Last week, comedian Daniel Tosh’s handling of a heckler started a firestorm online. His remarks were out of line, but a lot of people seemed to miss the fact that heckling a standup comic during a show is equivalent to yelling at actors during a stage play. It is an interruption of a performance, and people who heckle need to be prepared for severe blowback. Probably not to the level that Tosh came back with, but blowback nonetheless.
I asked Philadelphia comedians Chip Chantry, Mary Radzinski and Doogie Horner—who experienced one of the most famous heckling turnarounds in TV history—what they thought about Tosh’s remarks, about whether heckling is ever acceptable, and about dealing with hecklers.
What were your thoughts when you heard about the Daniel Tosh heckling incident last week?
MARY: My original thought when I first heard about the Tosh heckling incident was, “Oh, brother.” I get that rape is not a laughing matter. Unless, of course, you think it is, and you’re in a comedy club at your own will. Tosh shouldn’t have said what he said, and it’s unfortunate if this woman felt threatened by his comments that were made in anger and annoyance—but again, she was watching live comedy, not out on a street corner.
CHIP: It was in poor taste, and I would not have said it—if that’s what he did say, because no one actually knows what exactly was said, and in what context, except for the people there. And everyone on the Internet wants to make this about “rape jokes,” but it’s as much about that as the Michael Richards thing was about race—it’s not. I’m not defending either comic, but it’s about the situation itself—a comic said something, an audience member disrupts the show, and the comic comes back with venom in the moment. Now everyone wants to dissect it and take sides. But I wasn’t there, so I can’t pass judgment, or take a side.
What’s the first thing that runs through your head when you hear a heckler in the crowd?
DOOGIE: Well, there are different types of hecklers. The first thing I try to determine is intent: Is the person trying to be rude? Often “hecklers” are just people who don’t realize how loud they’re talking, or they forget they’re at a show so they’ll try to have a conversation with you. Like, you’re telling a joke about Chinese food, and they’ll yell out, “I love Chinese food!” They’re not trying to be disruptive, so if you point out that they are, they’ll usually clam up. If they’re trying to be rude, then you should handle them more severely. I try not to be ruder than the heckler. If someone is really mean to you, and you respond in a funny way without being as cruel, you definitely win. Having said that, there have been times when I’ve threatened to kill everyone in the room.
MARY: The worst heckler in my book, is the sober, self-righteous asshole who literally thinks he’s doing his friends and the rest of the show a favor by being there. They think they’re actually enhancing the show by yelling out and interrupting.
CHIP: A comedy show is like any other performance. Most rational, well-adjusted people know that they are not part of the show, and act accordingly. But when I hear a heckler, the first thing I assume is that they want (NEED) attention. They have been sitting in the dark with no one looking at them for an hour, and they’ve had a few drinks, and they want their friends to think they are clever.
There seems to be a belief that handling hecklers is an art form, and that heckling a comedian is OK because it “brings out the best in him or her.” Your thoughts?
DOOGIE: Standup is an art form, and handling hecklers is just one skill, but it gets a lot of attention because it’s so dramatic. Being heckled doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in a comic. It forces you to respond, and it’s a challenge not to lower yourself to the level of whatever idiot was dumb enough to disrupt the show. I’ve never been heckled by a smart person.
MARY: I do think handling hecklers is an art form. Whether “handling” means going back and forth, and ultimately destroying the heckler, or shutting them down from the get-go. When this is done well, it really is an art form. Banter with the audience is fine, heckling is a waste of time.
CHIP: I wouldn’t go to see a play or concert, and just start yelling things. Comedy is no different. It’s a show. And comedian aside, people paid money to see a comedy show. They did not pay to see someone yelling and disrupting it. I think heckling is actually more rude to the other customers than it is to the comedian.
When a person heckles someone on stage, do they deserve whatever comes their way?
MARY: I do feel that a heckler deserves what they get.
CHIP: If it persists, and it is ruining the show, you’ve gotta get out the big guns, and take control. Having said that, there is a line—telling a woman she should be sexually assaulted is probably on the other side of that line.
What’s your best/worst heckling story?
DOOGIE: I have so many heckler stories. One time I performed in Cape May, opening for my friend who was a magician. The crowd was mostly kids. This one kid kept heckling me, so I told him if he didn’t stop, I’d walk him down to the ocean and drown him. It was funny because my retort wasn’t witty or particularly cruel. It was just a matter-of-fact death threat. Everyone laughed. Then I asked the kids, “Hey, who here likes ice cream? What’s your favorite flavor?”
CHIP: I was hosting a show once where the headliner was a ventriloquist. An older, VERY drunk lady in the crowd was heckling the entire time. Finally she yelled to the ventriloquist, “You’re a SICKO!” When the ventriloquist asked why she thought that, she said, “I don’t like the way you’re touching that baby!” Oh, alcohol. Sometimes you make magic happen.