There’s more to it than just ‘you suck’
ASPEN Given human nature, cavemen who memorialized their tribe’s history by scratching rocks on a cave wall likely had to endure criticism of their work: “The mastodon was positively cartoonish, and one was left to wonder why Chaka was running away from the unfrightening beast.”But Michael Addis believes the more humankind has advanced, the less civil we have become in our critical observations. Addis received less than glowing notices for his 2000 comedy “Poor White Trash,” just as an old acquaintance of his, actor Jamie Kennedy, was being panned for his latest work. To Addis, the criticism went beyond the professional and into the personal.”There was this wave of really nasty things,” said Addis, by phone. “Not just that the films were bad, but that Jamie sucks, Jamie should die.”The continued rise of the Internet, and the anonymity it provides, has only made the tenor of the discussion even cruder.”It’s like, ‘You suck,’ rather than an intelligent discussion of what they didn’t like,” said Addis. “They’re just attacking.”
Looking for a way into this state of hyper-criticism, and sympathizing with Kennedy, who has a parallel career as a stand-up comedian, Addis began thinking about that most base form of criticism, heckling. Addis arranged to follow Kennedy on a 30-city stand-up tour, hoping and praying that his friend would endure the indignity of having drunks in the crowd interrupt the performance. Addis also found instances of heckling in the land of YouTube, and interviewed a series of comedians (Joe Rogan, Bobby Slayton, Bill Maher) about their experiences with unruly audiences.The result is “Heckler,” a documentary that examines the phenomenon of heckling, and puts the practice into the larger context of these days of all criticism, all the time. The first half of the film, the examination of heckling, shows Saturday at the Isis as a work-in-progress in the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival’s film program, followed by a Q&A session (no heckling, please) with Addis and Kennedy. The film is slated for its world premiere this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival.”Heckler” has, of course, its funny moments, as stand-up comedians, practiced in the art of the witty rejoinder, rip the shreds out of their hecklers. The late Bill Hicks going absolutely ballistic on a woman is venomous and priceless. “There are so many different ways to handle it. It’s like a science,” said Addis. “It’s like ju-jitsu. You take the heckler’s words and turn them back on him.”Comedians not schooled in the practice are sitting ducks. Addis said that audiences can sniff a scared comedian, like a horse throwing a nervous rider. And when an unprepared comedian goes on the counterattack, the results can be career threatening.”Michael Richards – it’s not that he’s racist,” said Addis. “He’s just incompetent at dealing with hecklers. He got angry and lost control.”
But the first half of “Heckler” is not just a documentary of the great heckler handlers. Addis creates sympathy for the comedian who has to tolerate the slings and arrows not only of stumbling drunks in a club, but the anonymous critic in blogland.”I don’t want people to think this is a whine-fest: ‘Oh, famous people get criticized,'” said Addis, who has done much work in reality TV. “But it’s a pretty hard thing to google yourself and read thousands of horrible things about yourself. Carrie Fisher – people call her fat, bovine. You feel bad for her when you hear her talk about this [in the film].”Making “Heckler,” Addis found himself in the odd position of hoping Kennedy would be heckled, preferably often, and without mercy. Live heckling, he found, may be on the decline: Closet critics often wait till they get outside the club with their Blackberrys to register their disapproval, and club owners strongly dissuade hecklers.”At the top of the show, I’d tell people, if you want to criticize Jamie, here’s your chance,” he said. “He was a test patient for an experiment in what it’s like for an artist to deal with really harsh criticism. He’s a sport, but there are times when he had to take a break.”Addis hopes that “Heckler” will prompt audiences to take a closer look at themselves. “Ultimately, I want people to walk out and ask themselves, ‘Am I too critical?'” he said. “To think about the world in which everyone feels the need to be critical.”
EncoreThis didn’t fit into the “Heckler” story, but it is too good an anecdote to leave out. Consider it my encore material.Addis, a native Chicagoan now living in Santa Monica, wanted to be a filmmaker from the age of 15. Instead, he got a job as a cashier at Costco. But he was such an incompetent cashier that he convinced his boss to let him make training films. Somehow, instead of simply firing him, Addis’ boss found some funds that opened the door to Addis’ directing career.”I convinced my boss to let me make films, use actors, blow things up, using all kinds of stuff,” said Addis, whose projects in the near future include directing “The Show Biz Show,” with David Spade; and a sequel to “Poor White Trash.” “Sometimes they had nothing to do with training people.”But that actually led to a lot of work.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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