I’ve been doing comedy for seven heart-wrenching years, but been doing the human being thing for a soul-crowbarring 30. And yet, I still have no clever response to a meanie dropping a “you suck” bomb on me. And I hear it all the time, whether it’s an attack on my comedy while on stage or an ex telling me off for not picking up her calls. Unfortunately, I can’t just delete every “you suck” from my voicemail; it often permeates the brain and lingers for years. And the “you suck,” no matter what shape it takes (“you smell weird,” or “stop calling me and hanging up, you sad, sad clown,” etc.), is the basis of all hatred in this world, responsible for wars, every case of suicide, and, most depressing of all: “mean people suck” bumper stickers.
But c’mon! There’s got to be a better way of coming back at such a simple expression without resorting to anger, violence, or a hack phrase to make yourself feel better. In his last days, Jesus Christ had a whole town heckling him, telling him he sucked, but did he fight back? Or try and make a point by screaming, “I don’t come to your job and slap the d*ck out of your mouth!” No, he just did his thing unto others and let them do unto theirs. And now he’s dead.
Bad example? Not at all, because he’s currently more famous, timeless, and influential than any of us will ever will be. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? That J-fame. In fact, you handle your next verbal crucifixion like a messiah, people might turn the words “you suck, Donny” into an icon and wear it as a necklace. Assuming your name is Donny. For most of us, it’s not.
Comedians in particular tend to resort to anger, since it’s easy and it’s the cooler-looking option of our primal Fight-or-Flight instinct. Nature has designed us to hear “you suck,” and either pop back with a “no, YOU suck!” (Fight) or to drop the mic and run off stage, screaming for help while dialing our therapist (Flight). I personally find Flight funnier to watch, but most audiences expect a comedian to stand their ground. In fact some crowds are so bloodthirsty they’ll applaud a comic tearing into a heckler’s raw heart, cheering as blood splatters all over their faces. (Literally, I saw Gallagher do it once. It may have been a melon, not a heart, but definitely something you tap to listen for a hollow sound before consuming.) Still, if a comic chooses Fight over Flight, they must make sure to keep their cool. We all know that a heckler confrontation escalating into a Youtube-ready meltdown is one of the most painful things to watch, forcing the audience into their own Flight, out the venue door.
I’m not a particularly mean person, so fighting back doesn’t fit my character as much as surrender. In fact when I get angry, I look “scary” and “threatening” as I’ve been told by many women in my life. I think it’s because I have big eyes, and when I get angry they dilate to twice the size, making people uncomfortable. I don’t even hurt bugs! And yet my bug-eyes make people think I hurt people. I mean, sometimes my wit stings, but still, ain’t that a bee? A heckler can threaten to kill my family in front of a packed room, but if monster-eyed psychopath Sammy Obeid snaps back at him, the crowd turns on me to console him with a protective “aww” and loads of hugs. So, to keep laughter at optimal levels and the threat level at business-casual, I treat comedy like customer service: “the heckler is always right.” Because, let’s face it, they are. They’re heckling for a reason, and most of the time it’s something I’ve said. Sure the person can be inebriated, bigoted, or just dumb, but writing that off as the reason that the conflict came about is just a tangential way of dealing with the real issue: that nobody is perfect. I’m going to share with you my way of dealing with the “you suck,” and you have the right to stop me at any time and yell drunken slurs…
1. Accept that you do, in some way, suck.
Everyone sucks at something, whether it’s dancing cool or spellng words corractly. Therefore, if someone tells you that you suck, it’s always true. Why fight the truth? And if you think you don’t suck at anything, please stop reading my blogs. Because you don’t need to.
Earlier this year I’m bombing at an open mic at a bar in San Jose, no one is laughing at my jokes except one guy in the front with his back to me. I check in with him to make sure he’s laughing at me and he turns around to tell me I suck. But he has a Mexican accent, so it sounds like “jew suck,” which is not something customer service is trained to agree with. I publicly diagnose his alcoholism and go on with my set, but he keeps saying “jew suck” over and over, like Hitler propaganda, and I keep telling him to shut up, raising my voice each time. Of course no one else is helping, similar to the beginning of World War II. That’s the thing about bar open mics: no bouncer, no club staff, no spectators who prefer your uninterrupted comedy to a bar fight. It’s like performing for drunk warmongers. After struggling to silence this man for a few minutes, I take a deep breath and say, “Okay, you know what? You’re right. I suck. And I’m sorry.” Because I did suck; I was drawing from the bottom of my joke barrel (e.g. “How does a cat like his steak cooked? Rawr.”)
He turns around, sees my pitiful surrender, and says, “Eh… Jew not so bad.” Then he shuts up for the rest of the show. Wow, did I just stop Anti-Semitism? No wonder my Jewish friends are so good at self-deprecation.
2. Locate the aggressor’s pain
A good customer service rep knows that behind any complaint, there’s pain. Good comedians know that behind our jokes, there’s pain. There’s basically pain everywhere. In fact, the only time people are 100% happy is when we’re asleep, or laughing in that exact moment, or dead. So to heal pain we must make someone laugh, put them to sleep, or… Let’s stick with those two.
A few months ago, I’m performing at my favorite show in the world: Tourette’s Without Regrets in Oakland. I’m very familiar with Oakland’s PC vibe and sensitivity towards racial dialogue, so I’m doing a careful job of not sh*tting on anyone’s culture (which is hard because cultures are so easy to sh*t on am I right?). The set is proceeding regretless, but in the middle of a big peal of laughter, I hear a young man in the front yell, “You suck! Stop picking on people and tell some real jokes!” I pause, in a state of cognitive dissonance from hearing both loud laughter and “you suck” at the same time. Maybe he has a personal problem with my material, or, oh no, does he actually have Tourette’s?! The rare kind where he just disapproves of everyone? I ask him what it was that he felt was unfair of me to say, and he refers to my last joke, about Israel/Palestine. The joke went, “It’s tricky, because the Jews were in Israel first, a very long time ago. But then they left… It’s like leaving your towel on the bench press at the gym, and then you leave the gym for a few hundred years… Someone’s gonna grab that towel… And wrap it around their head.” I’m hoping he shouts, “Are you that d*ckhole from 24 Hour Fitness last week who took my towel!?” But no, he’s mad about something else, as he asks me, almost on the verge of tears, “Did you ever wear a turban as a kid like I did? No? Then don’t talk shit.”
Instantly I soften and get that human feeling thingy in my heart (is it called “sadness?”) as I feel his pain wrap around me like a headpiece. For years this poor kid grew up, following in his family’s tradition of wearing a turban while facing adversity, and this particular “you suck” he threw me was a reflection of hundreds of misplaced “you sucks” from ignorant, uncultured, sh*thead kids. I want him to know that I’m on his side, so I say, “Brother, I feel your pain.” He relaxes right away, allowing himself to listen to my response. You can see it here, but basically I admit that, although I don’t know the pain of getting made fun of for wearing a turban, I do know the pain of constantly being mistaken for Indian. Which is just as bad, if not worse, because I’m Palestinian, and the headpieces are different. A keffiyeh is not a turban, kid. Not all towel-heads are created equal. Stop being racist.
3. Find the greater good
It’s okay to be emotional after a verbal attack, but once you transcend your own pain, you will find a prize in the cereal box. Yes, “You Suck-O’s,” the breakfast of bronze-medalists.
A couple weeks ago, I’m hosting the finals of the San Francisco International Comedy Competition. The contestants have already performed, so now it’s my job to tell jokes while the judges tabulate votes and the servers drop checks at the tables (also known as the “We Can’t Listen And Do Math” Zone). I’m not getting many laughs, and a girl in the front gets on her cell phone and starts texting right in front of me like I don’t exist. I ask who she’s texting, and without hesitation, the guy at her table yells, “You suck!” Which I assume is the full name of her friend, Yu Suk from Thailand. But then he gives me two deliberate thumbs downs, raised high so the crowd can see. Oh, okay, I get it now, he really doesn’t like me. The audience, super quiet until now, immediately comes together in an “awwwwww.” I do a double take to make sure they’re not aww-ing him, and for once it’s in my favor! Even though they didn’t think I was too funny, they did like me, maybe because I kept my eyes squinted. Then, in beautiful synchronicity, they all start booing the man. After I pause, flustered for a moment (because I’m not quick with comebacks), I take my time to say, “Sir, I’d like to thank you. I was eating a d*ck up here, trying to get this audience on board, and you, with just two words, got them all to come together for the simple fact that they like me better than you.” The audience cheers and applauds. I’ve won them back, and I credit him with the assist.
To which he responds, “I’m from Brooklyn, do you think I give a fuck?” and the crowd quiets again. I’m both surprised by his quick comeback and impressed that he simply doesn’t mind being disliked. And furthermore, he projects his viewpoint onto the world, assuming that others shouldn’t mind not being liked, because he doesn’t. If he doesn’t mind being told he sucks, why should I, right? Good logic, sir! I pause a moment to take in his pain, the pain of being bombarded with hefty Brooklyn “you suck”s all his life. Then I realize, if I simply absorb his worldview, stop giving a fuck myself, then I can proceed to do exactly what I want… Mocking his Brooklyn accent! So I balls up, do the most condescending guido I can and the crowd explodes, along with dude’s emotional watermelon. Brooklyn just got Gallagher’d.
So I guess that’s the moral. If someone tells you that you suck, you can take the common approach and fight. OR you can take the high road… Surrender, feel their pain, and make fun of their accent.
Keep suckin, y’all. Suck it dry.