Dom Joly: I wasn't prepared for audience participation

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The Independent Online

I'm so new to this live performance business that I'm learning as I go. Last week, I faced my first heckles, which were actually quite fun, but there is a limit to how much you can let someone try to take over a show. I'm quite happy to wade in and take someone on, and am certainly capable of holding my own. The problem is that some people just enjoy the attention, even if they are being verbally mutilated – they just end up shouting anything to keep the spotlight on themselves. I wasn't sure of the form here. Was I supposed to just carry on? Did I have to keep taking them on until they lay on the floor weeping and conceding defeat? Could I simply ask them to leave, or would that be admitting failure?

I tweeted several well-established comedians I know for advice. The general consensus seemed to be that, after an initial exchange, you can never win, and it's unfair on the rest of the audience if you don't do something. Most told me that they had a pre-arranged coded phrase to use when they had had enough. They would say something like "you seem to be sitting in the ejector seat" and the front-of-house staff would remove said individual. I now have my own secret phrase: "People are now going to come and remove you from here, tie you up and throw you in a canal." I can't wait to use it.

There are other, far trickier issues to face. At a gig last week I came out on stage to find that half the front row had disabilities. They faced me from a rank of wheelchairs, each with a carer sitting contentedly behind. As I started my intro, there was a continual low murmur. Every time I started a sentence, one of the men shouted a cheery "Hello", over and over again.

If this had happened in my first week of gigs I would have crumbled. As it was, I know my show pretty well now and I ploughed on; but it was disconcerting, and I was on autopilot as far as the rest of the audience was concerned, trying to negotiate my way through the constant interruptions.

Now, if I were Frankie Boyle (a fate worse than death), then my life would be easy – I could simply mock the weak. Imagine the laughs I could have got by imitating their cries – maybe even amusingly pretending to be disabled myself. Fortunately for my soul, I am not that type. But I did wonder what I was supposed to do.

I watched through the curtain at the interval as the carers took photographs of each other in front of the stage before giving their charges drinks and sustenance for the second half. A stagehand told me that carers got discounted rates when they came in this capacity.

There was nothing I could do but plough on, and finish this very stressful show as best I could. For a moment, I thought the whole thing might be some sick set-up by an unscrupulous newspaper, trying to see if I could be goaded into some inappropriate response.

Obviously, I am happy for anybody to come to see my show, but if they are in a state where they constantly disrupt the performance and distract everyone else in the audience, is that fair to other patrons? I hope that I managed to deal with the situation as best as I could, but I think I need to seek advice again about this one from my online advisers. It's just one big constant learning arc, this tour.

Dom will be performing in King's Lynn on Wednesday and Burnley on Friday