About a week ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Nina Metz wrote (with Chris Borrelli) an article that is basically a defense of heckling. (It’s titled “A Field Guide to Hecklers”, but it’s really a defense, or even an homage to hecklers.) Check out the original article here.
Since then there have been some magnificent rebuttals. In particular, Steve Heisler and (iO veteran and friend) Nick Vatterott have written devastating critiques of the original piece. And deservedly so, the idea that people (even tangentially) involved in live public entertainment would encourage and even praise heckling is insane and destructive.
In the unique and strange world of improvising we have a peculiar relationship with hecklers; on the one hand we specifically ask the audience to participate vocally and on the other hand we want them to shut up and watch the show. Performing improv so close to the drunken confines of Wrigley Field is an added danger as well for most of the improv community here in Chicago. Who hasn’t had a strange night with hecklers or even people joining the performers on stage after the Gay Pride Parade/Market Days/Every Cubs Game?
For improvisers, Hell, for IMPROV in general it’s been a struggle to get people to understand how and what we do on stage. To say that hecklers are the “ultimate test” and that being shouted at by random strangers is basically a call of “Improv skill, reveal thyself!” is an insult. The show we’re presenting is our improv skill, thank you. Believe it or not, for most improv shows, there’s a lot of work going on. Before the show there are years of classes and rehearsals. Maybe it’s that group’s first show, maybe it’s their only show that month– but if they’re showing me (as an audience member) respect by performing a show, then I will give them that increasingly rare American commodity, my attention.
The two authors of the Tribune article heap praise on those famous hecklers, Statler and Waldorf. Two of my favorite Muppet characters, but that’s the real point of those characters- the Muppet Show is a scripted entity and Statler and Waldorf are part of the script. It’s not as if some random guys with puppets actually burst into the Muppet Show and started heckling things like, “I can see that guy below you!” or “Why does Kermit’s voice sound so different?” I really found that comparison disconcerting, to say the least.
I think that perhaps Nina Metz and Chris Borelli are bored and jaded by the shows they are seeing and the only entertainment they get is when the standard is upset by heckling. I can understand that. I’ve yet to read Roger Ebert, however, who’s been reviewing since 1967, wish that more people shouted interesting things at the movies.
For improvisers, shutting down a heckler is a duty. How an improviser deals with a heckler creates either a fun, creative atmosphere or shuts down the show by giving them free rein. Ultimately, the “House” support staff if the arbiter of whether or not a heckler stays or goes.
The bottom line is this: a Heckler is an asshole who has decided they are more important/funny than the person onstage. They are wrong. And people, who should really know better, who support and encourage the practice of heckling, are wrong.
**disclaimer: I have had many shows reviewed by Nina Metz (some good some bad) and have been interviewed by her several times. I have always found her to be engaging, fun and supportive in those conversations.**