Building Experience Dealing with Hecklers

We've all heard the term "heckler" before, but I want to set the stage a bit and give you my interpretation of the word. To me, a heckler is a skeptical person who's aggressively against a performance -- in my case, magic.

This doesn't specifically mean someone who "doesn't believe" in magic; let's be honest, everyone in the modern age knows that it's a skill. The 3 of clubs isn't really changing into the queen of hearts -- the magician made it happen. We call them "magic tricks" because we're trying to trick the senses into believing that, even for a small moment, something magical can happen. Hecklers are the people who not only don't want to be fooled, but they openly challenge magicians in a way that says that they can't be fooled. Ugh.

Now, it's key to point out that I'm not a professional magician and even though I practice card magic for what adds up to hours a day, every day, for years -- I'm barely an amateur. I don't perform a lot, period. When I'm asked though, and it does come up maybe once or twice a month, I gladly perform. So the ability for me to run into a heckler is not as commonplace as it would be for a typical magician.

However, let me take you back 2 years to my first.

So there I was...

I was meeting a few friends for a guy's trip to New Orleans, like you do. Me and one of the other guys were there first; I've known him going on 30 years now so it's safe to say that I know his personality pretty well. He would very much classify as a heckler, per my description above.

Well, he didn't know that I started practicing magic -- other than my wife and kids, nobody knew really. He happened to work at Facebook, and we were talking about Instagram and I mentioned I started using the app and was having fun with it, which then led to the discovery that I'm a nerd into magic!

"Do you have a deck of cards on you? Show a trick!" he said.

Of course, I had a deck! Pfft, a deck. I had six.

I was also really excited to get to show off some things I had been practicing. Like I said, nobody knew I had been into magic, so I was practicing and practicing but with no real audience. Unfortunately, he was not my target audience. He was going to be the guy that calls out your double lift even if you didn't do one.

"Alright, I've got a fun trick that I've been working on for a while now!" I remember saying. I could feel my face flushing, and my hands started trembling. Oh boy, the nerves!

"I know you're a heckler, so don't be too big of a jerk - let me down easy alright?", I said. I know I said this word-for-word, and I really wish I could put the right word-emphasis here so you could experience it too, but I've repeated it so many times in my head since then.

Bias, taking the stage.

The truth of the matter is, my friend wasn't actually a heckler when it came to magic. That, or he just isn't when I'm performing. I pre-generated this opinion of how he'd react to magic based on my decades of friendship and knowing how he acts and what his personality is like. Oddly enough, "magic" wasn't a topic that ever came up -- even though we started a juggling club in middle school together -- but I allowed my bias to take control and rather than just perform, I let it take the stage and run, or ruin, the whole thing.

I called him a heckler at least 3 times during the two tricks I showed. I talked down to him, saying things like "I know what you're going to think when I do this, so watch real close so you can't call me out" and "look, I know you're not going to trust me so you shuffle. that'll make you happy."

When I practice, and honestly when I perform, I am super happy and friendly and try to give off a "fun to be around" personality. This performance was the exact opposite. It was me being a jerk.

If I was in his shoes, I would never want me to perform again.

Repeat Performance

A few months later we were out with other friends and one of them asked to see a trick so I ended up performing a few (they kept asking for more!) and the guilt of being such a jerk to him had eaten away at me for so long, I over-emphasized being the "nice" guy. Not in a bad way, it came off well, but I felt like I had to do it.

Anyways, they all had a lot of fun and were really impressed. It felt great. But not as great as my friend's feedback. Afterwards, he said to me "dude, you've gotten so much better in such a short time. Before, you just weren't good at people-management and it showed in how you handled the cards but now, everything flowed together so well."

That... that was great!

Real Heckler, attempt #2. Did I learn?

So, there I was... again. Except in a different place and a completely different group of people, only a few months ago in fact. Most of them were aware that I do magic and asked to see something -- you gotta love when your friends ask for it! -- so I whipped out a deck of cards.

I hadn't performed for any of them before, and I don't know them extremely well, so this was just a fresh performance. Right after asking the first woman to take a card, one of the guys standing to the side chimed in "make sure he doesn't see it, make him work for his money". First, it'd be nice to get paid for something one day =P. Second, ouch. And here I thought they wanted to be entertained.

He kept at it though. His eyes grilled my hands no matter where my gaze was or where I called attention to. Luckily, I had excuses to turn my body to make gestures to the group ;)

Unlike the time before when I treated the "potential heckler" with mistrust and angst, this time, I played along with his quips and even let some of them guide the performance. Of the four routines I performed, only one was fully practiced, the others I was just jiving based on his guidance. "Don't let him see the card" went from a Chicago Opener to the woman not seeing the card and a second spectator choosing its pair. He followed it with "are you using one of those marked decks?," asked (or said) in a condescending way, so I said "Ah no way! I thought this was a special magician's marked deck where only we could see the markings. Once you know about it though, you should be able to see it too" and then proceeded to do Chicago Opener. It segued quite nicely. Then a quick self-worker, followed by a card-under-glass.

Mr. Heckler nodded and gave a "Nice." and moved on. Everyone else was very pleased =]

Experience Matters

I've read about dealing with hecklers in only a few books; most don't broach the subject. They all present sound advice, but there are no "rules" you must follow. At the end of the day, if you want to give them a solid Will Smith smack in the face, so be it. You may never get another job again, but it's an out if you so choose.

Will Smith smacking Chris Rock meme

You also don't have to bend over backwards to please that specific person. If it's just them, or one or two others, you could opt to not perform. Either say you're not in the mood or make up an excuse that could keep you in their minds if they want to see some sweet magic.

Often, you can, or should, just ignore them. Don't buy into it and don't let it phase you... as best as possible of course. I very much failed at this my first time. If I acted that way with a group, wow. I don't think anyone would ever ask me to perform again.

The second time around, I also didn't follow this, and I bought in so hard I let it direct the set. I think this only worked because it was just aligned well enough for improv, and I had things setup in a way that it just so happened to match the topics. This could have turned out as a massive failure if I messed anything up. Rather than have the heckler be this snarky person trying to mess up a routine, it could have been seen as my trying to let my ego prove him wrong -- that wasn't the case, but it could've come off that way.

Real workers will have had a lot more experience and likely have their own set ways of dealing with hecklers, but that's the point. Experience.

I hope I don't run into more, but hopefully the next time I do I'll be able to handle it well.

Share This!

Previous Post Next Post