How 10 of the Best Stand-Up Comedians Handle Hecklers

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If we learned anything about stand-up comedy last fall, it’s that when a Hannibal Buress video goes viral, you should probably watch it. This time, his YouTube hit isn’t going to end an icon’s career; it’s just an enormously entertaining three-minute destruction of a boorish heckler. Said hecklers have been the bane of many a comedian’s existence — drunken assholes, bachelorette party morons, and would-be comics have been mistaking stand-up for interactivity since the form began. So on this April Fools’ Day, we thought we’d take a look at how Buress and a few other comic greats handled these particular fools.

Hannibal Buress

“You, sir, are a social terrorist.” So says the Broad City co-star to an audience member in Wilmington, Delaware, in this recently released clip, brought to our attention by Slate’s Aisha Harris. What’s great about it is how the drunken idiot can’t even begin to break Buress’ laid-back stride; his insults and criticisms still pour out in his distinctive purr, and he resists the urge to show his anger or irritation. Instead, he boils down heckling to its essential offense: it’s rude. “I’ve done shit when I was drunk,” he admits, but “not interrupt a show that 1100 other people are watching…” And, giggling and smiling all the way, he indulges in a razor-sharp session of psychoanalysis, dismissing his heckler as sadly attention-starved. “If you want attention,” he explains, “you’ve gotta do what I did, and work really hard for 13 years.”

Amy Schumer

Schumer wasn’t yet the world-dominating, Hollywood-conquering, sketch show-fronting megastar she is today when she headlined at Atlanta’s Punchline club in 2009. That night, according to this very popular YouTube clip, a drunk woman had heckled all of the evening’s performers, leaving it to headliner Schumer to shut her down. The world might not yet have known that Schumer was not to be fucked with, but she knew it — prompting this wonderful exchange, in which she references the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer (a woman after my own heart) to let the heckler know she’s in over her head.

George Carlin

Carlin wasn’t much for improvisation or crowd work; always one of our more literary comedians, his sets were tightly composed, written to the syllable, and timed to the minute. And that presumably made him even angrier than your average comic when some jerk at a show interrupted his flow. This recording, heard on the “Free Complimentary Extra Bonus Disc Not For Sale Anywhere!” in his 1999 box set The Little David Years, shows what happens when Carlin has to put a routine on pause and put a heckler out of his misery.

Louis CK

When you work as much as Louis CK — he famously develops and perfects a new hour every year, and then drops it and starts over — you’re going to encounter a lot of hecklers. (In fact, he even made those interactions into a memorable first-season episode of his FX show, and has talked at length about his hatred for them.) One of his longer and more fascinating conversations happens in this 2006 tape, reportedly recorded for an XM radio special. It starts off well enough, as he rather politely asks the rude audience members to quiet down so he can finish his act and they respond with what he calls “the dumbest thing anybody ever said to me.” As their conversation gets pricklier, Louie kind of gets into it, telling the audience, “I like this energy, this is interesting.” And he’s right.

Richard Pryor

Shout Factory’s recent No Pryor Restraint box set features a jaw-dropping outtake montage of the king of stand-up shutting down hecklers — but, sadly, it’s not available online. Instead, take a look at this clip from his 1983 concert film Richard Pryor: Here and Now, which finds the comic battling an unruly New Orleans audience, and giving as good as he gets. Best moment: when he tries to go into a bit about Chicago being cold and the audience’s dimmer members shout, “How cold was it?” Pryor fires back, “This ain’t Johnny Carson, motherfucker!”

Joan Rivers

In her final years, the groundbreaking Ms. Rivers was still pushing envelopes and crossing lines, and sometimes, yes, she went a bit too far. But she was also often attacked by overly sensitive folks who didn’t understand what she was doing, and that’s clearly what’s going on in this remarkable scene from the wonderful 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. “Comedy is to make everybody laugh and deal with things, you idiot,” she snaps, and then — like the pro that she is — moves right back in to the jokes. “It throws you terribly,” she says later, honing in on the peculiar dynamic of these confrontations. “Because you know the audience is so nervous, and so scared to laugh… luckily, I was able to get them back.”

David Cross

At this 2009 show in Atlanta, the Mr. Show/Arrested Development star was in the middle of his set when someone in the audience shouted, out of nowhere, “BARNES AND NOBLE!” Yes, seriously. The gentleman’s beef was apparently that Cross, then promoting his book I Drink for a Reason, was doing a signing at the chain store rather than an independently owned shop. To his credit, Cross calmly explained why that decision was made, before adding a gentle, “And also, fuck you.”

Bill Burr

The story goes that Burr was the third comic on the bill with a traveling show of Opie and Anthony regulars called Opie and Anthony’s Traveling Virus. The show was in Philadelphia, and the first two comics on the bill were heckled and booed by the typically rowdy Philly crowd; by the time Burr hit the stage, he wasn’t going to bother even trying to do his act. So he spent his entire 11-minute set tearing down the audience and the city of Philadelphia, counting off his remaining time (“Ten minutes left!”) between nonstop, profanity-laden insults of the “Philly Cheese eatin’, fuckin’ jackasses!” The boos and heckles barely stop, but by the midway point, they’re battling for attention with the cheers for Burr’s sheer fury and inventiveness. As he tells them, “Fuck all of you and fuck the Liberty Bell!”

Bill Hicks

Bill Hicks wasn’t exactly known for his calm, cool, chill stage persona. This was a guy who got worked up, whose fury and righteous indignation were cornerstones of his onstage persona. So when an audience member at a 1989 show in Chicago makes a request, Hicks isn’t happy about it (“What am I, a fuckin’ jukebox?”), and when another tells him, “You suck,” he has a full-on meltdown, telling her, “You’re everything that America should flush down the toilet” — and worse, far worse. The show can be seen its entirety on a poor-quality YouTube video and heard on the bootleg album I’m Sorry Folks, and it’s an eye-opening example of what happens when hecklers take on a comic with a propensity for rage.

Kyle Cease

Some hecklers just want attention. Some hecklers want to razz the comedian. Some want to play along. But perhaps the most inexplicable hecklers are the nitpickers, who want to stop a performance cold while they correct the comic on a minor, unimportant point. Perhaps the best clip of this phenomenon, and how to handle it, is this one, in which Kyle Cease accompanies a throwaway reference to Catalina Island with a hand gesture, and two audience members decide to let him know that he gestured in the wrong direction. Cease, without skipping a beat, pivots the bit to them, mocking the notion that “everyone here is probably planning to go to Catalina Island tonight, and if I hadn’t have been corrected, they’d have all fuckin’ headed that way. So thank God you guys spoke up, because that was a close call!” He never loses his cool, and he doesn’t resort to name-calling (OK, he does, a little bit, but can you blame him?); he merely rolls with it, working their inanity into his set, making them look stupid without making them mad, and it’s kind of amazing.