July 05, 2018
Back in the ’80s I worked comedy clubs, and, depending on the night, the venue, the crowd, and the level of alcohol consumption, you could sometimes get absolutely eviscerated by hecklers.
One time I was working this club called Charlie Goodnight’s in Raleigh, North Carolina, alongside a Fernwood 2 Night regular named Bill Kirchenbauer. (Fernwood 2 Night was a wonderful talk-show parody starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard that was canceled for being too intelligent.)
So my first night at the club Bill comes up to me before I go on and he says, “Joe Bob, I just wanna give you a heads-up. There are assholes here, and there are no asshole-removers.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant, but he quickly elaborated: “Specifically the second table, second row, on the left.” (He had just finished a set.)
“It’s not like Vegas. In Vegas they have asshole-removers. They know how to slide up to the table, grab them under the armpits, lift their elbows up, and remove them. There are no asshole-removers here. You will get no asshole-removing assistance.”
Bill was right—second table, second row was ground zero for trouble—and what he was referring to is the well-known bane of the comedian’s existence, The Heckler.
Everyone assumes that, if you’re working in the stand-up world, you don’t mind hecklers because, after all, you’re a big boy, you know how to deal, you’ve seen it before, and in fact it’s kind of fun to see what you’ll say when you get heckled.
Wrong. It’s never okay, it’s never fun, it’s never a good thing, and it almost always involves drunkenness, which means that, even if you do have a few witty rejoinders and ready put-downs, the person is never gonna shut up and probably won’t understand what you’re saying anyway. You need asshole-removers.
Over time you develop an armory of weapons to slay, or at least neutralize, the heckler. You have one-liners assailing the person’s looks, clothing, manner, speech, intelligence. You master the efficient use of the f-word, which is the easiest way to baffle the attacker, especially if English is not his first language. (I’m using the male pronoun, but there are female hecklers as well, and they have to be handled with wit, not force, lest it appear to the crowd that you’re picking on defenseless women. They’re not defenseless and it shouldn’t matter that they’re women, but I’m talking about how people react, not how they should react.) Your only goal is to shut him up. If you’re doing the third show on a Friday night at a club full of drunk foreign tourists, you can end up firing off thirty f-words a minute just to maintain control.
All of this background is to say that the heckler’s goal in life is to say, “Look at me! Look at me!” in a way that makes everyone else have a horrible day, so it’s bad enough when it happens to professionals who expect it. When you do it to civilians, in the giant comedy club called Washington, D.C., you’re just being a jerk.
In fact you’re worse than a jerk. Anyone who says it’s noble and principled to go around heckling public officials as they try to eat dinner or walk to work or take their kids to school is a hundred times worse than the drunk in the club—you’re a verbal terrorist who is launching scary ambushes on someone with no ability to fight back in a world where stranger violence is common, and you should, at the very least, be f-worded into silence.
But, in fact, the opposite is happening:
(1) Kristin Mink, a middle school teacher, spots Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, trying to have lunch in a tea shop—yes, a tea shop—and feels the need to stride up to his table and launch into a tirade about global warming and the need for his resignation. Since tea shops don’t have asshole-removers, he just leaves.
(2) Stephen Miller, the White House adviser, gets chased out of a Mexican restaurant by a heckler—I believe the word “fascist” was used—who, like Mink, is celebrated on the internet for his bravery. Once again, if you have no security detail to assess how dangerous the person is, you just vacate.
(3) Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, is confronted by hecklers outside her home, which is the kind of thing you normally encounter on true-crime shows about stalkers who spend 24/7 trying to figure out where their victims live and what routes they take to work.
(4) And the most famous example, of course, is White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is refused service at a restaurant called the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia. I’m old enough to remember when every Woolworth’s five-and-dime store in the South had a sign on the door—“WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE”—as a warning to black people: Don’t even think about approaching the lunch counter. It took years of protests, boycotts, and a Supreme Court decision to make it illegal to refuse service based on race, but apparently nobody thought we would get to the point where restaurant owners would simply shift from racism to partyism to justify their bigotry.
Let me make one more point about the Sanders case that hasn’t been mentioned in the press. Lexington, Virginia, is not some shopping-mall-infested suburb of Washington, where people stop for a quick lunch on their way to a Beltway meeting. Lexington is a rural town buried deep in the Shenandoah Valley, halfway between Staunton and Roanoke—a place you visit on vacation, or for a getaway weekend. So this experience starts out, “Oh, look at the cute little restaurant,” and ends up, “Yes, apparently they hate us here, they hate us so much they don’t want us touching their food and they don’t want to accept our money and, in fact, they want us off their property.”