It's the way they tell them: a comic's guide to the art of handling hecklers

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A new book celebrates the long and inglorious tradition of stand-ups' put-downs. Adam Sherwin learns from the masters

When the beer starts flying, it is the essential weapon in every stand-up comic's armour, a laser-guided put-down guaranteed to turn the mob's fury against the smart-arse heckler.

Stand-up is a primeval battle, argues Rufus Hound, the comedian and television presenter. "The instinct that makes stags lock antlers is the same one that makes some drunken twit in the back row shout at the comedian on stage," he claims. "Someone is trying to topple you and anoint themselves king of the room."

To assist fellow comics in the war against interruption, Hound has compiled a book, Stand Up Put Downs, which sets out his eight rules to ensure the psychological destruction of audience tormentors.

For Hound, the tools of the trade are not those of precision but of "blunt-force trauma". He says: "If you're going to start a fight, you're going to get punched back harder (metaphorically): it's the law of the playground. If I've got a line about your family, face, appearance and odour, so much the better." The aim is to inspire a sense of "I'm so glad that wasn't me" in the rest of the crowd.

But not everyone needs a "zinger" to see off hecklers. Mark Steel, the comic columnist for The Independent, said: "It's a complete myth that the comedians have a list of brilliant, witty lines things to come back with. It's more about being confident and looking in control of the situation." Steel, who survived audiences of rowdy Millwall fans at The Tunnel Club in Greenwich, said: "I don't think it works to attack someone's appearance. You've got to make the audience think 'We do want to hear what you've got to say'."

Milton Jones, king of the surreal one-liner, once dealt with a heckler by asking: "So, where do you live? Ok. Why do you live?" Jones said: "Rather than have a pre-prepared bullet, the best way is to turn something the heckler said against them. I point out their lack of logic and try and get behind the pain of the person who shouted out. If something was really funny then say so. They're unlikely to keep it up all night."

A heckler was originally a textile worker who combed out flax or hemp fibres. Unionised hecklers working in Dundee used to interrupt colleagues responsible for reading out the day's news in the early 19th century.

Stage fight: Kings and queens of the one-liner

Mark Steel

Two years ago I appeared at the Andersonstown Leisure Centre in Belfast. There was 1,000 people there of which about 250 were fans. The rest were drunk.

I was introduced as "this British wanker" which didn't help in this Republican stronghold of West Belfast. I was greeted with a torrent of abuse. I tried to do a few minutes but thought it best to say my farewells. Before I went off, I said: "I preferred it during the Troubles, at least you were fighting each other."

The concert was organised by Danny Morrison (former IRA prisoner and Sinn Féin official). He actually apologised for the anti-British nature of the audience which tells you quite how bad it was.

Frank Skinner

Heckler: I met you when you were at medical school.

Skinner: Ah yes, you were the one in the jar.

Milton Jones

I did a corporate gig for a brewery in Bedford. I said it must be odd that it's their night off and they've still got free food and drink. One woman said: "We don't get free food and drink at work." I said: "Well how come you're so fat then?"

She ran off crying. The place was in uproar. I ran out to my car. You live and die by what you say in the moment. I only got paid half the money though."

Rufus Hound

(To bar staff): "Can we get some crayons and a menu for this guy to colour in please?"

Linda Smith

Warren Lakin, partner of the late comedienne: "One she regularly employed on stage was aimed at rowdy and hapless groups of male hecklers – rugby clubs included. In response to the inevitable calls of "Get your tits out," Linda would retort, "Why – is it time for your feed?"

Ian Stone

Stone: What do you do, sir?

Man in audience: "I'm an engineer"

Stone: "What type of engineer?

Man : "You wouldn't understand."

Stone: "Try me."

Man : "Supersonic gas solution."

Stone: (quick as a flash) Expialidocious!"

Jim Tavare

My recollections of performing at the notorious Tunnel Palladium in Greenwich still give me nightmares. I used to open with the line "Good evening, I'm a schizophrenic", to which a heckler responded, "Why don't you both fuck off?" My act included impressions from the Starship Enterprise. During my routine I heard, "It's comedy, Jim, but not as we know it."

Roy Chubby Brown

Brown: Did you watch Playschool as a lad?

Heckler: Yes.

Brown: Which fucking window do you want to go through?

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