The first thing to do is be connected to the people in front of you, so you can get a read on them. This is the reason that I’m always saying, “The most important thing about stand-up comedy is your relationship with the audience.”
Only by being connected to your audience can you figure out how to get into a rhythm and unify them into a laughing force. That’s the supposed job of an opener or an emcee.
How do you take a bunch of strangers who are still thinking about things like, “I hope my babysitter isn’t beating my child.” or “I’ve got to stop sleeping with my personal assistant.” or “Will the president ever release his tax returns?” …blah, blah, blah…
How do you snip these mental entrails to the outside world? How do you get them to be present and behave as a group?
Good openers and MCs know how to crack a crowd. Yet most openers and MCs don’t do a very good job because they’re not clear that it’s their job or how to go about it. For this reason some headliners will require the club to hire a feature/middle of their choosing. This feature performer has no style or material conflicts and knows how to snip those mental connections and unify the crowd into a laughing force. Then the headliner can go on stage to a warmed up crowd and build the show from a strong position.
Here are some techniques for cracking a crowd:
This is a joke or bit that usually gets a huge laugh. If you get a laugh in the first fifteen seconds, you’ve got a better chance of getting them rolling.
Here’s a joke from workshop grad, Robby Ravenwood, who wanted to establish that he’s a gay comedian at the top of the show.
“I can tell you why gays are such good dressers. You spend twenty years in the closet.”
Big laugh and character established.
This is where you talk to the audience. There are many techniques to make this less scary, but it’s still improv. It’ll wake up a crowd because they’re now in the show, instead of just watching one.
My workshop grad, Josh Lehrman, asks this question to start his riffing,
“What’s your least favorite ethnic group?”
This gets everyone’s attention as they want to know if the person will answer the question. And if they do, what will be the answer?
This is an excellent technique, but it’s over used by those who don’t understand its function. It should be used to get the audience to do some activity together to create the unification, but most just run it into the ground.
Here’s a joke that gets the audience to do something at the same time, but also gets a laugh,
“If you believe in ESP raise your hand. (Count the number.) Now, if you believe in telekinesis raise my hand.”
They raise their hands together, and then laugh together.
Tailor the Material to the Crowd
Simply take one of your jokes and relate it to someone in the audience. Here’s one I’ve used,
“We all have to deal with losers. For instance, you sir…”
The audience is paying attention and laughing wondering how I’m going to continue this interaction.
Do Something Unexpected
If you interrupt the audience with a surprise, they will pay attention. When my friend, Frank Miles, does a corporate comedy gig, he begins his show with,
“I’m socially awkward and have a hard time starting conversations. So I usually begin with… ” (He does a forward flip landing on his back with a loud bang.)
After that, he can pretty much take the audience in any direction as they are laughing and unified in their amazement.
These are not all the techniques, but it’s a good start. If you can crack a crowd you have a much better chance of working. Club bookers and headliners are always looking for comedians who can warm up a crowd.
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