In the past year I have learned a lot about different styles of comedy and different strategies when performing on stage.
One element of stand-up that always becomes a topic of discussion is crowd work, also known as “crowd control.”
Crowd work is a strategy of stand-up comedy that you have to be confident in to truly look natural. Well known comics of today like Russell Peters, Big Jay Oakerson, and Dave Attell are very well-known for their crowd work abilities and have constructed styles of comedy that work for their acts.
Even certain comics like the late Charlie Barnett, a master of handling outdoor New York City crowds in places like Washington Square Park, helped to inspire notables like Jeff Ross and Dave Chapelle to be fearless in their acts.
Most recently, Comedians on the Loose began a new show called The Red Mic Battle featuring single stand-up, team crowdwork, and a roast battle as the final round.
For the crowd work round, it was really inspired by a show at the Village Underground featuring Judy Gold and Jessica Kirson. Their interaction with each other and the audience is seamless and neither miss a beat.
After the inaugural show for the Red Mic Battle, a comic claimed just from watching the battle that the competition isn’t easy and this was attributed primarily to crowd work.
This made me wonder: is crowd work something every comedian should do?
The positive side of crowd work
Crowd work is very risky for stand-up comedy, but it’s a risk that can pay off.
If you have a good handle on your crowd work abilities it allows you to take your comedy and make it more interactive. Ian Bagg from Last Comic Standing is a prime example of how this is possible. In his interaction with Wanda Sykes, he discussed how he wanted his comedy to be less “presentational” and more “conversational.” If you have a good handle on crowd work, it also allows you to make it more fun for the audience. If you are fun, you are more memorable and essentially more marketable because of your versatility.
Additionally, when done right, crowd work can also be a good strategy to add more time to your set if that is necessary. From personal experience, this was especially true when I went to Texas for a charity fundraiser in August 2017. I had a solid twenty minute set, but was required to do thirty minutes. After taking my initial time to panic, I consulted with my co-producer, Sonja Savanovic to see what I could do to stretch the time.
Her initial advice was to slow down, but then pointed out in certain parts of my set, there were areas that I could engage the audience because it made sense with the topic. It took some time to iron out, but in the end I was able to fulfill the half hour requirement in the end.
The negative side of crowd work
Every comedy strategy has a downside and crowd work is no different. However, this downside is primarily caused if you aren’t confident in your crowd work abilities or don’t know what you are doing.
The main negatives for crowd work is it is incredibly strategic, but has to look natural which not everyone can pull off. You have to be incredibly aware of everything on and off stage before your set and scan the audience beforehand as a prerequisite to even attempting it.
When done poorly, it can end up making you look awkward on stage (personal experience). It can also trip you up on stage if you didn’t plan to do it and are unable to navigate yourself back to your set easily.
It’s very subjective whether crowd work is right for you as a comic. The main things you should take into account are:
What are you going for?
Is crowd work appropriate for your set?
Do you feel confident doing it?
Would the audience even be receptive to crowd work?
Nothing is ever certain without trial and error and it takes time to cultivate your abilities. Crowd work can become more or less appropriate from one room to the next, but if you want to get closer to your audience and make them feel more included, gaining a good handle on crowd work is likely the way to go with your stand-up and something you can build into you overall comedy brand..
What are your thoughts on crowd work? Comment below and let us know what you think!