President Obama has joined the sainted fraternity of heckler-squashers

After Barack Obama coolly rebuffed a heckler in the White House this week, John Walsh examines the admirable art of dealing with unwanted interruptions
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Indy Politics

You'd think Barack Obama had enough to cope with in his second term – Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, the Republicans in Congress, Islamic State – without having to deal with hecklers, too. But the normally urbane and unflappable president was clearly flapped when, at a reception this week in the White House's East Room to mark LGBT Pride Month, he was faced with sustained barracking from someone in the crowd.

Ms Jennicet Gutiérrez repeatedly yelled at him to release LGBT immigrants from detention and to stop their deportation. For 20 seconds President Obama delivered a fusillade of monosyllables. "No, no, no, no, no," he said flatly. Then, realising a heckler is no match for the guy with the microphone, he had a pop. "Hey, listen," he said. "You're in my house." The crowd whooped. Then he said: "Escort this person out."

It's not exactly Jimmy Boyle, but it was OK. He scored points on the cool-o-meter for "You're in my house", as if the White House were a private home where guests are expected to have manners. And he's now joined the sainted fraternity of heckler-squashers.


The word apparently derives from the famously combative flax-combers of 19th-century Dundee: in the "heckling" factory where they worked, one would read the day's news, to a fire of interruptions, abuse and slogan cries.

A very early heckle (before the term was created) came from a Thames boatman who, in the 1760s, listened to Samuel Johnson pontificating in a water-taxi nearby and jeered at his pomposity. Johnson called back: "Sir, your wife, under the pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods!" Crushing, eh? Only 250 years later, US comedian Tina Fey responded in similar fashion after reading a review that said she "didn't have a funny bone in her body". She emailed the critic: "You know who does have a funny bone in her body? Your mom. Every night. For a dollar."

When 20th-century politicians manned the hustings, they routinely faced a heavy fire of insults and questions. Harold Wilson, prime minister in the 1960s, was famously quick-witted. Once, he was discussing Labour's spending plans, when a heckler shouted, "What about Vietnam?" "The government," he retorted without a pause, "has no plans to increase public expenditure in Vietnam."

Of course, the most famous heckle-squashes are the work of stand-up comics. Lee Mack, once told a yeller, "Save your breath, mate – you'll need it to inflate your girlfriend." Jeremy Hardy deals with shouty men by shaking his head and saying, "Nigel, it's over. Can't you understand that?" A chap at a Frank Skinner gig shouted: "I met you at medical school." "Ah, yes," said Mr Skinner, "you were the one in the jar." Rufus Hound has compiled a collection called Stand Up Put Downs (Bantam Press £9.99). My favourite of his merciless replies is when he asked the bar staff, over the heckler's head: "Can we get some crayons and a menu for this guy to colour in, please?"

Some famous heckles and replies have happened miles away from the stand-up stage. I have two favourites. One was in the 1980s when Cecil Parkinson – mired in scandal about Sara Keays – was making a speech with a hand in his pocket. Labour rottweiler Dennis Skinner shouted: "Stop playing with yerself" – leaving Mr Parkinson unable to extract his hand (thus confirming the accusation) or leave it where it was, with all eyes on his trousers. The other was at a Bob Dylan concert at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in 1966, when a folk-music purist, annoyed Dylan had started to play electric guitar, shouted "Judas!" Mr Dylan's verbal response ("I don't believe you – you're a liar") wasn't particularly epic. But he told the band, "Play f***in' loud," and stormed into a tumultuous "Like a Rolling Stone" that could wake the dead. That's what I call a heckle-squash.