Dealing With Hecklers


A year ago, a reader asked me how I address heckling. At that point, I hadn’t been heckled nearly enough times to have an opinion or technique on the subject. “Luckily” I’ve been heckled plenty of times over this past year, so now I have some thoughts on the subject.

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 heckles.

  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. I have whole jokes (suicidal girls and the morning after pill, in particular) that are written with this dynamic in mind.
  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.

Another tip is to use the improv rule of “yes and” to agree with whatever the audience member says and then add some additional information. This usually works because you don’t want to seem defensive. Even something like, “You suck” can be turned into “Yes, I do suck. And you can’t afford me. Why are you propositioning me anyway?”

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 have a feeling a lot of people reading this are less interested in techniques and more interested in “war stories” so here we go.

  • I had one show where there were four drunk girls who interrupted EVERY comedian. The first two or three comics, the audience was enjoying the girls getting ripped apart. (They were constantly interrupting, so the “third interruption” rule kicked in within a minute of the first comic being on stage. After the third comic, the rest of the audience started getting pissed at the comics for not ignoring the girls because they wanted to hear actual jokes. By the time I got up there as the 10th comic, I knew to address the girls once and then ignore them. Doing this got other people in the audience to yell “shut up” at the girls while I was talking.
  • 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.”)
  • Three girls dressed in super tight, really short skirts came in and sat down in the front row when the comic before me was on stage. He proceeded to get them to make out with each other and fondled them (this was a bar show, this doesn’t usually happen in comedy clubs). I get up there and go, “I could be Jerry Seinfeld right now and everyone would rather watch them make out than to hear my jokes.” Which actually got the audience to start listening to my jokes. Until the girls didn’t realize my questions were rhetorical and started interrupting…
  • The comic before me was doing so badly someone in the audience yelled out “Next!” over and over again. The comic then ran his light in order to argue with and insult the audience member. This got ugly and made the room weird. I get up there and say “Well looks like you got your wish.”
  • Aadip recently told me he struggled with a heckler his whole set until he finally told the crowd, “Congratulations, you’ve finally met someone who’s actually inbred.” This funny but mean comment worked because the guy kept talking so the audience was on the comic’s side. If the Aadip had said that same comment when the heckler said his first comment, the audience may not have been with him (unless the same audience member had been heckling other comics before him too).

Wanna try stand-up comedy yourself? I teach a Comedy Class in NYC. I also do private one-on-one comedy coaching (in-person or via Zoom).

More Stand-Up Comedy Tips:

Ben’s eBook: How To Find Your Passion

This 25 page book covers my decision to drop out of graduate school to pursue comedy and how you can use the lessons I’ve learned to find your passion before it’s too late.

Click the image above or download the pdf here

If you find this useful, please pass it along to anyone else you think it might help. Comments, as always, are welcome.

If you like my eBook and have a group you think would want to hear me present this message as an hour long talk, book me. The talk is based on the book, but funnier and more interactive, as I’m a stand up comedian after all.

My Op-ed piece in today’s paper

If you read my goals for this year, two goals mentioned a motivational speech and an eBook, which probably didn’t make any sense. Well, my opinion piece in The Stamford Advocate (my hometown paper) should clear things up a little.

I’ve finished writing, and will shortly be releasing an eBook called “How To Find Your Passion.”

For now, here’s the opinion piece.

Link to original story or read the article below:

More passion, not more science education

Published: 04:41 p.m., Thursday, January 21, 2010

By Ben Rosenfeld

Anywhere you look, there is talk about how America is falling behind in science and technology. And a lot of pundits say it’s all the fault of education. “We need more education.” “We need better education.” “We need better schools.” The list goes on and on and on.

We don’t need more education; we need more students to develop a passion for science. We have plenty of universities (and primary schools) that teach science, but they teach it in such a boring manner that only those who already want to become a physicist or mechanical engineer get through the drudgery of those lectures and problem sets.

Most of everyone else studies psychology, communications or economics. We can either make “hard science” classes more interesting, which wouldn’t hurt, or we can make sure that by the time students get to a university, they love science so much that they’re willing to get through those hard classes.

I’m not simply making a theoretical argument: I enrolled in a PhD program in Neuroeconomics at a top five university (Caltech), and five weeks into the first semester, when the workload was a lot more intensive than in undergrad, I realized I didn’t have the passion to continue graduate school. I never enjoyed biology and I tried avoiding math as much as possible because I never found it interesting. I wasn’t scared by the work, but I couldn’t force myself to work so hard for something I didn’t love. While I have the passion for figuring out why people do what they do, I was missing the passion for neuroscience and the passion for math.

My two months at Caltech weren’t all for naught, however. Being there helped me realize my passion is comedy. (I’m still studying human behavior: Instead of asking, “Why do people give money to other people?” I’ve started asking, “What makes people laugh?”)

My passion for comedy has helped me tolerate standing in Times Square in zero degree rain and snow passing out comedy flyers for three hours in order to get seven minutes of stage time. Passing out fliers never fazed me, as I viewed it as part of the process that I need to go through to develop as a comic. On the other hand, I viewed math and biology as part of the process to avoid.

When you love doing something, you run through the walls that stand in the way of achieving in that area. But when you don’t love doing that thing, the walls make you turn around and do something different.

In India, China and Japan, science and technology are keys to a “good job,” so even people without much passion for it will throw themselves into it. In America, science and technology aren’t the only (or the best, or easiest) ways for striking it rich (see: Banker, Investment), so you actually have to like science to study it. (This is also why there are so many undergraduate economics majors in this country who hate economics.)

So how do we get someone to be more passionate about science? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it’s determined before a child enters kindergarten. But I have a feeling this isn’t true. I had zero interest in philosophy until I took a philosophy class my senior year of high school. After that class I liked it enough to major in philosophy.

Interest is the reason a seven-year-old can figure out a baseball player’s batting average but doesn’t know how to divide regular numbers. If a teacher makes a subject more interesting, there’s a higher likelihood that a student will start to develop a passion for that subject. We don’t need more education, we need more teachers who know how to make students passionate about science and technology.

Ben Rosenfeld is a New York City comedian and author of the forthcoming e-book “How To Find Your Passion.” Before becoming a Caltech PhD dropout, Ben graduated from Stamford High School in 2002. His e-mail address is ben@bigbencomedy.com.

Seth Godin’s Linchpin Talk

Last Friday I was able to attend a talk by Seth Godin about his new book, Linchpin. The book (and this post) isn’t directly related to comedy, but the talk was amazing and I feel the need to share my notes on it. I’ve added my two cents of commentary about most of the quotes, and  since I’m obsessed with comedy most of my thoughts are about how to apply Seth’s ideas to comedy.

Regardless of what you do, you should be reading Seth’s blog. And check out two of his video presentations here and here.

Some of the “quotes” below aren’t exact, but they’re the general idea of what Seth said.

“I write because I have to, not because I want to.”
My two cents: I love this statement. I’ve been reading George Carlin’s biography, and he mentions a similar process where he reads and reads about a given topic for a while, then when he can’t take it anymore he writes what he has to say.

“A genius solves a problem in a way no one has solved it before”
My two cents: Every time you write a joke, you’ve solved the problem of how to make someone laugh in a way that it hasn’t been solved before (assuming they laughed).

“Corporations are factories and no longer working. The old model was factories are more important than the people in them. This is no longer true.”
My two cents: Being unique is good. Comedy is about having your own perspective.

“First factories made interchangeable parts, then they started making interchangeable people. Modern society trained people to work in factories and trained people to buy stuff (obedience). School is a type of factory.”
My two cents: When I heard this I was really happy that someone way smarter than me was giving me further justification for dropping out of a “top school.”

“Art = changing and moving people, not just entertainment”
My two cents: My comedy is not at this level yet, but it’s where I want to take it. Right now I’m working on mastering the process of how to make an audience laugh. The next step is mastering how to change and move people through laughter.

“The first guy who puts in a urinal into a museum installation is an artist, the second is a plumber”
My two cents: Be original.

“All value accrues to people who decide what to do next.”
My two cents: The audience doesn’t decide what to say next, you do. That’s why you’re getting paid and they’re not.

”Don’t engage in any activity where the upper limit is already known. This is why there are no famous bowlers. You can’t do better than a 300.”
My two cents: I don’t think there’s an upper limit to comedic success. Although Seinfeld has set a pretty high bar.

“The means of production (computers) are now owned by the workers.”
My two cents: Get up off your butt and do something. There’s no excuses left for not taking life by the horns. You don’t need a manager or promoter anymore, you can do it yourself with a cheap laptop.

There’s a difference between learning and getting an A. You should give yourself a D. Then learn it for yourself. Same mindset as, “I’m gonna pant something and everyone will hate it.”
My two cents: Would you do this joke even if nobody laughs? If so, it’s probably a good joke.

“Kulag’s law states that the most important people in an organization are the lowest in the hierarchy. Your company interacts with the street level team.”
My two cents: Even when you become a well known comedian, your manager or agent won’t build your following nearly as well as you will at every show.

“A coffee shop in London has a disloyalty card. “If you go to ten of our competitors, we’ll give you a free cup of coffee.””
My two cents: The next time I print business cards, I will put a bunch of other comics on the back of it. “If you liked my comedy, you might also enjoy watching x, y and z.”

“Abundance and sharing lead to change. Generosity undoes the factory.”
My two cents: I want to connect with my readers by providing free, useful information. Down with factories!

“Artists always take responsibility for their choices.”
My two cents: If a joke doesn’t work, it’s my fault, not the audiences.

“In cross country skiing, if you lean more forward than anyone else, you’ll win. But the more you lean forward the greater the odds you fall on your face. Do it anyway.”
My two cents: Take risks, some will pay off, some won’t. Learn from it and take more risks. (Don’t confuse this with taking a gamble.)

Avoid “Pulitzer Prize Fighting”. Having rankings or numbers brings in a whole other category of people who only want to win the prize (# of twitter followers, etc).
My two cents: I can do a better job ignoring the number of facebook friends, RSS subscribers and twitter followers and focus on making meaningful connections.

Other Quotes from the talk
(I’m out of change for these)

“If you can break a job into small enough bits, you can get it done for practically free”


On the current economy and opportunities: “Just because the tide is out doesn’t mean there’s less water in the ocean.”

“All value is created in moments when you have the most choices. So find situations with too many choices.”

Elizabeth Gilbert: “Nobody gets engineer’s block but they get artist’s block.”

“Anxiety = failure in advance”

“The place with no prize has the most opportunity.”

My friend was also in attendance (although I didn’t find out until after). Here are her thoughts.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I just want to wish everyone a happy thanksgiving.

If you’re a comedian, I hope you’re with your family today just so you can get some new material! I have a feeling I’ll have a lot of new material from seeing my family for the first time since I dropped out of Caltech to do comedy.

Not that anyone asked, but here’s a partial list of what I’m thankful for:

– You reading this (although I’ll be even more thankful if you post more comments)

– That I finally realized and embraced that I love doing comedy, and that I’ve made decisions that will allow me to do it as much as possible

– For my family, even if they don’t fully support me…

– For the shows in NYC where I’ll be getting my stand up spots back

– For my health, cause it’s looking like I won’t have insurance soon!

Now stop reading this and go watch some football or talk to your family about how you’re a disappointment, or multitask and do both at once like me!

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