Opinion: In defense of heckler videos

Hecklers are one of the worst parts of the comedy club experience. It sucks for the comedian on stage and it ruins the show for most everyone in the crowd. There’s hardly a dispute about that. However, there are mixed feelings in the comedy community about the popularity of these ‘heckler takedown’ videos. Some say their popularity exposes more people to stand-up, which is good for comedians everywhere. Others argue that heckler videos encourage potential hecklers at home. Laughspin asked two experienced stand-ups to share their stance. Steve Hofstetter is a comedy veteran of 17 years whose YouTube channel has over 400,000 subscribers. He’s also the founder of The Martin Stand-Up Comedy Grant.

I’m aware of my bias. My heckler videos have amassed more than 200 million views and are the lion’s share of why I can sell tickets. So do I truly believe heckler videos are a positive force in stand-up, or is this just cognitive dissonance?

I define a “heckler” as anyone who interrupts a live performance. Someone doesn’t have to yell a variation of, “You suck!” to be a heckler. They can answer a rhetorical question, loudly talk to their table, or even yell out words of support. If someone interrupts a performer, they’re heckling. And we can all agree that hecklers are the ones who suck.

When I say “heckler videos,” I’m referring to videos where a comedian gets the best of a heckler. I’m not talking about videos where two unstable people escalate an otherwise manageable situation. Two insecure man-children in a physical altercation at an open mic is not a heckler video. I’d sooner describe that as “state’s evidence.”

Now that you’re aware of my definitions, I will not make an argument for heckler videos. I will instead argue against the common critiques they receive.

“Crowd work isn’t true stand-up comedy.”

A heckler video is just a clip of a comedian knowing how to ad-lib. My favorite Bill Hicks quote is, “The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say.”

I was once told that heckler videos aren’t true stand-up comedy by a comedian who’d previously performed at a laundromat…where every act on the line-up was in costume. He went up in a giant bear suit. I imagine the puns that peppered his act were just an homage to the greats.

Even if you’re enough of a purist to have never performed in a bear suit in front of a washing machine, ad-libbing is a skill every comedian needs. Gatekeeping is not.

“Heckler videos encourage heckling.”

In the decade since my videos started gaining traction on YouTube, I have done roughly 2,500 shows. I have yet to have one person try to heckle me just to appear in a video.

I believe there are fewer hecklers because of heckler videos. This is not a conclusion I’ve arrived at casually; I’ve spoken to fans extensively on this subject and I have seen a decrease in hecklers at my own shows since my videos have gone viral. Heckler videos teach non-comedy fans that heckling is not part of the show. I have received thousands of messages and comments from people telling me that there’s no way they’d ever heckle me—because they’ve seen my videos.

We live in a time where people do dumb things to get famous. Kim Kardashian built an empire on the back of a sex tape; MTV made teen pregnancy a ticket to stardom; human trashbag Logan Paul is a millionaire. So why wouldn’t someone want to be the butt of a joke just to feel famous?

A heckler video depicts a heckler humiliated in front of a room full of people cheering at his or her downfall. Any rational person who sees a heckler video doesn’t see the heckler as the hero. While there may be some aspiring Logan Pauls out there (gross) that see infamy as their ticket to glory, those people were already broken before they ever logged on to YouTube. And they most likely don’t have the follow through to actually attend a show. Or the disposable income.

“Amateur comedians are just posting heckler videos in hopes to get famous.”

Yes, this is definitely happening. And I don’t see the problem. Thanks to the access and awareness that podcasts, YouTube, and social media have created, there are more stand-up comedians than ever. We are all doing what we can to break through in a glutted comedy landscape.

If a talented aspiring comedian gets a little juice because of his or her ad-lib skills, great. If an untalented aspiring comedian gets a little juice —that won’t last long, and you won’t even notice—the market will correct itself.

I am not a fan of comedians who try to get views with tons of exclamation points or lots of capital letters. However, if you’re a comedian who happens to capture a fun heckler moment, there’s nothing wrong with posting the video.

Heckler videos popularize stand-up comedy to an audience who may not have been previously interested. I have many first-time comedy club goers at my shows. Stand-up comedy is not a zero-sum game. Every time someone becomes a fan of one stand-up comedian, they’re more likely to become a fan of another. If a heckler video is someone’s gateway to stand-up, that is a net positive for every comedian.

Are heckler videos good for stand-up comedy?

In an industry where comedians are constantly trying to push the artform with roast battles and improvised stand-up shows, a good heckler video showcases a comedian’s ability to be funny outside the regular parameters of their act. In an industry of clubs who apologize to poorly behaved customers instead of throwing them out, a good heckler video can educate a comedy fan on proper show behavior. In an industry of pay-to-play open mics and predatory bringer shows, a good heckler video can provide a direct-to-fans platform to an emerging comedian.

You don’t have to agree. There isn’t one correct viewpoint on what is or isn’t comedy. If you think I’m wrong, that’s fine. Tell me why my heckler videos have somehow damaged stand-up comedy, an art form that is flourishing more than it ever has before. There’s room for more than one opinion in comedy.

I don’t mind if you disagree with me—I’m not afraid of being heckled.

See what the other side thinks in this counterpoint.

Steve Hofstetter

Steve Hofstetter is an internationally touring stand-up comedian and the CEO of Comedy Juice.

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