What the heck, let's heckle!
Everyone knows that in a movie theater silence is supposed to be golden — and you’d assume that would be especially true at a venue called the Silent Movie Theater. But on a recent Wednesday night in Los Angeles, a capacity crowd has packed into this small art house to listen to four professional wiseasses defy decorum and heckle the movie they’ve come to see. The event is the latest in stand-up comedian Doug Benson’s series, Movie Interruption, in which he invites a few of his comic friends to join him in providing running commentary, snarky riffing, and general ridicule of a film while it’s playing. Previous Interruptions, which have featured guests like Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms, targeted such movies as Road House, Unstoppable, and X-Men: First Class. Tonight Benson has brought along Sarah Silverman, comedian Chris Hardwick (host of the popular Nerdist Podcast), and stand-up Brendon Walsh to tear apart the epic sci-fi bomb John Carter. As the comics settle into the front row, Hardwick surveys the crowd and smirks. ”The funny thing is, this is probably the only sold-out show there’s ever been for John Carter,” he says. ”You’re welcome, Disney!”
With movie-ticket sales decreasing over the past few years, some theater owners are finding that letting people shout at the screen may not be such a terrible idea. Benson’s Interruption is just one of several examples of sanctioned movie heckling that have sprung up around the country. In Austin, a comedy troupe billed as Master Pancake Theater provides live mockery of films like Top Gun, Point Break, and Titanic at the Alamo Drafthouse every weekend, and Atlanta has a similar group called Cineprov! The original cast of the cult TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000 — which pioneered movie riffing back in the late ’80s and ’90s — is touring theaters nationwide with their Cinematic Titanic series, in which they live-riff such grade-Z schlockfests as War of the Insects and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. And for moviegoers who want to get into the act themselves, some theaters have even begun offering special HeckleVision screenings, where audience members can text their own jokes directly from their phones onto the screen, Pop Up Video style. ”I feel like everybody has that muscle,” says Mystery Science Theater creator Joel Hodgson, who actually teaches a college course on movie riffing. ”I think it comes from most of us growing up in front of a TV. One day you just snap and go, ‘Hey, I can say stuff back — and it feels really good!”’
Yelling at your TV screen is one thing, but for seasoned movie riffers, there’s an art to what they do. Whether scripted in advance or improvised, your jokes need to be timed to deliver maximum laughs without drowning out critical dialogue. You need to avoid stepping on your fellow film-mockers’ lines. And you need to develop a high tolerance for watching movies that may not be your personal cup of tea. ”Twilight is one of our most popular shows,” says Master Pancake Theater’s John Erler. ”We’ve seen the movie easily 30 times. It’s an occupational hazard.” Above all, a successful movie heckler needs a good nose for what makes a riff-ready movie in the first place. ”Action and horror movies are the best,” says Benson, who also hosts the podcast Doug Loves Movies. ”Both those genres have parts that are really fun to watch with a packed house and slow sections where lots of jokes can be made. But some modern action movies don’t work at all. I’ll never do a Transformers movie because it’s all loud noises and quick cuts.”
Needless to say, with moviegoing etiquette already in decline, not everyone loves the idea of inviting people to blurt out jokes in the middle of a film. Even Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League, who offers both Master Pancake Theater and HeckleVision screenings, admits that events like these go against his core principles. “I’ve been on a 15-year crusade for being quiet and respectful in the movie-theater environment — I’m a bit of a fascist about it,” he says. “But we’re trying to offer an alternative for people who want to have an interactive experience. We’re always experimenting with ways to differentiate ourselves from the standard multiplex.”
Tonight’s Movie Interruption of John Carter would never be mistaken for the standard multiplex experience. As Taylor Kitsch’s reluctant hero helps the Tharks wage war against the Zondangians, Benson and his guests continually volley punchlines and put-downs: ”Cowboys & Aliens screens this movie’s calls.” ”Does the app that tells you when you can pee during movies just say ‘from 1 to 160 minutes’ for this one?” ”Eyebrow acting!” Finally, the movie ends and the credits begin to roll. ”I know this sounds crazy,” Silverman says impishly as the house lights come up, ”but let’s start it over from the beginning.”
5 Tips for Talking Back Like a Pro
Looking to attend a hecklefest? Here’s how to up your game.
Pick Your Moment
”The only direction I give guests is: Try not to talk over dialogue,” says Doug Benson. ”There’s no pressure to riff constantly.”
Steer Clear of Comedies
Heckling a good comedy is pointless, and pointing out how unfunny a bad one is ”gets tedious,” Benson says.
Find Beauty in Brevity
Of the countless riffs Benson has heard, some of the biggest laughs have come from jokes consisting of just a word or two.
Unless you’re an improv master, a script is critical. Says Joel Hodgson: ”With, like, 600 riffs per movie, you’ve got to write it out and arrange it.”
Give ‘Em Beer
According to John Erler, ”A group of folks in a sold-out theater with booze — that’s where the magic happens.”
Correction: The print version of this article mistakenly reported that Jason Segel participated in one of Doug Benson’s Movie Interruptions; while he was scheduled to attend, he ultimately canceled.