I’ve recently started to incorporate some crowd work into the opening of my act, which has been frightening but rewarding. As it says in the Stand-up Comedy Glossary, crowd work is:
…when a comic interacts with the audience. Often done to heighten the sense of improvisation, or simply kill some time. Can be the best part of a set when done well.
Comics from the United Kingdom, like Jimmy Carr and Dara O’Briain, tend to be especially superb at crowd work1. Here’s O’Briain talking about one particularly memorable incident with an audience that could never have been scripted:
Dara O’Briain tells a story about some crowd work
Working the crowd helps to establish rapport with the audience, an important psychological bond that heightens their enjoyment of the rest of the show. That’s why a lot of comedians work the crowd at the beginning of their act, often simply asking “How’s everybody doing tonight?” Some other stock crowd openers are asking people in the front row what their names are, what they do for a living, where they’re from, etc., and then riffing on their answers.
Planning to be Spontaneous
One of the most rewarding thing to have happen up on stage is to think of a funny response, on the spot, to something a crowd member says. It’s absolutely electrifying, and makes the risk of departing from the planned material totally worthwhile.
This is due to the #1 Rule of Humor: Surprising = Funny. The more original, unexpected, or shocking something is, the better the laugh will be. That’s why the improvisational atmosphere created by crowd work has so much potential; once you go out to the crowd, seemingly anything can happen. The audience becomes primed to reward the comic’s daring and cleverness with even larger laughs.
Which brings us to one of the tricks of the trade: planned spontaneity.
A comedian will often brainstorm the responses the audience is likely to give to his questions, and will then memorize in advance some funny comebacks. If his delivery is good enough, the response will seem spontaneous, and the audience will reward him with a big laugh.
Experience helps a lot, too. The more you interact with audiences, the more familiar you become with what they’re likely to say. Even if you swing and miss the first time you hear something, you can think of a better response later and file that into your arsenal of rejoinders for the future. Eventually, even seemingly out-of-left-field audience responses become routine softballs that you can crank out of the park for huge laughs.
At the same time—and I know this from experience—it can be absolutely excruciating to think of something later on that you should have said, because it would have been freakin’ hilarious, but your brain dropped the ball up on stage. It’s like thinking of a great comeback hours after an argument with someone, except you feel approximately a million times worse, since you missed out on a huge roomful of laughs.
But don’t worry! You can always use your great comeback next time. Because if you go up on stage often enough, there will be a next time.
Related entries in Creating a Comic:
- Comebacks after the fact
- Open Mic: First Timer Primer
- Stand-up Comedy Glossary
- Writing For the Stage
- Open Mic: the Bringer Paradox