Probably the closest thing you can compare it to is the fighting in ice hockey. Think about it: an activity somehow both integral and non-essential that many in the audience consider more entertaining than those parts of the performance that require actual talent. But here’s the difference between fighting in hockey and heckling in stand-up comedy, and it’s an essential one: the former is all about the players, while the latter is all about the fans trying to be the players.
That’s why it drives comedians nuts when it’s asserted – as it was at length in the Chicago Tribune a couple of years ago – that heckling is often not only the best part of stand-up but often, indeed, the only memorable part of stand-up. Chris Borrelli – who, with another writer at the paper, Nina Metz, engaged in a forum-type discussion on the subject – went so far as to write: “I have seen countless comedians and theatre performances and live events in general, and forgotten most of them. But I remember each and every time I have witnessed a performer get into it with an obnoxious audience.”