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Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘heckle therapy’ offers a lesson in nonviolent self-defense

A screen shot from an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry gets heckled (YouTube).

It takes a lot of courage to be a stand-up comic — one person in front of a room of people who are waiting to be impressed. And when they aren’t, a few of those people will then turn to heckling.

More than simply having thick skin, however, a comedian must learn how to deal with such conflict. Some choose to respond in kind, only with perhaps more clever insults. Others walk off stage and refuse to continue the show. But Jerry Seinfeld might be the only comedian who counsels the heckler instead of fighting them or giving up. Here’s how Seinfeld explained his approach in an interview on Reddit yesterday:

Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. So that when people would say something nasty, I would immediately become very sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger. It opened up this whole fun avenue for me as a comedian, and no one had ever seen that before. Some of my comedian friends used to call me – what did they say? – that I would counsel the heckler instead of fighting them. Instead of fighting them, I would say “You seem so upset, and I know that’s not what you wanted to have happen tonight. Let’s talk about your problem” and the audience would find it funny and it would really discombobulate the heckler too, because I wouldn’t go against them, I would take their side.

This is the exact kind of approach to conflict that is taught in nonviolent self-defense classes. Waging Nonviolence columnist George Lakey has described it as re-writing an attacker’s script. Citing several cases where people were able to prevent an attack, Lakey said the key to success is “refusing to do the expected thing.” If you don’t re-write the attacker’s script, “the traditional script becomes hegemonic: react violently, or submit.”

Too bad Seinfeld co-star Michael Richards didn’t learn of this approach before engaging in his infamously offensive rant against a couple of hecklers.