This Is The Best Way to Make Anyone Laugh
A veteran standup shares his wisdom on how to face down hecklers.
The name of my former show on Comedy Central, Tough Crowd, comes from the Rodney Dangerfield expression, “Whoa, tough room…tough crowd.” There was a place in New Jersey called Betty’s Fireside where these tough guys and ex-cons pride themselves on torturing comedians when they tried to make anyone laugh. Everyone has to play there as a kind of baptism.
What you learn about disarming people at Betty’s and other tough rooms is that you really just have to be yourself. Eventually, people realize that you’re the only entertainment. They’re not going to see a fireworks show followed by Madonna, and as soon as a heckler opens his mouth, the crowd is rooting for you. There’s no magic line. I treat each troublemaker on a case-by-case basis.
If you want to disarm someone conversationally, treat them like they’re your equal and you can’t go wrong. And here’s an idea: Listen when they’re talking.
Telling a joke well can go a long way toward disarming a tough crowd, too. But telling a joke well involves a lot of salesmanship. You’ve got to look people in the eye and set the pace. The most common pitfalls are rushing, which I still do, and getting in a shame spiral in the middle of the joke. At that point, you can’t win. If you decide to tell a joke, it means you have the floor.
Don’t try to act like Aw, I shouldn’t tell this or This isn’t funny or This is stupid. And don’t forget parts of it. If you’re going to tell a joke, rehearse it in your head a bit. Know the beats of the joke and don’t deprecate yourself when telling it. You never want the audience to feel sorry for the comedian. You can hate me, but don’t feel sorry for me. There’s no place for pity in comedy.
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