This happens to me more often than I’d like. There’s a few different techniques that I’ve tried, all with limited success:
1) If you bumble your setup, you can just say “oops I got my tongue twisted, we’re gonna rewind time” (make a tape rewind sound, then start your joke again)
2) If your first punch line doesn’t hit, change topics
3) Keep going with the joke, and if three punch lines in a row miss, just acknowledge it, “You’re right, I need to make that funnier” (just don’t get in the habit of always doing this, especially at open mics because it will almost always get a laugh but for the wrong reasons)
4) I have this issue too, but try to commit to the joke more. You might not be connecting because it’s not evident you fully believe what you’re saying. This is particularly true when you’re doing an act out. I have a funny video I need to upload of an open mic I did a couple weeks back where I decided to do the same joke 6 times in a row (it was a 10 minute open mic set) because I decided the joke wasn’t funny and I needed to really commit to it.
5) This is more for a real show than an open mic, but it can work if there’s audience members that aren’t comics: If you notice jokes aren’t working, stop doing jokes and have a conversation with the audience. This is annoying if you’re trying to work out a joke and have limited time, but it will save the set.
You’re in the middle of a joke, or even worse, a set, and you see that the audience isn’t connecting or following what you’re saying. This is bound to happen occasionally (hopefully not too often) and how you deal with it can make or break the set.
Here’s a few different techniques that I’ve tried, all with varying levels of success:
If the problem was you stumbled over your setup, you can just say “oops I got my tongue twisted, we’re gonna rewind time” (make a tape rewind sound) and then start your joke again
If your first punch line doesn’t hit, change topics
If your first punch line doesn’t hit, keep going with the joke. If three punch lines in a row miss, just acknowledge it, “You’re right, I need to make that funnier” (just don’t get in the habit of always doing this, especially at open mics because saying this will almost always get a laugh but for the wrong reasons)
Try to commit to the joke more. You might not be connecting because it’s not evident you fully believe what you’re saying. This is particularly true when you’re doing an act out. There’s an open mic I did a couple weeks back where I decided to do the same joke 6 times in a row (it was a 10 minute open mic set) because I decided the joke wasn’t funny and I needed to really commit to it (video of this is coming soon).
If you notice jokes aren’t working, stop doing jokes and have a conversation with the audience. You don’t even need to try to be funny. Some audiences just want a talk show style therapy session. (I’ve found this tends to happen with smaller crowds of 8 to 15 moreso than with large crowds.) This is annoying if you’re trying to work out new material and have limited time, but it will save the set.
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”:
Someone responds to your jokes by saying something out loud that they think is helpful to the joke (but almost always isn’t)
Someone doesn’t realize your statement or question was rhetorical and that they weren’t supposed to actually answer it
Someone says “Jesus Christ” or something like that when you do a meaner or edgier joke
Someone is drunk and just yelling out sounds or words that don’t make any sense
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.
Acknowledge their suggestion and either riff off of it, say something witty or say something standard (see below)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
You’re waiting your turn to go up on a show and suddenly you hear a bit that sounds real familiar. You’ve never seen this comic before but you know the next three punch lines. Hell you don’t just know ‘em, you wrote ‘em. “Hey, I’ve been doing that joke for weeks. What the hell?”
Many comic fear having their material stolen. I think it’s more rational to fear the microphone exploding in your eyes and blinding you than it is to be afraid that your precious jokes will be stolen. Sure this happens occasionally, but it is not as often as some comics like to think. Two of the most ridiculous statements I’ve heard over the past year are: “I don’t do open mics because they steal my jokes” and “LA open mic comics go on youtube, watch NYC open mic comics and take their material.” Both statements are excuses. The first is to excuse a comic’s laziness or lack of motivation to get on stage as much as possible. (Although I do think open mics become less valuable after you’ve been on stage a few hundred times.) The second quote is an excuse usually said by someone who doesn’t have a good video to post. It’s much easier to say “I’d post a video but I don’t want my material being stolen” instead of saying “I don’t have a video where the audience is laughing for five straight minutes, I need to get funnier.” Which of course begs the question, why are you worried about your unfunny material being stolen? If you’re afraid of getting your jokes stolen, you should put ALL of your videos online. What could make for more convincing evidence that you did a bit first?
If your jokes are being “stolen” something else might actually be happening: You’re writing hacky material or are being too topical. There’s only so many ways to do a marijuana joke and every comedian and their mother has written a Tiger Woods, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton joke. Your punch line about “eighteen holes” or “a hole in one” wasn’t stolen, it was just so obvious that five other comics thought of a very similar joke. I remember reading Lisa Lampenelli’s book and she mentions how at the Comedy Central Roasts she’d have a pen with her to cross out the jokes on her set list that the other comedians had already done about the guest of honor. Did all those professionals steal each other’s jokes? No! There’s just only so many Pamela Andersen fake tits and Tommy Lee has big cock punch lines one can think up.
So how do you solve this joke overlap? Make your material more personal. Very few comedians can steal my Russian family material because it would be inauthentic and make no sense to their stage persona. So focus on your life and find the funny in it. Hint: It usually involves pain. A comic, I forget who once told me, “comedy = pain + time” and “until you’re at George Carlin’s level, nobody gives a shit about your political opinion.” I agree: focus on your unique life situation and figuring it out how to get the audience to connect with it. Should you still write Tiger Woods jokes? Yes, because that’s still working on writing a joke, and if you get picked up by a TV show, you’ll need to be able to generate topical jokes daily. Just don’t be surprised when you hear three very similar jokes from comics you’ve never met. (And yes, I know I need to make my material more personal too, it’s a work in progress.)
Ok, let’s say your jokes are personal and they’re actually being stolen. In a fucked up way, it’s an honor to get your jokes stolen, that means you’re getting funny! And you should only be afraid of getting jokes stolen if you’re not planning on developing as a writer and performer. Fear of jokes being stolen means your jokes are coming from a place of scarcity, not of abundance. It shows you believe there to be a limited amount of jokes you’ll be able to write and that one of the 10 or 12 jokes you were able to come up with has been taken away. This usually means you’re not writing enough.
Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Conan and all those guys deliver ten to fifteen minutes of new jokes every show (sure they have a whole writing staff, but that’s not the point). If you’re trying to be around the comedy business for a long time you’re going to need write hours and hours of good material. Having one bit stolen here or there won’t make a huge difference. If you’re so funny that all your material is being stolen, start lifting weights, then say something. A comedian may have had your joke go into his subconscious and come out months later as a similar joke. Talk to them first and figure out who’s been doing it first. Comics don’t want to be known as joke thieves because once they have that reputation, everyone avoids them and 95% of your gigs are through other comics.
I’ve spent the past 3 years working for a Fortune 500 Consulting firm. During this time I’ve observed not only my company’s corporate culture, but also that of three other fortune 500 corporations and one US Government agency each of which I consulted for. I was rated in the top 30% at my level the first year, and the top 5% my second year. (I left before third year ratings were announced due to grad school.)
These are the lessons I’ve learned along the way, and while you can probably apply this to other aspects of your life, it’s especially true in Corporate America.
1. Get your shit done (but avoid busy work)
The rest of these tips are useless if you don’t accomplish what’s asked of you.
2. They’ll take as much as you’re willing to give them. Know when to say “no”. (Especially if it’s busy work)
If you always say yes to every request (work late every night, weekends, etc.) your boss will appreciate it, but they won’t respect you. Think about that girl/guy you dated who you could walk all over. You lost respect for them eventually and dumped em, same logic applies here.
At least 60% of your daily tasks should add value. Running an occasional photocopy is one thing, becoming someone’s personal photocopier is another. If it’ something stupid that you have to consistently do, figure out how to automate it or get out of doing it.
3. Under promise, over deliver
The more complex something is, the easier it is to overestimate it and then impress everyone. If you say something should take you 20 hours and you finish in 12, that’ll be more impressive then if you say something should take you 11 hours and you finish in 12. Make sure you’re not just slow. Don’t make it less then 50% of your estimate, or else you lose credibility.
4. Manage Expectations
Example: If you start answering emails within 5 minutes, you’ll never be able to take a lunch hour. If you answer within 30 or 45 minutes (which is usually reasonable), you’ll have more leeway
5. Don’t confuse responding to emails with getting work done
There will always be a fire, but don’t confuse the fires for the long term goals.
6. Take your hour lunch
It doesn’t matter how much work you do if nobody knows about it. And chances are, even if you’re done with everything, at most places you can’t leave until a set hour. You might as well take a break, enjoy lunch and build relationships with people who may be able to help you in a pinch.
7. Know when your personality is an asset, and when it’s a liability
When you’re working with people, talk about things other than work some of the time.Just don’t do it at the wrong time.
8. Don’t be so busy doing work you forget to socialize
But don’t try to be super friendly with everyone, that’s fake and everyone will resent you for it. A realistic breakdown of work friends to acquaintances to people you should avoid is somewhere around 20% : 60% : 20%. If you haven’t figured out who to avoid, chances are it’s you.
9. Go out for drinks with your boss once a month
You don’t wanna be too buddy-buddy (there may be some exceptions) but you want your boss to know you’re an actual person and not some automaton that sits in front of a computer all day
10. Have an “in” with people at other departments, so you can learn things before they’re announced to the masses
You’re in a knowledge worker job, information is key, make sure you have unofficial sources to get a heads up when you need it
3 Bonus Strategies:
1. Use power laws to your advantage
The 80/20 rule really applies to the workplace. 80% of your success comes from 20% of your effort. Identify that 20% and focus there.
2. Promote yourself without being obnoxious about it
This takes some time to figure out but you don’t wanna be “that guy” who always talks about how much work you have and how hard you work. At the same time, you want to make sure people notice your work. If you’re aware of this tendency, you’ll already be on the right track.
3. Be able to present like a normal human being and not a robot reading powerpoint slides
This only applies to certain jobs, but if you have to present to people, don’t read the slides. We’ll all hate you and will finish reading the slide before you’ve gotten to the second sentence
1. Get onstage as much as humanly possible In my view, becoming a really good comic requires hours and hours of stagetime. When I started, I did every open mic in town and at least one bringer show every week. I would also ask to perform at family parties, office functions, basically anywhere and everywhere I could. There is just no substitute for stagetime.
2. You will always be a bringer What I mean is suppose that someday you become famous and you are asked to be the headliner at the Laughy Ha-Ha Club in Plano, Texas. They will invest fortunes in advertising your arrival, marketing your performances, and staffing their club so that you can have a great show. If nobody comes to see you, do you think you will be asked back? Always promote every show you are in. Especially in New York where there are ten million comics, one great way to get a leg up on the competition is to help the club out by letting your fans know you are coming! Since comedy clubs are businesses, they will appreciate the fact that you help increase their patronage!
To put it another way, if you were in a great band that had absolutely no following, how many gigs do you think you would be able to get twice? Why should comedians be any different?
3. In the beginning, stick to one club. The other side of the coin is that if you are popular enough to have friends who want to come see your show, you should focus your efforts on one club. Many comedy club owners (Al Martin among them) pride themselves on developing young talent into tomorrow’s superstars. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a club owner say “I gave him his start and now he’s headlining for me!” or “Why should I book her? When she started out she did bringer shows and open mics every week at ______ Comedy Club! Now she wants to work for me?” You simply can not build a solid relationship with a club by spreading shows out in all the clubs around town.
Become associated with one venue and the rest will follow. If you are talented and you put the work in and show loyalty to a club and a producer, we remember this and look for ways to help you down the line. And then when you try to get work at Club B and C you can say “Well I do regular feature spots at NYCC and now I am trying to branch out.” It lends credibility much more than “I am doing bringers all over town” ever can.
4. There is more than one way to get there. Many comics ask me what they should do if they do not have friends. Frankly, I am skeptical of anyone who claims not to know a single person who wants to see them perform, but if you are in this group, you still have hope! Get your stagetime in “non-traditional” venues. When I started out I did shows in sushi restaurants, pizza parlors, every bar in New York that had a back room, and quite a few that didn’t. Most of these shows were disastrous but believe me if you can kill at McMickerson’s Pub while the foreigners watch a soccer game, you will tear the roof off the Broadway. Again it all comes down to stagetime and finding ways to get it.
5. Write write write. Comedians are writers. When you finally get up onstage, you should not be at a loss for words. Rework the old stuff, try to come up with new stuff. Never stop writing!
6. Produce your own show! One of the best ways to get onstage early in your career is to put your own show together. You can learn to MC, you can begin to network with your peers, you might even create the next “hot new comedy room” in New York. Best of all, you will have the flexibility to do what you want for as long as you want onstage. But even then, if nobody comes to see you I doubt your neighborhood bar will keep Jeffy’s Comedy Night going for long. As I said, we are all bringers and always will be.
7. Be polite. There are so many comics who seem to have never been taught manners. How many times haveI been dealing with a paying customer only to have a comic interrupt me: “What’s the lineup?” And howfew times have I actually been thanked for helping a new comic get an opportunity? Politeness is in shortsupply these days, so even a simple gesture of mutual humanity can go a long way.
In closing, I want you all to know that I am here for you and I am rooting for you. So build your act, find your persona, build your fan base, and we can all conquer New York City together someday soon!