Some People in Austin Need to STFU
Stand-up comedian Katie Pengra offers a lesson in heckling.
By Katie Pengra and Wayne Alan Brenner,
10:00AM, Mon. Oct. 20, 2014
This is your journo Brenner, here, with a brief intro.
Listen: Comedian Tig Notaro played Austin's Paramount Theatre last Thursday. Local stand-up maestro Matt Bearden opened for her. I missed the gig, but I'd read the interview with Notaro, figured it'd be one hell of a great show, figured I'd hear about it on Facebook the next day.
Sure enough, Austin stand-up Katie Pengra (the host of Buzzkill Comedy, a weekly line-up of talents at Buzz Mill Coffee every Wednesday) posted about it on Facebook the next day. Sure enough, it was one hell of a great show. Except that, as Pengra pointed out, some of the audience at the Paramount felt they had to kind of, ah, get in on the act, you know? As has notoriously happened there before – remember, Dave Chappelle?
I figured Pengra could do us a favor by sharing more of her experience, her perspective on the situation, here in the Chronicle online. Asked her if she'd write us a few hundred words on WTF is up with people and stand-ups and The Paramount …
Katie, take it away:
I am not what you would call a positive person. In fact, I’m a bit of a grump. However, as I drove to see Tig Notaro perform at the Paramount last Thursday, I decided to temper my negativity as I watched a fantastic comic in a beautiful theater. As a stand-up comic myself, watching shows like this gives me a tinge of hope that I could be on that big, sexy stage some day.
The show was going great, Notaro was regaling us with fun and meandering tales about Santa Claus and Las Vegas … and then it happened. She was explaining her stance on the ubiquitous use of "Your Mom" jokes, when a lone audience member decided to shout their own punchline.
My Polly Positivity persona fell on the floor.
The audience started popping off like Orville Redenbacher. My favorite was when Notaro merely mentioned Ringo Starr, and a 60-something woman screamed from the back of the orchestra that Ringo was just in town a few weeks ago!
What. Is. Wrong. With. People?
Hecklers exist in every comedy venue, so I was remiss to believe that the crowd at a respectable establishment like the Paramount would conduct themselves any differently. I want to rail on the fact that nowhere else in the arts does heckling exist – although it would be funny to hear a drunk guy yell out his version of The King and I – but I kind of understand the mentality.
Great comics make it feel like they're making up a fabulous anecdote right on the spot, thus creating the illusion of a conversation that could invite a dialogue. I think the real issue, however, is attention. After a couple glasses of wine, and 40 minutes of some audience member thinking, “I could do what she’s doing,” that attendee decides it's time to take the stage – from their seat.
Lietza Brass, executive director at the Paramount (and the director of Moontower Comedy Festival), spoke to me about the issue of hecklers, specifically at Notaro’s show.
“Some artists like to be able to deal with hecklers," explains Brass. "That’s part of their show, and I got the impression that was very much a part of Tig’s show. When an artist is doing crowd work, it can get people more involved in a show. And they feel like what they have to say is part of the show, and at that point, it really is within the artist's control to control the room, it’s completely within their power.”
Yes, some comics are great at talking to audience members, diffusing situations, and rolling with the punches. That doesn’t mean they want to deal with it. Additionally, it's tricky to say that the sole responsibility of keeping 1300 people in control lands on the shoulders of one person. So, how should this be dealt with? There are three main ways that comics can manage hecklers: ignore, embarrass, or engage.
If you ignore, then everyone is still distracted by the yeller.
Embarrassment is generally saved for jerks. This is usually where the "Comedian Destroys Heckler" videos come in.
Engagement comes when you have "the helper" hecklers. These were the people at the Paramount. They loved Tig. They thought of something funny that she should say, so they said it for her. You can’t be mean to these people. So, you acknowledge them, maybe you riff on it, then you move on.
But this opens the door for others who now see that the comic will talk to them if they say something out loud.
I asked Brass about the theater’s responsibility in these situations. "Our policy is, if someone says something, we walk over and we give them a warning," says Brass. "And if they do it again, that’s it, they’re out. And so what was happening [with Tig], was one person would say something, we’d give them a warning and they wouldn’t do it again, but it would pop up somewhere else … I’m not against having an announcement before the show letting everyone know that heckling wouldn’t be tolerated. We may look at doing something like that.”
The fact is: There is always a butthead. No matter if the comic or the venue are left to deal with it, the responsibility inevitably rests firmly on the shoulders of that butthead.
If you ever intend on being a part of a live comedy audience, I am here to tell you that the only time it's okay to talk at a comedy show is if a comic looks directly into your eyes and asks you a question for which they legitimately are expecting a response. That’s it.
Even if the thing that you’re dying to say is comedy gold.
Even if your friends next to you are begging you to yell it out.
Even if that single, hard-hitting sentence will end the world of comedy as we know it.
Get your own damn stage.