation before the event. It is always best to stop the brutality before it can even start, and that can only be done by keeping a forward mindset and watching out for any potential problems that can be eliminated before you get started. Here is a list of things to never do, or problems will happen!

  • Do not have a meltdown, no matter how bad the situation becomes. A meltdown will only serve to escalate the problem and make things far worse than they already are. You could ruin your reputation as well.
  • Do not get angry at the audience members. Not all of them are heckling and being rude, so do not act as such. They do not deserve brutality and instead need to be treated with decency and basic human rights.
  • Do not reward them for interrupting you! Any encouragement for that, no matter how small, will do nothing but invite more of it and the goal is for it to never start in the first place.
  • Make sure you are ready to face adversity before it comes. By mentally preparing yourself, you will be able to be far more calm, cool, and collected. As a result, you will be able to respond to any and every heckling situation, no matter how severe, in a more mature and well-mannered approach.
  • Be cautious that the jokes being used in general do not degrade others, whether it be people in the audience or outside of the audience.
  • Do not let it get under your skin. Keeping a level mind and a calm demeanor will be the best thing you can do in such a situation, and the more you let their heckling comments get under your skin, the harder it will be to stay pacified.
  • Do not dwell on it. Let it be a lesson to figure out future hecklers. They will learn their lesson in due time, but making matters worse may prolong the time it takes the hecklers to learn that valuable lesson they very much need to learn.

What To Do

  • Be kind to the heckler, that will make it harder for them to be rude.
  • Ask the heckler to stop.
  • Be kind to the audience members, never forget that!
  • If the heckler is persistent, hear them out and respond calming and non-aggressively.
  • Focus on the task at hand: helping people have a great, hearty laugh!
  • Play out a heckler scenario with a close loving friend, what better way to help the situation than make a fun scenario out of it for the performance?
  • Keep the show playful!
  • As a last resort, have security remove the heckler from the audience.
  • As a business, make sure to have a good security team.
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