The Rise of Crowd Work in Comedy

Article by: Robert Dean

“I helped with some “skits” at church today because they know what I do…and the director asked me how to get Matt Rife tickets.” 

And that’s what you need to know about the rise in crowd work. 

It’s everywhere, and the comics who are good at it are seeing their shows sell a lot more tickets. I’d asked Allison Wojtowecz her opinion on why going back and forth with the audience at a comedy show has gotten so big. 

Every time I scroll Instagram (I’m almost 42 and don’t have TikTok), I see a new reel for someone talking to the crowd, interacting with them, but why?

I wanted to know more, so I hit up a few comedians about what they thought were the reasons it’s all over our social media with clips from comedians like Matt Rife and Stavros Hailkas going back and forth with someone from the crowd, usually dogging them for poor life choices, Allison continued, “Social media has turned into a major way for people to find new comedians, so the smart comics are posting funny content to get people to come to their shows. Crowd work has gotten big because comedians don’t want to post their written material on the internet for free - they want to sell (or at least produce) specials. So, comics have started posting crowd work because it’s “free” material to showcase your comedy without “burning” parts of your act. As a result, crowds now think that standup is LARGELY crowd work - and will even TRY to interrupt sometimes, thinking they’re “helping” the act.”

Photo by Joe White (@zpixbyjoe)

Different comics have different opinions on crowd work and how it can affect the rhythm of the night, how the flow of a set works, how it affects their prepared material, and the expectation of them breaking the set to focus on people and get their stories.

Austin standup Leonarda Jonie added to the thought. “I think crowd work trumps jokes at live shows but in recordings, jokes trump crowd work. And it does so at live shows because crowd work draws the audience in and forces them to get present. They’re aware that the comic is talking to them right then in that moment, and it’s not a pre-written script. And if it’s funny and done well, everyone knows that comic is actually funny. And they’re in contact with the comic’s raw talent and artistry.” 

It’s a subject of skill and talent, and who can manage the expectations of a set with what people think is funny and what works at the moment. 

Some comedians stick to the material, while others jump in and engage, “I think that's the vessel carrying it and building it in general. It makes the audience feel like they’re a part of the show,” Trevor Keveloh told me over text when asked his thoughts on it, which mirrored a lot of what the others had to say. 

If anything, it’s a very personal choice to do crowd work. I’m not saying it’s akin to saving babies from starving crocodiles, but it takes a lot of skill to be that quick with the jokes that are in the moment, that people know what they’re about to endure answering questions from a comic with deadly timing and wit. 

“Comics post clips and crowd work is effervescent and evergreen. You’re not burning any material, and you’re showcasing comedic talent. There’s also an element of the viewer relating to the audience member,” is what Mike Eaton had to say when asked about his feelings on going off script. 

Daniela LaFave, producer with Korrupted Comedy, said, “I think there are a few reasons for this. From the comic’s perspective, crowd work is economical. It fills time and can smooth the transition into written material (if the transition is done well). A crowd work clip is engaging to watch on social media, so having a few good crowd work clips to share makes for easier booking, especially for comics who travel and need to network with local producers. Crowd work is also accessible - it’s happening in the moment and doesn’t go over people’s heads. Some audience members love the attention and others, like Michael Scott levels of secondhand embarrassment when someone else in the audience gets picked on. And for better or worse, I think that the comments section has trained us to interact with what’s in front of us. Hecklers are nothing new, and they’re not going anywhere. But skillful crowd work can turn a disruptive audience member into part of the fun.”

Jackass alumni Rachel Wolfson also added to the concept of not putting the good jokes online, “Crowd work has gotten so popular because of social media. Comedians either don’t want to burn material or don’t have the material, so crowd work has become popular content. Now people on the internet see these clips and expect crowd work to happen at every show. This can also lead to more heckling as that’s what’s being shown online.”

But that bears the question: is it all for social media? 

When you need the answer to an esoteric question like this, you gotta go to one of the masters of crowd work, Eric Neumann, “Crowd work has become extremely common now and audiences love it because more than ever before, they get to share the spotlight with the comedian. And crowds know they’re witnessing a moment that is only for them and can’t be replicated. But even with the popularity of it, I know I do it in a way that’s unique to me.” 

Eric, along with Rocky Dale Davis were two of the first comics to really push their crowd work onto social media, their ability to move at breakneck speed. 

Rocky Dale Davis working the crowd

At least for now, crowd work is here to stay, thanks to our love of shares and likes. Like all things, it’s a matter of taste, but if there’s anything we do know, it’s that watching some nerd get shit on will never not be funny.

Robert Dean is a journalist, raconteur, and enlightened dumbass. His work has been featured in places like MIC, Eater, Fatherly, Yahoo, Austin American-Statesman, Consequence of Sound, Ozy, USA Today, to name a few. He’s appeared on CNN and NPR. He also serves as features writer for Hussy Magazine, Culture Clash, Pepper Magazine, and is editor in chief for Big Laugh Comedy, Texas’ premier comedy production company. He lives in Austin and loves ice cream and koalas. His new collection of essays, Existential Thirst Trap is out now.
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