The Chicago Tribune apparently thinks it’s okay to heckle comedians because…wait, what?
I don’t envy what Patton Oswalt had to do at one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever seen. It was in 2007 at the Lakeshore Theater in Chicago. The line-up began with a young John Mulaney, Janeane Garofalo, and closed with an unbelievable set by Patton Oswalt, paired with Janeane I assume to promote Ratatouille. Mulaney was great, Janeane kicked ass, but Patton had it rougher. He was dealing with a very vocal heckler in the front row, and her extremely polite friend. This boorish annoying person had a gravely voice and a sharp temper, like she was the female equivalent of Frank from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. She shouted things that made absolutely no sense, constantly. Patton dubbed her, “Gravelpuss.”
Gravelpuss’ friend was aware that the show was being ruined, so she apologized, and engaged Patton in very cordial dialogue. She was transgender, and Patton started asking her genuine questions about her life, wanting to know more about this saint of a person who was apparently the Gravelpuss whisperer. “Fuck you,” shouted Gravelpuss, to which Patton remained adroit and shut her down. This repeated until Gravelpuss stormed off. The crowd cheered. Patton was our hero. It was hilarious.
You know what else was hilarious? When that guy vomited over the balcony at the Broadway production of Grace.
I see virtually no difference between those two stories. Sure, the former ended in humor and embarrassment for Gravelpuss, and the latter ended with people covered in puke and a quick zinger by Paul Rudd. And sure, it’s not like that guy could dictate the timing and velocity of his vomit, as much as the orchestra section would have liked it to be so.
But in no way whatsoever should either act be condoned; telling somebody there’s a benefit to heckling is essentially pumping them full of gin and tonics and Domino’s pizza. In both cases, people—professionals—were trying to do jobs they’ve been training their entire lives to do, for people who paid money to attend a show, and were interrupted by an audience member doing something irrational or uncontrollable.
Patton’s quick thinking saved that show, but he is the exception, not the norm. Yet Nina Metz and Chris Borrelli from the Chicago Tribune have somehow fashioned a pro-heckling argument that assumes otherwise. It’s as offensive as it is out-of touch. Here’s basically what they’re asserting (poorly):
1. Heckling makes shows memorable.
Chris is quoted saying, “I have seen countless comedians and forgotten most of them. But I remember each and every time I have witnessed a performer get into it with an obnoxious audience.”
Wow. Nothing screams, “I am a jaded comedy critic!” more than those sentences. You know what’s memorable? Good comedy. Honest comedy. A really great comedian doing their job of making people laugh. Hecklers make comedy memorable in the same way vacations are made memorable when you get mugged on them. You’re forced to make lemonade out of lemons. But make no mistake: There are fucking lemons.
I think the real problem here is that two ostensibly knowledgable people have forgotten the difference between a correlation and a causation. It just so happened that Patton was heckled, and the show was a success. That is a correlation—one thing happened as the other thing happened, but there’s a third variable at play, which is Patton’s extensive skill-set honed after countless years on the road. This is not a causation, though. The heckler did not make the show better. Do not heckle. In any case, there’s so much more.
2. A comedian’s ability to deal with a heckler is somehow a true test of their skill.
Comedians have a job to do. They make people laugh. It’s so black-and-white, that it’s the very definition of black-and-white. To be a comedian, you must be a master at the infinite nuances by which you elicit a binary response from people—laughter or no laughter.
That is what they have worked their entire lives to do. And that is the thing by which they should be judged.
There are people who are great at coming up with off-the-cuff retorts. And there are other people, who are sometimes the same people, who have meticulously crafted a set that has an arc and a story, much like a play. Stand-up is the illusion of a conversation, but really it’s a one-man show.
To watch a comedian deal with a heckler is to watch someone wrestle with the embarrassment that the thing they’ve worked so hard to craft is coming apart in front of them. Some retreat into themselves and ignore the person. Some lash out with anger. Some maintain composure and become the source of stories comedians tell others as examples of how to deal with hecklers.
But make no mistake. Hecklers are something you DEAL with. They are speed bumps. They are road blocks. They are in no way a barometer of anything, other than how insensitive it must be to attend an event that might as well be in your honor, and metaphorically or literally vomit all over everyone.
3. Heckling keeps comedians “honest.”
Nina Metz recalls watching Chris D’Elia perform at last year’s Just For Laughs festival in Chicago. When D’Elia talked about how hard it was to get dates, an audience member called his bluff. He’s a mildly famous person, after all. This led to D’Elia explaining how, no matter what, it’s a battlefield out there.
Again, exception, not the norm. Who’s to say that D’Elia wouldn’t have touched on that later in his act? Personally, I’d rather wait and see, because D’Elia is a professional comedian who likely has figured out the exact right time to address that elephant in the room. I bet he would have done it even better than anyone could have anticipated.
It is not your job to keep a comedian “honest.” That is the comedian’s job. Your job, as an audience member, is to listen. If you don’t like what you hear, that’s fine. Leave and be dissatisfied. Would you jump up into the lighting booth of your least favorite black box theater and tell the actors they’re doing a shitty job of reimagining All’s Well That Ends Well? If so, you are probably a psychopath, and that’s what television is for.
And yes, I see you spoke to a few comedians who have learned how to deal with hecklers. Wonderful. I’m sure there are vomit-covered patrons who would love to hear poncho recommendations—just in case.
The article is a series of anecdotes that highlight what happens when a critic thinks that if they will themselves hard enough, they will somehow have control over the absolutely uncontrollable. Heckling will never be an acceptable form of behavior. It happens, yes. Should it? No. Can it be entertaining?
Let’s put it this way: In Chicago, and I assume other places, traffic is sometimes caused by gaper’s block, meaning an accident has occurred and even though the damaged cars are off to the side, everyone else slows down to see what happened. One time I got stuck in traffic for an hour, only to pass a bag of clothes. Then things cleared up. I was late to work because someone’s trunk opened on the way to the Salvation Army.
I mean, I was entertained…
4. Nina: “As journalists and critics, we’re trained to stand and back observe…”
(I think she meant, “stand back and observe…”)
If you have been trained that way, then my deepest sympathies, Nina. I’ve seen you at shows. I’ve enjoyed some of your writing. Hell, you once wrote that something I did on stage was, “one of funniest things I’ve seen all year.” Thank you.
But c’mon. This is a vibrant, growing art form that benefits from a deep understanding of what it takes to craft a set. What it takes to hone a joke. What it takes to devote your life to a career that is 99.99 percent rejection, and STILL keep going anyways.
Go ahead and have an opinion. But don’t pretend you’re not part of the comedy scene. If you love something, you have a responsibility to help it grow. Sure, you might not always like what you see, but there is never an excuse for remaining oblivious to how hard it is to be a comic. And heckling is one of the hardest things comedians have to deal with.
You never encourage the encourageable. As a fellow journalist, one who takes great pride in being a critic who is an active member of the comedy world, I have two words for you: Internet commenters. Isn’t it great when a writer goes into the comments and defends their opinion to a bunch of people who are jealous they don’t have that job? It sure shuts them up never!
Let’s let Patton’s treatment of Gravelpuss be the absolute last resort. For the good of comedy. For all those Gravelpussies who might think twice before willing themselves to throw up.
[Note: an earlier version of this article remembered the name of the heckler as “Snagglepuss.” All of us at steveheisler.com deeply regret the error, though that’s a pretty funny name, too. Puss.]