Standup comedy is arguably one of the most difficult forms of expression to undertake in the world of artistry. The very idea of a person standing in front of a group of strangers attempting to make them laugh, possessing the ability to relate to people they have never met, to be clever or humorous in the snap of a finger is an utterly absurd notion that is both perplexing and palpable all at once — it’s a true and unique talent that a significantly minimal amount of people are blessed with.
What makes performing standup comedy so difficult is the extraordinarily subjective nature of it, but the demand for quality from the comedy-loving audience may very well be what keeps it so captivating and entertaining to multitudes around the world for generations now.
Somewhere along the way, a byproduct was born out of these high expectations amongst standup audiences: “Heckling.”— The act of interrupting with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse. Maybe it is the aforementioned subjective nature of comedy (the widely varying opinions of “what’s funny”) that brings out such hostility in some comedy show-goers, but it is clear that an onstage comedian gets cut absolutely no slack in comparison to any other artist struggling in the midst of their performance (theatre actors, magicians, musicians, hell, even ventriloquists and phony psychics don’t seem to catch the flack the comedy hecklers dish out).
Due to all of this, standup comedy requires the thickest of skin, a razor-sharp wit and an infinite amount of fortitude, so it is a rare occurrence for a seasoned comic to lose composure while on stage — but it does happen and when it does, it is comparable to a car wreck in slow motion.
Some of these comics only had a single heckler or two send them flying off the rails, others had to work against the groupthink of an entire audience that turned on them and a couple weren’t heckled at all — they simply just let a little bit too much of their opinion leak out into their commentary without any provocation whatsoever. Coming from both ends of the spectrum, there are comedians on this list who used these crazy moments as a kick-starter to popularity and there are others who committed career-suicide by letting their emotions get the best of them.
There exists a word that both comedians and fans of comedy know all too well: “bombing.” “Bombing” is when a comedian fails to connect and get laughs from the audience. Just about any comedian will tell you that it is a horrible but imperative part of the learning process as well as something that still happens even long after improving and evolving a standup act. However, the terminology, “bombing,” doesn’t do these scenarios justice — it feels like so much severe than that. These are moments that are nothing short of jaw-dropping, shocking, outrageous and evidently difficult to assign a specific label or explanation. During the research process of writing this article, there was one word consistently present in the journalistic accounts of these bizarre manifestations of antagonism between the performer and the audience: “meltdown.”
What can be ascertained from these “meltdowns” is that there definitely exists a fine line between funny and offensive; between edgy and too far; between hilarious and hateful. Perhaps it exists solely in the ability of the performer and how he or she can handle pressure when it is at the front doorstep or when control begins to waver and ”bombing” becomes unavoidable.
Whatever it is, seeing the unbreakable fall into pieces is like bearing witness to a unicorn being pummeled to death by Bigfoot — like being the looky-loo at the scene of a car accident — you don’t want to look, you know it is wrong to be compelled by the horrible wreckage, yet you can’t turn away.
So how’s about we take a stroll down memory lane to see if we can spot the epically awkward moments when a situation goes from light-hearted to heart-attack-serious — when the punchline no longer waits at the end of the joke.