There's little that can derail a good night of comedy as quickly and embarrassingly as a heckler. Whether loudly answering rhetorical questions, accusing the comedian of racism or sexism or simply yelling "You suck!" hecklers are quick to ruin everyone else's good time to make themselves seem funny. No one likes it. Not the audience, not the comedians, and definitely not Nick Pupo. One of Orlando's most prominent comedians, Nick recently got to open for The Tonight Show's Seth Herzog at that "secret" show we told you about. Pupo has a reputation for taking comedy seriously, as oxymoronic as that sounds, and he recently sat down with us to discuss the seething hatred he feels whenever he witnesses a fellow comic get heckled.
OW: You recently put up an interesting post on Facebook about running into a heckler. There’s also some video of you at Will’s Pub where there’s a very loud guy interrupting with “Woo!” over and over again. How annoying does someone have to be for you to start singling them out and tearing them down and trying to make them feel like an asshole?
NP: For me onstage, if it’s the first time they’re heckling throughout the entire show, probably about three times. But if I’m watching the show and I’m watching other comics go up, and I see that person has been doing it to three or four comics, then I single them out immediately. That’s what I open with.
OW: Have you worked on anti-heckling material in addition to your jokes?
NP: A lot of people do that. I know that Louie C.K. does that and a lot of comics do. Steve Martin did “Oh, I remember when I had my first beer.” That’s a famous one. I don’t really do it so much anymore, but I did write one early on when I said “Look, if you think that you’re funny and you’re interested in doing comedy, then write some of your ideas down on paper. Then, when I get off stage, I’ll come over to you and I’ll piss on it.” So it’s leading them on to thinking that you’re going to be nice and then kind of shitting on them. There’s a lot of times where people think that just someone talking is a heckler, and it’s not always. Sometimes people just want to add something to the show or just they’re drunk and they’re like, “Oh, me too.” They say something like that to one of your jokes where it’s like, “Okay, that wasn’t really relevant. We don’t need to hear from you.” But sometimes I’ve gotten too aggressive. That’s something that I’m kind of notorious for. A lot of comics know that I’ll be a little too aggressive to people. I won’t be too mean, but I made fun of this girl with a lisp the other night. It was unintentional, but it happened. I was in the middle of a joke and I said something about a girl working at Publix and she was like, “Ugh, I know.” I was like, “What?” And she was like, “Oh, I just work in restaurants and stuff.” And I was like, “Alright. Thanks.” And then I realized that she was saying what she was saying really slowly, so I said “You’re talking really slow.” And she was like, “Well, I’m really drunk and I have a lisp. And I was like, “Well, maybe if you have a lisp, you shouldn’t get so drunk that you can’t speak fluently.” Something like that. And everyone was like, “Oh, come on!” and then I lost everybody immediately. I got them back a little bit in the end. But I learn from stuff like that, not to be too – just to kind of be open and kinder to people.
OW: It seems a little personal with you. Did you have any particularly bad experiences with hecklers when you were first starting?
NP: Yeah, well I think that everybody does. I remember when I first started four years ago watching people go up, people as new as me, and just getting annihilated. I didn’t get heckled for probably the first year. The whole first year I did comedy, I never got heckled. It was weird. I mean, maybe there were a couple of drunk people. It happens now every now and then, the more shows you do. But I can’t remember any moment in particular that really upset me. Sometimes people can just heckle me with their face. I can look in the audience and just the way that they’re looking at me, I’m like, “Fuck you.” I’ve gone off on people by the way that they’ve looked at me on stage. That’s just not fair. That’s not fair to do to somebody. But it’s usually when I’m having a bad night. I’m very insecure about my comedy whenever I’m writing. Then I see somebody making a face and I pick a target and then I go off on that person. That person is – I can safely say that that person’s usually a douchebag, you know?
OW: So it’s not just the face?
NP: It’s the personality. It’s the hair and the – [OW: Ed Hardy t-shirt?] Yeah. You can totally judge a book by their cover. That’s such a bullshit statement.
OW: What do you think is the mindset of hecklers? Are they just incapable of not being the center of attention in the room? Is it a bullying behavior, seeing someone be vulnerable and feeling the need to dig into them?
NP: You’ll hear a lot of people say this. This is their defense as hecklers. “I’m doing a service to the comics because they’re going to get heckled and I’m training them. I’m getting them ready for real heckling.” When in reality, you’re just part of the problem. The whole goal is to get people not to heckle. But inevitably it’s going to happen. And it sucks. So in a way these people are kind of right, but they’re also wrong. And they’re also still the asshole.
OW: Because who’s the big league heckler?
NP: Right. You’re not working your way up. You’re just working your way through a series of drunk douchebags. And they’re always the same. You’re never gonna get – I mean, sometimes you do get somebody that burns you, I’m assuming. I’ve heard stories. I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten burned on stage by somebody. Usually they’re drunk or they’re on the spot and they don’t really know what to say when they’re on the spot. It seems like the smaller the crowd, the more confident the hecklers are. If it’s a big crowd, unless someone’s very drunk, usually that person’s going to be pretty nervous once they’re on the spot. Like if they call you out and they say something to you and then you get them with one good joke and then the whole audience laughs, then they’re done. There’s really no way that they can win. But it has happened. People do get defeated by hecklers. In 20 people or in an atmosphere like Natura Coffee and Tea, where a lot of people may not be paying attention – there’s a blender going off, there’s people smoking hookah, you can hear every piece of everything going on in the restaurant, so not a lot of people are paying attention. Everything is already against you. You don’t have a leg up as a performer. No one’s on your side. You’re part of the noise. When people see you in that kind of atmosphere and they see you’re already vulnerable and you’re not winning over a crowd, then they know that they can just say that you’re not funny. And you’re like, “Well, you know what, in this moment you kind of are correct.” And that’s really the best way to approach it, because you’re not going to have all these people backing you up. And that’s what’s great about big rooms when you’re doing well and someone says something stupid or doesn’t like a joke that you did. Then you can easily take them down, because it’s like you have an army. It’s just against this one person.
OW: So do you come across it more at open mic nights or more at showcases, where people are coming specifically to see comedy?
NP: Yeah, it’s typically more prevalent in showcases and open mics. Smaller venues. Bars where people are kind of standing, drunk, don’t know there’s a show going on. They didn’t pay to get in. If you do something – even Will’s, which was the show you referenced earlier, there was a guy who was just saying “Woo!” That’s another one of those things. He paid something cheap, like $5 to get in. He didn’t know the comics, any of them. He had never been to any comedy show locally. And he was drunk as hell. And really he was a kind dude. That’s the thing.
OW: Yeah, you mention that in the clip. “He’s a nice dude. He bought my friend a beer. Never bought me one, but ”
NP: Yeah, exactly. And he never did. But when people pay $20, $25 – Or if it’s at the Improv, which I like to perform. But that just feels like a show. Everyone paid. It’s a whole night. People drove out to Pointe Orlando, which is always a drive. Or walked across the street from their hotel. They have a drink minimum. Without even buying a ticket, they’re probably going to spend $40 or $50 for two people with alcohol and maybe a snack. So these people want to see a show. And plus it’s the Improv. It’s a famous venue. It’s dark. There’s 250, 300 people. People are a little intimidated. Most people don’t want to heckle. Anyone who thinks that they’re tough will feel quite small in that.
OW: On the post that I mentioned earlier, you laid out three reasons why you go after hecklers so aggressively. Do you mind if I reprint them?
1. Defending the art. I know exactly how difficult it is to be a comedian. The first three years were the most emotionally convoluted of my life. If anyone tries to take a big brown dump on stand-up, I will make sure they know exactly how empty their hearts are.
2. Sticking up for my friends. More than 75% of my friends are in comedy, and when I see any of them on stage working hard to get an audience to listen, laugh and appreciate them, I feel a deep connection that I can't feel with any other kind of person in the world. Stand-ups understand each other. So when I see someone trying to make that more difficult for them, it hits too close to home and suddenly my job becomes to destroy that person's sense of self-worth. I often fail to do so.
3. Boosting my own ego, selfishly. It makes me feel good to scream at people who have done something I believe to be wrong. Blowing off steam from everyday frustrations by way yelling is the way to go.
Keep an eye out for Nick Pupo at various comedy nights around town. If you're lucky, he won't hate your face. Here's the aforementioned clip of Nick at Will's Pub.