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Anyone who has done stand up comedy has heard the complaint, “I would have done better if this crowd wasn’t garbage”. One of the worst feelings in stand up comedy is not connecting with the crowd. Stand up sets live and die by whether or not the comedian can build some sort of connection with the audience. If by the end of a comics set, they have failed to win the room over, is it you their fault or the crowds?
More often than not, I think the comedian should take the blame for a bad set. This stems largely from my belief that stand up comedy is a service industry job. The job of a comedian is to get people to laugh if they fail to do so, they didn’t provide the service they were hired to provide.
So, when would a bad set be on the crowd? There are a handful of factors, but generally, it breaks down into 3 main complaints.
This is a common complaint of stand up comedy open mics and poorly advertised shows alike. People are more like to laugh when they’re in a group. As someone who has been on stage, and in the crowd, people definitely feel free to let loose and laugh when they are part of an audience. This being said, some of my favorite performances have been in front of 5 strangers in a small room. Even if it’s only a few people that are out to listen to comedy, a good comedian should be able to get some sort of laugh, regardless.
Clearly the laughter volume and quality will vary from room to room. Likewise, what is considered a small crowd can vary as well. I attended a comedians theater tour where 800 people attended. However, the venue sat 5,000, which made 800 seem like nothing! A comedian doesn’t always have control over this. My advice for any comic who’s tired of working bad rooms is promote, promote, promote! Be creative with how you reach people. Don’t just spam your Facebook feed with event posts. Go flier, go talk to people, do radio, send out press releases. If you can help drum up a crowd, do it.
This is a slippery slope, so I will tread lightly here. Although this can be a legitimate excuse, if it comes up all the time, maybe the comedian should look at themselves. Sometimes comedians lose crowds due to preconceived notions about themselves or subjects they talk about. For example, when I first started comedy I was 18. I learned quickly I couldn’t approach my material the same way a comic in their 30’s does. When I performed in front of younger crowds I could position myself as an expert on a subject or self-aware. However, older crowds just wanted me to tell jokes about novel things and never share opinions. After a while, I found material that would work for both types of crowds. Comedians have to keep in mind that different people perceive them differently. Comedians just need to keep their crowd in mind. If for some reason a comedian did a show for PETA they should use their better judgment and not talk about their love for bacon.
I talk more about this here
BAR SHOWS! Some comedians love them, some comedians hate them. While not exclusively the source of distracted crowds bar shows are a common culprit. It’s hard to win over a crowd when you have TVs behind you are playing the big game. I’ve done bar shows with music running and the crowd was there to talk themselves, instead of enjoying the comedians stand up sets. Comedians can’t stand doing shows for people that don’t want to listen to them.
I once did a set during Sunday Night Football at a sports bar with the games playing (audio on) all over the bar. I got a few laughs, but man, were they hard to earn. Some comics might try crowd work here or perhaps a call and response. Even then, it’s hard to win over a crowd that’s already been lost.
Above are some of the common excuses I can entertain for a bad crowd. Here are some examples of excuses that I rarely entertain for why a crowd was bad.
When a comic gets an underwhelming response from a crowd and every other act does well, it’s on them. Bombing in comedy is hard, but comedians avoiding personal blame doesn’t help anyone. It’s best to wait a while, evaluate the set, think of ways to improve, and move on.
If you have any thoughts or comments, send me them on the contact page and I’ll update the article to mention them, and cite you for your contributions.