The unwinnable moment between a heckler and a comedian

First, the definition of heckler by someone who has been heckled in a variety of forms over a range of media, from real life to electronic.

A heckler is anyone who disturbs your shit.

Disagree? Fine. Everyone gets to have an opinion, even dumb ones (just like we’re free to judge those opinions as dumb). But don’t interrupt someone who is speaking. This is what I like about the internet—as gross and ragey as commentary can get, it is literally impossible to interrupt someone. I find writing to be a much more civil exchange, even at its most uncivil, than stand-up comedy ever was. Here on the internet, I write something, like this, and then you respond. And then I can either respond or not, depending on my level of motivation, conviction of belief, and the relative interestingness of whatever a commenter has said in response to my initial thought. Even if it’s to be yelled at, I can’t be interrupted here. In turn, I can’t interrupt anyone who would take the time and comment/email/tweet me. Everyone gets their say.

In comedy, it’s a totally different moment. A comedy show is funny! You’re there to laugh! Hopefully, you are laughing! For you, it’s a fun night out, but for the comic, it’s WORK. They are at their JOB. They have put time, effort, and no small amount of personal terror into what they’re doing on the stage. Don’t like the show? Don’t think it’s funny? You’re well within your rights, but there’s not much you can do about it, in the moment. If you’re in a big enough room, sitting far enough outside the threshold of the lights, you might be able to sneak out without interrupting. But that’s usually not the case, which means you have to sit tight and suffer through till the end. Sucks, but them’s the breaks. It’s not unlike being stuck in a boring meeting—you don’t want to be there, but what else can you do? It’s rude to leave.

So here’s what happened between Daniel Tosh and an audience member, in her own account, posted to a friend’s blog. Read this.


I would find out later this was Daniel Tosh, but at the time I thought he was just some yahoo who somehow got a gig going on after Cook.

Clearly, these are not people familiar with comedy, at all. And that’s cool, because a lot of people aren’t, but this shows that these girls went out and paid for something they fundamentally did not understand, or knew anything about. And then they were upset when it turned out they did not like the thing they took no time to attempt to understand. When there is Google and Youtube on every cell phone now, I don’t know how sympathetic I’m supposed to be to their plight. This entire clusterfuck is completely avoidable with only five minutes spent looking at Youtube to determine if this is something you actually want to be paying for. They’re taking a risk and then they’re mad when it doesn’t work out. But that’s the nature of a risk!

Now, here’s where we get to the problem, and yes, I know exactly who is going to yell at me and what you’re going to say, but I will say this anyway.

SHE was wrong.

TOSH was right.

And no, this is not about rape and whether or not it’s funny. Of course rape is not funny, in and of itself. (But it, as a vehicle for a joke, in the right comic’s hands? Yeah, it can be. Exhibit A.) So that’s not really what we’re talking about here. Personally, when I heard about Tosh’s incident, my response was, “Was that where that had to go? Really?” He overplayed the moment, for sure. And he apologized—he knew he crossed the line. Take your issues with rape humor up with Tosh. I’ve never been interested in going there, though I do admire any comic who can turn that, or any controversial topic, into something funny (Eddie Izzard’s Hitler material is Hall Of Fame level stuff).

I’m not defending Tosh’s specific comments to this person, but I will defend his right to say whatever he wants to a heckler. He said it himself: I was heckled. Heckling is not cool. Again, the comic is at WORK. Some hecklers think they’re helping, that they’re somehow contributing positively to the show. They’re not. Ever. Others are trying to disrupt, to make the moment about them, and that’s not their place either. This young woman didn’t like what she was hearing, and she chose to be disruptive about it, and what she forgot was that everyone else in the room paid to be there, too. She’s wrecking their night as much as Tosh’s jokes were wrecking hers. If you don’t like what you’re hearing at a comedy show, take it to the comic after the show. Because no matter how offended you are, or upset, interrupting is not the right response. Comedy shows are not a two-way exchange.

But Sarah, it’s rape. She said it herself—you can’t stand by and say nothing! Unfortunately, you have to. If they were on the sidewalk and she overheard Tosh say that, by all means, engage. But a comedy show is a paid transaction. It’s like going to the movies and not liking the movie—leave if you must, but do it with minimal impact on the people around you because they may well be enjoying themselves, and they paid, too. They’re entitled to a pleasant experience. What a heckler does is not just interrupt a comic at work, but to ruin the enjoyment of everyone else. It’s an unwinnable moment for both sides, it’s an unfair exchange, but think about how annoyed you get when people talk at the movies. It’s really not that different, except in this case, the movie can talk back.

You cannot let heckling go. Not once. Stand-up comedy is about control, of both your material and your audience. If someone heckles, you HAVE to shut them down, immediately. Comedians handle this in a variety of ways—personally, I always went for shame. Shame them into silence. Point out that though they aren’t into it, the other 99 people in the room are. Remind them of their place, which is to be sitting in a crowd, not disrupting the enjoyment of others. That worked for me, but Tosh has always, always gone right for the jugular, humiliating his hecklers, and he is very, very good at it, generally. Even on this night, it worked for him—she was humiliated and left, ending the disruption. Except he went about a mile over the line in how hard he needed to go at this person, and now we have a problem.

I would LOVE to hear from anyone who was actually in the audience that night. Tosh implies the young woman misquoted him—what did he really say? How did he say it? Tone matters. And the rest of the audience—from this girl’s perspective, they were scary and feeding on negative energy, but then, she was on the wrong end of a spectacle. What if the show was going really well and everyone was into it but her, so she disrupts, and they cheered Tosh for shutting up the person ruining their night out, not that he was encouraging gang rape? I really, really want to hear some audience accounts of that show.

Again, I’m not asking you to approve of Tosh’s comments. I’m not asking you to be down with rape humor. But before you explode all over Tosh for being misogynistic and an asshole, keep in mind that he was at work and someone interrupted him. He took action to regain control and end the disruption so that things could go on without further interruption. Was it over the line? Yeah. And he apologized. You know who hasn’t apologized? The heckler who interrupted a comedy show other people were enjoying. But then, they never do.

12 thoughts on “The unwinnable moment between a heckler and a comedian

  1. Claire

    Sarah, thank you. This post is the first sensible one I’ve read on the Tosh rape joke debacle. Most blogs are focusing on the “omg, Tosh is a pig. Tosh said a rape joke” angle, and not on the “dude was doing his job, was rudely interrupted” angle.

    Like you, I really hope some other members of the audience come forward with stories, or even better, video/audio recording of the confrontation/rebuttal.

    (Please note: I am by no means a Tosh fan, he swings a little cruel for my personal taste at times, but as far as I’m concerned, if you pay to see something that’s bothering you, you walk out and ask for your money back. You don’t cause a public scene like the woman did.)

  2. Nancy

    To take the movie analogy a bit further ….. I’m sure MANY people have gone into Book of Mormon and not known what they were getting into and were offended. But nobody would deem it acceptable for them to start yelling at the performers in a Broadway show. Why should it be okay at a comedy show?

  3. Kate

    I think this runs in the all too common “I’m special” vein that we see today. This young lady believed that she was special, that this comedy performance should be catered to her personal tastes, and when it was not, acted out. She was, of course, shocked that there could be repercussions for her outburst, because the “I’m special” crowd believes quite fervently that they are always in the right. I’m sure she thought Tosh would pause, apologize, and then adjust the remainder of his routine to her specific parameters of funny and not funny. Sadly, I fear very little learning has occurred on her end, and based on the massive amount of positive feedback she has received, we may see more of this obnoxious behavior in the future.

  4. JL

    Uh, seriously? Interrupting someone at work is worse than (or as bad as) telling a woman she should get gang-raped? I agree that she was stupid to heckle, but that doesn’t justify his response. Are you going to defend Michael Richards now too?

  5. Mel

    I don’t think just because you’re an audience member doesn’t give you the right to speak up if you witness something truly foul. Like had I been witness to the Michael Richard’s rant, paying customer or not, I would’ve definitely said something. Having said that I don’t agree with what she did. Like you said, she could’ve youtubed but a few minutes of his routine to know exactly what kind of comic he is. He’s brutal. And most of his stuff IS misogynistic and racist. Hell, I doubt she even misquoted him because I could totally picture him saying that (in response to her heckling).

  6. Sarah K

    Saying that “joking” about someone getting gang-raped isn’t as bad as being interrupted while working can make someone sound like a rape apologist. Because if this routine was done in a 9-5 office setting job and the person was called out on it, that’s being interrupted at work and it’s absolutely deserved. Or do comedians get a pass? I’ve been to many standup shows and the comedian almost always gets heckled. However, no comedian I’ve seen has “joked” that it would be “funny” for the heckler to be raped. They put the heckler in their place, they may say something to humiliate them, but they don’t joke about physically and emotionally hurting them. Stand-up is not a one-way street. The comedian needs the audience to respond and react or else how would they get better?

    The stand-up bit you linked to is a completely different approach to rape jokes than what Tosh was performing. John Mulaney was joking about rape culture and his cis-man privilege without being off-putting and triggering. Wanda Sykes’ hilarious routine on detachable vaginas is the same thing; she mentions rape culture in a way that’s accesible and understandable to women. It also helps that she’s a woman and not part of the oppressing class. There is a big difference between joking about raping someone and joking about rape culture. Especially if it’s done poorly and you’re a cis-man.

    It’s annoying as fuck to go to a show and have someone yell out when you’re trying to enjoy the comedian. But we shouldn’t just sit down and accept rape jokes; the notion that, in comedy, everything is fair game is absolutely flawed. Because 1 in 5-6 women (in the US) have been raped and they may be sitting in your audience and many have easily-triggered PTSD. And rape is already treated like a joke by society. Dealing with a heckler can be done in a classy and very funny way. I’ve seen this on numerous occasions. What Tosh did was far from that (and it just shows how poor of a comedian he is if gang-rape is what he resorted to) and he deserves the crap he’s getting.

    1. Sarah K

      I’m replying to myself because I wanted to add something:

      What Tosh said (we’re all still assuming this is true) is absolutely heinous and we can’t just shrug it off and say “BUT HE’S A COMEDIAN!!1!!” However, I don’t think that what he said necessarily makes him a rape apologist or misogynist. I’m sure he’s a lovely person, albeit a horrible comedian. He still needs to check himself or at least his routine, though.

    2. Clementine

      Yes to all this. Tosh’s comment wasn’t a joke, it was a threat. And even if heckling is rude, and as a comedian I’m sure Sarah can relate to this, it happens and Tosh’s response was beyond inappropriate. From what I’ve seen of his material, his rape jokes aren’t funny or social commentary at all. He just treats rape as a joke, which isn’t edgy, it’s actually just upholding the status quo.

  7. Tanya

    There’s a big difference between “rape can be funny” and “rape jokes are always funny.” One can take dark subject matter and shed light and humor onto it. The other reinforces rape culture.

    And since when were comedians fragile flowers who can’t take heckling? He’s not giving a speech; the back and forth is part of the medium. She didn’t call him names or attack him personally; she objected to his premise that “rape jokes are always funny.” As a comedian, his job is to prove it. He did not.

    1. sarah

      That was the best article I have read on the whole thing. And, while I normally agree with what is on this site, I believe Lindy’s article sums it up exactly as it should be seen.

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