The Amateur Magician's Heckler Stopper

I almost never get the opportunity to deal with hecklers. Despite the fact that I go out of my way to perform a lot in social situations I don't really ever get some alpha-male trying to knock me down a peg or two. Part of that is because of my natural presence, part of that is the style I perform in which doesn't invite people to tear it down in the way traditional magician-centric performances do, and part of it is that I avoid hanging out with losers. 

This weekend, however, I did have a situation where I was hanging around a picnic table with a group of people, at a lake near where I'm staying. These are people I just recently met so I didn't know the dynamic between everyone. At one point I started showing a couple tricks to people with a deck they had been using to play card games. This was hyper low-key, just a step above comatose, really, but it was the right style for the situation. So I showed a trick to people and everyone seemed to enjoy it, except one guy. He was a young-20s, little meat-head dude. And he was like, "Nice one, Mr. Wizard. What else do you got? Let's see another one, David Blaine." 

The weird thing was, I got the sense he really did want to see another one, but I think he thought it would be too lame to say, "Oh, that was cool. Do you have any more?" So he was asking for more but in a way that implied he wasn't into it. I think he thought this was a cool vibe to put off for the girls around the table. It's not. If you're a young insecure guy, just do the opposite of what you think is a good instinct in every situation. You'll probably be better off.

He continued to talk a little shit. Now normally I would have been inclined to tell the guy to fuck off, but I didn't want to create a weird vibe with these people I'd just met, 7/8ths of whom I really liked. And it's not that he was being a total asshole, per se, he was just putting forth a destructive energy to the interaction, he wasn't adding anything to it. I'm not particularly sensitive about this sort of thing. Some people see David Letterman's treatment of David Roth here as heckling. I don't see that at all. I see it as someone goofing around. And I'm all for that.

But this guy was just willfully trying to fuck with people's enjoyment and had a dumb comment about every thing that was going on. (Earlier in the evening someone was playing guitar and he was intentionally singing loudly and poorly over the guy's playing. That's the type of corny tool he was.)

So I decided to show him something and try to engage him. At one point he says, "Wait... give me the deck now and let me shuffle it." The fact was, if I were to give him the deck to shuffle at that point the trick would be ruined. But, for me, the effect would also be ruined if I was like, "uuhh... NO! No. You can't have the deck," and then pull it away like a frightened little wuss. So I tossed him the deck and I was like, "Yeah, sure, knock yourself out." And he shuffled it and the trick was ruined. 

At this point I didn't really know what I was going to do. And then I flashed back on the advice I've always heard for dealing with difficult spectators. Like hitting them with a stinging heckler's retort, or showing them a trick that's so strong it will just blow them away to the point where they find it impossible to critique the effect, or maybe being overly kind to try and win them over. 

But then I thought, Like everything written about in magic, that's all advice for the professional. Let me just do the opposite of what traditional magic advice would say. That's usually my go-to technique when deciding what's a good tack to take for an amateur. "What have magicians been saying for the past 100 years? Okay, I'll do the opposite of that."

So I just let the trick fail. I searched for his card, suggested a few possibilities. I asked him to really concentrate and I gave it one more shot. I was wrong again. 

He didn't start laughing in my face or something. He was just like, "Oh, gee... great trick!" in a condescending manner. 

Then what I did is I started comforting him a little. "Ah, It's okay, man. It happens." I started treating him like we were about to have sex but he couldn't get it up. "Don't worry about it," I said. I was saying this genuinely. Not as a joke.

He was expecting me to be embarrassed and instead I was consoling him. "It's no big deal," I said. "These sorts of things don't work with everyone."

"Actually, you would be great for this one," I said, turning towards another person at the table. "Let's try it. This will be fun." And now I'm off having fun with the other people.

Meat-head dude kind of hung back for a minute, and when he reintegrated himself into what was going on a few moments later his attitude had shifted. He wasn't exactly super enthusiastic but he had dropped the annoying shit he had been doing.

I can't say I know for sure the psychology of why this worked. But I think what is happening is this: When someone is genuinely antagonistic to you and your performance then, on some level, they probably want to see you fail. So by failing outright and showing just how little it affects you, you essentially remove that tactic from their arsenal. They're not going to take you down by screwing up your trick, because you apparently don't care that much one way or the other. In fact, your language suggests that if anyone should feel bad, they should.

By lightly consoling your heckler when the trick fails you are also helping establish the idea that when things go right, it's, in part, due to the spectator as well. Which is a good idea to establish.

So yeah, I'm suggesting that when dealing with someone who is being adversarial towards you, it may be a power position to just completely fuck up the trick. It's the course I will take in the future should this ever happen again. 

Obviously it's not for everyone. You can instead do some bits like this or this if you think that will work. I just have a hard time imagining using something like that in the situations I perform. And I'd be surprised if someone who is sincerely trying to undercut your performance would be deterred by some schtick. But what do I know. As I said, I rarely deal with people like this.  If you find this happening to you a lot... well... as the saying goes...