Sweet Revenge: Ways to Fight Back When the Hecklers Get You Down

I was delighted to read all 54+ of your heartfelt responses to the MS World Day question: What do you want the world to know about MS? So delighted that it inspired me to take some of those situations a bit farther and imagine sketches worthy of REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984).

People with MS vs. the healthy

We MS patients can feel downright bullied at times by factions that seem to consider themselves the beautiful people we long to be like. You know the ones: never had a sick day in their lives, well-off, smug, and severely allergic to ugly. The world is their oyster while ours is online MS forums, cable TV and a smartphone. In the NERDS movie, this kind of disparity prompts some college nerds to form their own fraternity—and this good deed does not go unpunished. A nerd-sponsored fraternity party goes awry when the jock frat boys, Tri-Lambs, and a girls’ fraternity all release pigs in the nerds’ party space. The nerds retaliate as do the others for the rest of the movie until the nerds declare victory in the end as campus officials allow their fraternity to remain and order the others to help rebuild their frat house. A simple, satisfying ending to a fun romp.

But our lives are in the real world and events are scattershot, a series of one-off confrontations with no time for a well-crafted comeback. Is there a way we can get even like the nerds did?

Kindred spirits in comedians

There might be. I watched a documentary called “Dying Laughing” (2017) where 107 stand-up comics of the US and UK talk about loneliness and isolation working on the road and joked about being heckled. Not only did I have several epiphanies while laughing at their insights, I also realized that comics are, in some ways, our kindred spirits. While their suffering is largely self-imposed, they do share a kind of pain similar to ours being different in an indifferent world.

The grind of constantly being on the road, when one grimy venue looks exactly like the next and loneliness drives a comic to make friends for one evening (mostly with the wait staff), can numb the memory and senses. “If I see I’ve signed their wall, that’s the only way I know I’ve been there before,” Gilbert Gottfried mused. They wait all day in a seedy motel room until curtain time, only to lay themselves bare for a bored, troubled crowd that might take out their frustrations on the performer.

The psychology behind it

Comic Rick Overton explains the psychology behind why hecklers do what they do. “Friday’s second show is always the slap-down show,” he recalls. “The first show, nobody’s drunk enough to be mean about how much they hated their work week. But by the second show, f**k whoever’s on stage. You’re in for a beating, man. They hate you because you’re well-lit and slightly elevated from them, so they subconsciously switch you with the f***king boss. So now they’re shouting at their boss and you’re babysitting.”

Two other comedians offer a different take. “In a comedy club, nobody has filters. It’s not like going to the opera. The audience doesn’t yell, like, ‘Falsetto, m*ther***ker? You call that falsetto? That ain’t falsetto! That’s wack!’ –Suli McCullough

“Nobody heckles a TED talk speaker. If one of them says: ‘I’ve devised a way to feed every child on the planet,” no one in the audience screams: ‘f**k you, dork!’ –Steve Tripoli

How they respond to hecklers

Maybe the most valuable thing we can glean from a comic’s experience is how they respond to hecklers. British actor/comic Billy Connolly was once punched in the jaw, but the guy punched his long beard instead, making no contact with his face. “Is that the best you got, laddie?” Connolly taunted. The guy shook his head no and decked him with a second punch.

Sarah Silverman doesn’t like hecklers but is fascinated by them. “I love going in and giving them the attention they seem to need so badly and talking about it, like asking them where the hostility comes from and saying ‘how can I help you? How can I make you feel good about yourself?”

Taking control

British comic Stewart Lee suggests taking control of a room by treating abusive hecklers as if they are genuine inquirers, answering their question “why don’t you f**k off?” by explaining that you have responsibilities, financial and familial, not to mention a contractual obligation to be on stage for a certain amount of time. That way they’ll regret having asked.

So, what can people with an invisible chronic illness take away from all this? I say plenty, but it’s very personal. I recommend watching this 1.5 hour documentary on Amazon Prime video. It’s free if you’re a Prime member. Just do a search with the terms: Amazon Prime video, and pull up “Dying Laughing.” You’ll be entertained at the very least.

Turning an insensitive remark into a joke

Personally, I used Bill Hader to turn a painful, insensitive remark by an HR director into a joke. Now every time I recall the remark, I hear him say it in Bill Hader’s voice doing an impression of a Dateline host. What used to hurt me now makes me pee my pants with laughter. And that is no small deed.

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