You’re performing your prepared jokes, when all of a sudden, someone in the audience yells something out. What do you?!? Oh, and you have one second to decide, no pressure!
First, make sure the comment isn’t just someone muttering in the front row that nobody else heard but you, as you can often ignore such minor interruptions.
Next, repeat what they said into the microphone. This gives your brain an extra second or two to assess the situation and makes sure everyone in the audience heard what was said, which increases the odds that your response will get a big room laugh.
Next, quickly figure out what kind of “audience member yelling things out” interruption it is you’re dealing with, then respond accordingly.
Heckler Identification 101 – Types of interruptions
- Someone responds to your jokes by saying something out loud that they think is helpful to the joke (but almost always isn’t)
Acknowledge their suggestion and either riff off of it, say something witty or show how it’s unfunny and sarcastically thank them
- Someone doesn’t realize your statement or question was rhetorical and that they weren’t supposed to actually answer it
This is similar to #1. After you acknowledge the comment, start taking shorter pauses than usual between setup lines so they don’t jump in again. Some audiences are more A.D.D. than others and can’t handle any silence, especially if it’s right after a fake question.
- Someone says something along the lines of “Jesus Christ” or “Oh God” when you do an edgier joke
You can either smile and laugh extra without really addressing it. Or you can say something along the lines of “it’s gonna get worse.” Or admit “You’re right, that’s a rough one” and then make your next joke even edgier. Showing the audience you understand you’re crossing the line, and then crossing it even more can cause a bigger laugh because going further after apologizing isn’t expected.
- Someone is drunk and just yelling out sounds or words that don’t make any sense
Admit to being genuinely confused about the sound, maybe even mimic the sound, but don’t give them time to respond. If they do respond, it’s usually so nonsensical you can just laugh or stare at them and then move on without another response. You can always make a comment about them needing another drink too. The key here is to get back to your material ASAP. The audience tends to tolerate these kinds of heckles less than any other, so you can ignore it after the first time and talk over them.
- Someone yells out, “You suck”, “I’m funnier than you”, etc.
This is what most people think of when you mention hecklers. These are also the least common ones. In this case, it matters if the rest of the audience has been laughing and is with you, or if they’ve all turned on you. Assuming the rest of the audience likes you, try to agree with the heckler while one-upping them. Don’t resort to insulting them unless they’ve yelled out more than once.
More Heckling Factors
- Don’t get too mean, too quick
If you acknowledge the situation and respond with something that isn’t too mean the first time, they’ll usually stop. A lot of times the person (and rest of the audience) thinks they’re just being helpful (situations #1 and #2 above) so they don’t understand why you went from likeable to jerk.
If you don’t have a witty in-the-moment response something like “Thank you for your opinion sir, I can take it from here” or “Ok, no more alcohol for that one” usually works for the first interruption.
Don’t get mean, call the audience member names or tell them to shut up until they interrupt for a third time. And make sure the rest of the audience is against them at that point.
- Ignoring the problem makes it worse
If you ignore the first comment, then they’ll almost certainly say something else. Plus the audience starts wondering why you haven’t responded to the comment and while they’re thinking about that, they stop listening to you and your next joke.
If you respond to the interruption and the audience member says something again, try to not respond directly. Stare at them for a second or two and then say “annnnnd back to me” or just a “that’s nice.”
- If the audience member or audience in general has already been chatty before you
Some audiences are just talkative and want you to talk and interact with them instead of just listening to you do material. This isn’t really “heckling,” this is crowd work, even if you’re not the one who decided to start it. When you’re trying to work on new material having to spend time talking to the audience can get annoying but you just gotta go with it. It’s also important to make it seem like the interruptions are “fun” and don’t bother you.
- If the comedians before you were doing so much crowd work that the audience thinks it’s supposed to be a back-and-forth
Sometimes the comeidans before you talk to the crowd so much, the audience starts chatting with all performers, even those who just want to do material. In such an instance, you want to be extra nice when responding, as this is how they were trained and will be confused if you verbally attack them.
- Use the improv rule of “yes and”
Agree with whatever the audience member says and then add some additional information. This usually works because if you seem defensive, you’ve lost. Even something like, “You suck!” can be turned into “Yes, I do suck. And you can’t afford me. Why are you propositioning me anyway?”
Heckling is just like with the rest of stand-up, you best learn by doing it. It still helps to read, ask questions and be prepared, but you need the actual game reps.
So you’re toying with the idea of stepping onto a stage and making an audience laugh?
Maybe your friends always say, “you’re funny.” Maybe you watch comedy obsessively and think, “I could do better.” Maybe you just wanna have some fun while improving your public speaking skills. Perhaps you’ve even jotted down a few jokes. Well, buckle up for eleven tips to to turn your comedy daydreams into a laugh roaring reality.
- Start ASAP – no excuses! Procrastination kills creativity. The longer you wait, the easier it will be to make excuses and never try to get on stage. Find an open mic night, new talent show or comedy class and sign up.
If it’s an open mic night or new talent night, give yourself an aggressive but realistic deadline – sign up for anywhere from two to four weeks from now. You want enough time to prepare, but not so much time that you get second thoughts.
If you’re signing up for a comedy class, you can pick one that starts tomorrow. Classes are usually multiple weeks and provide structure and prompts to help you generate ideas.
Related reading: 8 critical facts you must know before taking any stand-up comedy class
- Write out what you’re going to say. Do not just wing it! Think about and write out some funny anecdotes and observations from your life. Mark where you think the laughs will be. Go through this multiple times and keep revising it. You want as few lines between the laughs as possible.
Most open mics or new talent shows will give a brand new person between 2 and 6 minutes on stage. One typed-up page generally takes three to five minutes to perform.
- Talk to yourself. Don’t get on stage without first saying and hearing your ideas out loud. The way we write often sounds more academic and awkward than how we talk. You want to make sure the words sound like a human is speaking, not like Siri is reciting from memory something you wrote.
- Test the waters with a friendly face. If you have a positive, trustworthy friend, run your jokes by them and see where they laugh. But be careful here, you don’t want to lose your confidence before you start. If you have a lot of negative and/or humorless people in your life, skip this step.
- Keep a note card handy. Even the best minds go blank under the spotlight. Avoid awkward silence by keeping a trusty note card in your pocket that has the main bullet points of your jokes. Don’t pull it out unless you must. Most of the time, just knowing you have this safety net will help you not need to use it.
- Talk slower. Even slower! Nervous energy can turn you into The Flash of comedy. Audiences need a second to process what you just said. Slow and steady increases laughs. If you think you’re talking too slow, slow down some more. Embrace the art of the pause—it’s your secret weapon.
- Record your triumph. Capture the glory of your first stand-up performance. Your phone on a tripod will do. If the club offers a video of your set, pay them, it’s worth the higher quality. You want to have proof of your first time. It also helps to review where the laughs were. That way you can iterate your jokes for future performances.
- When you see a red light or cell phone light held up high by the emcee, that means you have one minute to wrap it up. Pay attention to the light signal. If you’re not sure, before you go on, ask the host, “Where’s the light?” Venues and other comedians hate when a brand-new comedian goes on significantly longer than allotted.
- Continue until you finish all your jokes or time runs out. You’ll probably get laughs and lose track of time. Even if the crowd is quiet, stay up there and keep talking. It’s all part of the wild, unpredictable world of stand-up.
- Nerves are normal, embrace the jitters. You’re stepping outside your comfort zone so a few butterflies, nerves and adrenaline are expected. Tina Fey said it best, “I tell myself I’m not nervous, I’m just excited. And sometimes, right before SNL goes on the air, I get so excited I want to pee my pants.”
If you’re up there and still feel nervous for more than the first minute, acknowledge it with the audience and the truth of the situation will probably get a laugh. Even better if you write a joke about how nervous you are.
- Lower the stakes – it’s about fun not fame (yet). You’re not gonna get a Netflix special or a sitcom deal from your first time ever on stage – this isn’t the 1980’s! You’re on that stage to have fun. Enjoy the thrill, embrace the nerves, and savor every moment.
Want to try performing stand-up but not sure what to say or how to write a joke? Click here to learn more about our New York City stand-up comedy classes.