Opinion: Why Do Some Comics Get Hecklers More Than Others?

kevin Bridges

It has been interesting to see that Kevin Bridges had trouble with hecklers at a recent Edinburgh Playhouse gig. Reports have suggested that noisy audience members spoilt an otherwise excellent show. 

But why does this happen? The obvious suggestion is that the hecklers were drunk, but I’m not sure if it is as simple as that. Plenty of comedy audience members like to drink before and during the main event. Doug Stanhope went on Twitter during his UK tour to ask some fans to go easy on the booze when they tweeted that they had started drinking long before showtime. I didn’t hear of major heckling problems during Stanhope’s UK visit.

Yet some stand-ups, however brilliant they are, attract a noisier element who feel the need to turn a solo show into a conversation. Bridges seems to be the biggest dickhead magnet.  When I saw him in London last month he only had to mention a Scottish place name and somebody would pipe up with a cheer. It was friendly but it kept happening and got increasingly irritating. 

On the occasion I saw Bridges he handled it really well, but maybe gigs back in his native Scotland are tougher. Bridges’ style is quite conversational and he is such a natural storyteller maybe people don’t realise that he is delivering a finely honed script, with pauses and beats built into it. Maybe they think they can interrupt him the way they would interrupt a storyteller in the pub. There is also the theory that Live at the Apollo and its ilk are to blame. Idiots shout at comedians in theatres the same way they shout at the telly at home, which has prompted the universal heckle put-down: “This isn’t TV, I’m real. I can hear you.” 

I don’t think hecklers set out to be disruptive in advance – any comparison with football hooligans going to a match primarily for a ruck is wide of the mark. The parallel with rock audiences is closer. Back in the late 1970s some bands, such as Siouxsie and the Banshee and Madness, seemed to attract a more aggressive following than others even if they were not that aggressive themselves.

Bridges might look young but he is really experienced and can handle hecklers as well as anyone, but that doesn't appear to put them off. Maybe they even see it as a challenge (if they think about it that much, which on second thoughts I doubt). It’s just strange that others don’t have the same problem. Ben Elton once said that he developed his motormouth style so that hecklers could not get a word in edgeways. Maybe Bridges should speak faster. Dara O Briain, who makes Elton’s delivery seem sluggish, engages with the audience, which one would think is a risky strategy, but they only engage back on his terms. 

The trouble is that shutting one heckler up with a killer line doesn’t stop another wanting to take you on. And whatever some people might think to the contrary, most comedians hate hecklers. They very rarely, if ever, improve a gig. but what is the answer? Jimmy Carr also had a problem with hecklers when I last saw him play a major gig. His solution has been to have a “heckler amnesty” – a few minutes where everyone could shout as much abuse at him as they liked.

The Stand comedy clubs famously have a zero tolerance policy on hecklers, but kicking hecklers out mid-set can also be disruptive itself and waiting until the end of a set doesn't solve the problem at the time. But either options are better than doing nothing. I wonder whether stopping alcohol at gigs would help. Has there ever been a sober heckler? Then again, I'm not sure if clubs and theatres would be prepared to take such a drastic, financially punitive step.

It’s not a question of skill. Bridges has all the tools in his armoury to deal with these situations. Perhaps it's the mass psychology of audiences. Does Bridges attract interruptions because he looks young? He certainly doesn't look vulnerable. Do people feel the need to take him on? Are they intimated by his talent? Is there a tipping point where a few noisy punters make others who normally wouldn’t shout out feel it is OK to join in? Is it to do with the dynamic and rhythms of Bridges’ delivery that makes people want to join in?

Maybe I am looking too deeply at this. Do some comedy fans have such a low IQ and lack of self-knowledge that they really think they are improving a show by shouting at the performer? Maybe even that is thinking too hard about it. Maybe some fans just can’t handle their drink. 



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