“A field guide to heckling” (my response)


An article appeared in the Chicago Tribune recently in FAVOR of heckling. Apparently there is no real equivalency to heckling in the world of the written word, otherwise I’m sure the authors of this article wouldn’t be endorsing, encouraging, or condoning heckling in comedy. Sure, heckling sometimes leads to magical/improvised moments of genius…but to condone the practice of letting random people interrupt and alter a professional performance, even if only light-heartedly, is ludicrous to me.

Here’s the article: http://my.chicagotribune.com/#section/479/article/p2p-73895697/

Here’s the response I wrote to the authors…

No one should ever be 'in favor' of heckling.

No one should ever be ‘in favor’ of heckling.

I’m a professional comedian (meaning I’m pursuing comedy as a career), but by no means consider myself a ‘pro’ (as in ‘expert’). I fully expect that I have a lot of years of practice, trial/error, failure, and hopefully continued growth and success ahead of me. Before I ever tried stand-up comedy I spent several years performing improv comedy. I also don’t consider myself a ‘pro’ at improv. However, I’m quite comfortable improvising within and around a stand-up comedy performance. No two performances are exactly the same, ever. And, the unknown/unexpected moments in a stand-up set are indeed the moments where much of the best stand-up comedy is written/honed. For that reason, I also enjoy watching performers adapt to a unexpected situations…especially when they manage to pull it off with skill and seeming ease. It’s definitely exhilarating for the performer to capitalize on that moment as well as for the audience to witness it.

You know what else is probably exhilarating? Getting pushed on a rooftop and nearly flying of the edge toward injury/death but catching yourself at the last minute! That sounds pretty memorable too. What a story you would tell for years, as would anyone else who was witness to it! But, no one in their right mind would have anything but harsh criticism and serious chastisement for the person who did the pushing…the person who, without invitation/permission/warning, literally pushed another person to the edge of disaster. I liken any form of encouragement of heckling (even tongue in cheek) to this scenario.

Comedians should be praised for, and yes they can often benefit from, stepping up to the challenge of disruption/distraction that is heckling. And to use your own example of Zach Galifianakis, I’ve personally seen him completely disarm hecklers and thoroughly entertain audiences in the process…but I can’t imagine he ever encourages or hopes for such interruptions to his performances. If a comedian were to choose to encourage heckling during their own performances, OVERTLY build a reputation out of encouraging hecklers and taking on their challenges, that’s one thing. That is completely acceptable in my book. But, for anyone else (a fellow comedian, a writer, audience member, or basically anyone except the person giving the performance) to encourage or even condone heckling in a general sense is wholly frustrating.

Since you are writers, I’ll pose the argument to you in terms of writing, for the sake of comparison.

Imagine publishing an article in its final edited and “to be read by the masses” form. Now imagine that any random person reading that article could select any one paragraph in that article and completely remove it. No questions asked. You have to delete it.

Here are some options…

Option 1: No big deal, right? It’s just one paragraph. People can still get the gist of what your article is about. You can let that paragraph be deleted, not replace it, and hope the article retains it’s full effect and meaning for all the other people who are reading it.


Option 2: HOORAY! The universe just handed you a gift! You have the opportunity to improvise and grow as a writer! You can retype a new paragraph in its place. But, you have to do it right now…don’t think, just write. You won’t be able to rewrite the original paragraph word for word, and it’ll probably be shorter and less accurate now. Clearly, the reading flow of the article is interrupted. And, you should probably start the new replacement paragraph with the all caps label “FORCED REPLACEMENT”. That way everyone else reading knows that the next paragraph was completely off the top of your head. Sure, it wasn’t the paragraph you had originally crafted and worked so hard to perfect. You had zero time to hone/shape this new one. But, if it’s especially good, the readers will be so impressed! And if it’s not that good, they’ll probably be disappointed at best (or think you’re a terrible writer, at worst). But, look on the bright side. You can still HOPE that the subsequent readers will just assume your first paragraph was well crafted and way better, even though they’ll never get to read it.

Now, imagine that this random paragraph deletion could potentially happen with ANY article you ever write and could even happen multiple times during a single article. And remember, the person doing the deleting was in no way involved in the original creation of the article. They probably have never written articles themselves about your subject or any other. They might not have even read many articles. Certainly they haven’t read articles as many articles as you have as a writer and fan of writing. They were likely unaware of all the information you collected from interviews and research and what inspired you to write the article in the first place. They didn’t know your intention for writing it, nor the point(s) you were trying to make. But all that’s fair, right? You want to grow as a writer, don’t you? So, they should definitely get to randomly edit your work. Oh, did I mention these amateur editors might also be drunk?

Would you welcome this kind of new challenge in your writing career? Sure, it might actually help develop better writers. You might even get pretty good at improvising new paragraphs. I mean, there would still probably be several articles that suffered or were completely sabotaged from these kinds of interruptions, but that’s why you got into writing in the first place, right? To have unqualified writers force you to interrupt and re-edit your work solely at their drunken whim?

Sarcasm aside, I get where you’re coming from on this. I really do. I love seeing improv done well. And, I especially love seeing hecklers get owned by a skillful, witty retort. But, I would never in a million years state or even insinuate that I am in FAVOR of heckling, any more than I’d be in favor of shoving unsuspecting people on rooftops just so we could all tell a crazy story about how they instantaneously learned how to not fall off a building.

Now, if you still won’t be quiet about this…we’ll have you removed from the room.


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