How do I work an audience?
March 25, 2006 2:39 PM   Subscribe

How do I make the audience like me?

I occasionally do stand-up routines interspersed with performance poetry, and I want to become a master of working the audience. I'm confident writing material, but I'm not so sure about getting a crowd on-side, maximizing laughs, winning over a reluctant audience, neutralising hecklers without losing control of the performance, etc.
Are there any techniques used by hucksters, preachers, pop-psych gurus, etc, that I could exploit to (benignly) captivate an audience? Are there any psychology/sociology texts par excellence on audience/crowd psychology that I should be reading?
posted by RokkitNite to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My experience is that self-confidence and confidence in your material is key. I have seen more than a few medicored performers with middling material gain an audience simply by the confidence they demonstrate -- and even some performers who produce tricky, alienating work nonetheless gain a following because they understood and projected their work's value. In the meanwhile, I have seen some excellent work go unnoticed because the performer hemmed, hawded, and behaved apologetically.

This is also the main trick used by confidence men to pull cons -- they seem so confident that they win a mark's trust. Come to think of it, it's something skilled salesmen also project.

Edit your material until it's in tip-top shape. Rehearse your material until you know it cold. When you take the stage, believe that you belong there, and that you have something the audience is goign to appreciate (and make sure you actually do). The rest will follow.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:54 PM on March 25, 2006

I tend to like stand-ups who clearly like and respect their audience. Making fun of your audience ("Hey baldy!") will get you a laugh or two, but the audience will become afraid of you and stop liking you.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:28 PM on March 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Tell me a story and I'll like you. Try to make me like you and I won't.
posted by grumblebee at 3:42 PM on March 25, 2006

Oooo, this is a good point, grumblebee. My favorite stand up comic, Tom Shillue, is GREAT at this (he has a podcast, if you want to listen to some of his stuff).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:38 PM on March 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I managed a stand-up comedy club (big name place, you've heard of it) for two years during the "comedy boom" in the early 90s, so I'm fortunate enough to have seen every single top-notch comic several times over. I also saw hundreds of bad comics, too.

Stand-up is really fucking hard. It's really easy to do poorly, and extremely difficult to do well. The one thing I learned right away was that there was no way in hell I could do it. I had many, many people tell me they or their friends were just as funny than the comics on stage. And I was like, no, no, you just don't understand.

So, first off, don't get discouraged. It's hard, and there is no such thing as an overnight sensation. There are basic practices, sure (have an ocean of confidence, whip-sharp material, etc), but there are no sure-fire tricks to make an audience respond.

It really is a matter of practice, practice, practice. Every top-notch comic would tell me stories of stone-faced audiences at "Uncle Fucker's Chuckle Hutch" in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And they'd just pick themselves up and do it all over again for the second show later that night...

The great ones are constantly honing and tuning the act. I don't want to name drop, but a very famous comic told me, "if you think you've got it down, you don't got it, and worse, you don't know that you don't know."

The second piece of advice I garnered from these comics was, you have to really love the nuts and bolts of comedy. If you don't have the complete collection of Richard Pryor albums from the 70s; if you haven't listened endlessly to Cosby, Carlin, Lenny Bruce, etc; if you don't love to deconstruct jokes and figure out why it's working, don't even try.

Third, if it works, go with it. Don't worry about repeating yourself from show-to-show. Some comics were like tape recorders -- the exact same act, the exact same beats, the exact same pauses, timed to the second, every damn show. The act worked, they had whittled it down and honed it, and they'd just bring it every night. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Finally, you must always have fall-back material. When it's all going wrong, you gotta be able to whip out a good dick joke and get off the stage before they remember they didn't like you.
posted by frogan at 5:49 PM on March 25, 2006 [9 favorites]

I don't know why, but the phrase: "Be Oblivious" came to my mind.

Perhaps, "oblivious" to the audience, the punchline, your performance and just go out there and enjoy yourself!

And I'm not trying to change what you asked in your question, I just think obliviousness may be reflected as confidence and will captivate and engage your audience.

Good luck!
posted by mic stand at 6:37 PM on March 25, 2006

Like frogan was saying, (great commentary) really good comics are consumate professionals and they work very hard to nail down their acts. So my advice is to not be discouraged and keep honing it.

Every great comic/performer has experienced complete disaster on stage. The difference between them and the drop outs is that they just keep on going because they can see past the immediate and focus on the future while constantly honing the craft.

BTW, Check out Dave Chappelle on the Actors Studio.
posted by snsranch at 6:52 PM on March 25, 2006

While this isn't overt advice, to go along with what frogan is saying I'd recommend Comedian if you haven't already seen it.

I really loved that they were mostly just obsessive nerds with their little notepads, constantly testing and manipulating the same joke over and over. And you get to watch them fail in front of audiences, IIRC, while testing new material.

You're not going to win over all audiences and you just have to be okay with that. And taking the confident salesman approach won't lend more audience-winning-over I don't think - most sophisticated comic audiences will likely have disdain for (perceived) smarminess.
posted by birdie birdington at 7:01 PM on March 25, 2006

Best answer: There's an acting exercise, clowing exericse actually, that might be useful for you: get up in front of an audience and try to make them laugh. The catch: you can't talk.

It helps to have a very supportive audience for this, ideally other comics or actors who will be rotating through. The thing you'll discover almost immediately is the harder you try to make the audience laugh, the less inclined they are to do so. Then they'll bust out laughing at something you weren't even aware you were doing (typically your defeated expression when you give up on your "crazy dance" or "silly walk").

Once you get them laughing, you'll discover a lot of your familiar tricks will work - elaborate on a theme, repetition, reincorporation (all non-verbal still).

The people who are best at this tend to be the ones who get the audience on their side right away. They smile a lot. They're also very open and honest. They connect with the audience. It's important to know when you've got the audience with you, when they're laughing, and why. You can return to that again and again. But a lot of folks will have preconceived ideas about what's funny - they'll keep pushing their ideas (to no laughter) and ignore the audience when they do laugh.
posted by zanni at 9:08 PM on March 25, 2006

Response by poster: That's some really useful stuff. I never really thought much about the physical aspect, Zanni, but now I do, an excellent physical presence and rapport is one of the things shared by all the stage performers I enjoy and admire. I can also see how a lack of it has hampered some stand-ups I've seen, where their actual material has seemed really solid. Often, if you analyse just what a comedian's said within a bit, there's not much to it.
posted by RokkitNite at 11:10 PM on March 25, 2006

I once heard a talk by Livingston Taylor (James' brother) about winning over an audience. The thing that stuck out most from the talk was basically: If you want the audience to like you, you need to like them. When you're on stage, even if there's only ten people in the crowd and you're in some hole in the wall club in the middle of nowhere... and even if you have to pretend to yourself... that audience in front of you, right now, is the best crowd you've ever had. If you believe it, they will believe it, and they will love you.

It was a fantastic talk. He had 150 in the palm of his hand for 90 minutes. Although he's known as a musician, he also teaches at Berklee College of music and he's written a book you may be interested in: Stage Performance.
posted by evoo at 12:07 AM on March 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

That should read: He had 150 people in the palm of his hand for 90 minutes.

I need to go to sleep.
posted by evoo at 12:09 AM on March 26, 2006

Best Meetup location ever: "Uncle Fucker's Chuckle Hutch" in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
posted by theora55 at 9:02 AM on March 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

My sister has been a stand up comic for about a decade. It's hard work. I've heard endless stories about horrible people/audiences who drove her to tears later when she was alone. Having seen her many times, I've also seen tons of *terrible* comics (especially when she started and was going to amateur night). Fucking brutal. The big difference I feel between these people and the pros was always that the pros just talked and WERE funny. The Ams said things they thought were funny--you could see them *trying* to be funny.

The Ams that weren't great but didn't "try" to be funny, I saw over and over again and they got better. The Ams that tried to be funny gave up shortly thereafter. I saw them maybe one or two times and then they vanished.

I suppose what I'm saying is that the people who work their asses off end up going places. The people who assume it's easy and "know they're funny", don't.

All my sister's friends are comics. Not a one of them has ever said "It comes naturally" or "It's inate" or anything like that. It's brutal work and, as Frogan mentioned, the only people who stick with it are people who LOVE it and couldn't really stop if they tried.
posted by dobbs at 9:01 AM on March 27, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks scads for all the good advice. AskMefi rocks! I must confess, I was initially banking on the 'evil hypnotist' approach, but these answers have reminded me what I've enjoyed in good stand-up I've been to see. I'm looking forward to immersing myself in as many classic stand-up albums as I can get my hands on.

I'll let y'all know how the show goes, too.
posted by RokkitNite at 12:00 PM on March 27, 2006

Have you thought about Improv? It can really change your perception of what "funny" is, since you're armed with nothing but your wits and your trust in the other performer(s).
posted by mkultra at 1:42 PM on March 28, 2006

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