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…”
In 1976 I was still getting my feet wet as a comedian, but I had begun to establish myself on the east coast club circuit and was getting bookings as a headliner. My best friend was Larry David, who although brilliantly funny (at least to all his fellow comics), didn’t translate as well to audiences. He thus didn’t really work the comedy club circuit outside of the New York City area.
I got myself booked at a Philadelphia comedy room called Grandma Minnie’s. Because the owner liked and respected me, I asked if I could bring my friend Larry David with me to open. He said yes and off we went for a week in Philly. The shows were fine and nondescript, but one day we were knocking around the city, sightseeing and hanging around. We decided to go to Independence Hall, the reverent shrine where the both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed. Larry and I walked in, and oddly, we were the only tourists in there that day, or that hour. We went down a hallway and came upon a room…THE room…where the actual Declaration was signed. When we walked in we could see the area was cordoned off with a plush velvet rope; on the other side were about 25 rows of ornate 18th century chairs. There was a raised stage with about 8 more chairs, and a lecturn. This was the lecturn at which our founding fathers gave their speeches and signed the declaration. Larry and I looked at each other and marveled how right there, 30 feet away from where we stood, Franklin, Jefferson, Hancock et al spoke and led their brethren to independence. We were in awe. And then, suddenly without warning, Larry climbed over the velvet ropes, romped up onto the stage and up to the lecturn, and began to bellow in a British accent: “My fellow compatriots, we will not allow the British to refuse us our liberty, we must sign our document of independence…” I was laughing uncontrollably at crazy Larry, incredulous and shocked at his nerve. Suddenly a security guard ran into the room and upon seeing Larry started screaming, “You two get the hell out of here before you are put under arrest!” Larry bolted down from the stage and we ran up a staircase and out a door, laughing hysterically, all the while with the security guard in hot pursuit. When we got outside we kept on running. To this day I can still palpably feel the adrenaline of perhaps the craziest stunt I’ve ever been involved in. All thanks to Larry David. It was such a good idea to get him on the show with me. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.