Seinfeld and The Heckler Therapist

It’s rare to get heckled when giving a lecture, yet it’s a top fear for many people. My own advice on dealing with hecklers is in the what to do when things go wrong chapter of Confessions of a Public Speaker.

In short the best approach is to acknowledge them briefly, and politely ask them to hold their comments until the end and that you’ll respond to their comment then. Then continue. The audience is on your side, even if they laughed at what they heckler said. They came to see you and not the heckler – so they always support you continuing on.

Jerry Seinfeld has similar advice but goes much further. Here’s an excerpt from his recent AMA interview:

Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. So that when people would say something nasty, I would immediately become very sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger.

It opened up this whole fun avenue for me as a comedian, and no one had ever seen that before. Some of my comedian friends used to call me – what did they say? – that I would counsel the heckler instead of fighting them.

Instead of fighting them, I would say “You seem so upset, and I know that’s not what you wanted to have happen tonight. Let’s talk about your problem” and the audience would find it funny and it would really discombobulate the heckler too, because I wouldn’t go against them, I would take their side.

In all cases always remember you have the microphone and whoever has the microphone has all the power. No one can talk over you unless you stop talking.

2 Responses to “Seinfeld and The Heckler Therapist”

  1. Phil Simon

    Brilliant. I’ve seen Seinfeld do it live. Two years ago, I watched him at Caesar’s in Vegas. He completely disarmed the drunken lunatic.

    Sein said, “4,000 people paid to hear me talk, but go ahead. What’s bothering you?”

    • Scott

      From coaching people on speaking it seems the challenge of hecklers is about confidence. Until you’ve had a heckler or two, it’s hard to respond in the way you want to, as the shock of it rattles people, and they have the feeling, in the moment, that the talk has been ruined and there’s no way to recover. None of this is true of course, but it takes some practice to handle it. It is something you can practice though, and during coaching when people do dry runs, I’ll sometimes pretend I’m a heckler, just to get familiar with the experience.

      For most people who are not comedians the closest thing they’ll get to a heckler is someone yelling out a question, or challenging a fact, mid presentation. In a business environment it’s never going to go very far making it easier than a true heckler at a comedy show who’s persistent and probably drunk.


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