Comedy: Return of the Mack

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The Independent Culture
Our monthly series in which comedians reflect on funny moments in their lives sees Lee Mack musing on heckling and some of the unexpected consequences of the public put-down

As a stand-up comic I tend to get asked the same questions by friends and relations such as, "How do you do it?", "Why do you do it?" and "Will you please stop doing it". Then there's "Have you any dignity?", "Why do you start crying on stage when it is going so well?", and so on.

But one of the most common questions is "Is it awful when somebody heckles?" The truth of the matter is no, as most comics have at least two or three stock put-downs which seem to cover almost any situation.

Whether it's a bog-standard golden oldie such as "save your breath, you'll need it to inflate your girlfriend", or the slightly less intellectual, but equally effective "shut it dickhead".

Dealing with rowdy elements is one of the first skills aspiring comics pick up. If used inappropriately, though, they can backfire.

On my third ever gig four years ago, I asked someone in the front row where he was from, and he replied Glasgow. I couldn't think of anything witty at all say about Glasgow, so in a panic I used an old line. "The secret with heckling mate," I said, "is to make me look stupid... no the other way round." In reply he said: "I wasn't heckling, you asked me a question." To which I replied "oh yes, sorry".

When a comic does manage to think on his feet, though, the result can be both inspired and catastrophic. I have witnessed a heckler in a wheelchair being put in his place with the unfortunate line: "If you're so funny why don't you try stand up?" (The comic wasn't aware of his predicament). I have also had hecklers on stage attacking me because of comments I'd made about sexual practices involving their recently deceased mothers.

One of the most famous comic cock-up stories is the one about an audience member who was chastised by the compere for not clapping at the beginning of the show. So as a form of embarrassing punishment, the comic told him to clap on his own. After politely refusing, the man was told to stop being a spoilsport by the comic. So, in return he proceeded to lift his arms from under the table, revealing two metal hooks instead of hands. It's hard to create a warm atmosphere for comedy when the sound of metal clinking against metal is still ringing in people's ears two hours later.

In fact the worst incident that has happened to me occurred because of two seemingly harmless sentences. I was once about to appear on stage in Gwent, when a fellow comic suggested that I start off by speaking in Welsh, thus wooing them onto my side.

Unfortunately, it was a wind-up, and the sentence he taught me did not translate into English as "Hello, Wales you are beautiful people", it translated as "learn to speak English you dirty pencil cases". The comedian who was trying to get me into trouble wasn't very good at Welsh either.) This immediately turned the audience against me, as well as slightly confusing them, and so after five minutes of booing the heckler shouted "Please leave you're not very good." (Obviously not these words exactly, but I'm giving you a Saturday broadsheet listings supplement version). "If you're so funny, why don't you come up here and have a go?" I replied. This usually shuts up the most adamant of hecklers, but in this case he said "OK, I will"... and he did... and he was very good - in fact, when I went to get the mike back he got an encore.

But I got the last laugh. What the crowd didn't realise was that during the interval I sneaked into the toilets and wrote "Lee Mack rules" on the inside of the cubicle.

Thus proving the old rule that the comic usually gets the last laugh.

Lee Mack plays Jongleurs Battersea, tonight, Jongleurs Southampton Sat 9 Dec and Jongleurs Bow Mon 21 Dec

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