In defence of the noble art of telling people they're rubbish
Recently I performed at a well known comedy club and they had signs up saying 'Please do not heckle the comedians!'
When I first attempted stand-up comedy in the late 90s, heckling was everywhere. On some bigger stages I was heckled before I even reached the microphone. I've been heckled in toilets, in bars, on the street, and usually ended nights heckling myself internally on the bus home. It seemed like every gig I did had at least one brilliant heckler. Half the time they didn't even need to say anything brilliant, not during my 'act' anyway. A brilliant heckler, just like a brilliant comic, is really just a confident one or a stupid one. A heckler, or indeed a comedian, who is too confident or too stupid to realise they're rubbish is a very tricky proposition – as I'm sure we're all now well aware.
When I started out, one of the great things about being on a bill with good comedians was watching how they seemed to magically transform the atmosphere of a room and make the audience listen. It seemed to me that hecklers were simply an occupational hazard – if you're going to stand up in front of real live humans and pretend to talk to them then be prepared for them to sometimes call your bluff and talk back.
Most comics tended to respond with something they'd Blue Petered earlier, but acts like Bill Bailey, Stewart Lee, Al Murray, Sean Lock, Paul Foot, Andrew Maxwell and Ross Noble all were able to respond in the moment and were sometimes brought into the room for the first time by a heckler, with the gig very often becoming better for it.
Although as an act it terrified me, I found and still do find it exciting, because when a heckle goes off, no one really knows what's going to happen. Like a bird suddenly flying in through the window into a room, it seems to wake everyone up. 'Fuck! This is really happening!' – 'What are we going to do?!!' – 'Ah! what if it shits on someone?!!'
Nowadays of course, it's different as stand-up has been fully assimilated into the grand media spectacle. Audiences come to live comedy from seeing acts on TV or online and they're accustomed to sitting back, passively consuming, only venturing to join in on cue. And after all, who’s going to hear it at the O2 anyway?
It's not only large scale stand-up comedy gigs that sail dangerously close to Nuremberg. Nowadays even sitting in some Edinburgh shows I sometimes feel like I'm back at school watching a lesson from a groovy teacher. It's unhealthy and against the best traditions of all humanity to sit still and listen to someone loudly talking at you without saying anything back.
Whatever you may think of the Nuremberg Rally or a classroom, in the long and varied history of human beings, neither can be said to be natural, or even common, occurrences. Sitting in rows, facing a solitary wind bag, who is reciting something they've designed to manipulate a particular emotional response from you, isn't a recipe for egalitarian social intercourse. However, human beings having a laugh together is natural, and in the context of a comedy gig, the possibility of heckles is the touchstone of authenticity. Hecklers redress the balance of status between artist and audience.
I get the impression that some acts nowadays seem to think that simply being on stage gives them a right to be heard or not to be heckled. Being on stage is not a right; it's a privilege and a responsibility, and for it to have any value it's a position that must be vulnerable. A comic needs to keep earning her right to be there every second she's on stage.
Comics now are often given and expect a false respect from audiences. An unearned, unnecessary deference. Audiences and comics have transferred the fawning obsequious dynamics of fame learned from the media, into the live comedy gig. Some comics even behave like they are celebrities. So now more than ever we need the heckler to remind us all, like the little boy in the fable of the emperor's new clothes, that a comedian is just another name for a fool.
Of course we shouldn't only heckle stand up comedians; we should heckle the TV and the radio too. We should especially heckle the TV and radio, so that we're reminded of the fact that, unlike the stand-up comic, the TV and radio are literally incapable of hearing us.