Very early in my audience warmup when hosting a show I like to welcome visitors to NY, asking who needed a passport to be there. This gives me a sense of the makeup of the crowd. Tonight, there was a woman from Great Britain who responded to my question. Sitting to the left of the stage in the front row, she dramatically called out, “I am from Great Britain!” I culled a few laughs remarking on her theatrics, but I had the feeling she was going to be trouble. This was confirmed minutes later when she chimed in while I was talking to somebody else. Time to nip it in the bud.

“OK great, but now you have to shut the fuck up for the rest of the show.”

Done. Not a peep out of her after that. In fact, it took her a while to recover and enjoy the rest of the show. Walking past her on my way to the bathroom I saw her sitting slumped in her chair with her arms folded, and head cocked to the side.

People who don’t often go to comedy clubs have an idea that part of the show is audience participation. That might be true for an improv show, but what they don’t realize is the interaction is always on the comedians’ terms. I thought my message was clear and was quite surprised when I heard somebody in the left corner shout out. I couldn’t make out exactly what was said, but it was a co-signing situation. I simply ignored him the first two times, but on the third strike, I had to call him out.

“Whoever that is–this is the third time you’ve shouted out, and that’s not going to happen again, so either you shut the fuck up or get the fuck out, so what’s it going to be?”

Dead silence.

It was awkward for a minute after that, but he said nothing further. From experience, I know it’s better to have that moment than deal with this guy the rest of the show. He had to understand that the audience is not there to hear him. Sure, I could’ve engaged the guy and gotten laughs, but the rest of the acts on the show prefer to do their jokes. He would’ve thought that it was cool to continue shouting out. Timing is crucial in the standup comedy world and audience members that offer their comments during the show ruin it.


A comic friend recently posted a Yelp comment that had my name in it. The complaint is most likely due to a thing that happened in a comedy club. A woman came into the show about 20 minutes late and sat in the front row. She starts out wrong twice. As the host, I engage members of the audience at the beginning of the show and I naturally inquired why she was late and mentioned some things I had learned about others.

The initial exchange was fine. I joked about where she was from (Houston) and how New Yorkers had changed the pronunciation to Howston. Midway through the show I overhear a waitress outside the showroom at the bar talking about a customer who hadn’t ordered any drinks. She said she tried to explain that there was a two drink minimum and got waved off. This was the lady from Houston.

When she went back a second time, the Houston lady rudely told her that she was enjoying the show and wanted to see the manager. The waitress asked her to come out of the showroom to speak to the manager because of the front row location and gets waved off again. The show continues but out of the corner of my eye I see the manager creep up to the woman and quietly try to get the woman to come out to the bar and talk about the situation. He gets waved off. Now, I have to deal with her.

“I see you don’t have any drinks at your table.”

This was the opening salvo in the exchange that prompted the Yelp comment that I had been rude. I told her there was a two drink minimum.

“So I hear.”

Oh no, miss thing this isn’t something you heard, it’s a fucking fact! I broke it down and let her know that she would be charged for two drinks so she might as well order them. I told her it didn’t have to be alcohol, it could be coffee, juice or soda. This tightened her jaws nicely and I introduced the next act and went outside for a cig.

When I came back, the woman had her coat on by the bar talking about how rude everybody was. In the words of every 7-year-old in the world―she started it.

William Stephenson

Crowding It Up

Crowding It Up


Besides material, comedians write for their acts, crowd work is another method to elicit laughs from the audience. In NYC clubs, the host or emcee usually does this at the beginning of the show or warm up. Asking questions of people in the audience such as where they are from, and what they do for a living is standard. People love to yell out their hometown in front of strangers. One must be careful of the questions one chooses to ask. It’s similar to the rule prosecutors have that says never ask a question unless you know the answer.

The bold ones try their hand at humor with what they feel is a funny retort. This almost never works out for them. They act like rookies at the plate ready to hit their first grand slam, and usually end up hitting a dribbler back to the pitcher. When someone in the crowd bombs, it serves as a deterrence for others not to follow suit.

In a small club like the Comedy Cellar (115 seats), seating is tight and somewhat claustrophobic, so you want to offer them comfort and reassurance that they will have a good time. I like to give the audience a prepared opening statement so they don’t think we’re gonna be making all this shit up as we go along. The Cellar gets a lot of tourists from all over the world and I love the “We are family” element of audience composition.

“Let me take a minute to look at you, see what I’m working with….looks like we have a lot of different people from various backgrounds and foreskins…”

The worst crowd work experience I had happened years ago in Washington Square Park. It was one of those perfect summer afternoons near this legendary fountain in the center of the park. When the water isn’t turned on it becomes theater in the round holding nearly a thousand people when it’s filled up. From the outer brim, there are about 6 rows of concrete levels and folks sunbathe while waiting for the next show to start.

For outdoor shows, you have to do a lot of crowd work because of all the distractions going on, drunk hecklers, phones, sirens, planes flying overhead. Getting through bits require attention and it can be tough. I was walking around talking to various small groups and I came upon a woman splayed out as if she was on her living room couch. The plan was to call her out for her bad posture and have her sit up and look like an interested audience member.

“S’matter….you got spina bifida or something?”

The line got a decent laugh from most of the crowd with the exception of the people sitting with her. Their faces were frozen with a horrifying grimace I didn’t understand. Then, I noticed the braces on her limbs and the crutches nearby. Oh my.

Yes, she did have a condition that didn’t allow her the freedom of movement most of us enjoy. I couldn’t think of anything to save this situation so I simply apologized and moved on. Lucky for me the crowd wasn’t huge and most of the people on the other side of the fountain couldn’t hear what was going on.

That was not a good day at the office.

William Stephenson

Waffle Hands: Friends of the People

On Friday, I played Jermaine Fowler’s grandfather in a sketch for the second season of TruTV’s “Friends Of The People.” I was a high school principal in the first season, but it never aired. It was a pretty routine shoot and somewhat familiar. The pickup was at the same spot, 96th and Broadway. The 11:15a.m. call time was reasonable and I made it with minutes to spare.

There were several other players in the van. I remembered one from the Top Five shoot from 2013 (my scene didn’t make the final cut). The seven other actors and I rode out to a great big house in Westchester County that is often used for TV and movie shoots. I was told the owners live on the top floor and have rented out the rest of their massive home since 1980.

I filled out my paperwork and waited to go to wardrobe to get my “grandfather” clothes. I was asked to bring a sweater and shirt as this is not a great big budget production. They didn’t use my stuff and put me in a shirt and sweater/vest. The shirt was funky from a previous use, but it turned out they had to give me another after seeing a problem on camera.

Next was hair and makeup. The hair lady looked at me for 7 seconds and said I was cool. Now it’s time for the waffle hand. This was my first time having anything attached to me and it took more than a minute. My hand was slathered in glue and shredded cotton balls before the spongy plastic waffle was slipped on. It was then painted to match my skin tone and the effect worked, it looked like my hand was made of waffle.

My scene was ready and I headed to one of the living rooms with a couch. Jermaine and I sat and waited for the camera to roll. We each had just one line and after a few takes, we were wrapped. Now I’m hungry and head to the craft services table to see what was what. I hadn’t been there long enough for the lunch spread and had to settle for a sandwich a guy was handing out. I didn’t know what it was and bit into it to discover it was one of those foods I had never tried.

If I don’t like the way a food looks or smells, I don’t eat it. Hummus was on the top of my no-go list. I was right. It tasted like an alley taco.

William Stephenson

What I Do

Since late 1982 when I started my standup comedy career, I have spent very little time analyzing my act. When people that have not seen me perform ask what kind of comedy I do my response is “the funny kind”. And yes, I have always been a smart-ass. Over 30 years later I suppose is time enough to have some kind of handle on what I do.

Much of my material is gleaned from personal experiences. My first laugh came in my first open mic at Garvin’s Laugh Inn in DC. While working at a record store in Detroit, I waited on boxer Leon Spinks, he of no front teeth. It was so difficult understanding what he was saying, I wrote a joke about it.

Leon: I want to buy some Reefa Fraykin.
Me: We don’t sell marijuana.

For the most part, I love making fun of behavior I find rude, unnecessary, counter-productive and wrong. Like the idiots standing just inside the subway car and not getting off at the next stop. I don’t know if they don’t understand that space is needed for people getting on and off or don’t care. Either way, they are wrong and should be shunned. I always give them a decent stink eye as I squeeze past them shaking my head in disdain. Last winter in NYC there was an animal hat trend that bothered the hell out of me. It was like living in a petting zoo. I did see an Asian dude with a panda bear hat which was cute, but I couldn’t wait for the weather to break.

Since most of my audiences qualify as humans, I joke about things that all humans can relate to. I don’t have a “target” audience or try to appeal to any “demographic” because those things don’t matter to me. I will leave that to those more ambitious than I. (Everybody!) Anything marketing related has virtually no meaning to me. I’m fairly Amish when it comes to promoting even myself. I worry only about being funny and leave all the rest to….

Not sure how I want to finish this;

A. The Lord
B. Fate
C. The beaver

William Stephenson

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