The Art of Crowd-Work Comics

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Recently my brother sent me a clip of the late, Sam Kinison’s first stand up appearance on Letterman. He left his placement in front of the cameras and entered the studio audience doing off the cuff, walk around jokes. He killed and acted like he owned the place. It was unheard of for two primary reasons:

One, from a technical and directorial standpoint, that is never done on over-produced, network television. Especially late night.

Two, in the world of comedy, the act of “working the crowd” has been a tumultuous debate of comedians for decades.

We are all familiar with the comedy club comedian who deviates from his/her written material to address the crowd. Slowly moving from person to person asking the standard, “Where ya from? What do ya do?” questions. Many road comics (a term used for comics that are not household names) do this because they are “green”, don't have strong enough material or simply not enough to cover their allotted time. It can be considered lazy.

They are chiseling away to find some material in the crowd, which would be fine if you were a Don Rickles who was a master at making something out of nothing with a full arc , payoff and callbacks. But most of these comics are just killing time and their meager efforts get meager results. It’s wasting the audience's time and the comic rarely comes up with something genius after all that puttering around.

They also tend to open the door to audience chat, in an attempt to entrap the audience member and then bash them whether they deserve it or not. It’s cheap and hacky unless there is a point to be made, to support a position you are driving home within a larger comedic piece.

This self-masturbation is seen by the comic as being whimsical, thinking they are living and succeeding as the truest form of a comedian, forcing audiences to follow their Yoda-like intellect in examining the crowd and in turn, the human experience the way perhaps, Carlin did. Except he’s not Carlin and he’s working to 27 people in Wilmington, Delaware (Sorry Wilmington).

You are not a weak performer if you aren't good at improv or don’t have the quick, listen-assess-and-respond skill set required when opening it up to an audience. It’s a different art form. Know your strengths! Some comics just tell their jokes and that’s it. And there is nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be able to do everything. I used to make that mistake. It was emotionally tedious.

But if you are going to open yourself up to the crowd, you better be fucking sure that:

A) Your questions are actually taking you somewhere and not just fishing.

B) You have the skills to keep it moving theatrically.

C) You can handle the audience if they challenge you.

PS - There is a way to handle a challenging audience without clubbing them over the head in decibels or insults. Its also possible to use the whip and chair mentality through subtle quips or exaggerated agreement.

But back to Sam.

His set wasn’t that of a structured, Seinfeld-esque, wordsmith who constructed a joke, within a gag, within a bit. That certainly take brains and skill. But so does the “walk around” when done with experience.

Where is the fine line between a hacky, time-killer or a strong, comedic commentator?

Well first of all, if you are opening that door, you have to learn the balanced act dynamic of how to train the audience to know when they can talk to you and when they have to listen. Where are the parameters of them getting excited enough to join in, and when are you in danger of them taking over and hijacking the bit or the audience.

When you open it up to the crowd, you must learn when its time to stop collecting data and get to the joke, the concept, the weaving of the web to create your evening’s thesis, and of course, the punchline or payoff. And if you’re lucky, how to attach all the pieces you’ve collected through the walk-n-chat to build on your original spontaneously discovered joke. Can you talk, listen, joke, and verbally lay the bricks in front of you with each step to make rhyme to your reason?

Sometimes it crashes and burns or goes nowhere, in which case I’m not afraid to “out” myself to the audience. There are few things audiences enjoy more then to know the comic got stumped or topped. That also allows you (if you’re willing to be that honest) to purge every insecurity about what you just did and how it now makes you feel! Good stuff, provided you know how to edit it to still be funny.

This is my 28th year. Although people love the puppet characters in the act, the most consistent compliment I get is on the walk-around work. It is also my favorite part for a few reasons. The puppets are a conversation between two. It’s hard to deviate a lot when you are responsible to create a back and forth that seems natural and quick while setting up the jokes or gags. The walk-around work allows for open-ended, unconfined brain power. It’s a jigsaw puzzle every night. But it’s also the scariest, flying without a net. Will they buy my nonsense? Can I pull them in? How far can I go? Can I strike oil with one big laugh to “button” it? That is, assuming the audience is willing to engage you at all.

If they aren’t, experience gives you the tools to attempt to unlock the audience … shifting faster, slower, 1 on 1 chats, group engagement, self deprecation, or just shrugging your shoulders and simply asking them, “OK, what would you like to talk about?!” Of course, then you better be able to talk about that. There is the rare time you just know it’s not gonna happen for ya that night. You abort, get to the scripted material, and get the fuck off stage.

Robin Williams wasn’t a genius the way one might think. He had 4/5 set bits he’d plug in when applicable as he worked the crowd hoping it would create 10-15% spontaneous material, in addition to scripted material in case nothing improvisational came to fruition. But if the audience isn’t with you or helping you, you then have to find a way to make that the catalyst for fodder.

About 8 years ago I discovered how to do it with fairly consistent success. How to unlock my brain in a manner that utilized only a very thin filter. While chatting with an audience member, how to make a joke assessment, structure and deliver it in a matter of seconds, taking a risk that it will work, kill, or completely go too far and insult everyone. Eight out of ten times I do well. The other 2 times, I’m know management is gonna knock on my dressing room door after the show.

In a nutshell ...

Our brains process countless thoughts per second. But we have been trained to focus, filter and verbalize the most applicable thought to that moment. The other thoughts are discarded. For example, you are currently reading this sentence. Perhaps the primary thought going through your brain is how interested or not you are in this paragraph. But the other “voices” in your head are chatting about what you have to do later, how your ass hurts from sitting, how the light from the computer is effecting your eyes and 100 other things.

I believe the very first, unfiltered thought, response, or emotional AND physical reaction is the funniest. The problem is, our consciousness is out of practice to being present enough to hear or feel it. We are not in tune enough to be that analytical of ourselves, so we miss it. It takes a lot of practice.

Let’s say there is a knock at your door. You open it to unexpectedly reveal your ex-lover. What is the first thing your brain notices? What is happening to your body the millisecond you see her? Your palms are sweaty, you see her hair is parted the other way, you’re jumpy that your mother is gonna see her and think you’re back together because she liked this girl better than the new girl. Those anxieties, obsessions and guilt-ridden thoughts are honest and hilarious. That’s your first thought.

And that’s how you do walk-around. The audience member says something, and you are so practiced in how you are immediately effected or reminded of associations, you can immediately reply.

The only downfall to opening up your brain in this way is, it’s hard to turn it off in normal conversation, so it is possible to come off a little weird if you don’t learn how to quiet the beast! ... Which I have not.


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