heckler n : someone who tries to embarrass you with gibes and questions and objections [syn: badgerer]
EtymologyThe word "heckler" is derived from the name given to Scottish textile workers who combed flax for processing. As they began to unionize in the early 19th century, the militant hecklers would intterupt the morning news reading by their co-workers. The word became associated with individuals who would shout out questions or insults to reveal truths that the person giving information would otherwise try to conceal or avoid.
A heckler is a person who shouts a disparaging comment at a performance or event, or interrupting set-piece speeches, for example at a political meeting. A heckler is almost always regarded as unwelcome by the person with justifiable claim to be the centre of attention. The audience too usually finds the interruption an unwanted distraction; however they may sometimes find the interjection amusing or apposite.
OriginThe term originates from the textile trade, where to heckle was to tease or comb out flax or hemp fibres. The additional meaning, to interrupt speakers with awkward or embarrassing questions, was added in Scotland, and specifically perhaps in early nineteenth century Dundee, a famously radical town where the hecklers who combed the flax had established a reputation as the most radical and belligerent element in the workforce. In the heckling factory, one heckler would read out the day's news while the others worked, to the accompaniment of interruptions and furious debate.
Heckling was a major part of the vaudeville theater. Sometimes it was incorporated into the play. Milton Berle's weekly TV variety series in the 1960s featured a heckler named Sidney Spritzer (German/Yiddish for "Squirter") played by Borscht Belt comic Irving Benson. In the 1970s and 1980s, The Muppet Show, which was also built around a vaudeville theme, featured two hecklers, Statler & Waldorf (two old men named after famous hotels). Heckles are now particularly likely to be heard at stand-up comedy performances, to unsettle or compete with the performer.
ComedyMany stand-up comedians devise a strategy for quashing such outbursts, usually by having a store of retorts on hand, such as "this is what happens when cousins marry" or "Dear God, don't let anyone in the crowd yell out tonight [yell from crowdmember], and punish those who do!" The idea is to get the audience laughing at the interruption.
- Comedian Dane Cook was heckled on his album "Retaliation", in the middle of a joke about Burger King, where the heckler yelled, "Make it happen, man! Make it happen!" Dane replied, "Shut up! You're ruining the show for everyone around you. Don't do that." The heckler kept going, and Dane replied, "Shut the fuck up, or I'll have you kicked out of here!"
- Comic Jim Tavare went on stage with the opening line, "I'm a schizophrenic..." to which someone immediately replied, "Fuck off then — both of you."
- English comedian Julian Clary has said that he was so scared of hecklers he used to pick on his audience using putdowns like "Men like you don't grow on trees, they swing from them." Bill Hicks was also famous for his "take-no-prisoners" approach to hecklers. On one occasion he demanded that a drunken heckler be taken out of the audience shouting "You drunk cunt!" at her. Mancunian comedian/poet John Cooper Clarke riposted to one heckler, "I can't hear you, mate, yer mouth's full o' shit."
- Comedian George Carlin has been known to be very rough on hecklers. In one of his most famous responses to a heckler, Carlin stopped his joke and went on with a long series of vulgar insults.
- When Michael Richards was heckled during a stage performance, he responded by shouting a 3-minute speech containing many racial slurs (including "nigger"), for which he later apologized, saying "I'm not a racist, that's what's so insane about this [the speech], and yet it's said, it comes through, it fires out of me".
- Andy Kaufman's personae were often heckled both by genuinely angry audience members and staged audience members further confusing what was and was not part of his act.
- One time a heckler called out to Rodney Dangerfield, "Hey Rodney, what do you do for a living?" to which Rodney replied, "I find men for your sister!".
- In The Late Show With David Letterman, there is a recurring character in the audience who insults and makes extremely profane comments at Letterman for saying what he considers uninteresting things.
- Sam Kinison took on a heckler who shouted "Speak up" with a long and brutal attack about the heckler's mother. "That's what your mom said when I was leaving her house..."
- Redd Foxx responded to the same demand: "Hey, nigger, pay more and get a good seat!"
- When asked "Where's Lamont?", Redd Foxx responded: "At your mammy's."
- Zach Galifianakis has been known to burst out in fits of anger, screaming at his hecklers, and sometimes even bringing them up on the stage to interview them and insult them.
- Lewis Black responded to a heckler by saying, "Look -- all I'm trying to do is get these little shit pieces of information the government gives us and put in a little pile and piss on it!"
- In the live stage shows based on the British situation comedy Bottom, at least one member of the audience would shout "Have a wank!", usually when Rik Mayall (Richie) forgot his lines. Eventually, they duo wrote lines that would encourage this phrase such as: "Richie: What would David Beckham do? Audience Member: Have a wank! Richie: Of course! Shag Posh!"
- Irish comedian Dara Ó Briain has stated that his method of discouraging hecklers is to tell as many jokes as quickly as possible, preventing them from having the opportunity to interrupt.
- British comedian Eddie Izzard responded to an outburst, with an encouraging, "Check your joke with your friend first and if he thinks it's funny, then give it a try." Another time he responded to a heckler by telling him to shut up, and then jokingly replying: "I know people have already heckled tonight, but I WILL kill you."
- On Patton Oswalt's album Werewolves and Lollipops, a heckler yelled out during a particularly quiet moment in his routine and Oswalt spent the next two minutes making fun of him, calling him things like a "dumb douchebag" and a "poor motherfucker", and saying that future civilizations will know his "level of douchebaggery". Even after Patton went back to the joke and finished it, he continued to berate the heckler, finally telling him "You're going to miss everything cool and die angry."
- At the University of New Hampshire, the UNH Pep Band continually shouts disparaging phrases during gameplay, such as "the plan won't work", towards the other team to the amusement of fans in attendance.
- In one of Steve Martin's records, he can be heard responding to a heckler by saying "I remember when I had my first beer."
- Harry Hill once responded to a heckler by saying "You may heckle me now, but when I get home I've got a chicken in the oven", which is a good example of silencing a heckler without insulting them.
SportHecklers can also appear at sporting events, most notably baseball games, and usually (but not always) direct their taunts at a visiting team. Fans of the Philadelphia Eagles American football team are notorious for heckling; among the most infamous incidents were booing a performer dressed as Santa Claus in a halftime show in 1968, and cheering at the career-ending injury of opposing player Michael Irvin in 1999, as well as routinely booing the Eagles themselves if they do not perform up to expectations. Often, sports heckling will also involve throwing objects onto the field; this has led most sports stadia to ban glass containers and bottlecaps. Another famous heckler is Robert Szasz, who regularly attends Tampa Bay Rays baseball games and is known for loudly heckling one opposing player per game or series. Former Yugoslav football star Dejan Savićević is involved in an infamous incident with a heckler in which during an interview, a man on the street is heard shouting off-camera: "You're a piece of shit!" Dejan berated the man, and went on to finish the interview, without missing a beat.
Australian sporting audiences are known for creative heckling. Perhaps the most famous is Yabba who has a grandstand at the Sydney Cricket Ground named after him.
The sport of cricket is particularly notorious for heckling between the teams themselves, which is known as sledging.
In the NHL one of the most famous heckling incidents was with Tie Domi and a Philadelphia Flyers fan. After exchanging some words and squirting of water at each other, the fan fell into the penalty box, where Tie started to punch the fan.
PoliticsPoliticians speaking before live audiences have less latitude to deal with hecklers. Legally, such conduct may constitute protected free speech. Strategically, coarse or belittling retorts to hecklers entails personal risk disproportionate to any gain. Some politicians, however, have been known to improvise a relevant and witty response despite these pitfalls. One acknowledged expert at this was Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister in the 1960s:
- Heckler: (interrupting a passage in a Wilson speech about
Labour's spending plans) What about Vietnam?
- Wilson: The government has no plans to increase public expenditure in Vietnam.
- Heckler: Rubbish!
- Wilson: I'll come to your special interest in a minute, sir.
- Wilson: The government has no plans to increase public expenditure in Vietnam.
In an era when it was not uncommon for rotten fruit and vegetables to be thrown at speakers, Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley once exhorted his audience to lend him their ears, paraphrasing Mark Antony. Immediately, a large cabbage landed on the stage. Chifley replied "I said your ears, Sir, not your head".
In 1992, former American President Bill Clinton was interrupted by Bob Rafsky, a member of the AIDS activism group Act up, who accused him of "dying of ambition to be president" during a rally. After becoming visibly agitated, Clinton took the microphone off the stand, pointed to the heckler and directly responded to him by saying, "[...] I have treated you and a whole lot of other people who have interrupted my rallies with a hell of a lot more respect than you treated me. And it's time to start thinking about that!" Clinton was then met with raucous applause.
MusicLes Claypool, the singer and bassist of Primus is known for dealing with hecklers in a funny way, if they let them. This is what happend on an early Show around 1991:
- Heckler: (drunken, trying to "sing" loudly along with Les
Claypool) Oooh yeah!
- Claypool: That's actually my dad!
He is also known for dealing rough with people who are throwing objects on the stage. He usually stops playing and talks to the heckler. In 1994, when Primus played on Woodstock '94, the crowd was throwing mud on the stage, which was commented by Claypool:
- Claypool: The song is called My name is Mud, so keep the mud for yourself you sonsabitch!
There is also a song called "The Heckler" by Primus, which is dealing with this topic.
One modern political approach to discourage heckling is to ensure that major events are given before a "tame" audience of sympathizers, or conducted to allow restrictions on who may remain on the premises (see also, astroturfing). The downside is this may make heckling incidents even more newsworthy. This happened to Tony Blair during a photo op visit to a hospital during the 2001 general election campaign, and again in 2003 during a speech.
In 2004, American Vice President Dick Cheney was interrupted mid-speech by Perry Patterson, a middle-aged mother in a pre-screened rally audience. After various supportive outbursts that were permitted, ("Four more years," "Go Bush!") Patterson uttered the single word "No" and was removed from the premises and arrested for criminal trespass.
Later, in 2005, Cheney received some heckling that was broadcast during his trip to New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area. The heckling occurred during a press conference in Gulfport, Mississippi, in an area that was cordoned off for public safety reasons, and then further secured for the press conference. Nevertheless, emergency room physician Ben Marble got close enough to the proceedings and could be heard yelling, "Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney." Cheney laughed it off and continued speaking. The context precedent had been a similar incident regarding Senator Patrick Joseph Leahy, Vermont, and Mister Cheney, the previous year.
During a speech by Jack Straw at the 2005 Labour Party conference, 87-year old, anti-war protestor Walter Wolfgang (a fomer member of Labour Action for Peace) was forcefully ejected from the audience after yelling during Straw's speech. He repeatedly shouted "nonsense" and "that's a lie" to Straw's talking about the establishment of democracy in Iraq. His security pass confiscated by stewards, Wolfgang was arrested under the Terrorism Act when trying to re-enter the conference. After significant criticism from the media and other politicians, Tony Blair and Labour party officials apologized for the event and Wolfgang received a hero's welcome on returning to the conference.
On the 15th of October 2005 the Scotsman reported "Iranian ambassador Dr Seyed Mohammed Hossein Adeli... speaking at the annual Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament conference... During his speech to the CND several people were told to leave the room following protests at Iran's human rights record. Several protesters shouted: "Fascists," at the ambassador and the organisers of the conference. Walter Wolfgang, the 82-year-old peace campaigner who was forced out of the Labour Party conference last month, was in the audience."
On Thursday, April 20, 2006, a heckler from the Falun Gong spiritual movement entered the US White House grounds as a reporter and interrupted a formal arrival ceremony for Chinese President Hu Jintao. Moments into Mr Hu's speech at the event, Wang Wenyi, perched on the top tier of the stands reserved for the press, began screaming in English and Chinese: "President Bush stop him. Stop this visit. Stop the killing and torture." The heckler was allowed to continue for several minutes despite the heavy presence of security personnel typical of such high level meeting of officials, prompting speculation that the incident was planned with the tacit cooperation of the White House in order to embarrass the Chinese president, hence possibly making this heckling incident one which was found justified by its audience. President Bush later apologised to his guest.
Heckling in SwitzerlandWhile heckling within a political context is not unknown in Switzerland it is frowned upon in an artistic context, unlike in the Anglo-Saxon countries where heckling is generally perceived to be an acceptable form of protest or audience interaction.
Since 2005, however, heckling or performing artists has become more commonplace. Musicians of Zurich, Gustav Bertha in particular, seem to have become an increasing focus of hecklers. This shift is primarily perpetrated by foreigners and is often met with a positive response by the non-Swiss performers who welcome the audience interaction. To date, only one regular heckler is said to exist in Switzerland.
Notes and sources
- "Go fuck yourself Mr. Cheney" - video
- "Blair's Heckler States His Case" - BBC News
- "Why do people heckle?" - BBC News
- Conway, Andrew. "You're Ugly, Your Dick Is Small, and Everybody Fucks Your Mother—The Stand-Up Comedian's Response to the Heckler". Maledicta Vol. 11, December 1995.
- White, Michael. "A brief history of heckling", The Guardian, April 28, 2006.