Crowd Work

Part 5 in this blog series about starting in stand-up.


I did a couple of open mic style nights (gigs no.5 and 6) that were pretty sparsely attended (i.e. more comedians than genuine audience members). Surprisingly, entry-level stand-up on a wintry Tuesday night in provincial England is not the big draw you might imagine. Amateur stand-up comedy, like any type of amateur performance, struggles to get an audience. Why do you think that friend of yours who does am-dram is always pushing you to come along?*

These type of thinly-attended gigs are never the best, even when you’re just starting out. You might think that performing in front of a few people is less scary than performing in front of a bigger crowd, but actually the smaller crowds are worse, and harder work. While it can be intimidating to walk out in front of a bigger crowd, it’s worse to walk out in front of 12 people and 25 empty seats. It’s tough to get a good momentum going. I don’t know whether people in a small crowd are self-conscious of laughing, or whether having a bigger audience means at least one person is likely to laugh and this encourages other people. All I know is that comedy seems to work much better with a decent-sized audience.

Anyhow, I did do one good gig (no.7) at This Next Act in Bristol. The weekly gig, run from the Kingsdown Vaults pub every Sunday is now a bit of a Bristol institution, and gets a good crowd. I had ten minutes and went down pretty well. As well as my bit on Bristol itself, I’d been working on what’s called “crowd work”- which is basically interaction with the audience.

The MC

At any club comedy night, you’ll have an MC who hosts the night, does some material and then introduces the acts. They’ll also tend to do a bit of material after an act if they think the audience needs picking up (although they will often run onto the next act if the energy is high, or time is running short).

One thing the MC almost always does is chat to the crowd (particularly those seated on the dreaded front row). The aim is to liven things up and break down the barriers between performer and audience. Crowd work like this tends to be high-risk, high-reward. If the MC comes up with some witty remark or takedown then they will receive a good response and a lot of laughter. It doesn’t always work out that way, though. Sometimes they will come across a Colin – an accountant who “doesn’t really have time for hobbies”. At that point the MC is heading down a dark (and humourless) alley and they need to bail out sharpish. Nevertheless, a skilled MC can normally turn a situation around (i.e. move smoothly on to the next person).

Work it, work it.

Crowd work is a bit less common in short stand-up sets, because the time pressure of a 5- or 10-minute set doesn’t really allow time to muck around with the audience. That said, a well-structured bit of crowd work, whereby an audience member is targeted with a set up question – rather than a general inquiry into their line of work, hobbies and so on – can still work well.

After deciding that I wanted to move away from the storytelling style of my first few stand-up sets, I decided to introduce an element of crowd work. I’d been listening to the Comedian’s comedian podcast where they discussed how part of the experience, and indeed the joy of live performance, is that it is live. The comedian can improvise, comment on what’s going on in the room, and interact with the crowd. After all, the people in the audience have made the effort to be out. They’re not stuck inside watching Netflix, so the comedian should make the most of it.

I’d noticed that if something does happen in the room at a comedy gig – for instance, someone comes in late – the comedian will often make fun of them a little, and riff on it. There’s an inherent tension when the comedian is improvising, because no one knows how it’s going to work out. As I said crowd work is high-risk and high-reward. I was interested to try some light crowd-work and so I wrote a couple of bits that involved speaking to an audience member (someone on that dreaded front row), with a couple of simple set-up questions, and then an improvised punch-line based on their final response.

I’m pretty confident that I’m fairly quick-witted, so I was keen to try it out and put that wit to the test. The good news is it worked out well. Once, the audience member was almost mortified that I’d started speaking to them, which in itself was funny. The other time I managed to come up with a witty retort – job done. Both times it seemed to get the audience going, and I only gently poked fun at the person in question, so I didn’t feel too mean about it.

Thinking about crowd work got me thinking about how I used to consider the front row at comedy gigs as an audience member i.e. a place to be avoided at all costs. Actually, it’s nothing to be afraid of. Even if a comedian does pick on you, they’re only looking for a set-up and a quick bit of banter, so fear not. As this article says “Going to see standup comedy? Don’t fear the front row!”.

*For what it’s worth, I think it’s worth attending anyone’s amateur drama production (or stand-up), the quality is often surprisingly good, and you’re sure to make them happy!

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