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A heckler is a person who harasses and tries to disconcert others with questions, challenges, or gibes. Hecklers are often known to shout disparaging comments at a performance or event, or to interrupt set-piece speeches, with the intent of disturbing performers and/or participants.
The term originates from the textile trade, where to heckle was to tease or comb out flax or hemp fibres. The additional meaning, to interrupt speakers with awkward or embarrassing questions, was added in Scotland, and specifically perhaps in early nineteenth century Dundee, a famously radical town where the hecklers who combed the flax had established a reputation as the most radical and belligerent element in the workforce. In the heckling factory, one heckler would read out the day's news while the others worked, to the accompaniment of interruptions and furious debate.
Heckling was a major part of the vaudeville theater. Sometimes it was incorporated into the play. Milton Berle's weekly TV variety series in the 1960s featured a heckler named Sidney Spritzer (German/Yiddish for "Squirter") played by Borscht Belt comic Irving Benson. In the 1970s and 1980s, The Muppet Show, which was also built around a vaudeville theme, featured two hecklers, Statler & Waldorf (two old men named after famous hotels). Heckles are now particularly likely to be heard at comedy performances, to unsettle or compete with the performer.
Politicians speaking before live audiences have less latitude to deal with hecklers. Legally, such conduct may constitute protected free speech. Strategically, coarse or belittling retorts to hecklers entail personal risk disproportionate to any gain. Some politicians, however, have been known to improvise a relevant and witty response despite these pitfalls. One acknowledged expert at this was Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister in the 1960s:
Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech was largely a response to supporter Mahalia Jackson interrupting his prepared speech to shout "Tell them about the dream, Martin". At that point, King stopped reading from his previously prepared speech and improvised the remainder of the speech - this improvised portion of the speech is the best-known part of the speech and frequently rated as one of the best of all time.
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