Whenever I think about hecklers and heckler lines I ask myself WWBFD? What Would Butterfly Do?
Robert Nelson, aka The Butterfly Man, was better with hecklers than any other comedy juggler I have ever seen. He was even better with hecklers than he was without them!
Robert always had dozens of insults, both original and stock, ready to go without a moment’s notice. Even more impressive was that he knew exactly when to use each one. He knew who to be gentle with and who to grind into dust.
But he was even better when he skipped his standard lines and walked that tightrope, engaging with the heckler.
Here are some of the things I learned from years of watching Robert interact with, and a few late-night smoky sessions with him talking about, hecklers.
Types of hecklers
Hecklers come in 3 types:
1) Hecklers who think they’re helping the show;
2) Hecklers who are trying to hurt the show; and
3) Hecklers who are so drunk even they don’t know which of these two types they are.
Then there are the people who aren’t exactly hecklers but might as well be:
Kids who have seen your show before and yell out your punch-lines or expose your surprises before you do;
Teenagers who stand in a clump too close to your show with their backs to you, pointedly not watching you because they’re just too cool or sarcastically pretending to like what you’re doing, only to leave en masse at the most inopportune time; and
Fans, friends, and relatives who are so enthusiastic they fragment your audience.
I never talked to Robert about these last three, but we talked a lot about the first.
Hecklers who think they’re helping the show
For this first type of heckler, Robert would often draw them out and engage with them. He would give them the attention they were seeking before he shut them down. Robert was very comfortable going much longer than I ever am engaging with a heckler before ad-libbing a punch-line or hitting them with a stock line. By stretching out the interaction, his heckler lines were much funnier when he finally delivered them.
Giving a heckler the attention they want sometimes encourages others, especially kids, to heckle. Robert enjoyed this. You might not. So be careful about engaging hecklers if that’s not the kind of show you want to do.
Hecklers who try to hurt the show
Robert would squash these hecklers immediately like the insects they were, but not before he was sure the rest of audience heard what they said. He always wanted to be sure the crowd was as annoyed by the heckler as he was before he destroyed them.
Often, he would repeat what the heckler said before he responded to make sure the audience heard it.
(IJA Warning: The following examples are not necessarily family friendly. If you wish to read them, use your mouse to highlight the text below)
Heckler: “F— you.”
The Butterfly Man: “F— me?” (To make sure everyone had heard it. Then a long pause as if he didn’t know how to respond in order to build the tension.) “F— me and you’ll never go back to women.”
Or the all too common:
Heckler: “You suck!”
The Butterfly Man: “Yeah, maybe I do suck.” (Pause.) “But at least I don’t swallow like you.”
(End of examples)
Hecklers who are too drunk to know the difference
And then for the heckler who is so drunk he won’t know when the interaction is over, the heckler who can’t shut up even if she wanted to, or pretty much any heckler Robert didn’t think would be fun to play with, he would redefine who the heckler was. He would ignore the drunk and pretend that someone else was the real heckler.
This was a master stroke. Because if you just ignore a heckler you look weak and afraid and the audience can smell it. But if you deal with a different heckler instead, you still keep your power. It looks to the crowd like you’re just choosing who to use it on.
Probably the most common version of this I saw him do was with drunk women. Instead of attacking them, he would attack their boyfriends.
Drunk woman: “Awww, I saw a guy on TV do that with arr arrrr arrrrrr … ”
The Butterfly Man: (To the guy next to her) “Hey man. Is that your girlfriend?” (Pause) “Small world.”
Don’t hit back too soon
Robert gave me some advice after John Park and I had a particularly hard time with a heckler on a Saturday night when we were alternating shows with him at Pier 39. “You will see the heckler long before the crowd does,” he said. “You have to wait for the audience to catch up with you.” Later he expanded on this idea with Mitchel Barrett: “You want to wait till the crowd is annoyed enough that you can become the ‘audience spokesperson’ when you tell the heckler to shut up. If you come on too strong too early it’ll be more like a wrestling match between you and the heckler with the crowd as spectators.”
This is a mistake I often make. I forget that the heckler is not facing the audience. He’s facing me so the majority of the crowd might not have even heard what he said. He hasn’t interrupted the show. He’s only interrupted me.
I would do much better to remember Robert’s advice and wait to strike back till the crowd hates the heckler as much as I do.
Using stock heckler lines
The one big exception most comics grant for stealing material is when dealing with hecklers. There’s a sort of us against them mentality when it comes to performers versus hecklers.
“It’s hard to believe out a million of sperm, YOU were the quickest.”
“Is that your face or did your neck just throw up?”
“17 more of you and we’d have a golf course!”
“Yeah, I remember the first time I tried meth.”
“When you go to the movies do you talk to the screen?”
“Dad, I told you to stay in the car.”
“Hey shut up. I don’t come to McDonald’s and bug you while you’re working.”
“Isn’t it sad when cousins marry?”
“When you went to school, did you go on the big bus or the little bus?”
“Why don’t you two stand back-to-back and form a tunnel?”
“When your IQ gets to 50 … sell.”
These are all part of the standard canon of heckler comebacks many of us share. And nobody wielded them better than The Butterfly Man.
Engaging a heckler
But Robert also taught us that it’s always more interesting when you respond to a heckler not with a stock line, or even one of your own original, pre-written remarks, but instead with something that is ad-libbed and specific to the situation:
Heckler says, “Where’d you get those pants? Castro Street?”
You reply, “Yeah. I got them from your mother.”
Heckler threatens, “Don’t you talk about my mother. I’ll cut you if you talk about my mother.”
You apologize, “I’m just kidding.” You pause. Then continue, “I got them from your father. He was dressed like your mother.”
(The above exchange almost got me beaten up by two sailors on shore leave. At least John had my back with his very effective heckler line: “I’ve never seen this guy before in my life.”)
But no matter how comfortable you are ad-libbing and riffing with an audience, every performer needs to have a portfolio of pre-planned heckler comebacks ready to go at all times.
But what if instead of drawing from the same commonweal of heckler lines, wouldn’t it be better if we each had our own, individually written, retorts ready?
So with that goal in mind, Let’s model the master of juggling heckler interactions, the late, great Robert Nelson, and write some new heckler lines. Let’s ask ourselves, “WWBFD – What Would Butterfly Do?”
Here are the first twenty heckler lines that The Butterfly Man in my head and my heart yelled at me this morning.
- Wow. Dementia speaks.
- Hey, hey , hey. You know the rules. You’re supposed to stay at lest 50 feet away from the children.
- Okay, next time, wait till you have something funny to say and then shut up anyway.
- Go home and listen to Rush Limbaugh. (And the tag.) I’m sure he’ll make a lot of sense to you.
- You think you can come up here and do this? The sign up sheet is in the front of the Pier. The next open spot is in two hours. Come back then.
- You know … There’s a reason YOU have a day job.
- Your parents must be so proud.
- You know, sometimes murder suicide pacts are not a half bad idea.
- (To a high status adult) It looks like somebody needs to take a time out.
- (To a kid) Go ask your mom for some more Ritalin.
- (To a woman standing next to the heckler) Are you married to him? (No.) No? That makes sense. (Yes.) Yes? I’m so sorry for your loss.
- Wow. I didn’t know brain-dead people could talk.
- Sometimes medical marijuana is the cause not the cure.
- We see your lips move but all we is hear is “Arr, arr, arr, arr, arr.”
- Sorry. What’s that? I couldn’t hear you because I’m not stupid.
- Nobody wants to hear what you have to say. That’s why all the chairs are facing this way. (Pause.) Think about it. No – don’t. You could pull a muscle in your head. (POV shift into heckler.) “Owww. Thoughts make ouchie! Brain boo-boo. Owwwww.” (Longer pause.) I’m just kidding. You have to HAVE a brain before it can hurt.
- Kids, say it with me: “Stranger danger! Stranger danger!!” And sir, let me tell you: There is no one here stranger than you.
- You know, if you had something funny to say YOU’D be the one up here begging for money.
- It’s people like you who give Chlamydia a bad name.
- Looks like it’s time for somebody’s daily dose of shut the hell up.
Plus three more that were too dirty or too racist for this article. (They weren’t too dirty or racist for me to write them. If I thought the venue was right I’d be willing to try them. But they were not appropriate for this eZine.)
Looking back on those twenty the next day, I think #10, #15, #18, and #19 are worth trying on stage. Four out of twenty worth trying? I like those results. Thank you inner caterpillar.
It might be a while before we get to try any of them because Katrine and I almost never work in venues where we get heckled anymore. So if any of you want to try any of them feel free. But please, if you do, post here and let us know whether they worked or not.
Write a new heckler line. Share it with your friends.
Play with a heckler who’s trying to help your show. Be ready to crush those who want to hurt it.
And the next time someone offers you a drug you’ve never tried, ask yourself WWBFD?