Jan 8, 2013

I Outrank You: Why Hecklers Need to Sit Down and Shut Up

By Paul Krueger

As my official Wine & Pop staff bio says, I’m an occasional stand-up comedian.  I go to open mics, test out material, and every so often receive opportunities to showcase it.  I’ve been at it, on and off, for roughly a year.  I’m not very good, and I don’t expect to be; conventional wisdom dictates that it takes seven years before a comedian can really be considered worth his salt.  My experiences thus far have proven said wisdom correct.

So why bring up all this personal stuff?  Why not another gimmicky list stuffed wall-to-wall with offbeat metaphors?  Because I’m trying to make a point: if something is so difficult that it takes seven years of continuous practice before one can consistently get it right, the last thing it needs is an additional complication.

A complication such as, say, a drunk and vociferous asshole.

Earlier this week, an editorial in the Trib made some waves in the comedy world.  The article, which may be found here and was written by two people who are not comedians, posited that hecklers are somehow a vital part of the stand-up comedy experience, much like the Hells Angels were a vital part of the Altamont Free Concert. Pundits from all around the comedy world, as people who actually know what they’re talking about, shouted it down, the way a supportive audience would shout down a drunk and vociferous asshole ruining a live comedy show.

The standard response has been something along the lines of, “They’d understand if there was heckling involved in their line of work.”  And that response isn’t wrong.  What I wish to respond to, though, is the point of view the editorial reveals about the relationship between artist and audience.

If I had to characterize where I fall on this issue, I would quote The Producers’ Franz Liebkind: “You are the audience.  I outrank you.”  Stand-up comedy and all other forms of performance art are crafted with care and thought.  Their creators are choosing to reveal something about themselves and the way they think, and that revelation relies on an audience willing to receive it.  So yes, the audience and its behavior are integral parts of the comedy experience.  But heckling represents a mindset that doesn’t play by the rules: a mindset that says, “My ideas are better than the artist’s, and they need to be expressed and appreciated right now.”

If the problem with this mindset isn’t immediately apparent (and it should be), I’ll spell it out: that theater or comedy club is not the audience’s platform.  The audience forked over a cover charge and a two-drink minimum to hear what the artist had to say.  Their price of admission did not pay for access to a public forum, and any who think so couldn’t miss the point of live performance more widely if they were shooting at it with a musket.

The Tribune’s editorial confines its focus just to stand-up, but I believe these rules hold true for all its cousins: theatre, music, poetry recital, dance.  Anything with an audience.  Is it conceivable, in the middle of a performance of Romeo & Juliet, for an audience member to stand up and yell, “Dump his ass!  He’s not right for you!” at the actress playing Juliet?

“Of course not,” any sane person would say.  However unstable the titular lovers’ relationship is, the play is Shakespeare’s outlet for his thoughts on it, and no one else’s.  So why should stand-up comedy be treated any differently?  It may appear off-the-cuff, but a comedian’s set is as much a construct as a play with characters and a plot.  It revolves around a persona the comedian’s cultivated, and the jokes it contains have been carefully considered to elicit the right reactions at the right times.  It isn’t meant for call-and-response, and interruption improves the experience about as much as cake batter would be improved by emptying a bottle of ketchup into the bowl.

As a practice, heckling will never go away as long as comedy clubs serve alcohol or admit people who suck.  It is, to an extent, a natural hazard of the job.  But as in every other line of work, hazards should be avoided and minimized, not encouraged by the press.  What this editorial just did was urge its readers to stand up as one, go out into the world, and make an entire line of work more difficult for those that chose the lifestyle.  At this point, one might stand up and demand that something be done to make the lives of Nina Metz and Chris Borrelli, the editorial’s authors, harder in return.  But I won’t do that.

You see, I don’t believe in heckling.

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