This week, I am turning the reins over to special guest teacher and excellent comedian Jared Logan. You can watch Jared’s Half Hour special on Comedy Central this Spring. Here he is, on a subject he is much more qualified to teach than I, crowd work. Your only assignment this week is to do crowd work in your act each time you perform. Aside from that, just continue to work on getting that first showcase set perfected. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the very funny Mr. Jared Logan:
by Jared Logan
My friend John asked me to write a little bit about crowd work, so here goes…
CREDENTIALS & DISCLAIMER
Before we begin, I should let you know where I’m coming from. I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for ten years. I work as a warm-up comic for television, doing 15-40 minutes of crowd work at least twice a week, and sometimes more. I also do a lot of audience interaction in my own act.
You may read the following and decide there is a better, more effective or more artistic way to do crowd work. Good! I hope you’re right! I want to hear about it! My act, like yours, is a work in progress.
WHAT IS CROWD WORK?
It’s a conversation with the audience. If you think about it, any set you do is really a conversation with the audience. You talk. They laugh. You talk. They laugh. When you do crowd work, the audience gets to talk too. Maybe because you’ve asked them to talk. Or maybe someone in the crowd is yelling out, ruining your carefully planned performance. Good crowd work can turn this interruption into an opportunity.
If you think of crowd work as a conversation and not a performance it will make your crowd work much more effective.
WHY DO CROWD WORK?
Even the best comedian in the world will occasionally encounter an audience that does not want to laugh. The comedian is doing his best “A” material but the crowd just sits there, staring. Why? It could be any number of reasons, most of which are completely out of his control. Maybe the audience is physically uncomfortable, too hot or too cold. Maybe they all came for the headliner. Maybe they didn’t know there was going to be a show. Maybe they’re all more worried about their drink/food order at that moment. Maybe they’ve been waiting in line for six hours and they’re tired. Maybe there’s a cultural divide between the audience and the comic — they’re too young, too old, black, white, asian, geeks, jocks, whatever.
No matter what the context, though, it is the comedian’s job to give the audience a good show and make them laugh. But written pre-planned material demands a lot of an audience. It means that they must actively focus and listen to what the comedian is saying. When one or several of the circumstances I listed above are in effect, the audience isn’t laughing because they’re not even listening. They don’t know how. That’s when you practice crowd work.
Crowd work has advantages and disadvantages. Because it is off-the-cuff, it’s often not going to have the style & nuance of pre-planned material. Crowd work is messy and chaotic, but it’s also very exciting and engaging. It wakes the audience up and says to them THIS IS HAPPENING NOW!
The difference between pre-planned bits and crowd work is the difference between watching a fist fight in a movie and witnessing a fist fight happen one table over in a bar. In the movie, the fight probably has more subtext, more meaning, more emotional impact and artistic flair. By contrast, a fist fight happening next to you in a bar can be a raw, goofy, clumsy affair. But it gets your adrenaline pumping, and it demands your participation. You can’t look away.
These qualities make crowd work the perfect tool for certain situations:
Starting a show - transitioning a crowd from whatever they were doing before the show (talking to their friends, eating, reading, working) into show mode (actively listening to and participating in the show).
Recovering from a bomb - When a joke gets no reaction, or when a set slowly goes downhill and an audience gets quiet, sometimes crowd work can save you by jumpstarting that connection with the audience.
Handling a heckler - This is what most people think of when they think of crowd work. Putting a heckler ‘in his place.’ Crowd work is essential for getting back on track when someone interrupts your show, but for reasons I detail below, you probably don’t want to think of crowd work as making fun of the audience or putting them in their place.
My final and favorite use for crowd work is to develop new material. With a great audience you can have a conversation that may lead to a killer line you can develop into written material. If you find you are on stage and you are tired of the jokes you’ve been performing over and over, throwing in some crowd work can throw new life into the act and maybe take it in a new direction. Some of my best jokes have come out of crowd work.
Now that we’ve discussed why we do crowd work, let’s go over some basic tips to keep in mind…
KEEP IT POSITIVE
There’s some common sense that the worst fear of most people is public speaking. I’d guess their second worst fear is being spoken to in public. For the same reason that crowd work is exciting, it can also be scary. Think about that bar fight and how you’d feel if it were happening right next to you instead of just on the screen.
Audiences are terrified of you. Yes, you. First, they’re afraid you won’t be funny, but then if you are funny they’re afraid you’ll take them apart, reveal all of their flaws, destroy their marriage with a biting insightful remark, make a disgusting joke about their body or their ethnicity, etc. etc.
A little bit of fear can be a good thing. It helps you keep control of the show and it’s exciting. Too much fear, or downright anger, is death to stand-up comedy. People won’t laugh if they’re terrified or angry. So keep it positive. Be nice.
When you do crowd work, you’re not setting out to prove you’re funny. You’re not trying to ‘teach that heckler a lesson.‘ You’re not trying to show them who’s boss. You’re having a conversation. Be polite, the way you’d be if you were meeting this person for the first time outside of the context of the show.
It’s easy to tell someone they are stupid, ugly, vain, vapid, boring. Come at it from a different angle. Try to find ways to agree with your audience, make them look cool. The harder it is to agree, the funnier you’ll be. If you try to find ways to justify things that the audience says, you’ll notice that they often say things that are bizarre, inappropriate or ridiculous. This happens so often that agreeing with them is almost always hilarious. The harder you struggle to agree, the more you’re generating a fascinating conflict that people will want to watch.
This is a basic rule of improvising with a scene partner that improvisors know as the “Yes, and…” rule. When you do crowd work, the audience is your scene partner and you are improvising. Agree with what they say and expand on it. If you say no or tell them they’re stupid, they will shut down on you, and instead of warming them up you’ll create a deep freeze.
Keep it light and positive and they’ll not only lose their fear of you, they’ll generate hilarious material for you.
THAT AIN’T NO CROWD WORK I EVER SAW
You may complain “But I saw Doug Stanhope in Cincinnati and he was a jerk when he did crowd work and made fun of people and was mean and it was hilarious and the audience loved it!” Every rule has exceptions, and this rule of positivity has several famous exceptions. You don’t really see Don Rickles “yes and”-ing anybody.
Great, renowned comics have a built-in audience that brings expectations of their act. A Doug Stanhope fan expects and wants to have Stanhope give him shit. Also, veteran comics know better how much negativity they can express in their confrontations with the crowd and still win the crowd back. They’ve been at it a long time and they know themselves well enough to take risks like that. It’s also worth noting that comics like Doug Stanhope have walked entire rooms, and done so proudly. If you’re that type of comic, I guess go for it. But I hope you’re as talented as Stanhope or it’s not really going to work as a career move.
Even though I try to stay positive when I do crowd work, I often find myself expressing views that are at odds with the audience member I’m talking to. That’s because I’m not only trying to keep it positive, I’m also trying to be honest.
Being honest is what keeps your positivity from turning into pandering. You want to struggle to make your audience look cool, but you don’t want to kiss their ass. So just be honest. Say what you’re really thinking without getting too negative.
This is actually a rule that is easier to follow in crowd work than it is when writing material. When you’re writing material you may consider all kinds of things that you don’t need to consider, like whether the audience will think you’re hip or whether the material will make you look smart. You may not even be aware that you’re considering these things and that they are affecting your writing. In crowd work, you’re so on the spot, there’s no time to be fake. What you’re really feeling is often going to come out, because you’ve intentionally placed yourself in a high pressure (one might even say crisis) situation. Just remember the audience is your friend and play nice.
Audiences are lie detectors. They will always catch you in a lie. You can feel them pull away from you and stop laughing. So, as best as you can, try to be honest.
THE SOCRATIC METHOD
Yeah, but how do I actually do crowd work?
Well, you address a remark to one person in the crowd, let that person respond with a verbal answer, and keep conversing until, hopefully, you get a big laugh because somebody said something funny. Then you go back to your act (or on to the next person…).
The first forty times you try this, however, it is terrifying. So here’s a good plan you can stick to in order to get started. Try the socratic method. The great philosopher Socrates used to ask questions of people and then re-state their answers back to them, often with hilarious results (seriously, most of Plato is like one big long comedy routine). So do that. Ask the person anything, like what’s your name? what do you do for a living? where are you from? — and then repeat their answer back to them, in your own words. Repeating the answer in your own words not only starts to create the tension that will provide laughs, but it also helps the rest of the audience follow along. As you progress, the questions are naturally going to get more complex, because that’s how a conversation works. If you ask a person what they do for a living, they can just say “human resources manager” but your next question is naturally going to be more complicated. You might ask “What does a human resource manager do?” or “Do you enjoy it?” The person has to consider these types of questions more deeply and give a longer, more interesting answer. Then you repeat their answer in your own words. If you are honest, and let a bit of your own point of view start creeping in to your summary of their answer, you will get laughs. If the answers they give don’t make sense to you, don’t worry! That’s a golden opportunity! Re-stating something you don’t understand is funny. Be honest and summarize it in a way that sums up what you think they were trying to say.
This is really all there is to it. But you have to commit! Keep going until someone says something funny. Don’t get nervous and bail early because you’ve asked a couple questions, they’ve answered, you’ve restated, and nobody has laughed. Good crowd work takes patience. If you’re being honest and keeping it positive, something funny will happen.
LESS IS MORE
This brings us to maybe our final foundational tenet of crowd work, which is that less is more.
When I first started doing crowd work, I thought that I had to quickly come up with a hilarious joke about what the person was saying on-the-spot with an entire audience watching me. That’s impossible! It’s hard to write good material when you sit at home and put hours of thought into it. Writing a hilarious bit on the spot is extraordinarily difficult. Flashes of genius do happen, to everyone, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
The conversation is enough. Years ago I asked one of my good friends, who I started comedy with in Chicago how he was able to improvise with the audience so well. I’d watch him talk to the crowd over and over and get huge laughs while I struggled. This comedian was kind enough to reveal his trick to me. He said he just asked them questions and if he didn’t understand the answer or thought the answer was stupid, he’d make a face. He’d mug, so the audience could see. He got a huge laugh doing that every time and he was so subtle with this obvious-sounding technique that I didn’t even catch on that that’s how he was doing it. Sound like a cheap trick? Maybe crowd work isn’t for you. I mentioned earlier that it’s not as elegant as hilarious written material.
Just remember: the conversation is enough. If you’re a funny person you’ve probably been sitting and joking around with your friends and one of you said something like “This could be a show” or “This could be a bit.” Crowd work is your chance to prove it. If you’re funny (and almost everyone is) then your conversation with the audience will be all you need to make your crowd work funny.
TRICKS & STOCK LINES
Just a couple more notes about crowd work. I think it is okay and almost necessary to use a couple of tricks and stock lines in every crowd work set that you do. Most of your crowd work should be improvisation, but there are problems that come up again and again and a stock line can help you trouble shoot the issue.
For example, it’s good to have a stock line ready for when the person you’re questioning refuses to answer or gives answers that are exceedingly vague. I have a line about how the person must think I’m somehow trying to steal their identity. I ask them for their social security number, etc.
Likewise, when a person I’m questioning acts like they are afraid of me, I try to defuse their fear by asking them if they’re afraid I’m about to say [INSERT HORRIBLE DISGUSTING REMARK].
I’ve also found that you can loosen up a group you’re doing crowd work for by spending a lot of time joking with the person in the room who has the most authority. At a birthday party (and god save you if you ever have to play one, but I did once), everyone wants to see you talk to the grumpy old gray-haired dad. At a corporate event, everyone wants to see you tease the highest ranking boss. Before the show, approach that person of authority and get on their good side, thanking them for the gig, making small talk. They’ll be a really good sport during the show because you’ve shown you respect their position.
Improvisation is kind in crowd work, but planning for problems is always smart.
CROWD WORK VS MATERIAL
These are my final thoughts on crowd work: It is a tool in your arsenal, but never your entire act.
You can’t perform crowd work on a Late Night talk show. I mean, you could, but none of those shows will let you. Too much of a risk! They want to know what you’re going to say before you perform…
You can’t develop crowd work into a half hour sitcom. For obvious reasons. What would that even look like?
No executive, agent or manager will ever be impressed that you can do crowd work, even though crowd work is exceedingly hard to master. This is because crowd work doesn’t effectively showcase your point of view. With crowd work, you’re letting the audience lead the conversation. People that work in the entertainment industry love a good improvisor, but they’re more impressed by a unique point of view.
Learn crowd work in order to use it to augment your written material. Let it be a tool in your kit and you’ll make your performance invulnerable.
When you first try crowd work, it’s difficult. Then it becomes easier. Then it becomes extremely fun. Then it can become a crutch. Don’t let a dependence on crowd work stop you from saying the things that you want to say with your act.
Crowd work is medicine to aid your set. Use it sparingly and as directed. If you do too much crowd work, the audience won’t listen to material. They’ll think they are part of the act and the entire performance is about them. If you are the comedian, you are the show. Never feed the audience so much of the crowd work drug that they become addicted. You got into comedy because you had something to say, so once you get the crowd listening, say it.