“One of the things I don’t do well is this,” glowered Michelle Obama as she was challenged by a heckler this week. Delivering a speech at a Democratic Party fundraiser, Obama called it like she saw it: “Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.” Not everyone has the luxury to leave the stage, of course, though plenty of great comedians wish they probably could. As for any future heckling scenarios, she might want to practise her putdowns with these tips.

Have a line ready

There is, of course, already a great storehouse of heckler putdowns, apt for any occasion. They don’t need to be subtle – just funny. “I was actually told you would be here tonight – by your mum while I was fucking her,” Jimmy Carr told one man. “At least, I think she was talking to me. I wasn’t the only one there.” Or there’s: “You’re so drunk. I hope you drive home,” from Steve Hofstetter. Personally, I like Dylan Moran’s take best: “I appreciate everything you’ve done. I loved your early work. I think it’s only getting better.”

Get them up on stage

Hecklers clearly crave attention, so it’s nice to give them more of it than they expected. Zach Galifianakis has used this approach with great success, giving over a short section of his show to a humiliating interview with one girl who he felt wasn’t paying enough attention.

Use the crowd

This works best if you’re a big star, as the room will be full of eager fans. Which, in essence, was Michelle Obama’s strategy: threaten to stop the show, and rely on the rest of the audience to apply some pressure. At a Democratic Party fundraiser, that’s a fairly safe bet. At other times? Unmitigated disaster. Perhaps the worst performance in the history of Have I Got News for You came in 1996 when Piers Morgan, having traded insults with Ian Hislop throughout the show, appealed to the crowd with: “Do you actually like him?” A big roar of affirmation confirmed that yes, again, everyone hates Piers Morgan.

Be positive

Adam Hills does this all the time, and it’s surprisingly effective. Rather than engage the heckler in the battle they’re so keen to start, he laughs at their joke, tells them how funny they are, and then gets on with things. The trouble is that Hills is such a sunny character, it almost seems sincere: witness his show at the Reading festival, where he was so pleased to re-encounter a former heckler, he surfed towards them across the crowd to say hello.

Threaten them

This can work. In his early days, Omid Djalili used to issue an ultimatum to rowdy audiences: either they stopped heckling him, or he’d start singing Cliff Richard songs at them. However, a heckler can always ruin a show if they’re determined enough, so there will be times when security has to be called. Ideally, as Jim Jeffries discovered after punching one audience member, before the fighting starts.

This article was written by Leo Benedictus, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 6th June 2013 13.06 Europe/London

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