From Academic Kids

A heckler is a person who shouts an uninvited comment, usually disparaging, at a performance or event, or interrupting set-piece speeches, for example at a political meeting. They are often welcomed interruptions at comedy performances - with many performers developing part of their routines to put-down the hecklers.



The term originates from the textile trade, where to heckle was to tease or comb out flax or hemp fibres. The additional meaning - to interrupt speakers with awkward or embarrassing questions - was added in Scotland, and specifically perhaps in early nineteenth century Dundee, a famously radical town where the hecklers who combed the flax had established a reputation as the most radical and stroppy element in the workforce. In the heckling factory, one heckler would read out the day's news while the others worked, to the accompaniment of interruptions and furious debate. [1] (http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1471886,00.html)

Heckling was a major part of the vaudeville theater. The Muppet Show, which was 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.

Comedy and Sport

Many stand-up comedians devise a strategy for quashing such outbursts, usually by having a store of put-downs to hand, e.g. "this is what happens when cousins marry". Another example is "Dear God, don't let anyone in the crowd yell out tonight (yell from crowdmember), and punish those who do."

In Britain, Malcolm Hardee's legendarily dangerous Tunnel Club in Greenwich was famed for the sharp heckling of its regulars. On one occasion, a comic went on stage with the opening line, "I'm a schizophrenic..." and some wag immediately replied, "You can both fuck off, then."

English comedian Julian Clary has said that he was so scared of hecklers he used to pick on his audience using putdowns like "Men like you don't grow on trees, they swing from them." Bill Hicks was also famous for his "take-no-prisoners" approach to hecklers. On one occasion he demanded that a drunken heckler be taken out of the audience shouting "YOU DRUNK C***" at her.

Hecklers can also appear at sporting events, usually (but not always) directing their taunts at a visiting team. Fans of the Philadelphia Eagles American football team are notorious for heckling; they even booed at the career-ending injury of an opposing player, as well as routinely booing the Eagles themselves if they do not perform up to expectations. Often, sports heckling will also involve throwing objects onto the field; this has led most sports stadiums to ban glass containers and bottlecaps.


Politicians doing a speech in front of a live audience have less latitude in dealing with hecklers. They cannot use coarse or belittling humor, without great personal risk disproportionate to any gain, and would prefer to improvise a relevant and witty response. 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". Heckler: "Rubbish!" Wilson: "I'll come to your special interest in a minute, sir."[2] (http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1471886,00.html), quoted in Brewer's Politics, edited by Nicholas Comfort.

The modern political approach to heckling is to ensure that major "live" speeches are done in front of a "tame" audience of sympathizers. This has the downside that when heckling does occur it may be deemed newsworthy. This happened to Tony Blair during a photo-op visit to a hospital during the 2001 general election campaign, and again in 2003 during a speech. [3] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2690549.stm)



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