Stand-Up Comedy And The Losing Battle Of The Heckler – Craig Thornton


“The joke scenario according to Freud involves three people: the joke teller, the person to whom the joke is told, and the object, or butt, of the joke. The comic, on the other hand, need only involve the person who finds something comic, but usually involves two people: the person who finds something comic and the person who is found to be comic. The second person can just as easily be an object or situation and is equivalent to the butt of the joke.” – Freud


Stand-up comedy is a temporal paradox in the pre-structuring of jokes based on comedic observations, as it is manufactured then performed live but often there are moments which draw attention to this “rigidity”, and disrupt order, as discussed by Bergson, but in more a verbal capacity.  When entering a stand-up comedy performance as a spectator, the individual signs a social contract to fulfill the third person role within the structure, and when they disrupt this process and attempt to become the comic or the “subject” of comedy output, through heckling, then they break the process leaving it up to the joke-teller to reassert dominance and navigate back to the rigidity of the pre-concepted routine. In this clip, Jimmy Carr uses the displacement joke or “kettle logic” to “cause meaning to depart from its intended purpose and thereby undermine the logic of reason.” Furthermore, Lisa Trahair states,

“displacement jokes are distinctive because of the manner in which they divert a train of thought from its anticipated trajectory.”

which is the case in hecklers attempting to embarrass the comedian, or joke teller, yet ultimately becoming the joke. Which is a break within the process but due to the power of the joke teller, ultimately just becomes a reaffirmation of who the joke teller is, and how the joke/comic process of unconscious to preconscious to conscious manifests when provoked and the speed of which the joke teller must be with “quick wit” or rebuttals to arising situations.




Freud, Sigmund. “On Humour.” Essay. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 21, 21:160–66. Hogarth Press, 1953.

Lisa Trahair, The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick, (New York, State University of New York Press: 2007).



  1. Interesting commentary on the heckler being a catalyst for disruption. This alters the dynamic of the scenario from one of performer and audience member to one of two individuals who may both participate in the situation. It is this role reversal that adds to what makes the role of the stand-up comic so difficult; they are in control and yet vulnerable to the audience’s reactions.

  2. It is interesting as well to consider Freud’s idea of humor as a kind of defense mechanism, wherein the comedian is, instead of getting upset or angry, responding to the real-world negative scenario with humor. This subverts the expectations of the audience and makes their heckling of the heckler even funnier.

  3. This is an interesting blog! I wonder if there is also something in a heckler interrupting a boring or unfunny pre-scripted show – regardless of the wit or humour of the actual comment – and the break from this pre-scripted nature is what causes humour through a relieved release of laughter.

  4. really interesting point about hecklers and the disruption of more structured joke telling. In the clip you’ve included, Carr holds a ‘heckling amnesty,’ encouraging his audience members to heckle – something which most comedians dread happening in their gigs. I think this links back to Bergson’s point on rigidity, but Carr is the one disrupting rigidity (by asking the audience to heckle)

Leave a Reply