After 17 years at the coalface of British comedy, Paul Sinha considered himself "pretty much bulletproof" when it came to managing crowds. Then, last month, one shout left him speechless.
"[The] last thing I was expecting in a Dubai audience was a man who genuinely believed that his cousin had dumped me in 1991," tweeted Sinha, shortly after performing at the Movenpick Hotel. He had just made a joke about the old flame in question when an agitated audience member interrupted.
"The gig had to stop while we both worked out whether we were talking about the same person," explains the comic, who was performing on the Laughter Factory tour. "He was really spooked. I was still on stage while he walked out of the room to ring his cousin. That's without doubt one of the oddest things that's happened to me at a gig."
Stand-up is perhaps the only onstage entertainment quite so influenced by the behaviour of its audience. Weird and witty interactions invariably make a show more memorable for all concerned, but too quiet or rowdy a crowd and the comic in the spotlight can struggle. And even the most experienced acts are at risk of a live meltdown.
Earlier this year, the hugely popular Scottish comedian Billy Connolly stormed offstage twice in a week. On the first occasion he became infuriated by a number of people leaving for the lavatories, then a few days later he misconstrued a heckle which - it later transpired - was someone wishing him a happy Burns Night. "Behind the proscenium arch, you can't always hear what people in the audience are saying," admitted the comedian. "What a diva," concluded one unsympathetic spectator.
For newer acts, learning how to handle a crowd is as crucial as writing punchlines, and some thrive on the chance to chat. North London-based Tiernan Douieb received his initial stand-up tuition via a dedicated university course, and is now a regular compère, getting audiences involved and hyped for the acts to come. Sometimes that involvement is unwelcome, however.
"There have been a few where the heckle has gone past fun and been actually threatening, when I've seen comics get visibly worried," says Douieb. "I've had one myself where an audience member told me, after I mentioned where I was from, that if I supported Arsenal he would 'cut' me. It's pretty hard to keep performing after something like that."
Sinha plies a very different style of stand-up, and is happy to admit that he actively discourages vocal interjections. Disruptive spectators can expect a fierce response, where appropriate. "A lot depends on whether the audience are enjoying what you're doing," he says. "If they're on your side then you've almost got carte blanche to just go for it."
Sinha did just that when a recent London show was sullied by a distastefully hostile heckle. "I just decided, 'Right, I'm going to verbalise everything that's in my head right now' and I did and the audience loved it. I will be absolutely vicious if the need arises, and I think that's very important. There are various grades of hecklers, and some of them are essentially sociopaths who've misunderstood the evening's proceedings to an unpleasant degree."
His interactions with the Emirates crowds were generally more agreeable, which may have something to do with ticket prices. "It's expensive so it's a big night out and people don't want to throw it away by shouting down the comedians," he suggests. "They sit down, they listen and it's great."
Gail Clough, who founded the Laughter Factory 15 years ago, is similarly complimentary about its customers, but admits they took time to adjust. "In the early days we had some of the best stand-up in the world coming here and struggling, [like] Daniel Kitson and Ross Noble," she recalls. Now the club boasts an "extremely comedy literate and clued-up audience" and yet even here comics have suffered occasional heckle-based calamities. "That is what makes stand-up so interesting," Clough says. "You can never be sure what is going to happen."
Sometimes the most piercing heckles come from the unlikeliest of sources. Douieb is also a regular at the self-explanatory Comedy Club 4 Kids, where the youthful audiences pull no punches.
"It's very rarely malicious when coming from children," says Douieb. "Kids will only shout out with enthusiasm something they feel might contribute, even if it's bonkers. I remember when the very funny comic Benny Boot did a joke about how unfair it is that blind people get dogs to help them, as he is deaf in one ear so wants a pet bat on a string. A little kid shouted, 'Get a hearing aid, idiot!' Logical and excellent."
As for Sinha's old-flame confusion, what was the outcome? "It was only when he mentioned that his cousin was 51 that we realised we were talking about different people," he recalls.
A disappointing punchline, but he won't forget the build-up.
The Laughter Factory's monthly series of shows begins on Wednesday at the Grand Millenium Tecom, Dubai and runs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi until May 11. For more information visit www.thelaughterfactory.com.
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