By BRUCE DENNILL
Stand-up comedy is a masochist’s vocation. Often, abuse is the most sincere form of appreciation, something that’s fair enough when an act’s material involves, as it often does, brutal satire of a subject close to an audience member’s heart.
But heckling is a time-honoured form of feedback, and any comedian worth his or her salt is equipped to deal with wags who feel they’re up to challenging performers. And indeed, the way in which the person on stage puts down a revolt from the floor is often a measure, for the rest of the audience, of that artist’s quality.
A failure to understand the contract between spectator and entertainer, however, should not be an issue at a national arts festival.
Ignorance is not really a problem, provided it’s down to inexperience – a tricky first-time customer is always better than no customer at all – or not paying close attention. But choosing to be disruptive requires the will to knowingly disrupt the flow of a production, making the experience less enjoyable for those on both sides of the footlights.
Presumably, even considering such a thing would be based on the idea that your bringing the comedian (or any other performer) down to size would show observers how smart you are. That this is almost exclusively not the case – there’s nothing smart about being a distraction – doesn’t stop those feeling the need to prove themselves from trying to do so.
There are two finance-related notes worth making here. One: it’s a certainty that everyone in the audience paid not to see you, jock-strap, but the person whose name is on the poster outside – so you’re wasting their money. Also, you paid to get in, and even if you are wealthy enough to write off the price of a ticket for the chance to remove any lingering doubts about your capacity to take into account the needs of others, it still seems like an odd investment.
What’s perhaps most damaging, though, is the implications of such actions in the larger audience – those who dip into the arts now and then but who also have a large number of other interests they’d be very happy to send their money on.
Someone who’s put aside some precious budget to go and see a highly-rated funnyman and then spent upwards of half his set unable to hear him and struggling– as he is – to maintain focus on the material being delivered, will certainly leave the venue disappointed. If you’re an experienced comedy fan or a generally forgiving sort, you’ll know that while such things are annoying, they’re also, with any luck, infrequent disturbances. But if the show that was ruined by a gobby imbecile – or, shudder, a team of them – was one of three you could afford during a week-long festival or, worse, a one-off or introduction to a new niche, it would be a fair outcome if you decided against buying any further tickets to what you perceive to be similar events.
And that can become a vicious cycle: you were left with a sour taste in your mouth; you advise your friend against going; the two of you decide to go out for a drink instead, inviting a third person who was going to go an see a show during that same time-slot but now feels like they’re missing out because everyone else is going to a pub… and so it goes.
Basic manners will do. If you are smart and there’s a gap for it, throw in the occasional interjection – in comedy gigs, mind, not during a ballet or a war tragedy. But if you are intellectually smacked down – and it’s likely you will be – then accept that and enjoy having played your part. Learn to shut up: it helps keep your reputation intact (if you have one worth keeping) and it allows the comedian to give his or her best possible performance, which is in everyone’s interests. Again, the big picture in that regard involves better reviews, more tickets sold, a more sustainable career for the artist and more money going to the organisation that runs the festival, who can then expand it, thus providing more jobs – you get the picture.
There are many important arts-related conversations that urgently need having. None of them need happen in the middle of a stand-up gig, and none of them need exclude people who love the art form in question and are trying to focus on the exploits of one of its exponents.
Keep it down. People are trying to work here.