The first rule of handling a heckler: Don’t get mad. Don’t try to get even. Get smart. Give better than you’ve so rudely gotten.
Michelle Obama may have forgotten the basics when confronted with every public speaker’s nightmare Tuesday night. A determined heckler interrupted the first lady’s talk at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at a home in Washington, haranguing her over her husband’s failure to sign an anti-discrimination order on behalf of gays and lesbians.
Obama at first seemed flummoxed by the interloper. And then, in a rare display of public peeve, she turned stern and combative. Moving away from the lectern and toward the heckler, she threw down a challenge. “One of the things I don’t do well is this,” she said, referring to the disruption. “Do you understand?” She said the protester could “listen to me, or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”
As comebacks go, it wasn’t one of the classics, such as the surefire response of every nightclub comic to the blowhard in the third row: “I was the same way when I had my first drink, too.”
Then again, the rules of engagement between hecklers and speakers vary by time, place and position. Comedians are expected to whip out a withering retort; almost all have a few anti-heckler lines stored and ready for deployment. Sports fans, too, are entitled to heckle opposing players and to second-guess the refs.
Politicians and public figures, meanwhile, fire back at their own peril.
Confronted by a heckler who urged him to raise taxes on corporations, Mitt Romney replied that they were part of his no-new-taxes pledge during a campaign stop in Iowa in 2011. “Corporations are people, my friend,” he declared, thereby providing a soundbite that reinforced his opponents’ portrayal of him as a friend of the wealthy.
On the other hand, George W. Bush defused an international incident in 2008 when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at him and shouted, “This is a farewell kiss, you dog.” Bush’s amused response: “All I can report is it is a size 10.”
Unlike first ladies, seasoned politicians have faced hecklers many times and have strategies for dealing with them, says Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant. A humorous response is risky, he says, because it can come off as making light of a serious issue (“The middle of a speech is not the time to get in touch with your inner Seinfeld,” he says). Getting angry doesn’t play well, either; it makes a pol seem rattled and thin skinned.
Better, says Lehane, an advisor to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, was Gore’s “standard operating procedure” for dispatching loudmouths.
When interrupted, Gore would stop, listen a moment, and say, “‘the First Amendment’s a great thing, isn’t it? Let’s hear it for the First Amendment!’ The crowd’s roar would drown out the heckler, and then he’d continue: ‘Now, what I’m really here to talk about is [fill in the blank]. People have travelled a long way to hear this. My staff would be glad to have a conversation with you about the issue you’ve raised.’ That was the signal to the staff to hustle the guy out.”
According to Keith Fields, a comedian and magician, one of the most effective heckler-stoppers is to respond by saying, “Pardon me?”
“It puts the spotlight on the heckler, and they usually don’t know what to do next,” says Fields, the author of “How to Handle Hecklers.” “A heckler is a voice from the dark. If you shine a light on them, you take away their [anonymity]. They’re not good at thinking on their feet.”
Good comics know they have to size up a heckler quickly and to tailor their comeback appropriately, Fields says. Is the person drunk or angry? Or just a jerk? Male or female? A poorly conceived putdown can turn an audience’s natural sympathy for the performer against him. Witness the fate of former “Seinfeld” star Michael Richards, whose n-word-laden rant in response to a heckler in 2006 buried his career.
When in doubt, said Fields, there’s always a one-size-fits-all reply: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak alcoholic.”
As hecklers go, Robin Ficker was practically a pro. The Bethesda attorney and frequent political candidate terrorized visiting NBA teams at Washington Bullets and Wizards home games for years by taunting them from a seat behind the opposing bench. Ficker wasn’t subtle; his booming voice could be heard in the cheap seats.
Ficker was so obnoxious — or effective, depending on your perspective — that the NBA passed a rule outlawing fans from “interfering” with communications between players and coaches during timeouts.
Most of the players he taunted simply ignored him, or pretended to, Ficker says. But a few responded. Hall of Famer Charles Barkley always talked back. Once, Ficker tried picking on Barkley’s supposed political ambitions, yelling, “Charles, before I vote for you, I want to know what your views are about the economy, NAFTA and health care.”
Replied Barkley, “I do have a view about the death penalty. They should use it on you.”
Ficker recommends that Michelle Obama use a little humor or do some “role playing” to prepare for the next heckler she faces.
But even a veteran heckler like Ficker has only limited sympathy for the woman who interrupted the first lady. “It wasn’t very polite to the wife of the leader of the country,” he said. “I understand that many people feel the leaders of this country aren’t listening to them, but this woman’s timing was very poor.”
Yes, speakers sometimes look bad dealing with hecklers. But hecklers usually look worse.
The most famous heckle in recent years may have been the outbursts of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who twice shouted, “You lie!” during President Obama’s speech to Congress about health-care reform in 2009.
The impromptu commentary brought national and international attention to Wilson and supercharged his campaign fundraising. But it also was widely condemned as unacceptable by members of Congress from both parties.
In the end, Wilson did what most hecklers never do: He apologized for his behavior.