People often tell me that it must be wonderful to be a comic, since I don’t have a boss. It is wonderful to be a comic – but I do have a boss: the audience. They pay our salaries (indirectly, anyway); judge our performance; and, occasionally, do things that really piss us off. As a group, audiences can be good or bad, easy or tough, and, individually, customers can do a lot to disrupt a show – often unintentionally. Managing audiences can be tricky, but it is an essential skill as you move along in the comedy business, in particular as you work the road.
They don’t laugh; they don’t clap; they don’t answer when you ask a question. You’re not sure why they even bothered to show up (don’t ask me, I don’t know either). Facing a tough audience is a frustrating, but common, experience in standup comedy.
What can you do against them? As mentioned in “All About Bombing”, you need to bring the energy yourself. Move more on stage; engage the audience visually and verbally; increase the inflection and the emotion in your voice. Some days you’ll get ’em; other days you won’t. The best you can do is give away as much energy as you can, and hope the audience starts to reciprocate.
Everyone’s heard of hecklers, but all for the discussion about them, I’ve found them to be exceedingly rare. (The most famous instance of heckling came at a one-nighter at a Holiday Inn in the South, where a customer was heckling a guitar act. The comic stood up, picked up his guitar, and smashed it over the audience member’s head. The guy sued the booker, the hotel, and the comic for a bundle.) I’ve only faced hecklers — out and out, mean-spirited, “you suck!” kind of hecklers – two or three times in my career. There are a lot of stock lines for dealing with hecklers – “I don’t come to where you work and knock the broom out of your hand” is one of the tamer ones – but generally speaking, you want to ignore them the first time, be polite the second time, and go after them the third time. If the audience is on your side at all, they’ll support you if you go after the heckler.
If you’re struggling and facing a heckler – it’s a lot tougher. You can try something self-deprecating – “Hey, this isn’t going the way I planned, either. I could use a little help, not you running your mouth.” The key thing when dealing with hecklers, either way, is to maintain your cool and your confidence. Treat him as a distraction, not as an equal – and don’t let it affect you (or at least don’t let the audience see that it’s affected you.) Basically, slam the heckler as often and as well as you can until club management steps in. If they don’t step in, hope the check clears and consider seriously whether you’ll work that room again.
There was a very funny episode of Seinfeld where Kramer’s girlfriend ruined Jerry’s show by laughing entirely too loud and at odd moments. Audiences are such odd, fragile beings that little things like that CAN seriously disrupt the flow of a room. Years ago, I did a show in Chicago, and there was a young woman on the right side of the room who would moan after every joke. Not an out and out moan, but a girlish little squeak, like a 12-year-old girl seeing a kitten curled in the corner. Every time she did it, the laughter in the crowd came to a dead halt. I was only doing a guest set, and didn’t have the time or the credibility to go after her, but I wish I could have.
The point is, little things like moans and groans can affect your audience, by highlighting the fact that your joke is negative (which, most jokes are, and, for which comedians such as myself develop friendly, folksy stage presences to compensate). If particular members — or the audience in general — is moaning too much, tell them so. You have the microphone. It’s your show. Don’t recommend that the audience remove the stick from a certain part of their anatomy — that’s been done to death. But, by all means, tell them to relax – gently.
Oh, helpers. The worst. Helpers are audience members, usually sitting up front, who add their own little jokes to the end (or the middle) of your jokes, whether they make sense or not. Unfortunately, they often wind up disrupting the jokes you already wrote (this is referred to in standup comedy as “stepping on a punchline”). Helpers can be terribly disruptive; they can affect your rhythm and your timing, and distract audience members, who are now listening to them, not to you.
The problem with helpers is that you have to deal with them carefully, since they’re not being mean – often, they sincerely believe that they’re helping the show (and will tell you so afterward). It’s hard to go after a helper with both barrels, since you run the risk of turning the crowd against you, for picking on that poor girl who was just having fun.
The best thing to do here is to speak a little louder, and faster, and ignore them, hoping that after two or three minutes of unanswered non sequiturs they’ll give up. If you have to, deal with them directly. Be firm, but nice – and again, a little self-deprecation will ease the blow. My stock line is, “I know you’re trying to help, but I’m a professional. I make literally tens of dollars a year doing standup comedy. I’ll handle the jokes.” It gets a laugh, and keeps the show going.
If she (or he, but usually it’s a she) keeps going, now you’ve got a leg to stand on. You’ve highlighted the problem for club management, and, in most cases, the audience will lose patience with her too. Stay nice for as long as you can – if you have to go after her, good luck.
Sometimes people talk during a show. As before, your best bet is to first try and ignore them, pick up your pace and enthusiasm, and get laughs. When the other 198 people in the crowd are dying laughing, those two idiots will eventually pay attention, as they wonder what’s so funny. Solid club management also helps, since talking should not be tolerated in any comedy club; but solid club management is not always there, so you’ll often need to handle this yourself.
Once again, stay polite and firm – especially if your set is going well. I would avoid the old stock line, “Is my act interrupting your conversation?” It’s condescending and confrontational, and it’s probably not the attitude you want to convey the first time you address the talkers. My first time, I will sincerely ask them to be quiet – I simply tell them the truth. It’s disruptive to me, it’s disruptive to the people around them. The second time, I might ask them (rhetorically) why they’re at a comedy club, when there are 8,000 bars in the state where they could go and talk.
Physically, one thing you can for talkers, especially those seated up front, is move toward them, even on top of them. It’s a subtle thing, but if you invade their personal space, their reflex is to look up. Now you’re on top of them, and that is a major psychological edge. It sounds silly, but it’s tremendously effective for people who are sitting up front.
It’s Your Show
The most important thing to remember (and an easy thing to forget) is that it’s your show. These people paid money to see YOU. (And, other people, too, maybe. But don’t sell yourself short.) You have the microphone, and with that comes power. As the old comedian saying goes, “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”
A few years ago I worked an opening weekend at a new club in northern Florida. After a show, the owner — who had never seen stand-up comedy before he dropped six figures into a brand new club — came up to me and the MC, an established road comic himself, and asked a simple question: “Why do you guys get so upset when people talk during the show?” The MC and I, with hundreds of shows’ worth of experience combined, looked at one another, then him, and then the floor. “I don’t know,” the MC finally mumbled. “Me neither,” I said. It always seemed self-evident, from doing shows with disruptive or talkative audiences and hearing other comedians discuss similar experiences, the audiences should be silent, except for laughter. But I had never considered why.
I think the answer is that laughter is a very fragile medium. Audience response can be affected by so many things — the number of people in the crowd, where they’re sitting, how close together they are, how big the room is, how the sound system is, ad nauseum. It is a physical, flowing being, when created correctly. People who talk during YOUR show disrupt that medium — they disrupt the flow of your presentation, and the flow of the laughter that should be your response. The MC and I knew what it was to be a comedian who was “killing” — to have an audience sit rapt and hang on every word, die laughing at things that are barely funny, and give applause breaks when you tie your shoelace. It’s an unbelievable feeling, and disruptive audience members can take that away. You need to learn to put them in their place, while staying on the good side of them AND the rest of the crowd. It’s a tough skill, but one that you must – and will – develop as you grow as a comedian.