This is a guest post from close friend and fellow magician, Michael Misko.
Right now I’m neck deep in preparing for the release of Reign Man, so Michael’s generous offer to share this essay is even more appreciated.
I’m sure I’m going to repeat myself, but this essay is the real work.
I’m not going to get deep in the weeds in this introduction, other than to say if you ever wanted to take a live mind reading X-ray machine to the thoughts of a working pro in a heckler situation, this is your chance.
If you consistently get in front of people to be funny, you will feel this post. I know I did.
And you get to ride the roller coaster of working out a response along side Michael.
This is the good stuff and the real work.
How to Handle a Heckle When You’re Brain is Empty
by Michael Misko, 6/3/2022
When audiences go to see a comedian, heckling is a normal occurrence. Some comedians build a brand on this, almost encouraging dialogue with their audiences. Jimmy Carr and Steve Hofstetter immediately come to mind. Other comedians want nothing to do with the audience. Louis C.K. has gone on record as saying that he’s performing a monologue, a play, and that there’s only one character – and that’s him. Regardless of which category the comedian falls under, hecklers are a part of the game. If you perform comedy magic, the challenge is ten-fold. You’re inviting a challenge as a comedian AND as a magician.
As magicians, we are begging the audience to engage with us in some way. And that engagement, if it isn’t astonishment, will most likely be a challenge. Some people don’t even know they’re doing it when they shout, “no way,” after the wonder has worked. Sometimes they’re doing it to feel involved; sometimes they’re doing it because they have no other thing to offer in the moment – as if a guttural response. Sometimes they’re doing it to impress a date or the rest of their group. Sometimes they’re drunk. Regardless of why, they are challenging us.
If you were blessed with a quick wit, you should have no problem dispatching these attention seekers. Similarly, or more importantly, if you have enough time on the boards, you’ve conditioned yourself to expect certain comments and have a Rolodex in your brain prepared to spit out a seemingly impromptu, though well-rehearsed, ad-lib. But what happens when you’re completely thrown off guard? What happens if you’ve never heard this one before? What happens if it comes in an unusual place? What if your head is in the wrong place (It happens to the best of us)?
As a magical performer, our job is to be like a duck. We need to be calm, cool, and collected on the surface; below the water line we are paddling like hell. We’re focused on the audience, on the jokes, on the routine, on the moves, the sightlines, etc. The audience should never be aware of how hard we’re working (unless we want them to, that is). When we’re lucky enough to be given a heckle that delivers an ad-lib on a silver platter, the duck remains pristine, and even glistens after delivering the fatal blow. But when we’ve got nothing in the tank, the duck paddles for its life.
You can’t let the audience think you don’t have control – and that the heckler “won” the engagement. They may have shouted out only in good fun but ignoring them is essentially opening Pandora’s Box. You have got to respond – but you’re coming up with nothing.
So, what do you do?
Nothing…but not really.
On the surface. Remain calm and think. It will feel like hours have passed before you open your mouth to speak, but trust me, it really is only a few seconds. You can aid the passage of time by remaining physically active in the moment. Staring around the room as if to say, “can you believe this,” raising your eyebrows, narrowing your vision, pursing your lips, chuckling to yourself, taking a drink of water, adjusting your tie, scratching your head, brushing dust off your jacket, etc. All these actions keep you physically involved in the moment and project to the audience that you are still in control. Mentally – you’re paddling. Wracking the old think box for the perfect response (Pro Tip: the funniest response, is not always the correct response…more on this later). All this physical posturing keeps the audience engaged with you, and if you’ve done your comedic job up until this point, they should be on the edge of their seat waiting to hear how you’re going to respond. The art of the posture has just given you ten free seconds to think of the best way to respond to the rogue heckle.
All heckles are not created equal and knowing how to handle them is a skill that can only be gained by road time. Sometimes the heckle is good-natured and funny. If you shoot down this heckle too harshly, you’ll lose the crowd. Sometimes the heckle is mean-spirited and rude. If you don’t deal with this heckle definitively enough, you’ll leave the door open for more. Unfortunately, there is no real way to know how much is too much or not enough in response level other than to say, when you know, you’ll know. Not helpful? I know.
Let me give you a few examples.
Recently I was performing for a cruise ship audience, mostly empty nesters with some families present. As a rule, cruise ship crowds err on the side of conservative comedy – they don’t particularly enjoy lewdness or four-letter words. I was performing a version of Pop Hadyn’s “Mongolian Pop Knot.” In the script there is a moment, just after sprinkling “pixie dust,” where the audience is given a chance to ask a question. In this instance, I was met by the diligent hand raise of a seven-year-old girl in the front row. She was seated with her family and spoke loud enough for the whole crowd to hear her. This is what happened:
Misko: Are there any questions so far?
Little girl raises her hand.
Little Girl: Pixie dust isn’t real! There’s nothing in your hand. It’s just make believe!
Audience: Oooooooh! Hahahaha! Wow! Baha! Etc. etc.
Misko: Let me tell you something about Santa Claus…
The audience went nuts. The parents laughed. The little girl laughed because everyone was laughing. The response wasn’t rude. It wasn’t mean. It wasn’t overly aggressive. But it was definitive and controlled. It was also delivered with a wink to the little girl, who didn’t “get” the joke, but knew that she was included in the fun. It also served as a gentle warning to the parents…because they have no idea if I might finish that sentence. To be clear, I would never…but they don’t know that.
I don’t share this with you to gloat, or to say, “look how fast I can think.” Honestly, it’s quite the opposite. I was able to watch the recording back (read that again), and the time between her comment and mine was about eleven seconds. I was thinking of the correct thing to say the whole time. The first thing that came to mind would have been inappropriate to say to a child, so I threw that away. The next thing I thought was “what else is make believe,” and then began to quickly run through fake things that would have the biggest overall impact.
Dreams? No. Cartoons? Meh…not specific enough. Tooth Fairy? Yes. What’s bigger than that? Santa. Yes! Wait…you can’t ruin Santa for a kid, you’ll lose the audience and be a jerk. How do I say this? Ho, ho, ho? No, that means nothing. Do you believe in Santa? No…that’s not strong enough and asking for a response. Wait, this is information that I have that she doesn’t. I’ll tell her about it. But you can’t tell her. Just start the sentence. The audience will finish it.
From that moment on, the rest of the eleven seconds was spent constructing the half-sentence that was spoken. I know reading that section takes longer than eleven seconds, but that’s the best way I can demonstrate my brain’s shorthand.
The only reason that the audience bought into that eleven second break was because I remained physically active while I was paddling. I raised my eyebrows and looked around the room, making eye contact with other audience members. I picked up the mic stand and gently tapped it on the ground. I scratched my head and winced slightly as if to suggest, “this is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you.” If I couldn’t fill that time physically, the audience would have lost interest.
Had I been sass-mouthed from an adult, my response would have been entirely different. Santa hath no pull with a guy in his fifties. For this specific instance, I needed to think, quickly, about how to handle this heckle without alienating the crowd. Fortunately, this came up as a win…and now I’ve got another arrow in my quiver for when I encounter a situation like this.
Alright, so you’ve been heckled, and you’ve got nothing – so you posture and you think, and time passes and…still, you’ve got nothing. How can you save this situation? Well – one solution is to be brutally honest and say, “yeah, I’ve got nothing.” Sometimes, especially if your wit has been on display all night, revealing that you’re human and couldn’t think of something will work to get you a laugh. It won’t be the biggest or best laugh of the night, but there’s something to be said for that honest admission that will work for you. However, you can’t use this in all scenarios.
So, what to do when you just need a little more time?
Answer: buy it.
You’ve postured. You’ve thought. You’ve got nothing. You need more time. Try this: continue your posturing. But begin to get more pointed, as if you’re about to deliver the kill shot. Put your mouth up to the mic and pause again. Invariably, someone from the audience will chime in and say something. Sometimes it will be one person, sometimes it will be a few. Regardless, let them. But as soon as you hear the chatter, turn your attention to the noise. Lift your hand in a “stop” gesture, gently shake your head “no,” and in an amusing tone say to the new person, “no, no. I’ve got it. Thanks.” Finish that beat with a wink or thumbs up, or something. This will get you a laugh and BUY YOU ADDITIONAL VALUABLE SECONDS!
Also – the audience is facing you (duh), which means their sound is facing you…which means, depending on volume, the only person that might hear what they say is YOU. Audiences can be funny. Sometimes they’ll give you the ad-lib you need. Take this time to listen to what they’re chirping before you cut them off, and they just might deliver you gold. Let them be your Rumpelstiltskin.
Now that you’ve kept the wolves at bay a bit longer, you’re free to continue to think of the line. I have even employed this when I already had the line but hadn’t yet figured out the correct word order. Yes…word order matters.
A word of warning: you will feel like a 747 could complete a cross-country flight in this pause. It is uncomfortable. Trust me, it will not come across that way. If you do it correctly, the audience will never even suspect that you lost control (because you didn’t), nor will they doubt that you literally have a line for every single moment (which you do).
In contrast to the little girl on a cruise ship mentioned above, here is a different example using the “I’ve got it” ruse – involving an intoxicated woman in a comedy club. Same rope trick. Different moment, involving magic scissors. Also of note: my mother-in-law was seated in this audience. This will play a role in the thought process you’re about to see.
Misko: For this we use the magic scissors. They live inside the pocket.
Left hand comes out of pocket with ring and middle fingers showing a peace sign and making a “snip snip” motion.
Intoxicated Lady: Wait, wait, wait!
Intoxicated Lady: If you’ve got magic scissors on that hand, how do you masturbate?!
Audience: [Beginning to shout answers].
Misko: No, no. I’ve got it. Thanks.
Misko: I would tell you, but that’s my Mother-in-Law.
Indicates Mother-in-law in audience
Audience: Ha ha ha.
Misko: Besides…I’m right-handed.
Ok. A lot to unpack here. First and foremost, I knew that this heckler was going to require a firm response. My show is riddled with double entendre, but I don’t work off color. There is no room in my show for someone to shout out something like “masturbate,” and I can’t leave the door open for anyone after, either. This heckler needed to be dispatched deftly and quickly.
Secondly, this is about as bold of a heckle as I’ve ever received (unless you count that one time while I was doing the card stab…ask me about it next time you see me). The science behind heckles is thus: the harder the heckle, the harder the response (h = r2). But remember, the response must stay controlled. So, shouting something back like, “why the f*&k do YOU care?!,” while strong…is not effective and essentially brings you down to their level. You’ve got to beat them in a battle of wits. Fortunately, you have the wit. Use it.
Third, this is a comedy club setting. The rules are different here. If you don’t take control of this heckle, and subsequently, the crowd, immediately, you may never get them back. Whether you like it or not, you’ve now entered a dialogue and are performing a two-person scene. The heckler’s line needs to breathe, but you cannot let up your control for one second, or they’ll walk all over you. Let their line land and ride out the audience response. Theatrically, it makes sense. Practically, you’re using that time to think.
After reviewing the tape from this moment, I can tell you that it was a solid 25 seconds before I delivered the mother-in-law line, and an additional ten before the final punch. To break it down, here’s the stream of consciousness that encompassed my paddling that evening.
Holy crap, did she just say that? Yes, she did. Why the f*&k do you care? No. Don’t swear. Carefully? That’s funny. But that’s accepting the comment. Shut it down. She’s having fun. Is she drunk? She’s drunk. Be gentile. Did the bouncer hear this? He’s watching. Wave him off. Think. Ok, here comes the audience chirps…stop them. “No, no, I’ve got it. Thanks.” Ok, they’re laughing, good. Ugh. How do you answer this question when your mother-in-law is sitting right there? Wait. That’s it. Everyone relates to that. “I would tell you, but that’s my Mother-in-Law!” Good. They’re laughing. It needs a button. What’s the button? Well, how WOULD I do that. Ha. With my other hand, dummy. “Besides…I’m right-handed.”
At the risk of TMI, I think it’s important to show the road map that goes on while you posture in front of the crowd. This is the real work of being a performer. It’s not as glamorous as a flawless Diagonal Palm Shift, but it is just as, if not more, valuable.
This one-two punch of responses did a few things. One, it brought to light the fact that I don’t really want to talk about it. It answers the question by saying, “my mother-in-law wouldn’t like to talk about this, and by extension no one else would either, so let’s drop it.” Two, you get the final word on the subject, and you’ve answered the inappropriate question without being inappropriate yourself. You haven’t lowered yourself to their level of crudeness, but you’ve put a period on the whole encounter.
Again, I don’t share this exchange to brag, but to show how I fought through a weakness. In that moment, I was so shocked by her question that I literally had nothing. If I was Anthony Jeselnik, I could meet her brash comment on that level. But I’m not…to respond like that would be entirely out of character for me. It took me a few seconds to get over the shock and then to become analytical. Nothing was feeling right because I knew I couldn’t encourage further response. I’d like to think I would have gotten to the right-handed response had I not bought myself the time with the mother-in-law line, but I don’t know…because at that time, I didn’t have it yet. On the other hand, if my brain hadn’t strayed away in the first place, I might’ve found something better. Monday morning QB is an easy role to play. I don’t beat myself up over it – and you shouldn’t either.
It should also be noted that not every type of performer can get away with responding to a heckler like this. My performing character is a lovable smart-ass; throughout my show, I have very quick quips and lines that would lead someone to believe “he’s got one for everything.” If you perform comedy magic professionally, chances are that you already know what type of lines work for you. Please understand this is not a “one size fits all” solution. What works for me or the next person might not work for you. Proceed with caution.
No two heckles are created the same, ditto the heckler. Each one must be met with respect (i.e., how you handle this engagement matters and will ALWAYS say more about you than them), and your response will have a direct impact on the rest of the show. The right response: you’re a hero. The wrong response: well…get used to looking at the backs of heads.
You must think, quickly and critically, about every aspect of the scenario in front of you, all while appearing to glide across the surface of the water. You can’t teach that thought process, but you CAN teach ways to aid it. If you appear to be in control, the audience will believe it. If you look like you’re drowning, they will believe it, too.
Be a duck: paddle like hell, but only on the inside.
THANK YOU, MICHAEL.