Any stand-up worth their weight in salt has had to face the dreaded heckler. Sometimes it’s the drunk patron who honestly thinks they are helping the show by interrupting the comic’s set. [Note: You Are Not. EVER. Shhh.] Sometimes it’s an angered audience member who disagrees with your material, and sometimes, as in the case with Gaby Dunn, the heckler turns out to be terrifying and you end up feeling personally threatened.
Dunn posted on her Tumblr on Wednesday that, at a show in the East Village, she encountered what she thought was a run of the mill heckler. When she responded to him, trying to shut him down out of the gate, he approached the stage, continued to shout misogynistic and perceivably threatening comments and then to make matters worse, he waited for her by the door after the show. She has since posted a follow-up and it seems the
guy crazy is a regular and not quite as threatening as he initially seemed. According to the hosts he was not waiting for her after the show, but sitting in his regular seat which happened to be by the door. Does any of that matter? Not really. The important thing is that she felt threatened while on stage doing her job.
“I don’t think I would classify this as heckling,” stand-up Kara Klenk wrote. “This woman was straight up sexually harassed on stage. This creep wasn’t really reacting to her material, he was commenting solely on her gender and appearance. But this experience is far worse than heckling because all comedians can commiserate about annoying audience members, a far fewer number can say they were verbally attacked in a sexual manner and feared physical assault while performing. Think of how humiliating sexual harassment can be when it’s just you and a coworker or a guy on the street, then imagine a crowd of people watching it happen, waiting to see what you’ll do next. I can’t help thinking that the bar management and show hosts, hell, the audience, could have done more but I wasn’t there.”
Dunn herself handled the heckler like a pro: she attempted to shut him down; she finished her set; and when she saw him waiting by the door she called her boyfriend to come walk her out. But we were curious as well as to whether anyone in the audience stepped up to help shut him down. “No, they did not,” Dunn said. “My friend in the audience said that to him, it seemed like I was handling it fine. I also kept laughing and making jokes so I think people assumed I was handling it. I had a guy say he didn’t want to seem condescending, like a woman couldn’t handle an asshole on her own. It’s a tough call. I didn’t let on how much everything affected me—didn’t show I was upset, didn’t tell anyone that the guy was waiting for me, nothing. So that’s my own fault and not theirs.”
When asked if she wished someone had spoken up Dunn responded, “I do and I don’t. I wish he’d been removed so I could have done the set I prepared, but I don’t know if I would have felt bad having some “knight in shining armor” have to come rescue me while I’m doing my job.”
We asked some New York comedians how they would have handled the situation had it happened to them and many of them started with praise for Dunn on how she handled herself. “I actually think the way she handled the guy on stage was brave and great,” UCBT performer Leslie Meisel-Ellis said. Storyteller Sharon Spell added, “It doesn’t sound like she overreacted. That guy sounds crazy and I’m glad she’s okay.” Klenk added, “I think she handled the situation the right way for her and replaying all the woulda, coulda, shoulda scenarios won’t change anything but, until we can just rid the planet of jerks, she’ll be more prepared for the next time.”
And she will be. “I’ll definitely be more assertive about having someone come kick him out and I won’t feel guilty about it. I didn’t want to ‘make a fuss’ over someone who might not have been dangerous but I learned it’s better to make a fuss, then to end up in serious trouble,” added Dunn.
In situations like this it’s easy to take the blame on ourselves. Stand-up Abbi Crutchfield wrote, “I certainly wouldn’t blame myself if I were in her shoes. She doesn’t need to excuse her material, and she did not invite him to harass her. No kind of heckling is considered desirable by any comic who sets out to entertain by making people laugh with their material. If you sense someone is a threat you have the right to have them removed from the building—not the room—the building by the bouncer or owner, and if they are defiant you have the right to call the police. She was right to call for backup / an escort out of harm’s way.”
Unfortunately, more than one woman we spoke to has been in a situation like this. A stand-up for 12 years, Ophira Eisenberg has been in almost the exact situation before. “A man approached the stage, yelling at me, telling me I was horrible, and was completely creepy and threatening. It shook me up for a long time but it was years ago now and I did get over it. Unfortunately Gaby learned this the hard way but never, ever, ever invite anyone from the audience, especially someone heckling, to get out of their seat. If they stand, tell them to sit down. I don’t care if it’s their birthday and they’re having a great time, no one is allowed near that stage except you and the cocktail waitress. I love standup more than anything but often part of the job is to tell people to sit down and shut up.” And on shutting them down verbally she adds, “I know there is pressure to come back with a hilarious line back to a heckler, but you know what works just as well? Directly telling them without apology to ‘Shut up or leave.’ Treat them like a bad child. Why waste time on this person? Get them out of there and get back to your act. Starting the back and forth will only make them want to try to save their ego by heckling back and now you’re in a full dialogue. If you want to do that great, but be prepared for the consequences. I would say this is especially the case when dealing with a male heckler, but I’ve had some female hecklers that were by far the worst.”
We’re definitely not vilifying men in this situation because truly just as as often the hecklers are women, but we’re guessing feeling threatened on a stage is not something men have to face too often. Stand-up Giulia Rozzi adds, “It just sucks because this isn’t an issue of comic vs heckler, it’s an issue that no matter how strong and empowered we feel women are usually at a greater risk for victimized than men (I don’t think a lot of men fear getting raped when walking home late at night).”
Emily Tarver suggests taking our safety to the next level. “I carry a knife. I don’t use it but it gives me a sense of confidence and badassity. I recommend knives. As many as will fit in your pink lady purse.”
Spell adds, “I’m so sorry Gaby had to go through this horrifying experience, but so glad she wrote about it. She’s opened a dialogue on what it’s like to be a woman in comedy, a woman in the world. That scenario was about power. He was trying to take away her power in the sad-sack ways he could.”
It’s clearly a raw nerve for a lot of women, but thanks to Dunn the dialogue has now been opened and now we want to hear from you. How would have handled the situation? Have you been in a similar situation? What can we all do—both as performers and audience members—the next time something like this happens?