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.