Sam Street Performing as Sammy Showtime in Bamberg Germany at a Festival

Handling Hecklers as a Street Performer: A Practical Guide

Getting heckled is pretty much a rite of passage for any street performer. Every time I tell someone what I do, the first thing they ask is,

"How do you handle hecklers?"

Honestly, it’s like a dance, and every performer has their own style depending on where they are and how they perform. For me, on the streets, how i handle the heckle may end up affecting how much I'm paid. My main goal when someone heckles is to keep the show on track. Sometimes, the spot I'm performing in is highly sought after, and it might be the only chance I have to perform that day.

Early Experiences and The Golden Rule

You’ll learn more about heckling when you don’t succeed versus when you do. I was mid-performance in Galway, Ireland,  when a local drunk started yelling from the back of the crowd. I did what most performers would probably do—Threw back some standard stock lines to put him down and win over the interaction. I was new and that was all I had.

"Hey, you guys met my manager?"

*For more see Gazzos book "Read Between the Lines"*

I can’t quite remember exactly what he said. I just know that it didn’t stop. He wasn't being mean, just disruptive & annoying. Unfortunately my emotions got the better of me. I lost my cool and it ended up spoiling the show. This left me feeling both angry and frustrated.

Was my ego so fragile that a homeless alcoholic could get under my skin? Turns out, it was.

This experience hammered home a critical lesson for me: always keep your cool. Staying calm is key and let the audience know that everything is under control.

As I honed my street performance style and refined my persona, it became clear that I wasn't one to hurl biting insults. Instead, I prefer spotlighting the absurdity of the moment, and looking for comic relief in that. I tend to avoid typical, rehearsed responses to hecklers. Although I may use one in a pinch i do find them to be a bit of a crutch. Some of my favourite moments in street shows have emerged spontaneously in those critical, make-or-break moments. It's all about adapting on the fly. I’ve come up with a few different tactics to deal with the various heckler types you might encounter.

Understanding Heckler Types

Group One: The Good-Hearted Heckler

These folks don’t mean any harm; they’re just pumped to be part of the show and add to the spontaneous vibe of street performances. Depending on their vibe, I might play along if it amps up the show, or I'll let their comments get a laugh before moving on.

Group Two: Blissfully Ignorant

One of my favourite pastimes as a performer is people watching. My friend and I would often go out on walks through busy city streets and CBD just to watch how people go about their day. We can’t be the only people that do this right?

It’s not uncommon in the street that people are completely unaware of themselves. They could be a bit tipsy, dealing with some personal stuff, or simply clueless. It’s important to remember not everyone is aware of how they come off to others.

If your crowd has missed the context, jumping right into put-downs can make you look like you're picking on someone unfairly.

The first thing I do is to give the audience this context and make sure people know whats going on. I find that a gentle approach initially works best—I’m not one for being harsh or mean. Often, I’ll just pause my act, smile at the heckler, and wait for the crowd and heckler to notice. Most hecklers don’t enjoy being the centre of attention for long. And will quickly back down or leave. Its easy from there to lighten up the mood with a joke and release the tension.

This approach generally resolves things without further issues. On the street, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt; most aren’t trying to be disruptive on purpose. Sometimes just a simple, "Hey mate, could you quiet down a bit?" or "Mind moving to the back?" is enough. As long as it doesn’t come off like you are demanding them to do something, most people are happy to help.

Group Three: The Malicious Heckler

First off, ask yourself

Am I concered for my safety?

If yes, then it’s best to shut it down. Apologize to the audience, end the show, or wait it out until the troublemaker leaves.

Is the show worth continuing?

If I've just started and the village idiot has decided to watch, I might decide it's better to stop, wait for them to leave and restart the show once they’ve left.

Often, if you’re getting heckled badly, the performance might not be going great anyway. I see it as a chance to experiment and learn—turn it into a game where the first one to lose their cool loses. 

Dealing with hecklers is more art than science

It’s about keeping control, using humor, and sometimes just showing the disruptor as they are to everyone else. Every encounter with a heckler, no matter how tough, is a chance to hone your craft and toughen up as a performer. It’s all about staying in the moment and guiding the atmosphere of the show toward the feeling you want your audience to experience. As always, the key is to stay cool and keep going.



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