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Oh Heck(le): When Is It Appropriate to Heckle?

I attended the Irish premiere of Unknown last night as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. It was a fairly bland film, but what really stuck out to me of the night was a heckler during Grainne Humphreys’ introduction to the film. The guy was a bit of a dick, and it got me thinking – when is it appropriate to heckle?

What a muppet...

To give the event some context, Liam Neeson wasn’t able to attend the “red carpet” premiere, having just cancelled at short notice. He gave Grainne Humphreys a fairly banal note to read about how successful the film was and how nice Berlin is and all that, but he wouldn’t be able to make it because he was filming in Canada at the moment. This prompted one member of the audience to shout out, “What? Did they just decide to start filming today?”

Let’s be honest, the guy had a point. Cancelling on a day of an event because you’re filming half the world away is a little bit cheeky. It’s not the kinda thing that creeps up on you as you’re about to board your flight. The guy went on to state that the absence of Mister Neeson was “bullsh!t.” And, again, he might have had a point that it was a douche move by Neeson or his agent or his publicist or some lawyer on this new film or any number of people down the chain. It’s okay to get a little frustrated at them.

Audience Participation optional...

However, they weren’t in the room delivering the bad news. Grainne Humphreys, director of the festival, was the bearer of bad news. She had no control over whether Liam Neeson could leave Canada or not, she was just – as the festival organiser – the person who had to make the announcement.

And, with all credit to the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, the announcement was made relatively efficiently. The potential presence of Neeson was never really pushed too much in selling the tickets, the event was sold as a “red carpet screening” which meant anyone from a nameless extra to a sound mixer would show up. I’m not expecting Matt Damon at tomorrow night’s Adjustment Bureau gala. However, when he cancelled (and I was completely unaware he ever planned to attend), I got an email from the festival letting me know no guest would be attending, offering a refund of the difference between a standard ticket and a gala ticket (if I still wanted to attend) and a full refund (if I didn’t).

Somebody should be benched....

That’s pretty much the most that anyone could expect of the studio, and they executed it with great grace and skill, so they deserve praise for dealing with an awkward situation in the most delicate manner possible. What nobody deserved, for events outside their control, is to be yelled at while delivering bad news – especially having done what they can to soften it. So, to me at least, that heckler was out of line, and in poor form.

So, when is it okay to heckle?

I don’t know, I think that sometimes speakers relish the challenge of heckler. After all, if somebody cares enough to heckle, it means you’re talking about something that matters. A heckler provides a public speaker the chance to engage with the public and to tackle criticism head-on. If a speaker is confident and comfortable and soliciting audience interaction, a little energetic response might add to the atmosphere.

Armchair critics...

However, there’s just something that just seems a little wrong about heckling a speaker who appears awkward or apologetic or somewhat uncomfortable. Their manner suggests that they’re uncomfortable with what they’re saying – people don’t relish being the bearer of bad news – so most audiences will grasp that the news is not good news, without the heckler pointing it out.

Of course, I’m naturally inclined to listen to a speaker, and I think the people deserve the opportunity to say what they want to say, unmolested. It would probably take a lot to get me to heckle, but it just seemed bad form to attack the director of a festival who was making an apology for something outside her control. Or it might just be that I never had the quick wit to heckle, and am envious of those who can.

So, what do you think? When is heckling appropriate?

7 Responses

  1. the only heckling I’m in favour of is at pro sporting events – and the main reason is because 999 times out of 1000 the player can’t hear the heckler over the crowd.

    Doing so in an environment like you described is not permissable at all – even if one thinks they’re being clever, odds are they’re actually coming off as dickish.

    TIFF is going through a similar hitch with famous people attending. Happily, that’s not why I attend the films I attend.

    • Yep. Occasionally, if you get a good panel, it’s a bonus. But mostly it’s just back-patting and your standarded recycled spiel. Like you said though, see a movie for a movie.

  2. I’m always astounded how stand-up comics deal so confidently with hecklers. But I agree with Mad H, heckling at sports events is probably the only time it’s a positive thing than a negative.

    • Yep, and I think a speaker dealing well with a heckler demonstrates real genuine passion and skill – it’s truly improvisational. However, picking on an announcer giving you bad news is just poor form.

  3. Heckling is appropriate at comedy shows when the comedian is Bob Saget. No joke, either– the guy thrives on being heckled and enjoys singling out random audience members and using them throughout the rest of his act as targets of ridicule and verbal abuse and sometimes sexual advances. It’s truly amazing stuff.

    • I am fond of Bob Saget, at least based on what little I’ve seen of him. To us Irish, the most popular American stand-up at the moment is probably Rich Hall (who is likely a non-entity Stateside, seen as he seems to live in the British Isles but just has an American accent).

  4. As the CEO and Co-Founder of the Heckler’s Club I relish the opportunity to create Heckling Moments. For instance when a driver speeds up to cut you off only to end up next to you at the stoplight. It is completely appropriate to roll down the window and with teary eyes and astounded expression deliver a soliloquy about the family of ducklings that were crossing the road and why everyone else was driving so cautious. Watching the expression of the offender is truly a heckler’s dream. Creativity in heckling is the most important. Anyone can yell obscenities, but one of our membership yelled at a football game, “sometimes referee I don’t agree with you!” which had a whole crowd of drunken fools dumbfounded. Timing, Creativity and Purpose are the cornerstones of heckling. I wonder if the question shouldn’t be, “When ISN’T it appropriate to heckle?”

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