The first job I had when I moved to L.A. was being a bartender at the comedy club The Laugh Factory. As I stood behind the safety of the bar I remember thinking “I’m glad I’m not the one having to deal with hecklers”. But now that I work as a speaker I’m getting a little taste of what it feels like. Though speakers don’t get heckled nearly as much as comedians do, it still happens, and it’s a good idea to be prepared if it does.

I asked comedians and speakers how to handle a heckler:

“There’s a guaranteed way to avoid heckling in the first place – be riveting.
So many comedians get up there and try new jokes at important shows. The
time to try new stuff is in front of drunks at 1 AM in comedy clubs, not at
big paid events.

I have never been heckled per se, but one time in India, a very drunk woman
was yelling out incoherent things after everything I said. I completely
ignored her, and just talked over her. It’s easy to do because the comedian
has the microphone.

After my set, however, I did a T-shirt giveaway and she yelled out “What
size is it?” and without missing a beat, I said “It’s too small for you”.”

Dan Nainan – Dan Nainan

Dan got his start by taking a comedy class to get over the nervousness of speaking on stage in his job as a demo engineer with Intel Corporation. After leaving Intel to pursue comedy, he has toured with Russell Peters and other notable comedians. Dan has appeared on network television including “Last Comic Standing” as well as in feature films, on radio and in an Apple commercial. He just completed a comedy tour of India.


“To handle hecklers, I’ve found a couple of techniques that seem to work:

* During the Q&A session, I make a point of saying, “Any questions
related to the topic we just discussed?” as opposed to saying, “Any
questions?” Now when the heckler wants to take center stage and bring up
another topic, I can respond by saying, “Glad to discuss this offline at the
end. However, right now we are focused on [topic at hand].”

* I keep clearly in mind that my purpose is to educate and motivate an
audience about this topic, as opposed to getting into a debate. If a heckler
starts disagreeing and won’t let up, my way of handling the heckler is to
say, “Thank you, but our purpose here today is not to get into a debate or
engage in an academic discussion. It is to, perhaps, learn something that
may be useful to you. So, for now, please give it a little room. If not,
I’d be glad to speak with you at the end.”

The key thing is to remember your audience is usually on your side when a
heckler starts. So, handle hecklers without emotion and you’ll find the
audience will stay with you through it all. Sometimes, the heckler is a
known offender and when they do their “thing” the audience, while disturbed
by their behavior, is curious to see how this episode is going to be
handled. Under all circumstances, always treat the heckler with respect and
not admonition.

Deb Bright, Ph.D., is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc. a
consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. Her roster of clients
includes Marriott, Disney, Raytheon, Morgan Stanley, Chase, and other
premier organizations.


“I primarily speak to business people, where you’d think they’d behave…

While doing a presentation on business etiquette, a woman from the audience of approximately 25 participants, was so compelled to challenge me on a particular topic, that she walked over to the front of the room, stood next to me, arms-crossed. Getting the vibe from the others who were constantly glancing at her; not me, I decided to address her. She went off on how she disagreed with my advice.

How I handled it? In my experience, most people who take that route end up embarrassing themselves; after a moment or two, they realize it, especially when no one in the crowd reacts-they only stare. I try to give these hecklers/know it alls a minute to speak their mind. If you don’t, they’ll only continue to interrupt. After a minute, I tell them that I’ll be available after the presentation to continue the conversation; they feel heard and acknowledged. In all of my years speaking, no one has ever come to see after the show.”

Rosalinda Randall is an author and modern-day expert on tact and civility, using etiquette as a foundation. She has been spreading civility for more than 14 years.

By lending personality and humor to an age-old topic, Rosalinda’s tactfully, straight-forward manner provides her audience with modern social and business practices, not only through her workshops, but also in her new book, Don’t Burp in the Boardroom” Handling Uncommonly Common Workplace Dilemmas.



Different Kinds of Heckling

To start, I like to differentiate between five different kinds of heckling,
the first four of which could be considered more of an “interruption” than
a “heckle”:

1. Someone responds to your jokes by saying something out loud that they
think is helpful to the joke (but almost always isn’t)
2. Someone doesn’t realize your statement or question was rhetorical and
that they weren’t supposed to actually answer it
3. Someone says “Jesus Christ” or something like that when you do a
meaner or edgier joke
4. Someone is drunk and just yelling out sounds or words that don’t make
any sense
5. Someone yells out “you suck”, “I’m funnier than you”, etc. This is
what most people think of when you mention hecklers.

I’ve had the first 4 kinds happen quite often but have never gotten into #5
with an audience member. (When I’m doing poorly, the audience just stays
quiet.) Realizing what kind of heckle you’re dealing with will help you
respond to it better.

Here’s what I’ve found to be the best response to each of the five kinds of

1. Acknowledge their suggestion and either riff off of it, say something
witty or say something standard (see below)
2. After you acknowledge the comment, take shorter pauses than usual
between lines and jokes for the rest of the set. Some audiences are more
A.D.D. than others and can’t handle any silence, especially if it’s right
after a question.
3. If this happens once, you can smile and move on without really
addressing it. A stronger move is to admit “You’re right, that’s bad” and
then say something even more offensive. Showing the audience you understand
you’re crossing the line, and then crossing it even more causes a laugh
because going further after apologizing isn’t expected. If you get the
“Jesus Christ” a second time, then make sure to admit the audience is
right, and then take the joke even further.
4. 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.
5. Try to be agreeable while one upping them. Don’t resort to insulting
them unless they’ve yelled out negative stuff more than once.

General Heckling Techniques

I’ve found the first key to a heckler not derailing your set is to address
the situation as soon as someone says something. If you acknowledge the
situation and respond with something that isn’t too mean the first time,
they’ll usually stop. The reason not to get mean the first time is because
a lot of times the person (and rest of the audience) thinks they’re just
being helpful (heckle #1) and doesn’t understand why you went from zero to
asshole. 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.

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.” I don’t suggest getting mean, calling the audience member
names or telling them to shut up until they interrupt for a third time.

Also, keep in mind that 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.

To add to the all variables, it makes a big difference if the heckling /
interrupting has been going on the whole show before you get on stage or if
it’s just the audience’s reaction to your material.

Of course, heckling is just like with the rest of stand up, you can only
really learn how to respond by doing it. It still helps to read, ask
questions and be prepared, but you need the actual game reps before you
*really* know how to respond. I’m sure my tips will be different and
hopefully better a year from now after I get even more reps.

War Stories

– I was doing a bar show, and in the middle of one of my jokes, someone
yells out to me, “show us your tits!” Without stopping my joke, I pull up
my shirt and flash them, then hit my punch line. Sometimes it’s easier to
just go with the flow. (Although thinking back on it, after my punch line,
I should’ve said, “The first sample was free, next time, I better see some
bills flying.”)


Ben Rosenfeld creates smarter comedy for smarter people. Ben’s comedy blends his family’s experience as Russian immigrants in America with his philosophical beliefs, political observations and unique characters. Ben has appeared on FOX’sLaughs, CBS This Morning, National Geographic’s Brain Games, Rooftop Comedy and been featured as TimeOut New York’s Joke of the Week. He has twice headlined at Caroline’s on Broadway, hosted at the Lincoln Center and performs nightly in New York City. Ben’s first comedy album, Neuro Comedy, is available on iTunes and Pandora. Ben also created the illustrated coffee table book, Russian Optimism: Dark Nursery Rhymes To Cheer You Right Up, an Amazon Top 5 Best Seller in Humor.


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