A heckler, in my mind, is a large, wobbling man, yelling, "You suck!" in a dimly-lit comedy club. A troll, on the other hand, is a smaller man, crouched over a large computer, typing "u suck" below a YouTube tutorial for how to poach an egg. The heckler, perhaps encouraged by the two drinks they slugged to hit the minimum, might be an otherwise pleasant person. The troll, with visible comic book stink lines, has a more odious intent. Now, as coronavirus has forced live comedy online, heckling has followed, but these distinctions are more apparent than ever.
Heckling, as media psychologist Dr. Pam Rutledge describes it to VICE, is "overstepping a norm within a context."
"Maybe their veneer has been thinned by a cocktail. It isn't unexpected that you would see people heckling in that sense." But that is an entirely different motivation for those aiming to disrupt an online show.
"What we're seeing when we move online, it is a pretty fine line between heckling and trolling, if there's a line at all," Dr. Rutledge said. "Because it's not interactive, but it's still about power and unmet needs."
Kate Willett, a New York standup who went on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in January 2020, told VICE she prefers Zoom comedy shows to Instagram Live, "because I definitely think you get something out of the audience response." She notes it definitely doesn't feel like an actual live comedy show, "but at least there's some audience interaction."
Willet is regularly performing comedy online in Zoom shows, as well as co-hosting her podcast Reply Guys with with comedian Julia Claire, and made a short video series with comedian Jake Flores titled Comedians on Couches Getting Quarantined. Willett had an experience in March with Zoom, where a Zoombomber gained access to the comedy show she was hosting, and displayed a racial slur on the screen for all viewers. Since then, Willett has incorporated a bouncer to her Zoom meeting, who checks in with each audience member and quickly boots any bad actors, and has not repeated the March incident since.
"With heckling, it's someone who usually is there to see the comedy show and they want to interact with the comedian. Usually hecklers think they're helping the show, they think that they have something funny to say. Zoombombers don't really care about comedy, on the other hand," she said.
Ted Alexandro recently released an hour cut from his nightly "Teddygram" Instagram sets, titled "Stay at Home Comedian," for free, only requesting a donation be made to COVID Bailout NYC. Alexandro has noted that sometimes he'll catch a person or two in comments, trying to hijack attention, but as a veteran of the real-life comedy scene, an offensive comment, visible for just a moment, doesn't have the same bite or ability to derail a punchline as an analog heckle.
In an email to VICE, Sam Morril recounted another experience of being spat on by a heckler at Broadway Comedy Club, and another instance at The Comic Strip, where "jacked frat boy-looking pricks" threatened to beat him up while he was onstage. In the before time, another heckler threatened to show his penis. Morril, in a phone call with VICE, said he actually kind of misses hecklers, as it was part of the onstage experience (sometimes). Now, Morril is doing lots of online comedy, most notably a series of videos with fellow comedian and girlfriend Taylor Tomlinson, titled "New Couple Gets Quarantined." He also notes online heckling has not been much of a problem. (These bits are pre-recorded, and do not allow for audience participation.)
While an Instagram Live session or a pre-recorded bit limits the reach of would-be heckler, live online shows can open up for situations that mirror physical comedy shows.
Maria Bamford, in conversation with VICE, described a situation beyond a heckle that took place in a Zoom comedy show. Zoom shows, as compared to Instagram Live, are much more vulnerable for disruption, as features meant to encourage ease-of-use and easy Boomer use meant skipping safety protocols, allow for "Zoombombing," which is the hijacking of a Zoom conference, often with racist and extremely graphic content. Bamford described a quick smattering of images of anal sex, then, racial slurs, then pointed misogynist barbs. She since implemented another with her Zoom shows to prevent similar audiovisual components from making their way into future shows.
Aside from the transition from the comedy club to the digital livestream, there's another huge consideration: the mental toll of being shut-in for several weeks with limited human interaction. The urge to tell someone they suck, or just derail an Q3 sales planning meeting because you can, is not solely the fault of the asshole who does it. (Though it is still mostly their fault.)
"You can't have this much cortisol and adrenaline running for as many days as we have and not start to feel a little fenced in," Dr. Rutledge said. "Research shows us what happens when we quarantine people. It shows us what happens to people who stay in crises for a long time. It shows what happens if you've had adrenaline and all that stuff running. We haven't looked at them all together. But it's a pretty strong common denominator, which is trauma."
As a result, Rutledge sees heckling leak beyond the comedy stages; whether it's being critical of oneself for being an inattentive parent, or serving their kids the same quarantine meal for several days in a row.
"I can't tell you how many people I've talked to who are essentially self-heckling," she said. "People are not giving themselves a hall pass here, under some circumstances where they should. Then they should extend that to others."
If all would-be hecklers and Zoombombers don't achieve self-actualization during stay-at-home orders—which is fine, we are not expected to come out of quarantine with a new skill—producers have found some interesting workarounds to avoid a show that doesn't feel as much like a comedy show as it does a dry, lifeless webinar, while mitigating the risk of both hecklers and trolls.
Producers Marianne Ways and Joshua Louis Simon run the Butterboy comedy show, a weekly event at the Littlefield event space in Brooklyn, hosted by comedians Aparna Nancherla, Maeve Higgins, and Jo Firestone, featuring DJ Donwill. Their weekly show, a staple of the New York comedy scene, has moved online for the time being.
The (Zoom) Butterboy Control Room Photo Credit: Alexandra Barnett
The show's online setup involves Zoom, YouTube, several screens, text chains, and To avoid hecklers, but still have audience feedback, the show is shared via YouTube, but the performers are on a separate stream, that goes through a broadcasting system, where graphics are added.
Some of the precautions are meant to avoid intentional Zoombombers and hecklers, but also, for unwitting comedians who might accidentally join and broadcast over the current performer.
The lengths to which the comedy industry is going to continue to provide entertainment during stay-at-home orders is laudable. And there should be more empathy for these performers, especially since quarantine has turned everyone into some kind of comedian. Some people are dipping their toes into the front facing camera comedy genre, showing how difficult it is to use this format effectively. Other people are taking more of a Joker route, descending into madness in solitude, with fleeting fantasies of Zazie Beetz. Either way, we should think twice before making a rude comment, or sharing an unwanted photo of a butthole, with someone trying to make you laugh.