Chapter Twentyone Hecklers

"When you work with people, you must be in control. If you cannot control, you do not belong on the stage."

A1 Koran, Lecture Notes of Fantastic Koran

The Psychology Of Heckling

The most difficult problem you'll face as a close-up performer is the heckler: the person who yells out taunts and insults, grabs your props, and "explains" all your tricks to the rest of the audience. While hecklers are a real problem, many close-up workers also misinterpret more innocent situations as heckling. For that reason, I think we should start with a definition: A heckler is a spectator whose goal is to wreck your performance. If you don't understand what makes a heckler tick, you'll find his behavior not only frustrating, but baffling. The key to influencing people's behavior is understanding their motivations. What motivates the true heckler is jealousy. You have something he wants. That something is attention. The spotlight is on you and he wants it on him. Everything he does is designed to shift the spotlight from you to him.

That's why even the strongest insult humor won't discourage most hecklers. We've all read "heckler-stoppers" in books, gags that are supposed to make the heckler wilt in humiliation and give up his evil ways. Here is the way it usually goes in practice. The heckler throws some dumb insult at you. You throw a brilliant insult at him. He throws another dumb one at you and you throw another brilliant one at him. Your lines are getting much bigger laughs than his, yet he won't shut up.

niay find yourself wondering. "Why doesn't this guy reali,, . ^ battle of wit«, he's outgunned." What you don^S*' ** lD. not concerned with a battle of wits. He's concerned mh^ Sie "or the audience's attention, and that's a battle he" Tl^ time you throw a clever put-down line his wav hT^ * E Ser pent- This pathetic clown is so desperate L attend T* J5£ e-n being insulted preferable to being ,<£ored " everv time you turn your attention to him, you encoura«- him , £X you further. That's why your attempts to nJSZ&g heckling will usually only get you more of the same. rhe only way you can control this kind of individual is to den,™. him of what he seeks. 99% of the time in dose-up magic, the besl way " handle a heckler is to ignore him. In Jay Evans' book The Other Side of the Coin he has a beautiful way of expressing this attitude He calls it turning off your hearing aid.

When I have a difficult heckler I not only pretend not to hear what he says, I completely refuse to acknowledge his existence. I don't make eye contact with him. I literally act as if he doesn't exist. In most cases, as soon as he realizes that his game isn't going to yield the results he is seeking, he starts to quiet down. If the performing situation is one where the person can walk away without attracting attention, the heckler will often leave before the performance is over. This is, of course, the best resolution of the matter I could possibly hope for.

At first you might find the approach I'm recommending difficult to put into practice. If so, it's because you're doing the one thing you must never do in such situations, letting your ego get involved. It's only natural to see a heckler's actions as a challenge to you and to feel you must rise to the challenge with a string of clever insults. You want to best him in a battle of wits.

However, this approach is filled with pitfalls. I've already stressed the most important one; it will only encourage the troublemaker. A second pitfall is that you risk alienating the rest of the audience. They may start to identify with the guy you're "picking on." After all, he is one of them. He may even be a friend of some or all of them. When you ignore his wisecracks, you become the good guy. The audience starts to resent this guy who is giving you a hard time when all you re trying to do is entertain them.

Indeed, the only heckler stopper I ever use succeeds precisely because of this resentment. I only employ tlus hn<jm.the moat extreme cases, ones where the heckler persists in disrup^gf he performance despite my ignoring him. I wdl look "P at the rest of the -...i;™ and say. "You see what happens when cousins marry.

Darwin Ortir

Invariably, this line gets a huge laugh, much lareer tK

humor justifies. This is because the laugh is an ®n lts «nhe*. „a* qualifies as an impossibility. Or he may be motivated by p animosity that the audience has built up against thi, °Utlet tk Uisec unties. The latter w the type of person who feu Is camp never use the line until I can feel that a great deal of °n' , prove in every Situation that he » smarter than everyone else built up out there.) animosity l 3pectator starts theorizing while the effect ia still in proim

What I particularly like about this line is that even heckler I avoid acknowledging his existence. That's b^ lnsuh th„

most heckler-stoppers, this one isn't directed at the h Ur directed at the rest of the audience. I don't point to the h 1,1^' deliver the line; I don't look at him as I say it. I look at th n ]

audience. They know who I'm referring to. Thus, the heckl ^ most lethal combination, ridicule without recognition r the

I'm not suggesting you should use this line. I only prov'H further example of the philosophy I recommend when dear " a" " heckiers. Deny them the one thing they crave: attention Witl)

Finally, the most serious pitfall of giving in to the temptation t insults with the heckler, is that you are betraying your respo i?de to your audience. Even if your put-downs get laughs the MJbl«i isn't being entertained by magic. That's your job to'enter, "f audience with magic. To the extent that you allow a prevent you from doing that, you've lost the battle with him ever,, you score some laughs at his expense. en 11

Something to keep in mind as a last resort if dealing with „ impossible spectator is that you don't have to perform. If workiT™ " ooal Situation, you can always apologtze to the rest of the aS* and stick the cards or coins back in your nocket I

KsSSrS^SKs hecklers. me foIk3 3™« might mistakenly classify as


1 he theorizer is the kind of trick you do to the rest of th' ^ Wh° haS try to e*pla™ performing the effect or after tb He may do lhis while J™"'*6

hy a sincere desire to settle ¡Tv * ' ™ He may be motivated 358 ° ™ own mind whether what he just

Strong Magic w«r qualifies as an impossibility. Or he may be motivated by p.r*,n„l, The latter is the type of person who fee,a cemp' Jove in situation that ho la smarter than everyone else L spectator starts theorizing while the effect is still in progress Wrn off yd' hearing aid and continue with the performance If the trick is wo" constructed, the very progress of the clfect will disprove bis theory by the time the trick ends.

In fact, often a theorizer will start to explain a trick before he even knows what the effect is going to be, I remember one ease where I performed "Roll-Over Aces," As soon as 1 rolled off the four nn-packets, a spectator started to explain to the others how 1 hail located the aces. When, a moment later, I produced the four royal flushes, he looked pretty silly. This was the real effect and, of course, he hadn't seen it coming. Therefore, instead of engaging in a debate with the spectator, let the effect do the talking for you. If it's a good one, it will provide an irrefutable rebuttal to his half-baked theoriee. Whenever 1 have a spectator offer an explanation of a trick after I've finished it, I base my reaction on whether he addresses the explanation to me or to other audience members. If a spectator addreswes me and offers an obviously false explanation I will usually point out briefly why his theory can't be correct.

If he says that the card that came out of my wallet is only a duplicate of the selected one, I may point out that the card was signed by a spectator, if he says that the deck must have been in o special order, 1 may point out that it was shuffled by a spectator. If he says that the cards must be marked. I may point out that I never sow ibe back of the selected card. However, I won't pursue the matter beyond one comment. If he is sincere, he'll realize that my point is valid. If he just wants an argument, he'll have to look elsewhere. If, instead, the spectator offers his explanation of to.^ ™ done to the other spectators. 1 completely ignore . He the spectators deal with the matter. Usually one of them will pomt out why the explanation can't be correct.

If it isn't immediately obvious to the other J^K« £

person's theory must be wrong it mtete,"' ^

construction of the trick. If. tovrf a aduto "«»»• can solution, but to eliminate W^ZZ'y'incorrect. the trick come up with a J^^^SX *** * th,i T^

has failed. Ormond McOiU in ^ uni,rsta„llme of the

"The effects you perforin must oe ^ iWe e,plBnation observers will to conjecture.-


A common form of heckling is the challenge A spectator 8ayfi k, C palmed the card," or, "Those aren t really the aces," or, "Show^ the top card of the deck." Ninety percent of the time, these challc" are completely unfounded. You don t have a card palmed, the caf£ really are the aces, and there is nothing specia about the top card * the deck. In fact, anyone with an ounce of intelligence would have Z realize that the challenge is groundless.

Therefore, your natural tendency will be to accept the challenge. You turn over your hand to show it empty you turn over the four cards to show they really are the aces, or you show the challenger the top card of the deck.

My advice to you is: don't do it. You figure that when you show the spectator that his challenge was unjustified, it will score a point for you. But. once again, you're scoring the wrong game. This game is not about being right or wrong. It's about control. The hcckler loves the fact that every time he says. "Jump," you jump. You're the puppet and he's pulling the strings. That's the way he likes it; so as long as his strategy keeps working, he'll keep doing it.

Every time you give in to a challenge, you encourage more challenges from this spectator. Keep playing his game and before long you'll realize that you're never going to be able to finish this performance. The troublemaker will just keep firing off more and more challenges. No sooner do you respond to one than he hits you with another. He won't be discouraged by the fact that you prove him wrong each time. On the contrary, he'll be encouraged, by the fact that every time he issues a challenge, no matter how ridiculous, you have to stop dead in your tracks to deal with it.

The smart way to deal with a challenge is to ignore it. Once again, just turn off your hearing aid. You don't have to prove anything because, if your effects are properly structured, the audience will be convinced of what they have to be convinced of without your having to take any unplanned detours. When a spectator issues a challenge, just pretend not to hear it, and continue with the performance. If he is so loud, persistent, and obnoxious in repeating the challenge that you simply can't ignore it, just turn to him, smile, and say, "No." Then continue with your performance as you would normally do it. Consider the alternative. The spectator throws out challenge after challenge. You respond to each one, always proving him wrong. This encourages him to be even more aggressive. Sooner or later, one of his bullets will find its mark. Just by chance, he'll issue a challenge you cant meet. You wont te able to show him the top card, or let him

rf instead you just turn a deaf ear to challenges, you'll find th.» challenger will eventually quiet down. If it's a Situation where he ct conveniently leave the group he may eventually wander away. (Z won't that break your heart!) Don't let someone else turn you ¿to their plaything. Always maintain control.

Of course, everything I've said is based on the premise that the challenger's real motivation is to make trouble; you can tell that by the absurdity of his challenges. It may occasionally happen that you get a challenge from a spectator who is sincerely motivated by a reasonable suspicion. These cases will fall into two categories, those in which you can respond to the challenge and those where you can't because he is right.

If you've received a reasonable challenge (i.e., expression of suspicion) that you can't meet, this tells you there is something wrong with the construction of the effect. (In such cases, you'll probably notice that the same challenge comes up in performance after performance at the same point in the effect.) You had better alter the effect to ensure that you allay the suspicion before it's aroused. If that's impossible, you should drop the effect from your repertoire.

Earlier I told the story of a magician doing "The Trick that Fooled Houdini." The spectator asked him if she could see the top card of the deck. This was a perfectly reasonable question since the construction of the effect suggested that this card might be a duplicate. The performer should have eliminated the problem before it arose by having the spectator sign the "ambitious card" at the outset. Suppose you get a reasonable challenge to which you can respond. Thev ask to sec the faces of the four aces and you're in a position to show them. Then do so. At the same time, make a mental note that this pxnerience has identified a weakness in the construction ot tne even unfounded suspicions.

^'iSreven unfounded suspicions.

effec^Aji effect that ar®useSA^J>it so that the nud'ence, ^^J^This

-'feet. An etlect — ¿¿t*r it so that tne - This is a poorly structured f^efore they can think to.ask. * ^

questions are answ^n ^ elnninates.nte-P^n^^^^

accomplishes two things. tators who «mghtoe allays the the aces but are too polite to ask those cards really are .. .

When you're doing the Cups and Bails" he will lift UD underneath When you're doing an ace assembly ho will t" CUp 10 lool of the "aces"as soon as you deal it face down. ',rn over ^

There are two factors that particularly affect how hkel run into grabbers The first is prestige. Since grabbing yc y°" lft to fundamentally a sign of disrespect to you, it will happen """P" u you're wording from a position of low prestige. One of the hpCM wher. you can do to discourage grabbers is to employ the to """S* discussed in the Suggestion chapter to build your prostiBo 68 ' and as fast as possible in every performance. ~ 1,8 ttUch

The second factor that bears on the likelihood of cnc0 grabbers is territoriality If you put a prop down on what"'"'"8 perceive as your territory, they're much less likely to grab it reop'e put it down on what they perceive as their territory, you may 1 y°u trouble Thus, for example, if you're performing in a hospitali/ at a table that's been set up especially for your performance ^^ much less likely to encounter grabbing than if you're table i i0ure and working on what the spectators view as their table PP'De

Because of territoriality a simple way to protect a "hot" prop f heme grabbed is to put it down close to you. The closer it is to yon tk° more dearly it's within your territory; therefore, the less likely it that anyone will reach for it. 18

Another effective way to discourage grabbing is to use a close-up mat The close—up mat very clearly defines the boundaries of your territory. People are much less likely to grab a prop that's on a close-up mat because it so clearly involves crossing into your territory I'm not necessarily recommending yon use a close-up mat. That choice depends on a number of factors, including your persona, your ,tyk mat^h"6 lrmlrE V0U be ™are that close up mats do have the advantage of discouraging grabbing nLZJ^T'"^'™, "'here is -

remember th T Sh<mli come aa surprise when you aCt°rS °f te""^ality and prestige. In a prestige when he approa S^.tS^T °f "7 '°W

him hie a servant (All th. audience tends to relate to during the meal are wrvants!) te°Ple Wh° aPPr°a<:h tl,eir table For these reasons when do routine all your material in sucl,re8tallrant >VOrk' ",lil """ " down on the table or only d ° 'hat y™ newr Put anything Completely control it {for ' 'j s" m situations where you can instructed to immediately cover tk "V trick where the spectator is ">e tabled object with her hand).

„ver step» >">u t"ko 1,1 d™™>«« Irabhing. you'll ,ull run tnu, 11 ruble» frum t,mo dn ,1" ""Penitive tbnt you lhe stop to il immediately. If you don't, you'll only encou„,B,. ,|„. ''"' mtor to do more of it. Sooner or later, he'll do u .n a .ituatu,,,

'Pharo it exposes the trick.

" ,ntly 1 did a TV show in Buenos Aires, Argentina I ■» planning ^ have a card signed in one trick, an 1 had a marking pen on th. "ble Before I began performing, the hint o( the alio« «bwni ndedly picked up the pen. I gently took it from her and replaced it nU the table. A moment later she picked up the empty cardcnse md °tnrted toying with it I smiled and took it from her. putting it back nn he table. These actions on her part did no harm fuller I hadn't y<-i ' rted performing and since the items she picked up were ol il,. * portarice. However, if I hadn't acted immediately to put it „lop to her wandering hands, she might well have ruined one of my truk-lnter by picking up something I couldn't afford to have picked up The way to put n stop to grabbing IS vt immediately retrieve th,- Hem and politely ask the spectator not to touch your prop» While you should be pleasant, you should also be firm You have u. get th. audience to understand that the issue ha, nothing to dn „th .he nek vou simply won't stand for it as 0 personal intrusion If £

the audience refuses to respect you is one wliere y perform.

The Challenge Altitude

I should point out that there are M ^ ^ ^ wc grabbers whose motivation. «"^j,, atUtude I discussed so far. TO. getting more than your .h.«

early in the book. If you find that >our« ,.„u, stylr of

0, such spectators, you ah0"M «rf^ ^ ,„ ,ook at your presentation may he in^verten^ ^ ^

performances as a contest betwee y ^ .j,

look at your perfonnan« «^P ,, will ...met,»« - 1

their masculinity jOt ^f^«, that »hat they mean » Uiey thut they hate to be foolea-to lose.

These are the same people who can't stand losing at any Kani matter how trivial, even if if. only Monopoly. You know -

people whose entire week can be ruined because they lost a J?*-match on Saturday.

Furthermore, they tend to see every interpersonal situation game where there must be a winner and a loser. It's the only they know of relating to the world Magic, to them means that, if ^ fool them, they lose and you win. If they catch you, they win and yon lose Such people are hopeless, and only a masochist would attempt entertain them. When you encounter such a person, remember y0Z responsibility to entertain the rest of the audience. To do that y0u-n have to neutralize the troublemaker by using the techniques TVe suggested.


From time to time you'll encounter spectators who continually interrupt your performance with jokes, comments, or questions. These people, in most cases, are not true hecklers. That is, they're not trying to wreck your performance. They're just overly gregarious, either by nature or as a result of alcohol. Nevertheless, they can damage your performance if they carry they're garrulousness too far. With experience you'll find that you can control just how much kibitzing you get from an audience by how you respond to it. Most of the time it's best to answer the spectator's question or to respond to his jocular comment with a funny—or at least pleasant—response. As I've already noted, such adlibbing can add greatly to the entertainment value of a performance by enhancing its sense of immediacy.

At the same time, you have to realize that you can't continually engage in conversation while you're trying to present a trick or the performance will suffer. If you start to feel that the interruptions are in danger of getting out of hand and derailing the performance, you have to change your tactics. Start limiting your reactions to each interruption to a simple smile or just ignore it completely.

When you respond to an interruption, you give the audience permission to interrupt again. Before long, they may start to think that this kibitzing is supposed to be the point of the performance and focus less and less on the magic. When you politely limit your reaction to interruptions, you let the audience know, without offending anyone, that they should be focusing more on what you're showing them.

here should be to let the audience feel relaxed enough to y0ur g°a spontaneous interplay without allowing anarchy to over-eDgage in performance. Your tool in achieving the right balance is „hd* >"° which you acknowledge interruptions.

Getting Nailed

There is one misconception that many magicians have that I'd like to «„rect at this point. People who point out that you flashed or who succeed in figuring out how you did a trick are not hecklers. If people see a palmed card in your hand, there is no reason on earth why they shouldn't point it out. If one of your tricks doesn't fool them, there ¡b no reason why they should pretend it did.

They're not being troublemakers; you're inviting trouble by performing sloppily or doing a trick that lacks deceptiveness. These people are doing you a favor by pointing out your failings (although that may not be their motivation). Learn from their comments and use them to improve.

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