Arts & Culture News

How Bad Can Hecklers Get? Not as Bad as Will Smith at the Oscars, But Still Pretty Bad

Hecklers really don't get the joke sometimes. Dallas comedians tell us what it's like when audiences try to fight them.
Hecklers really don't get the joke sometimes. Dallas comedians tell us what it's like when audiences try to fight them. SDI Productions/Getty
At this point, it's hard to remember any single thing that has happened in the last two days after Sunday night, when Chris Rock made a low joke about Jada Pinkett Smith's hair during the Academy Awards and her husband, Will Smith, walked on to the stage on live global television and slapped Rock across the face. Then he sat back in his seat and yelled at Rock loud enough to be heard without a mic. You know the rest.

Even if you haven't seen or can't name a single movie up for a nomination this year, you know about the slap and what Smith shouted because everyone you saw that day in real life and online shared their opinion with you about it. They were even nice enough to just tell you their opinion so you wouldn't waste time asking for it. How thoughtful.

Comedians have to learn how to deal with hecklers if they want to keep a room's attention. So we asked a couple of them about the Oscars meltdown. Fortunately, none of them ever made a joke as bad as Rock's or got a reaction as bad as Smith's.

Comic and Plano Comedy Fest founder Wes Corwin remembers one of those moments in 2016 in a bar in Tupelo, Mississippi. It happened during an election year. It's already not sounding good.

"This very drunk woman starts yelling about [Hillary Clinton], which seems so quaint and dated in retrospect," Corwin says. "Then I start into a joke, something about the pay gap. Immediately, this woman starts booing. I ask if she doesn't like the pay gap. She says, 'Yeah.' I say, 'I hear Hillary wants to do something about that.'"

The audience laughed at the improvised moment, so Corwin took some time to look at his notes. When he looked up, the woman started heading toward him, he says.

"She posted up about a foot in front of me and just wanted to tell me about Hillary," Corwin recalls. "I don't know what she decided about me, but in that moment I was the enemy. I needed to be interceded upon."

Actor and comedian Paulos Feerow says his worst heckler moment happened at a comedy contest event in Grand Prairie hosted by musician Vince Vance of the New Orleans band Vince Vance & The Valiants. The show happened just after the 2012 election and he dared to make a joke about it. Someone got disproportionately offended, he says.

"I had this very silly joke about it," Feerow says. "Something like, 'I voted and the elderly white lady at my location told me if I wanted to vote for Mitt Romney, put my bean into jar number one but if I wanted to vote for Barack Obama, I had to make this basket from half court.' Very silly, very dumb but it usually got a good laugh.

"For a moment, I felt like I was being punked, like there's no way these people are that unaware. Never did comedy in Grand Prairie again." – Paulos Feerow

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"An older lady in the front row loudly says, 'That never happened! He's a liar!'" Feerow says.

Feerow says he tried to save the moment by pulling out a notecard from his pocket and reading a mocking apology to the offended woman when a second heckler who happened to be hosting the show pounced.

"Vince loudly says, 'No, no, no! No notes. That's against the rules!'" Feerow says. "For a moment, I felt like I was being punked, like there's no way these people are that unaware. Never did comedy in Grand Prairie again."

Comedian David Parsons, who was born in Great Britain, likes to poke a little fun at his homeland and new home nation at a comedy show. He did just that at a show in 2020 (another election year) but a heckler decided to chime in with a threat.

"I'd just done a bit about the presidential election suggesting that we rescind the Declaration of Independence," Parsons says. "The punchline was 'Elizabeth 2020: Make America Great Britain Again!' After the laughter died down, these folks yelled that I was 'unamerican' and that they would see me outside. I got walked to my car at the end of the show."

Comedian Lauren Davis has a moment that (thank dear sweet Christ!) isn't politically motivated and may be the only time in comedy history that a comic knew their show was going to be interrupted by a rude heckle. She says it was on her birthday and she had just broken up with her boyfriend, so she was "pretty drunk." Just before she went up on stage, a producer told her that her show would be interrupted by a film crew and a "cheating couple" being "confronted" by the person they "jilted" for the "reality" show Cheaters.

She says the producer urged her "to just keep going" and not acknowledge it.

"So I did my set, and then two comedians who pretended to be dating got in a fight in the audience and all the cameras came in and I got kinda mad at being upstaged and just yelled, 'Cheaters is fake! Cheaters is fake!' the whole time to ruin the footage," Davis says. "I didn't see the episode, but apparently I am in the background yelling 'Cheaters is fake!' according to people who have." 
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.