The times they are a’changin’?

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Filed under: First Amendment Issues

This New York Times article by Alex Williams about the history and psychology of the heckler from Shakespeare’s time to the present was sent in by Scott Pellegrino. Both artists and their critics are grappling with First Amendment freedom of speech issues… and bad manners.

Rise of the Takedown
by Alex Williams
The New York Times
April 8, 2007

To Alicia Estrada, a professor of Central American studies who was ejected from a screening of Mel Gibson”™s “Apocalypto” last month after grilling him about the historical accuracy of that Maya epic, which he directed, she was not a “heckler,” as Mr. Gibson”™s representatives called her, but a dutiful academic asking of him what she asks of students in her classroom.

08heck3951.jpgTo Kyle Doss, an audience member who helped spark Michael Richards”™s tirade at a Los Angeles comedy club last November by yelling “You”™re not funny” following a racially charged joke, he was not a heckler, but a champion of tolerance. “I think freedom of speech should have some kind of limit,” Mr. Doss later told a reporter.

08heck6503.jpgTo Jean Sara Rohe, one of the students who assailed Senator John McCain about Iraq at his commencement address at the New School last May, she was not a heckler, as newspapers later called her, but a crusader for peace, doing what her “conscience called for.”

For decades, hecklers who railed at entertainers, politicians and athletes were confined to the margins “” they were often drunks or crackpots, tolerated (just barely) by polite society, like litter on a city street.

But no longer do these self-styled cultural assassins merely snipe from the shadows. Lately, hecklers have moved toward the mainstream, making headlines, torpedoing careers (ask Mr. Richards), and exploiting a new stage of their own on video-sharing Web sites like YouTube, where clips of their antics are seen by thousands. (That was the case with Mr. Richards”™s hecklers, who might have had a point, given the comedian”™s n-word-laced response.)

10heck1902.jpgNow hecklers even have their own movie, a documentary that opens at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26. The film, “Heckler,” argues that hecklers have grown not only more conspicuous in recent years, but more scathing, as more people feel emboldened to partake in public criticism, perhaps in part because the culture of blogs and online user reviews has created a climate where everyone is a critic “” and a harsh one. It”™s not enough to give performers a simple thumbs down. They must be personally lambasted, humiliated, even virtually willed out of existence.

08heck1904.jpg“It”™s a new generation, and there are a lot of people who say they have more of a feeling of entitlement,” said Michael Addis, the film”™s director. He added, “They feel like they should be getting the attention.” Indeed, Asher Patrick, a temp worker whose hectoring of the comedian Jamie Kennedy at a Nashville comedy club last year earned him a brief appearance in the movie, said in a telephone interview last week that he saw his role as “more of a critic” than a hooligan.

“I would never go somewhere intentionally to be a jackass,” Mr. Patrick, 22, said. But Mr. Kennedy”™s flatulence jokes were unworthy of what he considers “good” comedy, he said, and live settings are the perfect forum to censure unsatisfactory performers. “It”™s kind of a cool opportunity to tell them how terrible they are,” Mr. Patrick said.

08heck1906.jpgMr. Kennedy, a producer of the film, argued in a telephone interview that hecklers have become “way meaner” since he started performing in 1990. Heckling, he said, used to fall into recognizable archetypes: the “drunk heckle,” the “helpful heckle” (a fan interrupting a joke to shout “I loved your movie!”), the “sex heckle” (a woman who shouts “take it off” in the middle of a joke).

But now, he said, hecklers will either “try to top you” with jokes of their own, or simply yell that he should give up comedy and perhaps die, too.

It”™s far worse, Mr. Kennedy said, when the heckling takes the form of online ambushes. In one segment, the film quotes a writer for the online entertainment magazine Giant who panned a live performance of Mr. Kennedy for being racially insensitive, saying that boos alone “don”™t seem like enough punishment.” He added that Mr. Kennedy deserved “to be lynched, hung and dragged across Texas behind a F-350″ pickup truck.

And it”™s not just people in the public eye who are targets of Internet rage. In an extreme example of online heckling, anonymous comments directed at Kathy Sierra, a software expert behind the blog Creating Passionate Users, devolved from criticisms of her musings on technology to threats of suffocation, rape and hanging.

But what is driving all this vitriol? One factor, at least where the Internet is concerned, said Mr. Addis, is that “sex sells, but hate really sells,” and helps bloggers draw traffic. Mr. Kennedy believes that Internet meanness, which flourishes on media gadfly blogs and pop culture Web sites like and, and independent movie review sites like and, has bled over into public discourse, a point echoed by P. M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who founded the school”™s long-running Civility Initiative.

The psychological term, Dr. Forni said, is the “disinhibition effect,” where people express themselves more openly or bluntly online than they would in person. The old filters “” namely, good manners “” atrophy offline, and the result is a cultural narcissism: people think that only their feelings and opinions matter.

” “˜You”™ is the new magical word, in which so much of the spirit of our times resides,” Dr. Forni said. ” “˜You and you only can keep Sunjaya around on “˜American Idol,”™ “ he added, referring to the widely mocked singer whom fans of Howard Stern and the Web site are trying to elect as winner in order to discredit the show “” heckling on a mass scale, you might say.

As with Mr. Richards”™s meltdown, hecklers have in some cases achieved an effect that goes beyond the disturbance of one night”™s show. Last October, Barbra Streisand paused in the middle of a concert at Madison Square Garden to shriek “Shut up, would you?” (with an obscenity thrown in) to a man who had been needling the liberal singer about an anti-Bush skit in the show. While the crowd erupted in support of Ms. Streisand, the incident was dissected in the national press, where some criticized her as a spoiled diva.

The comedian Kathy Griffin said in a later interview that heckling has thrived as “the lines have become blurred” between legitimate performers and mass-produced pseudo-celebrities, like those manufactured by reality television and YouTube home videos. If everyone”™s a star, no one is “” so forget the traditional deference that fans once accorded the famous.

“Let”™s face it, it”™s their moment in the sun,” she said of taunters. “The guys who heckled Michael Richards did 20 interviews.”

Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pa., said that Americans tended to be relatively courteous in public, toward performers and one another, for the half-century leading up through the “™70s. But people have become brattier as the children of the Consciousness Revolution, encouraged to indulge their inner child, have come of age. “The baby boomers were self-centered and had self-centered children because they thought “˜Everything is for me and my child,”™ “ Dr. Wallin said. “Now these under-30s have grown up and just assume what was cute for their parents is now cute to everybody else.” But she did stress that not every spoiled child is a heckler waiting to happen. “You also have to have that hostility within you. Heckling is a self-centered, narcissistic activity.”

At the same time, it is growing more sophisticated. Arianna Huffington, the political writer who founded, said “smart” heckling now plays a role in the public discourse, giving people with a point of view another way to express it. She cited, for example, Max Blumenthal, a liberal political writer and blogger who often posts on her Web site, who videotaped his hectoring of conservative pundits at the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference. His encounters with Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter went viral on YouTube.

“There will always be dumb heckling,” Ms. Huffington said, “but the Internet, blogging and the ease of making video have made it possible for the smart heckler to have the last word.”

As a tradition, heckling predates YouTube by centuries. In Shakespeare”™s day, audiences were expected to hurl insults, if not rotting fruit, at the actors onstage. In Colonial America, Crispus Attucks and others at the Boston Massacre in 1770 helped spark the American Revolution by lobbing epithets like “lobster scoundrels” as well as debris at red-coated British troops, only to find their volleys answered with musket balls, said Nicole Eustace, an assistant professor of history at New York University.

Heckling as an extreme expression of free speech has thrived ever since “” and politicians from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson have had to duck the verbal grenades launched at their appearance and policies. In the current landscape, even politicians themselves sometimes sound like hecklers.

Senator George Allen, a Republican from Virginia, helped derail his 2006 re-election campaign when he mocked a rival campaign worker, who had been videotaping an Allen campaign event, as a “macaca.” The man was of Indian descent, and many construed the term as a racial barb.

In sports, where hecklers have flourished at least since basketball players were aiming jump shots at peach baskets, trash talking from fans toward players has increased in recent years, even as it has declined between players, said Mike Tirico, the ESPN commentator. Both phenomena, he said, seem to have roots in money: players are less antagonistic toward one another because they often share agents and sneaker contracts. Fans are angrier, seemingly because of resentment over the growing gap between athletes”™ outlandish salaries and their own, he said.

And, thanks to the Internet, Mr. Tirico added, hecklers are now armed with highly specific information to tweak players. “People will say, “˜Hey, LeBron, maybe you”™re spending too much time in the bowling alley in your house!”™ “ Mr. Tirico said, referring to LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. “But in the old days, who would even know he had a bowling alley?”

Of course, the responses by some players do not exactly promote a more civil discourse. In 2004, for example, the Texas Rangers pitcher Frank Francisco chose to hurl a metal folding chair, rather than a witty rejoinder, at a couple of Oakland Athletics fans who were riding him; this particular wild pitch got him arrested.

Most hecklees find less violent ways of coping. Comedians usually keep a few trusty bald jokes or drunk jokes at the ready to shut up loudmouths.

But sometimes, those aren”™t enough. The comedian David Cross says in “Heckler” that the torrent of negativity once drove him from performing for an extended period.

Penn Jillette, the comedian and magician, explained that his partner, Teller, originally developed his silent persona as a means to flummox hecklers when he was getting his start in fraternity houses and small clubs.

The duo experience far less heckling now, however, as their stature has grown. “Heckling has a lot to do with ticket prices,” said Mr. Jillette, who does not appear in the movie. “Once you get to a certain point and you”™re established, then your audience becomes the police, and people feel very uncomfortable heckling.”

Paula Schwartz contributed reporting.

Photo Credits and Captions:

1. Peter Arkle

2. Timothy Fadek/Bloomberg News
BOOOOO Some students opposed John McCain as commencement speaker at the New School last May.

3. Kevin Winter/Getty Images
The comedian Jamie Kennedy is a producer of the film “Heckler.”

4. Jeff Christensen/Associated Press
Barbra Streisand responded to a heckler with an obscenity last fall.

© 2007 The New York Times