By Robert “Bob” Kienzle
bob.kienzle at gmail.com
What is it?
A heckler is a person who shouts a disparaging comment at a performance or event, or interrupts set-piece speeches, for example at a political meeting, with intent to disturb its performers or participants. In Roastmasters, however, we can also use heckling as a fun way to interact with the speech and add audience comments.
Heckling was a major part of the vaudeville theater. Sometimes it was incorporated into the play. The Muppet Show, which was also built around a vaudeville theme, featured two hecklers, Statler & Waldorf. Heckles are now particularly likely to be heard at stand-up comedy performances, to unsettle or compete with the performer.
How to do it
Heckling can be fun and productive. If heckles ask for information in a speech, it could help the audience understand the speech and might ask a question many people were thinking. Heckles can be a fun way to have a two-way conversation from the stage with the audience. Heckles can help a speaker think on his/her feet, kind of like Table Topics, while staying on the original speech track.
Heckles can also be dangerous for both the speaker and the heckler. Roastmasters is a semi-advanced club, so hopefully speakers won’t lose their train of thought just because of a heckle, but it could happen. If a heckle is tactless or malicious, a speaker could also lose confidence on stage. Roastmasters is still a Toastmasters club with a “positive and supportive learning environment,” so we may jest with each other and poke fun, but we don’t want to intentionally destroy someone’s efforts on stage. Additionally, the crowd can often turn against a heckler. If someone is giving a very good speech and heckler is seen as rude or tactless, the audience could start jeering the heckler or ostracize him/her. Even if that doesn’t happen, the hecklers can expect to be publicly judged by the Hecklemaster at the end of the meeting.
How to respond to it
A speaker has 3 basic choices for handling heckles during a speech.
1. Ignore it. Sometimes a heckle doesn’t warrant a response because it is improper or weak, or the heckler doesn’t deserve attention. Remember, as a speaker, you own the stage. You are not forced to reply to the audience.
2. Reply professionally. If the heckle is addresses a concern that could help the audience understand the rest of the speech, the speaker may choose to reply professionally. Sometimes heckles are simply funny and the speaker may have a humorous reply.
3. Reply aggressively. If the heckle is improper or tactless, the speaker may choose to “fight fire with fire” and reply negatively or even offensively to the heckler. This could put the heckler to shame, but it could also escalate the situation and draw more heckles from the crowd. If things get out of hand, there is always the option to “turn off” heckling.
Example replies to heckling
Politicians 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.
Wilson: I’ll come to your special interest in a minute, sir.
Heckler: How many toes has a pig?
Nancy Astor: (not missing a beat) Take your shoes off and count them.
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, then-Presidential candidate 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 all of the 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.
There are lots of heckling examples and speaker responses online. Most are by comedians, but most heckles are negative. The responses can be very critical and devastating.