• 25 Jun

    Why the “crowd work versus material” debate is old and needs to die.

    This week I read this article in the Guardian. It’s a bit of a non article, dredging up the tired debate about the role of crowd work over material in live comedy.

    Specifically that the myriad of crowd-work clips posted by comedians on social media has altered the comedy landscape for the worse.

    This binary perspective on live comedy is irritating. There is room for both crowd work and material. There should be both. Most nights need both. Because crowd work isn’t better or worse than material. It’s just different. But just like material, you can have fantastic, one-of-a-kind crowd work and bad, lazy, hackneyed crowd work.

    Also, this article doesn’t make the distinction between hosting and doing a spot. I would argue that the primary role of the MC is to make the crowd feel comfortable, part of something unique and know they can relax with a safe pair of hands. It’s also the role of the host not to try and outshine the acts who have meticulously prepared their sets. So crowd work is a more natural fit for the host.

    When I’m hosting and I fall into do material, I feel I’ve cheated. Just a little. Similarly when crowd work happens that is unprepared but it drifts into things I’ve said before, largely because as people tend to give similar responses – especially when set up to do so. “Any students in?” “Anyone on a date tonight” being solid examples.

    It’s like doing short form improv. As a performer, you feel a little dirty when you ‘improvise’ a line you’ve said before, merely because, again, people tend to give the same suggestions for short form games (pineapple, dildo, submarine etc). It’s our job as improv performers to be fresh and unique with every line or act out; it’s the same principle with crowd work.

    Of course crowd work is a better fit for social media. A lot of scripted material leans heavily on structure: set up, pay off, repetition and call backs. Comics take their crowd on a journey. You can’t easily capture that in a thirty second clip.

    But I also think it’s a shame that the dominance of crowd work on this social media landscape has distorted the perception of what a live comedy experience is. I’ve heard tell of people turning up to a comedy chow, having only been exposed to social media soundbites, expecting just crowd work, and being disappointed when they see comics not talking to them as they perform their act.

    Back to improv. Crowd work is the perfect use of improv in a stand-up setting. As someone who has been doing both for years, I can say with confidence that they utilise different parts of the brain. Improv requires being completely present and in the moment, actively listening to everything being said and reading the room. Improv isn’t about you, it’s about everything that’s going on around you.

    When I’m doing material, conversely, I spend a lot of the time trying to remember what I’ve written until it becomes automatic, like muscle memory. It’s only then that you can be so present you can make that mental flit between crowd interaction and prepared material. And to be honest I spend most of my time on stage wrestling with these two mindsets. I’ve still not cracked it.

    Because here’s another thing. If you CAN do great crowd work, it’s arguably much more fun for the performer than it is to do material. It’s worth acknowledging here that there’s always a little touch of jealousy from those comics who can’t do crowd work versus those who can. I think this is a shame and misplaced. It’s like the wider, “stand up versus improv” tribalism crap that exists. I think they both complement each other perfectly, as epitomised in the very best crowd work.

    Truth is, they are very different skills. Some comics are excellent writers who hone their material and craft into pure art, but not very quick in the moment. Other comics are superb at being present and lighting fast, but they are not so strong with their material because they prefer to lean on their spontaneity over meticulously hammering their material until it’s razor sharp and bulletproof. I truly believe the best comics are the ones who can do both. They are the ones who have the funny bones.

    By admin Uncategorized