Entertainment & Life

Comedy pro tip No. 2: Learn how to handle a heckler

Sacramento stand-up comic Robert Berry
Sacramento stand-up comic Robert Berry Sierra Berry

So, all your friends think you’re the funniest person in the room, and you’re not the type to shy away from the microphone on karaoke night. Therefore, you’ve got all it takes to become a successful stand-up comic, right?

LOL.

For all its punchlines and goofy monologues, stand-up comedy requires a serious dedication to craft. It’s an incredibly tough gig that requires a specialized skill set. Telling jokes alone won’t cut it. Comedians have to be mentally nimble. They have to be able to quickly read a room. And they have to know how to save face during those inevitable moments when a routine bombs.

These kinds of comedic skills will be put to the test at the fourth annual Sacramento Stand-Up Competition, running Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25 at midtown’s Sacramento Comedy Spot. Thirty comedians from around the country will duke it out for $2,000 in cash prizes.

And maybe you, funny person, can someday hone your humor and reach the level of these comedy competitors. The Sacramento Comedy Spot offers a number of workshops dedicated to improvisation, sketch comedy and stand-up strategies.

In the meantime, we surveyed some local comedians about what it takes to be successful. If you’re thinking about trying your hand at stand-up, here are a few tips to get you started:

Keep your comedy original

Don Rickles is known as “Mr. Warmth” for his insult comedy. Gallagher has his props. Amy Schumer mixes sass with a self-effacing attitude.

The best comics make us laugh with their signature style and point of view, and ripping them off is perhaps the cardinal sin of stand-up comedy.

John Ross has helped plenty of would-be Mitch Hedbergs find their voices over the years. Ross has taught stand-up comedy classes at the Sacramento Comedy Spot for seven years, encouraging newcomers to find their own points of view and use their own lives as jump-off points for comedic material.

Ross specializes in subversive, dark humor with one routine that centers around growing up with parents who were heroin addicts. He says that inward is a great place to mine for material, but just make sure that the stories you’re telling are your own.

“Know that integrity is everything,” said Ross. “It has to be from your own experience, not like putting a meme on Facebook. There’s a lot of comedy out there, especially with people posting stuff online, and it’s easy to grab or steal. I always push home that it has to come from your perspective.”

Learn how to handle a heckler

All it takes is two words to make a comic wince before he or she is about to hit the stage: Bachelorette party.

Cheryl “The Soccer Mom” Anderson has performed stand-up comedy for the past decade, and knows well that when a bride-to-be and her tipsy pals are in the audience, some heckling may soon come her way.

Hecklers are usually fueled by two things: alcohol and a need for attention. A comic needs a deft touch to manage the situation before all melts down and the footage lands on YouTube.

Some comics take a scorched-earth approach to handling a heckler, with an arsenal of insults and aggressive one-liners ready to be launched. Anderson prefers a less-abrasive style, which aligns closer to her act, which focuses on the absurdities of suburban family life.

“Because of my personality, if I came back in a mean way, the audience might think, ‘Where did that come from?’ ” Anderson said. “For me, I just remind them that I have the microphone, maybe give them a moment to acknowledge that they want a little recognition, and say, ‘Now, we’re going to move on.’ 

Just understand that heckling is going to happen, and that kind of spontaneity is what sometimes draws people to comedy shows in the first place. The trick is not letting the hecklers take control of the set.

“Sometimes people think they’re helping (by heckling), but when they keep talking it can mess up my timing,” said Anderson. “If they’re annoying you, they’re annoying the audience, too. They don’t want to listen to some drunk who wants all the attention.”

Hit the open-mike circuit

The Sacramento Comedy Spot can get you plenty prepared with tips for taking the stage – keep the microphone stand behind you, don’t be timid, don’t blame the audience when the jokes fall flat – but perhaps the best classrooms can be found on the open-mike circuit. The only way to to truly test out material is to try it out before an audience and work out the finer points of your delivery and punchlines.

Sacramento has plenty of open-mike opportunities for comedians to work out the kinks. Look for them on Mondays at the Sacramento Comedy Spot and Fox & Goose, and at Shine Sacramento on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

“You don’t necessarily need to take a class to be a good stand-up,” said Brian Crall, co-founder of the Sacramento Comedy Spot. “A lot of them take to open-mikes to workshop (their material). Most comedians when they’re just starting out just go onstage and say a few jokes they wrote. Nobody has a ‘voice’ at first, so you have to get up and fail a few times to see what kind of comedian (you) are.”

Be able to bomb with dignity

Awkward silences – get used to them. Whether you’re Chris Rock or a first-timer at an open-mike night, you’re going to bomb at some point.

Telling a joke only to hear crickets can be an especially humbling experience for any comic, but Robert Berry believes that bombing onstage helps build the thick skin that comics need.

Berry is a host with the most who has worked the open-mike circuit for two decades. His act specializes in corny puns and silly one-liners, the kind of material that can tickle an audience one night, but might make others groan the next.

My uncle fell into an active volcano. He will be mist.

See what we mean?

But like the pros, you must soldier forth, comic newbie. The worst thing to do is take out that frustration on the audience, which just makes it look like you’re the one who can’t take a joke.

“You’ve got to realize that bombing happens, and it’s happened to every comedian alive,” Berry said. “The worst thing is when comedians delude themselves, and they’re patting themselves on the back after a horrible performance, like, ‘I really rocked it tonight.’

“Part of the process is knowing some of this might stink. You lick your wounds and move on. That’s what makes you stronger.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

Fourth annual Sacramento Stand-Up Competition

What: Comedians from Sacramento and beyond battle it out with punchlines for cash prizes.

When: 8 p.m. Friday, June 24; 7 p.m. Saturday, June 25

Where: Sacramento Comedy Spot, 1050 20th St., #130, Sacramento

Cost: $10 for preliminary round of 10 comedians; $15 for competition finals; $20 for Friday pass, $25 for Saturday pass; $40 for weekend pass.

Information: 916-444-3137; sacstandup.com/

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