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On Fear and Heckling

By Robert Buscemi

The first thing most non-comedians say when they hear I’m a stand-up is “Oh. That must be so hard.” They’re almost wincing at me in sympathy. I usually respond “It was tough at first, but you get used to it if you’re a certain kind of person.” I never know what else to say.

If they press me, I’ll tell them that yes, it was scary as hell at first. Your worst shows happen early on, and I remember almost physically forcing myself to remain in … say … a sports bar by Wrigley Field in Chicago after I’d signed an open-mike list. I remember imagining that staying in that club that night was precisely as unpleasant and difficult as standing still when someone pours a tub of ice water on you. That’s how bad I wanted to hit the door and hit the street.

But you’re desperate, you’re craven, you’ve come that far, and somehow you coerce yourself into staying. I used to do it by steps: “Just leave the apartment to walk to the car. Just drive to the bar. Just park. Just ask that guy over there how you sign up. Just write down your name. Just stay put at least till the show begins. Just don’t leave until you hear your name.” Each action was a separate hurdle.

Because doing stand-up can be a lot like playing chicken. But when you’re new, you’re helmetless on a brand-new bike that’s too big for you, and the audience seems like a very fast semi-truck.

So yeah, it was scary for a while. It’s a perfect storm of inopportune things when you start. You don’t know your voice. Your material isn’t tested. You’re doing horrible shows. You don’t have friends yet. You don’t know what to do when things go south. You’re nervous and scared.

You’re like a teenager — as if everything else weren’t difficult enough at that age, God has to give you ACNE. It’s cruel.

The second most common thing non-comedians ask me about is how I handle hecklers. And … that question’s easier to deal with, I find.

Because basically I don’t really anticipate or even encounter hecklers. I certainly don’t plan responses to them.

Someone told me once that that certain comedians attract hecklers, and I believe that. We’ve all seen comics with chips on their shoulders, and to me it’s not entertaining to see a comedian say something, say, politically inflammatory (especially when they’re being loutish rather than funny) and then slam someone in the audience for muttering a little umbrage. The comedian invited it, so he or she shouldn’t act shocked when someone reacts.

My feelings on politics as a topic are this: I went to college and I vote, so unless you have something funny or original to say, I’ll listen to AM radio when I want to hear rants. You’re an entertainer. Entertain me. Otherwise, go write a letter to the editor. If you DO have something original or funny to say about a political or social topic (off the top of my head, Jimmy Dore, Duane Kennedy, and Nate Craig always manage to pull off genuinely fresh angles …), I’m all ears. But I find fresh political commentary from the stand-up stage the exception. Usually it’s just canned, knee-jerk stuff presented in an off-putting, self-aggrandizing way.

Back to heckling … I find that 95% of the time when someone in the audience speaks up, they’re just trying to play along anyway, are pretty inexperienced at watching comedy, and are tipsy or drunk. Or it’s just some poor guy who wants to do stand-up himself. Or it’s someone who thinks you’re interested in conversation. I try to throw ’em a bone and help them enjoy the show in the right way and hope they’ll keep quiet.

Because the fact is, I can’t really do my act at all if people are heckling or talking over me. My material’s just too dense. I’m not saying it’s too GOOD, I’m just saying it’s densely enough written and has enough off-beats and nuance that genuine, sustained flack from the audience just tanks my set entirely and I have to drop all planned material in favor of staging a big argument or conversation I don’t really want to have, and I hate that and don’t relish it. I’ll even appeal to the person’s table-mates or neighbors to keep them quiet. But the last thing I want to do is to get angry or let myself stop enjoying the show.

But I almost never, almost NEVER, hear directly mean-spirited comments from any audience, anywhere. Nor do I hear them directed at other comics. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’ve almost never head “You suck!” flat-out. I bombed out hard enough a few times early on, but I tend to wrap up and step down before anyone can get to the point of hurling insults. I get perplexed, audible “Whaaaats?” often enough, but that’s my doing for having weird material.

That’s it. Just thinking out loud.