A heckler is a person who harasses and tries to disconcert others with questions, challenges, or gibes. Hecklers are often known to shout encouraging 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 19th 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. In the early 1930s, before becoming Premier of Ontario, Mitchell Hepburn stood on top of a manure spreader, apologizing to the crowd for speaking from a Tory platform, at which someone in the crowd shouted, "Well, wind 'er up Mitch, she's never carried a bigger load!"
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:
Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "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.
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."
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."
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.
Medea Benjamin of Code Pink repeatedly interrupted a major speech by President Barack Obama regarding United States policy in the War on Terror at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013.
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 stand-up comedy, a heckler is what separates the medium from theatre; at any time during the show (either indirectly or directly), a heckler may interrupt a comedian's set. Hecklers want the stand-up to break the fourth wall. Most sources claim that heckling is uncommon. Heckling is more likely to occur at open stage performances and performances 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 handle hecklers properly.
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.
Comedians generally dislike heckling. Hecklers may rarely threaten or physically assault comedians. Even more rarely, comedians may receive death threats.
Comedians counter hecklers by controlling the flow of conversation. A comedian cannot completely ignore a heckler without undermining the performance. Comedians devise a strategy for quashing such outbursts, usually by having a repertoire of comebacks for hecklers—known as savers, heckler lines, squelchers, or 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. Phyllis Diller would have her light technician shine a spotlight on hecklers to make them feel intimidated.
Bill Burr's Philadelphia Incident was performed in Camden, New Jersey, where he reprimanded an audience of over ten thousand people. Michael Richards became upset with hecklers 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.
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..."
William Cook [states that] ... 'A heckle is the final arbiter between theatre and comedy. If you can heckle it, it's comedy. If you can't, it's theatre. The implicit understanding that allows the audience to pitch in on equal terms with the person behind the mike — a comedic right to bear arms — is the first article of comedy's unwritten constitution. It simply isn't sporting to hurl abuse at an actor, however much you might hate them, but a comedian is fair game. Heckling is what makes stand-up special, and without the capacity for an audience intervention, it would be reduced to a dull substitute for drama.
Stand-up is undeniably democratic to some extent. Few forms of art, or of performance, are held to so immediate and emphatic a measure of audience approval as stand-up, where the audience's appreciation needs to be demonstrated through their laughter and their disapproval can be communicated equally clearly through their silence or, more distinctly, through heckling.
Pauses, rhetorical questions, digressions, diversions, distractions, and long descriptive passages all are opportunities for the audience to react in an unanticipated manner and to shift (or pull) focus away from the performer. And the sheer act of projecting—talking loudly or shouting, one person talking against two hundred—negates much in the way of subtlety of intonation and the texture of performance.
On several occasions, I [the researcher] witnessed waitresses walk away from their tables visibly upset by their encounters with male customers. On one occasion, a customer at a table grabbed the behind of the waitress as she walked away, leading to management forcibly removing the customer
Although [Bert] States emphasizes the ways in which actors relate to audiences, he acknowledges that theatrical communication is always 'a two-way street.'
[H]eckling is an intrinsic part of stand-up comedy.
An audience may imply (through heckling, interrupting, etc.) a desire for the comic to break down the fourth wall and 'join the crowd,' but experienced comedians know that this would only make the room more uncomfortable.
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.
You see a lot of heckler videos go viral. But that's not because heckling happens a lot.
In performances by comedians in the USA it is not uncommon for a member of the audience to interrupt the performance by shouting a comment.
A further feature that almost all stand-up comedy venues have in common is a licence to sell alcohol. Most comedians and promoters agree that running a successful gig without alcohol would be very difficult, if not impossible...Alcohol is usually not only offered to the audience, but its consumption actively encouraged.
[B]ecause stand-up comedy is performed almost exclusively in venues where alcohol is present, comedians rick physical harm before they even step on stage.
Drunk audiences are…more prone to unpredictable outbursts, than sober audiences.
[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.
When a stand-up comic fails to provide a compelling performance, people can become hostile.
Comedians act differently after midnight, and so do audiences. Audiences are a lot less respectful, comics are less keen to please, and the resultant humour is much more confrontational.
To develop this kind of heckler-deflecting skill takes years; like writing and timing, it is developed with the benefit of those lovable comic twins: time and pain.
I don't like hecklers, but I'm fascinated by them, and you know, I don't have like bits for hecklers, but I just love going in and talking to—giving them the attention that they need so badly and talking about it, you know, and where that comes from and how can I help you. How can I make you feel good about yourself?
I can never hear what a heckler is saying. I just respond wildly to them. And they might be saying, oh Billy, I love you—I say, shut the fuck up! I don't really like them as a species.
Hecklers don't make a show memorable. They prevent a show from being a fucking show. Comedians do not love hecklers.
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.
I asked some fellow comedians what they thought about hecklers. As you might imagine, it was tough to get a straight answer:
I've never met a heckler I didn't want to punch in the face.
Even in the Café Wha? days, Roth remembers seeing Pryor get so enraged at a heckler that he stabbed the guy with a fork.
There's a guy [who] punched me onstage.
Generally, however, any comic's physical encounters onstage can be counted on one hand—more often, one finger…Insults about appearance are almost exclusively aimed at women [comics].
Following Fontenot's quip, the man reportedly stormed the stage and punched the comedian in the face, causing him to lose consciousness.
Alan Harvey was once stabbed with a pencil by a crazed female patron. Tom Dreesen remembers, in the days when he was part of a double act with Tim Reid...'One night, one drunk walked by, put a lit cigarette out in Tom's face...He says that cmics are particularly vulnerable up there because the light is directly in their faces, so they can't see where a potential attacker is coming from. Jonathan Solomon says that he was once attacked by a drunk man...and nobody came onstage to help...another time...in Washington, a man threw a drink at him onstage.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
I was onstage in New Mexico and some kid was going—just halfway through a punchline I hear—ching, ching, ching chong ching, ching chong ching chong, ching ching chong. This was a really dark, Mexican guy. So then I just basically went, '[variation of ándale]—hey, I'm digging a ditch,' you know (laughs to camera), 'I'm a ditch-digger.' Then, all of the sudden, through my peripheral I see him climbing onto the stage. So I keep going, then all of the sudden, like, I black out. I'm literally like, on the stage, laying there. He had punched me (pause) in the face.
I received 252 death threats, both direct and indirect [that I reported to the FBI]...I [talked] with one of the agents, who let me know that some of the folks that were threatening me were career criminals.
On the day that I filmed...two FBI agents come in...they told me that they had [knowledge of] an imminent threat, Cesar Sayoc had shared his list with like-minded people
A heckler lost an exchange with me and threatened me with a gun. As they pulled him away he was still waving the gun and shouting,'I'm gonna shoot your ass.'
All writers on stand-up comedy, without exception, specifically emphasize that a stand-up comedian is on a stage talking with an audience. Stand-up comedy is neither a series of narratives nor a series of jokes: it is a form of small talk
Adrianne Tolsch says that, like stand-up in general, the key to dealing with hecklers is to remember, 'it's all about control…it's not what you say, it's how fast and forcefully you say it'
The microphone helps to create the illusion of a small group discussion irrespective of the group's actual size…to qualify this, during the British alternative comedy movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a form of comedy emerged within a punk aesthetic in reaction to both an Oxbridge-centered intellectual comic tradition and working-class pub comedy (which was known for its prevalent sexism and racism). As befits its anarchic roots, the audience was notoriously antagonistic, particularly at the Comedy Store club around which the movement was centered. Despite access to a microphone, Ben Elton developed a performance style in which he would not pause: 'He realised that if you stand there, shouting, and without putting any pauses in, even pauses for laughter, then the chances of being heckled or being abused by the audience were reduced. So that's where he got his style from, to rant' (Andy de La Tour, in Wright 1999).
To become successful[,] comedians must possess…the ability to estimate correctly audience reactions to deviant speech and behavior.
Although comics rarely use the term 'manipulation,' when Eyre describes [Maria] Bamford as a 'strong performer,' he means that she possesses the ability to manipulate an audience. Comedians typically refer to this manipulation 'in terms such as 'craft,' 'skill,' and 'technique'
Dealing with a heckler is a test of the comedian's ability. To ignore it is to seriously undermine the audience's faith, and if the comic ploughs on relentlessly with material rather than responding, the illusion of spontaneity is broken.
I sometimes try to ignore them because it might be the attention that they're after.
Carol [Siskind] says, she acts as she does in any heckling episode: 'I try to ignore them [at first]…or I state my position right away.
The comedian's response to the heckler is called a 'heckler line'...A successful comedian will usually have a large repertoire of lines, and will attempt to choose one that fits the situation, as this will make the response appear to be improvised.
I have a list of three or four [comebacks]...and the rest will be off the cuff
Like all comics, [Carol Siskind's] responses to hecklers are usually not ad-libs, but cold, calculated antidotes
[Dick Gregory:] Of course, later on I found funny ways to overcome problems. If a man yelled 'nigger' up at me I would say very politely, 'According to my contract, the management pays me fifty dollars every time someone calls me that. Please do it again.'
[Milton Berle:] what has become standard now as 'savers' or 'heckler squelchers' started as ad-libs.
[G]ive them enough rope so they hang themselves
Another...way of controlling a room, which again can lead to fantastic deaths but really enjoyable ones, is to treat abusive heckles as if they were genuine inquiries…and actually to answer them at such length that the people regret having asked the question in the first place.
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]
I treat it [the heckle] like it's an honest inquiry.
[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]
[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.
I [Diller] always told my tech guy to put the spotlight on any hecklers. They're only brave because of the anonymity of yelling at you from the darkness. Once you hit them with a light, the heckler loses all his power.
Although it is known as the 'Philadelphia Incident,' the performance technically took place across the river at the Tweeter Center in Camden, New Jersey.
17 Nov. 2006: Michael Richards goes on a racist rant at the Laugh Factory in L.A.
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'