December 23, 2009

Hecklers, the original backchannel



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Heckler: One who tries to embarrass, harass, and/or annoy someone speaking or performing in public with gibes, questions and objections. Someone who provokes to affect a performer in a critical or negative way. (From the movie, "Heckler")

"A heckler is someone who wants to get in on the action." ~ Mike White, writer, producer, actor

"A dog will attack you if it doesn't feel like you're confident; a horse will throw you if it feels you're not in control. And hecklers will heckle when you don't have control of the room." ~ Greg Fitzsimmons, comedian, writer, producer

"A heckler's a guy ... he usually is a guy who never did anything." ~ Mike Ditka, former NFL player, coach and ESPN NFL analyst

I enjoyed the Jamie Kennedy documentary, "Heckler," especially when it dealt with the special relationship between a single person on stage and an audience member emboldened by a darkened room to criticize and even harass that performer.

Comedians, actors, directors and producers shared their experiences with and opinions of hecklers. Kennedy even sat down with a couple of his hecklers. Here's what one of them had to say:

"When you see someone just f--king up and ruining everything and you paid money to see it, don't you want to kinda say 'What the f--k are you doing?'"

This comment reminds me of what we've been seeing with some Twitter users during live conferences and how, instead of constructive criticism of the speaker, they've chosen the road of snark and insult -- protected by the anonymity of the computer. For more on the Twitter backchannel, see Olivia Mitchell's e-book "How to present with Twitter and other backchannels" and Cliff Atkinson's newly published book, "The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever.

Also, the Internet gives (unprofessional) critics the power of the heckler, again because of the beauty of anonymity and no face-to-face conflict and therefore, no consequences.

"Heckling and Internet criticism are now kind of one and the same. Actually, the Internet is even more vicious than live hecklers." ~ Kathy Griffin, comedian

Several performers gave their opinions of why hecklers heckle:

"People used to be excited by, not just celebrities, but by truly talented people. They would get excited by watching someone like a Gale Sayers run, or a Marlon Brando act. Because they would go, 'Wow, I can't do that. I could never do that.' Now it just makes people angry." ~ Patton Oswalt, comedian, writer, actor

"The heckler wants to curb the right of the speaker to be heard. It's a very important element to the heckler. Even though everybody paid or came for free to hear this person, I am the one who needs to be heard." ~ Dennis Prager, talk show host, author

"That was my problem as a critic. I spent more time trying to show how smart I was with my opinions about the way somebody looked or the way somebody dressed or what have you. I wasn't really a critic. I was a heckler. ~ Rod Lurie, filmmaker and former critic

And finally, let's talk about how performers have chosen to deal with the disturbance of hecklers. I'm purposely leaving out the ones who cuss out or fight the heckler, because in our world of speaking, that would be inappropriate 99% of the time. I did find it funny to discover that some performers have put the hecklers on stage and let them try performing. David Alan Grier had an elegant solution:

Grier: "What did you say?"
Heckler: Repeats himself.
Grier: "That's what I thought you said." Resumes routine.

"You can't control what they say, write, think, anything else [referring to critics]. So there's no use, no use trying to change it. No use trying to lose any sleep over it. Don't go through a lot of anguish over it." ~ Mike Ditka

"I saw the cover of a book that said, 'What you think of me is none of my business.' I live and breathe by that. What you out there think of me... is not my concern. I know who I am; I'm Mrs. Rodriguez' son. I'm not the best. I'm not the worst." ~ Paul Rodriguez, comedian, actor

"Welcome it as part of the process. You just can't avoid it. If you go to bat enough times, you are going to strike out. And you will do it cataclysmically. And you know, success and failure, they're just millimeters apart." ~ Peter Guber, producer

So, does this mean you have to develop a thick skin in order to deal with the critics and the hecklers?

Echoing a point made by Arianna Huffington that I wrote about a while back, Bill Maher said, "I don't think any performer of any kind has a thick skin. I don't think you can do any good work if you do. You have to be sensitive to be good, and if you're sensitive, you're also going to sometimes suffer because of that."

For more on heckling, see these posts:

Heckle schmeckle

When audience members attack

Navigating controversy


Share your thoughts on heckling and hecklers in the comments below!

4 comments. Please add yours! :

Business Communcation said...

I very much enjoyed this article! Sometimes I wondered about this whole "Back Channel" idea. Now, we are never still for a presentation, constantly connected, and do we realize when our quick critique has just become heckling.

Either way, when it comes to human nature, the principle that David Alan Grier's behavior agreed with is that we must give the audience and idea that they are getting what they want. That does not mean agreeing with them but allowing them to feel acknowledged and leave it at that. Good job, DAG! We must proceed to do what we do and not give too much power to any one heckler- even if it appears to be the entire room!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment, BC. I agree: giving the heckler power is the last thing we want to do. Mostly, the hecklers I encounter just want to be heard. I let them be heard, but not take over the room. It can be a delicate situation, but not impossible to deal with.

Rich Hopkins, Speaker, Author, Coach said...

The existence of backchannel heckling is a frightening development, since there will always be an unhappy element in your audience. That unhappy element will be much more likely to take advantage of the limelight opportunity than those happy and involved with the presentation.

In audiences that have access to seeing a screen of running commentary, or highly technical audience where many will be following on the PDA's etc., I would think having a short statement prepared early in the presentation to address it, Say, "By the way, I've got a running bet with my husband to see what term gets more backchannel play: My Hair, My Legs, or MILF" - so bring it on."

I think Patricia Fripp's audience would die of hysterics if she used that line....

Lisa Braithwaite said...

The screen of running commentary seems completely inappropriate to me, as it's a moving image that's distracting to the audience, AND the speaker can't see it.

But if there were no way around it, I think you would have to have some humor prepared to address it.

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