Dalton’s Laws: How to Handle Hecklers Like a Philosophical Bouncer

There’s no worse feeling than getting heckled for your first time.  You’re burning every calorie of self-confidence you have just trying to stay on that stage and plow through your jokes.  You don’t have extra moxie in some reserve tank you can ignite to get yourself out of a difficult situation.  Then you hear it.  It’s not your voice but someone else’s.  It doesn’t matter what they’re saying.  You didn’t practice this in the mirror.  Cue heart palpitations and heavy breathing.  It is the dizziness of the unexpected.

In the movie Roadhouse, Patrick Swayze plays an erudite, East Coast bouncer who is sent to Jasper, MI in order to clean up the wild Double Deuce Club.  He has to deal with all manner of drunks, morons, and loudmouths in a rowdy, dive bar.  So you can see how I would draw parallels to the world of stand-up comedy.  Here are Dalton’s 3 Laws of Heckler Handling.


1) “Never Underestimate Your Opponent; Expect the Unexpected” – You’re a professional comedian, right?  Or at least you tell people you are.  And some drunk jagoff is trying to talk out during your set?  The nerve!  You look down at the microphone you so expertly wield.  This is no ordinary power you possess.  You are the only person that can elicit laughs from an audience.  If this fool wants to interrupt, let’s see how they do when you give them your divine amplifier.

Oh crap, they’re funny.

By asking the question, “You think you could do better?” and providing the heckler with an opportunity to do so, you’d better be prepared for your set to go off the rails.  The best case scenario?  They suck and you prove your point, even if it is at the detriment to the flow of the show.  The worst case scenario?  They’re better than you and your divinity is stripped from you in front of a crowd.  Now you are shivering, exposed, and mortal.

Comedians don’t expect hecklers to be funnier than them.  But every so often, you’ll get the popular guy at the barbecue.  He’s packing charisma and a few stock jokes.  And that’s all he needs to make it seem like what you’re doing is not that hard.

2) “Never start anything inside the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary.” – I’ve made this mistake one or two times.  I saw what I thought was an easy mark that I could tease right off the bat.  I had no reason to start trouble, just thought it would be a good idea.  Everyone gets in those moods.  It’s come back to bite me.

One time at the Corner Café, I was about to go on stage when I noticed a relatively drunk woman was sitting in the front row, by herself, texting, and she had her filthy bare feet up on the stool next to her.  Being a huge bully, I decided it was my place to say something.  Instead of going through with my original plan, which was to try out some new material I had worked on, I went in with aggressive intentions.

I had grabbed the microphone and started into her.  “Look at this girl’s dirty feet,” I said.  “What were you doing before the show, re-sealing the driveway?”   She placed her phone down on the table, took a swig of beer and cocked her head at me.  Seven minutes later, I was walking off stage without ever having told one joke.  I engaged in an unproductive battle with her for my entire set.

Don’t ever start something with a heckler.  You don’t want to turn an otherwise quiet audience member into an enemy.

3) Be nice. – I’ve learned the hard way on this rule before.  I’ve gone from docile joke-teller to psycho circus freak in about 2 seconds.  The reason comedians are so quick to anger when someone heckles is because it’s very threatening.  You’re walking a tightrope of embarrassment up on stage by yoursself.  A heckle is like a strong gust of wind trying to knock you to your death.  You feel the breeze and your fight-or-flight response kicks into overdrive.  You get that surge of aggression and you will destroy your threat.

The problem with this approach is that crowds don’t like mean people.  In a battle of two jerks, they don’t want to root for the jerk who is better at being a jerk.  They want an underdog.  They want Rocky.

So how do you be nice?  Here are a few things to avoid:

  • Don’t comment on physical appearance – No calling fat, ugly, bald, etc.  Unless you yourself are a well-dressed Adonis, you’re opening yourself up for a rebuttal.  I know I’m a little sensitive about my slender, feminine wrists and would rather someone not draw attention to that.
  • No name calling – They might be acting like an A-hole, but don’t call them one.  Show the rest of the audience that the heckler is an A-hole; don’t just tell them.
  • Immediately calling for backup – If you’re lucky enough to work at a place that might have a door guy or other staff that might be of help in the situation, don’t run to them immediately.  Sometimes heckling is really good-natured.  If your call in the Brownshirts on a mild dissenter, then you’ve established a rigid tone for the rest of your set.  The crowd may think you’re soft or have a fragile ego.

Here are a few things that have worked in my experience:

  • Ask questions – This is a good tactic for a few reasons.  It’s not overly aggressive and it gives you time to get your thoughts in order.  One of the scariest prospects of handling a heckler is trying to come up with a witty retort right on the spot.  Asking a question puts the pressure back on the heckler and you can start planning your counter-punch.
  • Let them talk themselves out – They obviously felt passionate about a topic that you were discussing.  Often times a heckler has not thought out their point any further than the initial blurting.  After the first bullet, you’ll find that there’s not a whole lot of ammo left in the clip.
  • Check back in with the rest of the audience – The reason a heckler ruins the show is that it takes the focus from a full room down to one person.  So as soon as a heckler starts jockeying for attention, the rest of the audience will feel slighted.  Use this pressure.  There have been times where the audience hated the heckler so much that they started heckling him.  You need to keep them engaged and let them know that this is just a blip and you’ll be back with them in just a second.


Being heckled is a painful experience, but try to remember one thing:

“Pain don’t hurt.” – Dalton

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