As a performing comedian, I’ve gotten to see a lot of other comedians perform whom I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to otherwise. That’s not to say they’re bad comedians (although, believe me, I’ve seen a lot of bad comedians). They may just do a different type of comedy than what I’m typically into. For instance: crowd work comedy. Like any form of comedy, there’s both good crowd work and bad crowd work. When it’s done well, it’s transcendent. Well it’s done badly, it makes me want to bash my face in with a brick.
I’m not a crowd work comedian myself, because A) I love writing jokes, and I love the satisfaction of getting laughs from a well-crafted joke, and B) because I’m not yet good enough to rely on crowd work. It takes a certain set of skills to do that. First and foremost, you need to be totally comfortable on stage. If you’re interacting with an audience and there’s fear on your breath, they’re going to smell it and offer you a mint made of scorn. Secondly, you need to be a good improviser. You need to be able to take what’s happening in the moment and make it funny. Finally, you need enough time on stage to pull it off. A five-minute set at an open mic is really not conducive to crowd work. There’s just not enough time to get into a groove with the audience. It’s like speed dating but marginally less sad.
For that last reason, the comedians I’ve seen do crowd work most are the headliners at comedy clubs. They have longest sets and the most time to kill, so they’re typically the ones trying their hardest to embarrass the cute couple in the front row holding hands and looking precious. The problem is when the comics get lazy, and they rehash the same tired, hack crowd work jokes that, while they may work fine on a drunk audience with low expectations, if you watched them on tape you’d turn the tape off after about five minutes. Also, no one uses tape anymore so maybe upgrade to a DVD player or something.
Here are the crutches of bad crowd work that I’d like to see go away:
- The nudge-nudge-wink-wink racist jokes. Woe unto the person who is the only one among his or her minority in a comedy club. Whether you’re black, Hispanic, Asian, or whatever, there is a pretty high likelihood that you’re going to get singled out for racist jokes. Oh sure, they’re qualified with a “Hey, I’m just messing with you,” but that’s just a lazy out. How about this, comics: instead of making fun of the only black person in the room, diffuse the tension that person may be feeling by making fun of everyone else in the room. Comedy comes from an inversion of power, so use that.
- The homophobic jokes. The U.S. has come a long way toward overcoming its rampant homophobia in just the last few years alone (the Santorums of the world notwithstanding), but you wouldn’t know that from a lot of comedy club acts. Most of the time, the homophobic jokes aren’t even qualified with the nudge and wink that the racist jokes get. They’re just the sort of gay panic, “Eww, penises are gross” stabs at asserting masculinity that one might find at a frat house full of dude bros.
- Talking to the same one or two people in the audience for the entire show. OK, so a comic hones in on one or two people in the audience for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because of the clothes they’re wearing or because they made the mistake of getting up to go to the bathroom halfway through the comic’s set or because they’re hot and the comic is lonely. Then the entire rest of the set becomes just a conversation between the comic and those one or two people. At that point, he might as well just take them out for drinks somewhere and let the rest of the audience go home. There are dozens of other people in the audience. Include them in the conversation, too.
- Interacting with the audience and then getting mad at them for interacting back. This one always baffles me. It happens even with high profile comics, too. Take Dave Chappelle’s infamous walk-offs, for instance. His return to the stage has included a lot of banter and interaction with the audience. His sets are loose, and the vibe is loose. He’s working huge crowds, too, because he’s Dave Chappelle. And the larger the crowd you work, the more likely it is that there are going to be idiots in that crowd. One of those idiots might yell “Rick James, bitch!” That comes with the territory. You have to be able to laugh that off and move along. I’m not saying don’t shut those people down and put them in their place, but don’t let it ruin the show for everyone else. When you’re interacting with people, part of the thrill is not knowing what they’re going to say. Not everything they’re going to say is going to be genius. Some of it will be rude, and most of it will be unfunny. The challenge is to make it funny. Comics who can’t do that (and again, I’m one of them) should stick to written jokes (which I do, because I know my limitations).
Again, I don’t say all this to minimize crowd work comics. Not even crowd work comics who have done the things listed above, because in the heat of the moment not everything that comes out of a comic’s mouth is going to be pure genius. I’m in awe of people who can do really good crowd work. One of the best sets I’ve seen was from Pete Holmes at Gilda’s LaughFest this past year. He’s a comic who can write a hell of a joke, but he also has improv training so he’s really good at thinking on his feet. His set was probably 1/3 written jokes and 2/3 crowd work, and it never stopped being funny. There was no racism, no homophobia, no temper tantrums and most importantly there were no lulls in the lulz (I’m trademarking that phrase, by the way, so back off). I loved it, I had a good time, and everyone else had a good time. Or at least if they didn’t, it wasn’t for lack of trying on Holmes’s part.
Listen: I’m just a humble amateur stand-up comic who watches a lot of comedy and has some strong opinions about it. I don’t expect every comic out there to be my cup of tea, nor do I think that those who aren’t are inherently bad or untalented. But I really don’t want to have to sit through another set from a comic who relies on the four crowd work cliches above. It makes me sad in my heart.