March 1, 2011
There are several components to a comedian’s act that make up the overall performance. If comedy were an Olympic Sport, a comedian would be judged on three separate criteria: writing, delivery, and crowd work. Then somehow the French judges would ruin it for everyone.
For those of you not deeply steeped in the comedy industry like I am (BTW-I’ll be playing a bowling alley in Steubenville, OH this weekend), crowd work is a term used to reference when a comedian talks directly to the audience, usually in response to something that has happened or is happening in the room. Crowd working skills are essential to becoming a well-rounded comedian.
With that being said, I suck at crowd work. I don’t really know why. I’m pretty sharp with a comeback or a comment in my day-to-day life so I’m not entirely sure why it doesn’t translate to the stage. Perhaps it’s just the increased pressure of having an audience. Maybe it’s the shock of having to divert my attention from my pre-written act. Nevertheless, I’m currently pretty bad at crowd work and really want to improve that skill.
I think I inhibit myself on stage. I stick to the script. I follow the guidelines of my jokes and it takes me to the same place every single time. Which is fine for a little bit. But I’m missing out on a hidden well of material. There are many comedians who actually do all of their writing on stage, not at a desk. Dave Atell, Marc Maron, & Colin Quinn have all said that they usually go on stage with an idea and depending on how the crowd reacts to the initial premise, they’ll expand in that direction.
Another reason why I’d like to get better is because there’s still a part of me that isn’t confident on stage. I am very comfortable following my set-list, getting some laughs, and getting off stage. If I can slowly become secure with improvising on stage a bit, it would help my overall performance.
Crowd work is a divisive topic within the comedy community. Some comics hate it; some live and die by it. Crowd work is like tap dancing, anyone can try it but it’s extremely hard to master. It takes almost no skill to grab a microphone and ask the audience where they’re from and what they do. There’s no act there. There are no jokes. No perspective. At that point, you might as well be announcing a bingo game at a VFW. However, when it’s done well, it can make a comedy show truly memorable.
I made a goal for myself a few months ago to start attempting some crowd work throughout my set. Get out of my comfort zone a little bit. I initially had some disastrous results.
At the Corner Café on a Friday night open mic, I got into a conversation with an audience member at the very beginning of my set. She had her shoes off and her dirty feet propped up on a chair next to the stage. “Man,” I said as I took the microphone out of the stand. “You’re feet are dirty as hell. They’re so black it looks like they were prepared Cajun-style at Red Lobster.” For the next 10 minutes, the rest of the audience was treated to an awkward exchange between me and Maria “Dirty Feet” Delacroix. They weren’t at all interested in what we had to say to one another. They probably would have rather heard an act with jokes and a narrative and perspective. You know, typical comedy stuff. I’d stepped in the quicksand that is bad crowd work and I couldn’t get out.
I kept trying it though and bit-by-bit I’m becoming more comfortable with that sensation of going out on a limb, the loss of control. It culminated a few weekends ago when I had some great crowd work at a show in West Virginia. I realized that going out into the crowd is a lot like fishing. Sometimes you catch something; sometimes you come back empty-handed. But the best anglers know the best places to cast their line and know what bait to use.
Crowd work can be a powerful tool in the comedian’s arsenal. Some great moments can come out of the spontaneous back and forth. My mom still tells me that the hardest she ever laughed at one of my comedy shows was during a little spat of crowd work by Justin Markuss. He was MC’ing an open mic that I was performing at and during the course of the show, one of my Mom’s friends got a phone call. He tried to be subtle about answering it by bending down and sticking his head underneath a table to whisper to the person on the other end of the line. The rest of the audience noticed this and waited with glee for the MC to take charge. Justin paused in the middle of one of his jokes. “What…uh…what’s going on there?” People started to titter a bit. He was addressing the situation.
“Oh sorry,” my Mom’s friend said as he came up from underneath the table. “I was on the phone.”
“So you carry your phone in your ass?” Big laughs followed.
That taught me a lesson that has become a thread throughout my academic approach to comedy. It’s all about context. The people at that show were experiencing the same thing together and that made the joke much funnier. They were in on the joke.
I’ll never stop being a joke-writing comedian. My delivery may improve. My crowd work may improve. But jokes are at the core of my comedic persona. However, honing the aforementioned skills will make my joke writing even better and turn me into a more rounded comedian.