So, many times when a comedian gets heckled, the gripe is that the audience member has interrupted that show and potentially ruined it for everyone else, or at least for anyone who was enjoying it. Everybody is there to see the performance and to interrupt the performance is denying the rest of the crowd the entertainment they have paid for (with their money, time, or both). While we as comedians don’t expect everyone to agree or like everything we do (although we’d certainly love if that were the case), all we can reasonably ask is that you don’t interrupt the show. In fact, if you disagree with something we say, most of us would probably encourage you to voice your opinion, albeit more discretely than shouting nonsense in front of people you don’t know.
This is exactly what happened to me recently. I did a show called Potluck, an open-ended showcase of various spoken word “dishes,” aimed to inspire or otherwise add to the collective creative pool. There are no parameters, other than the time constraint. I chose to expand on my bit about pedophiles and explore it a tad more academically.
Here is the bit, for reference:
I did this at the show, more or less true to the video, and it was not very well-received. The next day, I got the following email from a woman, to whom I will refer as “Anonymous.” I am posting it here along with my response. Let this serve as a “how to” for future hecklers and, hopefully, a solid argument for intelligent discussion over disruptive, visceral reactions.
I was in the audience on Monday 7/16/12 at the Mac N Cheese Potluck evening, and I feel compelled to write you this email to let you know how your “dish” affected me. I don’t expect this to have any effect on your choice of comedy topic choices, but I can’t sit silently and not say anything at all. I wish I had spoken with you directly that night, but I was confused and offended, and I’m not sure I would have been very nice, which is usually my MO, so that would have confused me further. Perhaps you can consider this ‘heckling,’ but in a respectful, hopefully constructive way.
I imagine you have heard this from some audience members already, because from your website I gather that pedophilia is a topic you’ve been doing sets on and developing material about for months now, and I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who thinks that pedophilia is a topic that should NOT be joked about. I was personally offended, as someone who has loved ones who have been victims of child molestation, but I want to offer my opinion as a mental health professional, in case that’s a new source of feedback for you.
I am a social worker, and I work with children who have experienced a wide range of traumas, from parental neglect or abandonment to physical or emotional abuse, to natural catastrophes (i.e. Hurricane Katrina), and many more. Then there is the secondary trauma of being raised by a parent who experienced these traumas in their own childhood and who have, as a result, developed a mental illness or proclivity to this type of pathology. Sexual molestation of a child is one of the most horrific atrocities that can traumatize a person, and can have wide-reaching effects on their lives. It is a cycle that can and does continue for generations, and can do unfathomable harm to a person’s mental state and well-being, and ability to function in life. The children who were abused by Jerry Sandusky and any of the countless other pedophiles in the world, convicted and not yet discovered, will undoubtedly suffer throughout their lifetime in varying degrees. Some will become pedophiles themselves. Some will harbor deep sadness and anger, and may or may not ever be able to process the trauma in a healthy, functional way. Some, tragically, will find life too unbearable and will take their own lives. And undoubtedly, some will be in your audience some day, and hearing the topic joked about in the way you were delivering your set will affect them in some way. While a few may laugh if they feel relief that the topic is lightened for them, it is more likely that some may be retraumatized by hearing such a topic joked about, or may choose to leave your audience, as happened on Monday night.
While I am sure that success as a comedian is cutthroat, and I recognize your right to choose whatever topic you wish as allowable by your host venue, I encourage you to reconsider this particular line of humor, and find other topics that won’t be so potentially painful to audience members, in both real life and the internet. I noticed that you have the comments turned off on your website, which I wonder if it is a result of the incendiary nature of some of your topics? I’m more inclined to write a personal email than an anonymous comment anyway, so that you have a chance to respond and perhaps we can have a dialogue about it if you wish. I have copied Saya and Pete on this email since they curated the event, and I have already let them know that I thought the choice of your topic was a judgement error. I don’t doubt you’re talented and that it is possible you’re hilarious when talking about other, less offensive topics. I just couldn’t let this one go without at least a personal email letting you know how I feel.
I wish you luck with your comic endeavors. Please consider what I have said.
And, of course, my response:
First and foremost, I want to thank you, sincerely, for responding in this way. I can not tell you how much I appreciate the fact that, despite being upset at what I was saying during the performance, you sat quietly and allowed the performance to continue, unfettered so that everyone else could watch it in its entirety. This is exactly what I would want someone in your position to do. You are the ideal heckler. I don’t expect everyone to agree with what I’m saying, or that everyone enjoys it. But rather than shout out during the show, you collected your thoughts and delivered them in a well-thought out, articulate email. For that, I am truly appreciative. You give other hecklers something to strive for. Thank you.
Now, although we disagree on a few things, let’s start with what we agree on. We both agree that child molestation is overtly undesirable and we should work to prevent it. We also agree that those with experiences with this particular trauma (or those close to people with said experiences) may have an increasingly painful emotional response when the topic is broached, comedically or otherwise. The question, then, is how do we navigate these axioms to most effectively achieve the ultimate, idealistic goal of eradicating these types of painful experiences altogether? Evidently we disagree on the answer to that question.
Your first point is one that is commonly made and that is that certain topics should be off limits. While I understand that certain people, due to their personal experiences, will shut down when they hear certain topics mentioned, that’s not something to which I feel compelled to capitulate. So many people are affected by a myriad of “traumas” that eliminating from the rolodex of possible topics anything that has inflicted significant pain on a person would reduce the pool down to a paltry list of bland, uninteresting subjects. For example, while you may think sexual molestation (of a child) is the most “taboo,” others with a different set of experiences may think differently. Some may think that rape is the worst; others will say the Holocaust; others will say gang violence; or cancer; or suicide; or diabetes; or murder; or being anti-American; etc. The list goes on, nearly forever. If we capitulate to each person’s personal tastes and offenses, what we get is a world where we’re only allowed to talk about sandals and clouds, and even then we have people complaining about how their uncle was once struck by lightning that came out of a cumulonimbus cloud, so we can’t talk about that anymore either. (I know nothing about meteorology, so I don’t even know if what I just described is physically possible, but you get the point.)
You could ask, “Why talk about ‘taboo’ subjects at all?” Well, I think it’s important because, due to their polarizing nature, they are the most difficult to address honestly. I believe that facing issues, no matter how dark or disturbing, head on with the utmost honesty is the most effective way of first accepting the issue and then working toward its solution. In addition, it provides me with the daunting challenge of finding humor in such dark places. We must not confuse making jokes about a topic with thinking the topic itself is funny. Those are two very different things.
Nowhere in my bit about pedophiles am I defending or advocating the action of molesting kids. In fact, the bit is precisely about preventing the action by allowing ourselves to discuss the whole situation in an honest manner. And that means looking at both sides of the coin. Obviously we can all look at a traumatized kid and feel empathy and regret over the incident. But where I differ from most people is that most people want to chalk up things like that (or the Holocaust, etc.) to this fictitious notion of evil. The wonderful thing about evil is that we can place it at an infinite distance from humanity. We can write them off as aberrations, cosmic clerical errors, so that we don’t have to deal with them internally. What we forget, or choose to not remember, is that everything, by definition, is part of the human spectrum. Everything we experience or do lies on some segment of the gradient of total humanity, including the ugliest parts. So, in my particular bit, I’m talking about the experiences of the pedophiles themselves. This is an experience almost never discussed, as we are so turned off by their desires and actions, we refuse to give them even the decency of consideration. I believe that to be destructive to the ultimate goal, mentioned above.
I talk, firstly, about how being a pedophile is not a choice. That is true. (Who would pick it?!) Whether the desires are innate or learned at a young age is irrelevant. The person is not some evil tyrant who is choosing to molest kids out of some malicious spite-rage. These are people who, for whatever reason, are sexually attracted to children. So, if we make the “it’s not a choice” the crux of our gay rights arguments, we have to at least consider that reality when discussing pedophiles.
You raised an interesting point, which I have mentioned once or twice in a slightly different rendition of the bit, and that is that often times victims of molestation will become pedophiles themselves. Well, that creates a fascinating paradox, doesn’t it? We are so quick to forget that pedophiles were kids once, too. They, at one point in time, were the innocents, the pure souls, the infinite possibilities. So if a child gets molested, we instantly castigate the perpetrator and sympathize with the victim. But that child victim grows up and may develop those same desires himself, at which point we hate him. Since those desires are so overtly condemned in our society, that person will be hard-pressed to find a place to talk about those desires openly. This is exactly my point! If we, as a society, were more tolerant, at least in rhetoric, of those desires (pre acting on them), then we could potentially allow more people to get help and work through them rather than be forced to suppress what must feel like a very primal urge. (The’ve actually begun work exactly like this in Germany, opening centers for pedophiles to talk about their struggle and work through them so that they may be members of society. Here is a link to a recent CNN article: http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/21/opinion/cantor-pedophila-sandusky/index.html)
My piece is not making fun of victims, but it’s not making fun of pedophiles either, which is the usual route. It’s making fun of people who judge without considering the entirety of what they are judging. People who so callously condemn the molesting of kids as “wrong,” without any consideration as to what it’s actually like to have those desires. (It’s easy for me to never have sex with a kid as I’m not sexually attracted to them.) We can not judge someone unless we are certain that we would do something differently in the exact same state. And that, to me, is the real problem. It’s the stifling of honest discussion, often times due to intense emotional blowback, that prevents any meaningful solutions from being reached. This is true about so many things, but for the sake of brevity (and potentially your sanity) I’ve stuck to the topic at hand.
You could read all of this, and even potentially agree with what I’m saying, but still believe that it can’t be made funny. And that’s fine. I accept that. We all have different senses of humor and I would never begrudge someone theirs. (I assure you, however, that if you were open to the idea that this topic could be humorous, you would have seen that the jokes I constructed within the bit are flawless. They are hilarious, but only if we accept that it’s even possible for certain components of this subject to be funny.)
Regarding your website issue, I’m not sure what you mean by mentioning that I have “comments turned off.” I have no idea what you are talking about. Where should the comments be allowed? I know they are turned on in every blog post as well as all my YouTube clips. I don’t see where else you could possibly want to post them, but I assure you that’s not a conscious choice. If there is something turned off that shouldn’t be, that’s simply my technical ignorance. To the contrary, I would do nothing but encourage this type of discussion, publicly or otherwise. So please let me know what channel I should open to allow public discussion on my site.
I, too, have replied to both Saya and Pete. They saw me perform this material before, to a much more enthusiastic response, so I felt comfortable talking about it at their event. I’m not insane; clearly I’m aware that the piece is polarizing. It’s a love/hate bit. Nobody thinks that bit is “just okay.” You either hate it or you think it’s the greatest thing ever written. Obviously, you fell into the former and your thoughts on it were common to the majority of the Potluck audience. So it goes. I don’t expect everyone to like what I say, but I assure you that I’m not doing it to shock people. I say it because I believe it and everyone has the right to respond (or not respond) as they deem fit. Again, all that we ask as performers is that you let us perform, which you and the entire audience did. Once more, I am most appreciative of the civility demonstrated by both you and the rest of the crowd.
I hope that sheds some light on where I’m coming from. I would never deprive you of having an emotional reaction to something, and I respect that, but I hope you can better understand that my goal is ultimately a positive one. I encourage you to send back your thoughts as I am always up for a good discussion, as the time-stamp on this email surely indicates.
Thanks again for sending this. I might honestly use it as an example on “how to properly heckle.” THAT is not a joke.
See how we were both able to get our points across without getting overly emotional or disrupting a show? I have not heard back yet, but when/if I do, I will be happy to post the (potentially ongoing) back-and-forth. The point is that this is not only more polite, this is a more constructive outcome of disagreement than shouting out during the show would have been. My thank you to this woman for handling her issue with me in this manner was, and is, sincere. I hope many more follow in her stead.