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What Politicians Can Learn From Comedians On How To Deal With Protesters

Protesters are removed as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Fayetteville, N.C., Wednesday, March 9, 2016.
Gerry Broome AP
Protesters are removed as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Fayetteville, N.C., Wednesday, March 9, 2016.

Two Black Lives Matter protesters took to the stage last August during a Bernie Sanders campaign rally in Seattle. As they moved closer and closer to Sanders' podium and mic, at times raising their fists to the crowd, Mara Jacqueline Willaford told Sanders to yield the mic to a fellow protester.

"If you do not listen to her," Willaford said to Sanders, "your event will be shut down right now."

Sanders listened, and gave up the mic. The activists spoke for about 20 minutes. The candidate ultimately left the stage and ended his event without finishing the speech he came to give.


That scene may be one of the more memorable examples of disruptive protests this campaign season, but Sanders is not alone. Last month, protesters took over an auditorium at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Donald Trump was scheduled to hold a campaign event.

'Trying to elicit moments'

The protesters forced Trump to cancel the rally just before it was supposed to start. Earlier this month, former President Bill Clinton, stumping for his wife at a Philadelphia campaign event, got into a heated, 10-minute back and forth with a protester over his 1994 crime bill.

It seems these days, politicians are having their sets interrupted more than really bad stand-up comics. (And maybe they could use some advice from comedians, on how to deal with it. We'll get to that later.)

But first, why are we seeing so much protest this presidential campaign season, and the often cringe-inducing interactions with politicians they produce. Lara Brown, director of the political management program at George Washington University, said it's really not the case that this is new; it's just that we see them more.


"In today's modern politics," Brown told NPR, "nothing is, if you will, mediated anymore."

For Brown, it's all about the declining preeminence of traditional news media.

"Mainstream media did not always report on protesters," Brown said. "They didn't see it as especially important news that there were some people who didn't agree with the person who was speaking. What they were more interested in is what the person who was supposed to speak was saying."

"In the past," she continued, "if a journalist didn't write up a story about it, or didn't take a picture of it, it might not be recorded. And it might not be publicized and known. But in today's world, it is a matter of just snapping a picture or recording a video, posting it on Twitter or Instagram and immediately engaging the whole world."

And for protesters, that modern dynamic can often lead to less focus on actually changing a candidate's mind on a particular issue during an event. It's more about going viral.

"We're trying to elicit moments," said Matthew Miles Goodrich, an organizer with 350 Action, an environmental group that has been protesting candidates on both sides of the aisle this election season. "I'm someone who pursues moments that will gain traction, that will force dialogue in the national discourse."

Goodrich was the protester filming earlier this month, as one of his colleagues asked a question of Hillary Clinton that led her to scream, "I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me. I'm sick of it."

"No candidate wants to look weak in front of protesters," Goodrich said, "so they'll mostly condescend to us. ... Often we'll want to elicit a reaction from the candidates. For example, when my friend Eva asked Secretary Clinton if she would refuse fossil-fuel money, Secretary Clinton got upset, and I was able to film that, and because Secretary Clinton is normally a very cool and confident speaker, she lost her cool a little bit. That's why it went viral."

And Goodrich says creating that moment took time and effort.

"What you didn't see [in that video] is the same question we've asked her all throughout the campaign," he said.

Three ways to react to protesters?

When presidential candidates and their surrogates are faced with these kinds of situations — protesters willing to devote hours of time, persistently, over months on the campaign trail — how should they react?

Most of the time, Lara Brown says, candidates respond in one of three ways:

1. Fight: Candidates can "engage in the argument," Brown said, "to show that the protesters logic is flawed."

2. Enlist the crowd: "They'll try to get the crowd to turn on the protester for them," Brown said. "In some instances, that can be incredibly dangerous."

3. Let them speak: "They [the politicians] will usually say something like, 'OK, if I give you a minute to say your piece, will you say it, so then I can go back to my work, and what we're actually doing here?'"

"Two of those strategies, you're trying to avoid," Brown said. "And one, you're trying to attack."

How do comics deal with it?

NPR reached out to some unlikely sources to offer advice to politicians dealing with disruptive protests: stand-up comedians, a group that is heckled almost constantly.

Of course, protesters are not hecklers; they are usually working toward progress on some serious issues. And campaign events usually come with much less alcohol than a comedy show. But there are some universal truths for performers in both spaces.

"The best thing I found, is to let them ruin your show a little bit, so the audience gets a little aggravated," said comedian Laurie Kilmartin, competitor on the reality show Last Comic Standing and comedy writer for Conan. "So they're like, 'Oh will she just do something about this guy.' And then when you do, they are just cheering; they are completely behind you... You need to set them up as a bad guy. Sometimes the audience doesn't know that person's a bad guy yet."

That is basically Professor Brown's "enlist the crowd tactic."

But, Kilmartin warns, that politicians can never go as far. "Politicians have it tougher," she said, "because they can't destroy a heckler. You actually have to win them over as a voter."

Phoebe Robinson, co-host of the WNYC comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens, agrees. "I just don't think a president can roast somebody," Robinson told NPR. "I think that looks opposite of presidential. You can't just do the dozens on someone, and then be like, 'I'm going to go talk to Putin!' You can't do both."

She also says politicians can't roast in the way a comic would for another big reason. "It's hard," she said, "because none of them are funny."

Both admit they've had to get creative when dealing with hecklers. When a drunk woman celebrating her 70th birthday wouldn't stop yelling that Kilmartin wasn't funny during a set, Kilmartin played along. "This is my very best," Kilmartin told the woman, "and if you don't think I'm funny now, you're not going to think I'm funny for the next hour or so. You should probably go. You deserve better. It's your birthday."

The woman left.

When show-goers wouldn't stop talking during one of Robinson's sets, she offered them a modern etiquette lesson. "Hi, I can hear you. This isn't Netflix," Robinson said. And the tactic worked. "They shutup!" She also says there's a foolproof way to deal with male hecklers. "I just make fun of their manhood."

Of course, none of those scenarios would go over well at a political event. But, Kilmartin and Robinson offer some advice to politicians that work for comics, too.

First, stay put. "You can't run off the stage," Robinson said.

Second, stay calm. "As a comic and politician, you can't get angry on stage," Kilmartin said. "As soon as you get angry, they win."

And if there's one overarching rule — never, ever give up the mic.

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