| 13.9°C Dublin

Hear the one about the comedian who can't take a joke?


The comedian Billy Connolly curtailed two shows early after hecklers interrupted his set

The comedian Billy Connolly curtailed two shows early after hecklers interrupted his set

The comedian Billy Connolly curtailed two shows early after hecklers interrupted his set

Billy Connolly fans received a punchline they weren't expecting when the veteran comedian responded to heckles by flouncing off to his dressing room -- twice in one week. The "Big Yin's" double walk-off at theatre performances in the north of England recently created international headlines -- and with good reason.

For stand-ups, heckling is an occupational hazard, a thin-skinned comedian being about as much use as a one-legged footballer. Remove that element of danger and you negate the entire point of live comedy in the first place.

According to eyewitnesses, Connolly's first hissy fit was prompted by repeated cries of 'Wildebeest', a reference to one of his classic routines, the second by persistent shouts of "You're s***!" from the back of the room (an endless parade of people wandering back and forth to the loo appeared to vex him also).

In each case, he stopped up, mumbled his goodnights and slouched to the wings. At 69, and with millions in the bank, he presumably decided he didn't need to stand there and take the abuse.

"The man is nearly 70. He's the elder statesman of comedy so perhaps we should cut him some slack," says Dublin stand-up Steve Cummins. "And remember, his best stuff doesn't usually come out of audience interaction. He goes off on these long, rambling stories. He isn't talking off the top of his head. He's worked long and hard at his material. It isn't off the cuff."

Hecklers, says Cummins, fall into two categories: smartarses and drunks. He knows which he prefers.

"I have a good relationship with hecklers," he says. "Sometimes they can be spectacularly funny. I firmly believe that if someone gets in a good zinger, you need to acknowledge it and move on. Everyone else knows it's funny. You look the bigger person if you take it on the chin and proceed from there."

Sometimes comedians can make spectacular misjudgments in curbing hecklers.

At the Edinburgh festival a few years ago, English stand-up David Whitney is said to have responded to persistent interruption by head- butting an audience member. He was arrested and charged with serious assault.

"A lot of people think the deal with comedy is you go and shout at the man on stage for a few hours," says stand-up Gearoid Farrelly.

"Usually they get caught up in the wave of laughter and want a piece of the glory. The only way you can deal with it is to make them the butt of the joke, which can't be what they want in the first place. I feel bad putting them down sometimes. It's usually very easy. All you have to do is say, 'Shut up ya knob' and you get a round of applause."

Seasoned comedians have honed a variety of trusted slap-downs. As far back as the late '70s, Steve Martin was putting hecklers in their box with 'Ah, I remember when I had my first beer too . . . '.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

Jasper Carrott used to say: "Sit back in your chair and I'll plug it in".

The acerbic Jack Dee would tell the rest of the audience, "Well, it's a night out for him, isn't it?" before adding, "For his family it's a night off."

The problem with these cutting comebacks is that it assumes the audience is coherent enough to appreciate them.

Late in the show, after a fair portion of the room has spent the evening flooring lager, your wit may not get the respect it deserves.

"I once said to a [heckler], 'What are you going to do when King Kong wants his arse back?'," UK funny-man Lee Evans recalled a few years ago. "He said, 'This!' and hit me in the face."

Of course you don't want to intimidate punters to the point where they are afraid of saying anything. There can be a thin divide between putting manners on hecklers and castrating an audience. Comic Barry Mack remembers a famous British stand-up who, while playing in Dublin a few years ago, had notices put up warning that anyone interrupting him would be thrown out.

"This was taken so seriously that the warm-up act tried to engage the audience and was greeted with silence," says Mack.

The crowd didn't know the difference between responding on cue and speaking out of turn. Thus, the support struggled in what was usually his stomping ground."

To an overwhelming degree a stand-up's ability to deal with hecklers depends on the brand of comedy they deal in. If you're a rapid-fire gag merchant, it's easy to riff off the room.

As Cummins points out, Billy Connolly's speciality is the woolly anecdote, material which sounds random and spontaneous but is, in fact, planned meticulously.

"It's happened to me a couple of times that I'm about to reach this big punchline and then someone shouts something stupid out," he says. "It takes all the air out of the gag. You can't go back and repeat the last two sentences. That stings."

The weird thing, says comedian Jarlath Regan, is that hecklers are frequently under the severe misapprehension they are doing the stand-up a favour.

"Quite regularly there is a misunderstanding where the heckler thinks they are helping the performer. I've had hecklers who have often derailed a long joke you have been building towards in order to add their special something, only for them to come up to me after the show, shake my hand and say, 'You can stick the cheque in the post!' or something like that."

Certain crowds are tougher than others, comedians agree. The more drink taken, the greater the likelihood you'll be interrupted. The worst of all, it would appear, are students.

"Some audiences -- i.e. students -- would prefer to see the guy in the front row ridiculed than to hear the jokes you've been crafting for the past year," says Regan.

" I think that's why some people sit in the front row wearing odd clothes hoping to be picked on."

There is a consensus that self-deprecating humour is the best way to pre-emptively calm a potentially lairy crowd.

Regan explains: "I think the idea of slagging yourself off before anyone else can works to defuse situations where hecklers might have a go.

"If you can beat them to the punch about your weight, gender, lack of sex appeal, grooming, nationality, accent or inability to be funny -- more often than not they won't heckle.

"That said, the bottom line is always 'the funny'. And if you can make them laugh no matter how rowdy, obnoxious or drunk the audience, heckling stops being important."

Most Watched