Tuesday, April 14, 2009


So I was channel surfing the cable last night late, and came across a documentary, Heckler.

From 2007, the movie was an exploration of hecklers, that is, people who yell out at a performer on-stage. The scope was expanded to include critics, who write reviews, either for traditional news outlets or online, and who offer the same level of rudeness, or worse, in their comments.

Starring Jamie Kennedy, a young man to whom hecklers and critics have not been kind, the documentary is a great mix of rage and sorrow, and ways that various artists -- comedians, actors, singers, moviemakers, deal with the abuse that comes with their professions.

Kennedy, who has been in movies ranging from Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back to the four Scream movies and Son of the Mask, is also a stand-up comic, and he interviews performers, reads bad reviews out loud, and offers his defenses.

His hecklers and critics are largely unrepentant. They say to his face what they shout out from the audience or write on their blogs, and this sometimes painful to watch as he sits and talks to them on-camera.

Comedians like Louie Anderson, Arsenio Hall, and Howie Mandel speak of how it feels to be lambasted. George Lucas offers that there are creators and destroyers, and he prefers to align himself with the former. I loved the singer Jewel, whose retort to a radio interview is wonderful, "And now, here's Jewel, a big-breasted singer from Canada," the DJ leads in. to which she responds, "And you must be that small penis radio guy from South Carolina I've heard so much about," she says. After which her label stopped sending her to radio interviews.

My stance on critics -- often hecklers who write -- fits comfortably with what most of the performers offer. The critics weren't there when the page was blank, and it is better to be the world's worst artist than the world's best critic. I've always liked Liza Minelli's line on The Muppet Show: "Scratch a critic, find an assassin." Roll 'em in corn meal and deep-fat fry 'em, that's my solution ...

(Which is not to say that there aren't mean-spirited performers who sometimes deserve what they get because of what they dish out. You don't really want to be the world's worst artist.
Some humor is simply vile, and if people aren't laughing but cringing, then pointing it out is valid. If a critic, sitting in a theater full of people falling the floor laughing says the movie isn't funny, then he's not in touch with audiences. If they aren't laughing, he can say that.)

I recall a story that Eddie Murphy tells. He got a call from Bill Cosby, who took him to task for doing blue humor. Murphy was upset, so he called Richard Pryor. Pryor said, "Was it funny? Did they laugh?" Murphy said, yeah. "Well, then tell Bill to have a Coke and a smile and go fuck himself."

Carrot-Top, who gets beaucoup abuse, wonders why critics don't understand that it's painful to be eviscerated this way. Howie Mandel, when asked if criticism has ever affected him adversely says, If lying naked in a fetal position in your own feces for two weeks on the floor is considered an adverse effect, then, yeah. Of course, Liberace's famous comment was that he cried all the way to the bank. But still:

The ego that is willing to risk getting up on a stage in front of a bunch of people to be funny is fragile, and the term used when it goes bad is that you die. A lot of comedians are doing what they do out of depression, and one of my favorites, Richard Jeni, who was very funny on stage, up and killed himself one fine morning a couple years back.

Another comedian, Bill Mahr, maybe, allows that developing a thick skin doesn't really work. If you aren't sensitive, you can't really work and audience, you miss what you need for the interaction.

At one point, with comedians discussing how they handle hecklers -- some like it, because then it becomes a battle of wits, and they enjoy the challenge -- one offers that bringing a heckler onstage to try and do better is fun. They show such an instance, and it is wonderful. Hecker starts trying to tell a story, and the comedian in the audience starts razzing him at the perfect moment and absolutely flummoxes the guy.

You can't really argue with critics. Unlike hecklers, they are at a remove, and not telling you where you can see them. You can deal with somebody in reach, though, and they show a couple of instances.

There's the comedian who takes his guitar and bashes a heckler over the head with it. That one horrified me because it ruined a guitar.

There is footage of a football jock on TV, Jim Everett, and the interviewer, trying to be clever, razzes Jim by calling him "Chris," (alluding to Chris Everet, the woman tennis player. After being called "Chris" for a couple times, Jim says, "You call me Chris to my face one more time, you are going to need to take a station break." The interviewer grins, says, "Chris." whereupon Jim stands up, dumps the table on the guy, and grabs him up and shakes him like a rag doll.

I loved it.

One of my favorite bits is a German moviemaker who challenged his worst critics to step into a boxing ring if they had the balls. They then showed highlights of the Uwe Boll vs. The Critics matches, in which he beats the snot out of four guys, two of whom were much bigger. That one I absolutely loved. There's a shot of one of them after it was over, puking up everything he'd eaten since he was four, and I loved that, too. 

In Hollywood, they like the term "heart." As in, "this is a action-thriller, but with heart." Or "this is Fast and Furious, but with heart." By which they mean that there is some emotional content that will touch viewers. Anybody who has ever gotten swatted after working hard to create something where there was nothing before -- music, art, literature, carpentry, whatever -- will likely find something in this documentary that speaks to them.


Anonymous said...

Uwe Boll had planned to challenge and beat up a few critics more. But when he found out that one of the critics was an amateur boxer (with about as much experience as Boll) he withdrew his offer.
So its also a story about when you have to be carefull with this sort of thing.

B. Smith said...

I saw this and loved it. Unfortunately some of the message gets lost because Jamie Kennedy is so easy to beat up.

I loved all the bits you mentioned but one that got me was the story Nick Swardson (Terry from Reno 911) told about being thrown to the wolves in a Def Jam type comedy club. He was a young, relatively clean comic and was bombing in that environment. A woman in the audience simply tells him: "You need to go."

The look on his face as he told the story was worth a thousand words.

Steve Perry said...

I think Kennedy was the perfect guy to be center-stage on this one. He wants to be good, but he just doesn't have the chops. Big Name comedians get flogged, but they have a body of work that shows how funny they are. There's only one real sin in comedy and that's to be Not Funny. Kennedy's stuff doesn't make enough people laugh -- for me, it's mean-spirited, and even those who do laugh probably feel guilty for doing it.

Somebody is always the butt of a joke, always, if it's really funny, but the best at it can do it so it doesn't sting so bad. Or they make themselves the goat, and you laugh with them because they invite it.

Formosa Neijia said...

Great post.

It's so much easier to destroy than create. And the fact that others can create is an offense to those that can't. So they have to tear down the work of others.

Formosa Neijia said...

What a minute. I'm only half-way through the movie, but I disagree with the comedy bit. Most comedy these days isn't funny and just tears down people. It makes me uncomfortable a lot. So I can see why it gets a lot of heckling.

Saw the whole thing.

Okay, yes people are filthy animals and the I-net brings out the worst in them. Agreed to a large extent.

But people have media they don't want shoved down their throats all day everyday. I have to listen to my I-pod (use media) just to keep out media that I don't want intruding into my personal space. Are we supposed to just shut up and take all that?

I'm noticing a bad trend lately of hating the consumer. Consumers are supposed to buy movie tickets, CDs, books, whatever media companies want them to buy and then keep quiet. Where's the consumer's voice in all this? How can the little guy be heard? In all the places Carrie Fischer, etc. happen to hate because they don't control it.

So there's two sides to this story.

Great post. thanks for pointing this out.