The Heckler's Mindset
Why do people heckle at comedy nights?
I’d like to politely interrupt your day to ask why so many people impolitely interrupt my very important job of entertaining people.
It can happen at any gig, but I’d say it’s particularly prominent at weekend gigs. I’m talking Friday and Saturday night “club gigs”. The infamous Circuit, where every club comic goes to war against Stag & Hen Do’s, couples that have run out of ideas for dates, and 4 for the price of 3 Peroni deals.
It ain’t a pretty scene, but then those of us in it aren’t either. Years of pre-gig Tesco Meal Deals and post-gig McDonald’s have taken their toll on many. Sallow-skinned, haggard-faced, dead-behind-the-eyes comics step up to the microphone to deliver the best Peroni-proof jokes they have. Gags about knobs and fannies tend to do the trick, as do references to a nearby rival town being a shithole.
It’s called club comedy, but a lot of the time the gigs aren’t in purpose-built comedy clubs. Nightclubs, village halls, restaurants – any space you can stick a load of people in and still marginally comply with fire-safety regulations can – and will – be labelled a “comedy club”. Often comedy isn’t even the main attraction. The night will be creatively called something like “Comedy and Curry Night” and the poster will contain a picture of a Tikka Masala that is bigger than the pictures of the comedians.
Being a club comic is learning to accept the professional headshot you spent £300 on isn’t as appealing as a low-res photo of an onion bhaji.
It’s like being a lower league footballer. We’re technically doing the same job as all the millionaire celebrities, but the facilities are poor, the conditions are rough, and the atmospheres are hostile. Try anything too fancy – i.e. a joke that assumes academic knowledge above year 6 SATs level – that’s the equivalent of trying to do a step over in your own penalty box. Who does this pretty boy think he is!
Sounds bleak. And it is. But only partially. Because like being a lower league footballer, just getting paid anything to do the thing you love is pretty exciting. Everyone loves a laugh, and for that to be your job rather than the thousands of other less fulfilling jobs you could be doing is special. When I’m on a 5-hour Megabus back from Hull, cramped next to someone loudly watching TikToks with no headphones in, seat pressing uncomfortably against the arse I’ve just died on, I try to remind myself that I’ve essentially won the lottery.
And you never know, if you work hard, you might one day be in the big leagues. You dream of a big move to 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown. It happens. People escape the circuit. They move above it. It becomes the talk of the green rooms the following weekend.
“Did you hear about Eddie? He got out.”
Some will be happy for Eddie, some will be bitter. We’ll all be jealous.
None of this matters to the audience who’ve had a long week at work and want entertaining. They deserve a good show. So you put all your grievances about your career to one side and go out there and shake what ya momma gave ya. And it could be great. The bleak picture I’ve painted above is a caricature. There’s a lot of clubs out there that are well run, attract great audiences full of proper comedy fans, and also have a third property that I should insert here to make this sentence rhythmically pleasing.
Those are the shows where heckling is most annoying. 99% of the audience are lovely, but a few absolute gobshites ruin it by heckling. They’re either talking all the way through to the people next to them, or they’re directly interrupting the comedian.
Sometimes the interruptions will be them giving their opinion on the comedian’s set, and sometimes they will be attempts to outdo the comedian by trying to be funny themselves.
I know I’m trying to be funny, but at least that’s my role in this social scenario. I may fail but it’s very reasonable that I’m having a go. Sometimes I want to say to the heckler, “What are you doing? You’ve got the easy job here. You’ve got the laughing role. You’ve got the sit back and relax role. I try to hit all the right spots and then if I do you can roll over and go to sleep.”
It would be easy to dismiss it as just being drunk people. And some of it definitely is, but since most drunk people don’t heckle, it can’t be the full picture. The alcohol is a catalyst for sure, but psychologically, I think there’s more going on.
And when I think about it, I have sympathy for the heckler.
These are people who work all week in often underpaid and unfulfilling jobs, their spirits zapped of all hope by a world rigged in favour of the elites, and, in an attempt to obtain a little bit of respite, they pay their money (of which they have little) to attend a comedy night that they end up sabotaging.
It’s essentially self-harm.
Harming the comedian is a motivation as well – I just don’t think it’s the deepest one. But it’s there. I often think, why do people shout out at comedy clubs, but not at the cinema? It’s precisely because the comedian can hear that they do it. They want the comedian to feel the same pain they feel. They don’t do it at the cinema because Tom Cruise isn’t really there. It’s an illusion.
Some people do shout at the telly when a certain politician comes on tbf. I think that’s because there’s a part of them that isn’t 100 percent convinced that there aren’t little people behind the screen. Also, a lot of our televisions probably are listening to us these days so it’s not totally nonsensical to give feedback to them.
I think the heckler, at some point in the night, realises that this comedy night they’ve pinned their hopes on hasn’t fixed everything. They still feel worn down. They’ve escaped, but it doesn’t feel like their root issues have been addressed. They’re angry, like the resentment you feel towards a therapist when you learn they can only take you so far. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it love itself as the saying goes.
If, in my case, a multi-award-winning comedian – whose carefully crafted jokes have been verified by judging panels of industry experts as excellent – can’t fix them, then who can?
They may even take a moment to look over to their partner. At least they’ve got that right. They may have not done much with their life, but they found someone. Maybe finding someone to love and to be loved by is the most you can hope for. But as they ponder this, they notice how much their partner is laughing. It’s a laughter he hasn’t seen for a while. It reminds him of the way she laughed all those years ago, on their first date, when life wasn’t as heavy, when they didn’t need someone else to provide the laughter, when his low-sperm-count and discussions around invasive IVF treatment hadn’t yet driven a wedge between them.
It's all too much for them. They take a swig of their drink, slam it on the table, and as loud as they can shout:
“You’re fucking shit, mate.”
Or maybe it’s just because I actually am fucking shit.
Anyway, that’s about it.
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