The Rise of the Heckler Video

Fueling the current mania for reality TV-style unscripted drama and confrontation on the comedy stage

Standup comedy heckler videos are the worst; that’s why we watch them. They feed the current mania for reality TV-style unscripted drama and angry confrontation. A heckler video will draw tens of thousands more views than a video of the same comic performing his or her material without interruption, a sad commentary on the common perception of standup as a lowbrow gladiatorial pursuit.

When a mediocre artist was filmed breaking one of Ai Weiwei’s vases at an art museum in Miami, he was greeted with universal contempt and arrested. When a man’s cell phone went off at the New York Philharmonic, the conductor stopped the performance as the audience booed in disgust. But when a comic posts a heckler video it often goes viral, thus popularizing the ugliest thing about standup while reinforcing the heckler’s notion that I was just helping! and I thought that’s what people do at comedy shows! By broadcasting these interactions online and amplifying the misconceptions, comics are their own worst enemies. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind having a million views on one of my videos on YouTube.

Patton Oswalt summed up hecklers best:

“Hecklers don’t make a show memorable. They prevent a show from being a fucking show. Comedians do not love hecklers. They love doing the original material they wrote and connecting with an entire audience, not verbally sparring with one cretin while the rest of the audience whoops and screams, disconnecting from the comedian and re-wiring itself as a hate-fueled crowd-beast. And most comedians, including me, can barely remember a heckler. We go into automatic pilot shutting them down – not because we’re so brilliant and quick, it’s because we’ve dealt with hecklers so many fucking times that we can do it in our sleep.  And why do we have to deal with hecklers so many times?  Because of all the stupid, misinformed rationalizations…”

I’m as guilty as anyone of a morbid fascination with heckler videos. I watch them with the same mesmerized horror as shark attacks or bar fights on WorldStarHipHop or the Saddam Hussein execution. Sure, I watch because it’s relevant to my craft, but also, shamefully, because it’s compelling in a gut-churning way. It gives me that little frisson of vicarious outrage that is the reality TV producer’s stock-in-trade.

Myles Weber is a talented and funny touring comic who performs in the Seattle area regularly. In this video (which, I should note, comes up second on a Google search of his name and has over a half a million views) he executes a classic drunk-heckler takedown, ending in the heckler leaving the showroom humiliated. It’s ugly, but it’s an accurate representation of what happens when an inebriated audience member refuses to stop yelling at a veteran performer:

One of the first heckler videos I ever watched on YouTube happened in Seattle, at the Comedy Underground’s old location (notice the cityscape mural with the Kingdome in the background). Complicating the pro-comic “all hecklers are evil” narrative, comedian James Inman refers to Arabs as “towelheads” and calls a heckler a “cunt.” A pair of women step onstage to confront him, one of them taking a swing at his face and the other attempting to steal the microphone:

Here’s another video where a comic gets punched. This time, it’s an impossibly terrible hack wearing “Asian” gag glasses and spouting racist stereotypes who ends up clocked in the face:

Heckler interactions rarely end in violence, so these last two are outliers. But in every one of these videos the solution is simple. Got too drunk and not enjoying the show? Leave. Offended by a racist/sexist comic? Leave. Getting bored and feeling the need to start a conversation? Leave. That might seem a too-weak response for confronting racism or misogyny or utter mediocrity, but your departure will speak more eloquently to the manager of the club than any futile shout-fight or assault charge ever will.