Complaining About Any and All Critics of Comedy in ‘Heckler’

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

Heckler had the makings of a brilliant film. Though it’s never fun to be at a show where someone heckles, stories about awful hecklers are always funny, and every comic has at least one good tale about a vicious audience member. Though there are many types of hecklers, Joe Rogan gets the very first line in Heckler by pointing out that “the number one thing about hecklers is 100% of them are douchebags.”

The film includes some amazingly brutal heckling, and great clips of people dealing with hecklers (like Ronald Reagan telling some one to shut up) and being dealt with by hecklers (like The Unbookables’ James Inman getting punched while on stage). The stories are funny, and the message is pretty hard to argue with — don’t go yelling during a live show.

Jamie Kennedy’s is the film’s star, though he doesn’t feature too strongly in the first 25 minutes. He’s on stage a few times, gets heckled, confronts some of the hecklers, and mostly handles himself pretty well. Unfortunately, the documentary then veers away from its likeable start.

Instead of focusing on hecklers in a crowd, the film turns its ire on critics, arguing that media critics and hecklers are interchangeable. Astonishingly quickly, Heckler becomes a series of comedians and filmmakers badmouthing critics for not liking films that are aimed at teenage boys.

The impetus for this is immediately obvious — Kennedy’s Son of Mask has just been released to horrendous reviews, and his ego is ruined. He confronts some professional critics who hated that and his previous effort, Malibu’s Most Wanted, about why they were so cruel to him.

The film’s point, it seems, is that critics are dumb, mean, and out of touch with real people. Then, with no irony, the film turns on the internet, where those same “real people” turn out to hate Jamie Kennedy movies as well. They’re also dumb and mean, apparently, so those same comics and filmmakers then complain about the internet.

Though the film seems to think it’s addressing the “problem” of an overcritical society, it doesn’t really go anywhere. Familiar ideas are bounced around — audiences build people up just to knock them down, people are jealous of anyone who succeeds — but it does nothing to hide the underlying point of the film, which is that performers don’t like being criticized. This whining culminates in stand-up comedians griping that critics are just trying to be funny and mean so that they get attention. Stand-up comedians said this. Kettle, pot, black, etc.

Now, I’m a huge defender of critics (and after this film, possibly not of comedians). There are doubtless times when critics are mean or snarky for entertainment value – Roger Ebert’s stellar Sex and the City 2 review comes to mind, or the BBC’s film critic Mark Kermode’s demolition of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie. But their purpose is to provide guidance to an audience that has limited time and resources to spend on entertainment. If I can learn that a film isn’t worth seeing, and be amused in the process, all the better.

The film doesn’t offer any substantial solutions for this “over criticism.” Critics should just never say anything bad, ever? Art should never be assessed? I can’t imagine the filmmakers would agree with those statements. Nor, I imagine, would they like my assessment of their film. But that’s fine. I can take it.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Well, yes. The beginning is excellent, and if you have any opinions about criticism in pop culture, you’ll find yourself invested. Even if, like me, it’s because you’re yelling back at your computer.

What does it have to say about comedy? After quite a long time moaning about critics, the film decides that the only thing a comedian can do is ignore critics and do what he thinks is funny. It’s a decent point, somewhat outweighed by the impression that Heckler thinks comedians are brilliant and they should never be doubted or criticized in the first place.

Is it funny? Not nearly as funny as it ought to be, considering how much it wants us to be swept away by the unimpeachable amazingness of comedy.

Can I stream it on Netflix? Yes!

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’s not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings.

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