Every comedian remembers his worst heckler experiences. In my early years in comedy, due to the fact that I had to work many dives, bars and clubs, I had more than my share.
One event that stands out occurred during my first big nightclub engagement, back in 1977. I had only been doing comedy a few years, but I felt like I had hit the big time when I got asked to open for the iconic Staple Singers. It was at a well-known Philadelphia nightclub called the Bijou Cafe.
Probably because they were a Motown soul group, the audience that night was predominantly black. This didn’t faze me at all, and I went on stage and easily moved through my white suburban middle class material. I was doing a bit about the different candy we ate as kids, and I held up some candy buttons, a popular candy which consisted of a piece of paper with small candy dots glued to it.
I asked the audience if anyone wanted to try some, and a voice yelled out, “Where’s your hand been at?” The audience yelled and laughed, and I knew I had to respond cleverly.
“Ask your old lady,” I replied. The audience screamed their approval. But suddenly it got serious. The man stood up in the middle of the room and started screaming at me, to stunned silence.
“Your career’s over!” he bellowed. “It’s over, man. You done!”
I stood frozen. I had no idea what to say or do. Was he going to run up and attack me? And I wondered whose side the audience would be on, their brother or mine. After all, even though I gave him a real zinger, he started it, and normally crowds are with the performer in these situations.
Before I knew what to do or think next, a bouncer came over, grabbed the guy, and carted him out of the room — leaving his lady there by herself, and she actually stayed and watched the rest of my show without him! The crowd cheered at his removal, and was right with me for the rest of my act. After the show I slithered out the back door, making sure I would not be confronted, if he indeed was still in the area.
So I dodged a bullet, or a heckler as it were. But I did what I had to do. As a line in the Staple Singers hit song “Respect” goes, “If you don’t respect yourself ain’t nobody going to…”