Creating a Comic

Bombing, killing, and other occupational hazards of stand-up comedy


I'm your host, CJ Alexander.
This is my blog about breaking into stand-up comedy.

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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.

Surprised baby!
The number one rule of comedy:
surprise = funny

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:

  1. I have no idea why this is, except for the general hypothesis that Brits tend to be far more quick-witted than Americans. If you’ve ever seen an episode of QI, you know that thinking on their feet is a high art form over there. []
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    7 Responses to “Crowd Work: Playing with the Audience”

    1. The most amazing piece of crowd work I’ve ever seen. Lol.

      andrew rivers

    2. Haha… I love that clip. I’m not sure it’s crowd work so much as a crowd ASSAULT. Much love to Bill Burr. Thanks Andrew for giving me an opportunity to watch it again.


    3. […] rookie mistake by going with my same set list as before; in retrospect, I should have mixed in some crowd work at the beginning to get that audience involved and warmed […]

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    4. […] night I was practicing my crowd work, and at one point got a cheeky response from the audience. I sort of rolled with it, and the rest […]

      Comebacks after the fact | Creating a Comic

    5. […] reminds us that at the end of his career, Patrice liked to open his sets with an extended series of crowd work. He makes it hilarious, and he makes it look […]

      Patrice O’Neal’s amazing crowd work | Creating a Comic

    6. Is Dara O Briain from the United Kingdom though?


    7. Account for youtube video has been terminated. But… it was just as fun to go out and see some other videos of his crowd work…


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