09/24/2014 05:59 EDT | Updated 09/24/2014 06:00 EDT

Hecklers At Comedy Shows Equal Playtime For Comedians

Devon Murphy

Ah, hecklers. Are they a plague on comedy shows, or do they give comedians a chance to stretch their improv muscles, resulting in what is arguably the best part of the night? Or at least the most memorable.

Comedy fans have a strange fascination with heckling. Dig around on YouTube and you’ll find videos called “Comedian owns heckler for 4 minutes,” “heckler getting destroyed,” and “hecklers beware.” There aren’t a whole lot of heckle success stories (hecksess?), or if there are, I can’t find them.

On his TV show “Louie,” Louis C.K. devoted half of an episode to the subject, playing out a fictionalization of what it’s like for comedians to deal with the yappy types up front. After the set, his character is outside the club talking about what a “nightmare” she was, when he gets confronted by the heckler herself. What plays out after is what I can only assume is what Louis always wanted to say to every heckler he’s ever encountered.

Back at JFL42, things came to a very meta head on Sunday night at Mike Birbiglia’s 9:30 p.m. show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre -- his second back-to-back of the evening. Birbiglia was well into a story about how he’s not great with hecklers, illustrated by the fact that he once called the dates of a couple hecklers “hookers.” Right at the punchline of the joke -- spoiler alert, they are hookers -- one woman took exception and decided to let it be known.


I heard it clear as day due to my extreme aversion to second-hand embarrassment, but because of the residual joke laughter, Birbiglia himself was confused. “What was that?” he asked the crowd, seemingly genuinely interested. Silence. The heckler wasn’t as brave when all eyes were on her. He asks for her to repeat it once again, there is confusion, and this goes on until another audience member yells out the heckler’s line for Birbiglia to hear.

Birbiglia asks the crowd if the heckler is a little bit drunk. “Really drunk,” someone threw back. “She must be a hooker,” someone else offered. And as the show continued on, the “really drunk” woman a target for many of the set’s future jokes.

Birbiglia handled it well, and went on to finish a hilarious and finely-tuned set without drawing any more misguided ire. That woman mostly embarrassed herself by not being able to take a joke at a comedy show, and that’s coming from me, a total feminist killjoy.

Mostly I was kind of shocked to see my first heckling of a major comedian in three years I’ve been going to JFL42. Sure, it comes up at comedy shows all the time, especially after a few drinks, but it’s a bit of a rare sighting for the comedians who pack auditoriums, and one that had me with my head in my hands trying to block out the awkwardness.

One thing’s for sure, handling hecklers is really where a comedian’s mettle is tested.

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