Toronto comedians talk heckling

“This is no choose your own adventure story, buddy,” Darren Frost said to an unruly heckler in 2008. “You can’t just turn to page 85 and … [see what happens].”

Darren Frost

 Photo by David Leyes

The origins of heckling date back to Dundee, Scotland in the early nineteenth century. Heckling, back then, meant combing out flax textiles, and the term was born at a heckling plant. The men who worked there, called hecklers, were known to be boisterous and belligerent, and would often interrupt and yell over the man who would deliver news in the morning.

Nowadays, heckling is met with many differing opinions.

Mark Breslin, the CEO and founder of Yuk Yuk’s, said that although people think that heckling is what’s supposed to happen in comedy clubs, it’s starting to occur less.

“It’s almost unheard of for patrons to heckle at a comedy club,” Breslin said. “They might heckle at an open mic night. People are at the comedy club to hear the comic, not to hear the audience.”

“When we first started in the 70s, people didn’t know what the code of behavior was,” he said. “[They] thought, ‘Oh you’re supposed to heckle a comic,’ but we [at Yuk Yuk’s] would go around and say, ‘Please don’t do that,’ and people would be quite shocked.”

Breslin mentioned an incident at Yuk Yuk’s when a comic had a glass thrown at him for a joke made.

That comic was Darren Frost.

Frost is a comedian and actor famous for dealing with hecklers.

As shown in a video of Frost’s on YouTube, the joke that provoked the attack was a rebuttal towards a heckler.

The heckler threw a glass at Frost’s stomach and had him keeled over on stage for nearly a minute. After standing upright, Frost said he was in extreme pain and could leave, but he didn’t think it would be fair to the other audience members.

“The thing is I’m doing a show to a group and not just one person,” Frost said. “We live in a time now where people think that they have the right and audacity to do whatever they want. If you don’t like it, you leave; if you don’t like a movie you don’t go upstairs and cut the film, you just leave.”

Watch the situation unfold here.

Frost said that the kind of jokes he writes and delivers often make people want to chime in.

“I do a certain type of comedy that brings more heckling than other styles,” Frost said. “That’s not to say that different kinds of comedy don’t get as many hecklers, heckling always happens. People think my style is combative or aggressive.”

Frost said that many hecklers want to add to the show, but that is the case very few times.

“Maybe three out of twenty times it’s actually been a good thing,” he said. “Sometimes they think, ‘this is great, I’m gonna add to the show,’ and other times they just want to fuck with the show.”

If they’re trying [the latter], in my terms, it’s annihilation time.

Here is a clip of one of Frost’s most famous heckling incidents.
Bobby Knauff has been an actor and comedian in Toronto for seven years, and said that starting in smaller venues offers different kinds of audience interaction.

Bobby Knauff performing at Tequila Bookworm in Toronto.

Bobby Knauff performing at Tequila Bookworm in Toronto.

Photo Courtesy of Bobby Knauff

“There are a few different kinds of heckling,” Knauff said. “Sometimes people don’t realize they’re heckling by talking loud at their table, and that’s the hardest to deal with.”

Knauff said that oftentimes, when doing a gig at a bar, many patrons won’t realize there is a comedy show happening and feel like the comic is infringing on their territory.

He also does comedy at Yuk Yuk’s, and said it is rare for heckling at that type of venue.

“Flat out someone yelling at you is rare unless you’re talking about extreme subject matter,” he said.

Knauff said he has a kind of strategy in dealing with heckling.

“The best way is not to attack them too quickly,” he said. “They have to make the audience hate them, too. The audience is like a family, and you know you’re doing well if you’ve won [the audience] over so much that you’re friends with the audience more than the heckler is.

“Then, you want to address it and if you don’t, it’s even more awkward. So, you’ve got to be nice, but a little mean off the top… If they keep going you get a little meaner, though that’s never the point — you never want to talk to them, just at them.”

Unlike Frost, Knauff said he’s had several times when people who interfere actually add to his performance. For him, they’re not as much heckling as they are interacting.

“One time there was a guy who kept repeating the punch lines after I said them,” he said. “He became part of the show and that was a lot of fun.

“I could hear what he was saying and I’d draw on it, and inject it into my jokes, and I could be like, ‘right, that guy?’ It works because the audience feels like they’re getting something unique and different, and I can work on my feet more.”

Knauff also said that hecklers can get hard to deal with.

“Sometimes it can be like trying to diffuse a bomb,” he said. “Every comedian has had a time where a heckler has ruined a show or tried to, or made them feel like, ‘I have to quit, this is the worst.’ It’s how you move on from that is the next step.”

Knauff has some advice for the up-and-comers on how to deal with hecklers.

“Always try to make it quick,” he said. “It helps sometimes to have a ‘stock’ line ready… something you know works to quickly get someone to stop talking. Don’t be too mean right away. Sometimes the person doesn’t realize they are being disruptive, maybe they’re drunk or having too good of a time.

Lastly, the best advice to deal with hecklers: be funny and captivating so they don’t even have a chance to say anything because they’re laughing too much.”

Bobby Knauff standup:


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