Using Questions and Crowd Work In Stand-Up Comedy

In case stand-up comedy theory bores ya, here’s the video:

Questions and Crowd Work: An Introduction

In my previous career in financial services, questions and client interaction was a big part of my job. Why?

If you say X, it’s false. If your client says X, it’s true. You need to get them to vocalize their need.

But how does this relate to stand-up comedy?

Spicing Up Your Premises

spicing up your premises

Typically, jokes adhere to the following structure:

  1. Premise (introducing the scenario/problem/annoyance/etc.)
  2. Punchline (joke)
  3. Tag (joke relating to premise)
  4. Tag 2 (joke relating to premise)
  5. ….Tag n(joke relating to premise)

Here’s the problem: we want to keep the audience laughing, but at some point we need to introduce the subject matter, which tends not to be funny at all.

For example, watch Dave Chappelle take 22 seconds to get his first laugh because he was building his premise that Sesame Street was messed up:


And that’s Dave freakin’ Chappelle, who had built up enough credibility with the audience so that they would hear him out.

Problem: Kim Kardashian Premise Too Long

Tough Crowd

Here’s the premise of my Kim Kardashian joke:

I was doing a search on Kim Kardashian the other day and I came across a site called BoycottKim.com…I guess they hated her. The major criticism is that’s she’s gotten a lot from doing very little. Am I the only one that finds that…IMPRESSIVE!?

That gives me a full 15-20 seconds of dead air before I introduce the first joke.

Here’s another challenge: what if the first joke doesn’t hit? That would give me 25-35 seconds of DEAD AIR. Can’t have that!

I needed a way to fill the dead air of a long premise-build with sound.

Using Questions And Crowd Work During Premise-Building

engaged audience

My friend Tyson suggested that I use a question to the audience to fill the dead air.

The idea here is that when the audience interacts verbally with you, they are getting engaged in the joke while at the same time helping you fill the dead air with the sound of their voices while you continue to build your premise.

If they give you something to work with, you might even be able to fill the air with laughter and finish building the premise.

In other words, it can help you build a complex premise without seeming like there was 20-30 seconds of silence/no laughter.

Questions And Crowd Work In Action During a Premise Build


Premise:I was doing a search on Kim Kardashian the other day and I came across a site called BoycottKim.com…

Question: How do we feel in 2012? Do we like her? Do we hate her?

Booyakasha!

Whatever, Man

whatever1

Will it work all of the time? No. Heck, it almost didn’t work this time. But nothing works all of the time. There are no absolutes. the audience is an animal, and every animal is different.

Techniques and technologies like premise punchline tag, rule of three, and misdirection/surprise are all best practices when it comes to comedy.

Best practices, whether it comes to sales in financial services or comedy, are employed to give you the best chance at getting what you want. They generally work, and that’s as good of a starting point as you’re gonna get when it comes to stand-up comedy.

Peter Frampton?? Yeaaaah…

Michael Jagdeo

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About Michael Jagdeo

My name's Michael Jagdeo, and I refuse to write about myself in the third person. I'm a Comedian from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In addition to honing my stand-up comedy act, I maintain this blog and write the weekly comedy article for blogTO.com.
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10 Responses to Using Questions and Crowd Work In Stand-Up Comedy

  1. Pingback: Welcome | Diary of a Toronto Stand-Up Comedian

  2. Instead of the long intro for the Kim Kardashian bit, maybe you can try this:

    “i was bored earlier today and on the internet.

    And we all know, no good can come from this lethal combination of lethargy and being online.

    Who the fuck does anything good with the internet anyway?

    ACT OUT (happy and perky): Hmm, I have plenty of free time, time to learn some new skills and become a more productive member of society

    Nope, you end either looking for porn or celebrity gossip.

    So while I was dusting the cheetos stains from my finger tips, I found “boycottkim.com” …..”

    I thought this could be a way for you to do an introduction but still have laughs in it to keep the audience involved and listening to the premise.

    Of course, I could be talking out of my ass because I know as much about comedy as a rock

    Let me know what you think

    • Hey Mike,

      First of all, I really appreciate the work you put into this.

      Figuring out how to communicate complex premises into succinct packages is probably one of the toughest things I’ve come across in writing comedy. I once heard that Jerry Seinfeld would read his jokes 1000 times, removing one word per iteration.

      In my recent post reviewing Jay Sankey’s Zen and the Art of Stand-up comedy, he said that stand-up tends to be:

      • Simple ideas
      • Commonly understood
      • Verbally expressed

      However, what he meant by simple ideas was simple to understand ideas:

      …the real challenge of writing stand-up is not to make my stuff as dumb as possible, but to express the abstract, imaginative, and unusual thoughts i have in terms that are simple and clear as possible. – Jay Sankey

      A daunting task.

      Going to your introduction, how would you Premise Punchline Tag it out?

      Premise: “i was bored earlier today and on the internet. And we all know, no good can come from this lethal combination of lethargy and being online.

      Punchline: Who the fuck does anything good with the internet anyway?

      Tag: ACT OUT (happy and perky): Hmm, I have plenty of free time, time to learn some new skills and become a more productive member of society

      Tag: Nope, you end either looking for porn or celebrity gossip.

      Tag: So while I was dusting the cheetos stains from my finger tips, I found “boycottkim.com” …..”

      I could see it working. One thing that I’ve found is that whatever the material, it’s important for the actor/actress to institutionalize the material into their body. They have to believe in what they’re saying.

      So here’s how I’d customize it to suit me:

      Premise: I was surfing the internet the other day, one hand on the mouse…

      Punchline: …the other hand on Mini Mouse.

      Tag: Some people start their day off with coffee, I start my day off with coming. I can’t focus without it.

      Tag: I found “boycottkim.com…

      Whaddaya think?

      • I agree with the stuff about being true to yourself when telling jokes. I wrote the introduction with the idea that I would be performing it. So, I appreciate where you are coming from when you customized it.

        I’m sure you will gesture towards your “mini mouse” when you say mini mouse to make it funnier.

        I seem to have difficulty with regards to your tag about “coming”. It seems to brash for a opening. Like you haven’t given the audience time to like you and you are already talking about ejaculating. It seems to much to early. You might risk alienating the crowd early, especially if you the jokes are going to follow aren’t as raunchy as the introduction.

        What do you think?

        • Dude, you have great observations!

          Yes, the mini mouse phrase would be accompanied by me pointing.

          Regarding putting the raunchy stuff too early, you’re DEAD ON. In fact, it’s another point that Jay Sankey brought up. He said that it was best to try the riskier, edgier material in the middle of a set, once the audience had decided they liked you.

          But keep in mind that while this would be an introduction to the joke, it wouldn’t be the introduction to a set, per se. I always start off with 30-90 seconds of improvisation based on the previous comedian’s material to start a set.

          • I wanted to ask you about that, regarding your decision about doing improv material relating to previous comedians set, why do you feel the need to do this? I may be exaggerating here, but I do understand the need to “call the moment” or “call the room”, but I only do it if I have something really great to add.

            I noticed that most times, the audience tends to forget about previous acts and is just really interested in what you have to say. The only people that appreciate the improv stuff are other comedians in the room who were really paying attention. (sorry for the long rant, hope I did not come out as preachy)

            “But keep in mind that while this would be an introduction to the joke, it wouldn’t be the introduction to a set, per se.” – Yeah, it was dumb for me to think that you would do that, sorry.

            I have to say though, I think you have really awesome material. Just reading through your blog makes me chuckle. You have some really witty stuff here. But when I watch your videos, you seem to come out nervous. Is that just me talking out of my ass?

            • Hey Mike,

              Regarding improvising jokes to start the set, It’s more of a personal thing for me.

              I’ve always revered comedians that were able to improvise off the top. In addition, my mind is constantly creating jokes, and so when I’m at a show, I find material coming to my head rapid fire.

              My experience is that audiences really appreciate the fact that you can come up with jokes that relate to the shared experience you’ve just had with them.

              Case in point, a previous comedian’s commented on , ‘some weird gay shit.’

              In addition, and this is something Jay also mentions, the way you want to come off when you start your set is that you’re not performing, per se, but instead telling them something casually, so that it doesn’t seem like you’re reciting material. But by the same token, could you start your set with prepared material and come off casually? For sure.

              Something in me cringes when a comedian walks to the mic and just goes into their set sans segue.

              To your other point, yeah, I often come off as nervous. I don’t get on stage nearly as much as I should, especially since this head writing gig for a TV show came my way. I’m working on that for sure!

              Jagdeocomedy on Twitter

  3. Im going to stop replying in the main thread because I am afraid we will end up trying to read sentences that are two letters long. :)

    You make a good point about the openings and giving reverence to the previous comedians. Ill try and work on doing those as well.

    I dont think I mentioned that I am actually in the Philippines and stand up comedy is not as big here as it is in Canada or the US. The comedy scene here is more to do with slapstick and vaudeville type shows where people go on stage and make fun of audience members and tell really predictable jokey jokes. There are only about 2-3 venues in the entire country that allow for open mics, and even those aren’t really mainstream.

    What I am trying to say is that you should take advantage at the sheer number of chances you can to get on stage and get better at dealing with the audience and performing in general. I mean, I am lucky if I can get on stage twice a week, and thats to a crowd who half the time have never even seen a stand up comedy set in their life.

    I am sure that if you perform more, you will get better. Not just at doing stand up, but more importantly, at figuring out what it takes to make people laugh. This is why we got into comedy in the first place.

    Apologies once again if it seems like I am lecturing again

    • Comos taca then!

      Yeah, good call on starting a new thread.

      You know, I haven’t done a post specifically explaining why I haven’t been working hard on my stand-up comedy act. It’s because TV came along.

      What I’ve found is that 95% of the people that do stand-up comedy want to be on TV. Why perform for 70 people when you can perform for 50-100k on a semi-popular TV show and the money aspect are probably two of the biggest reasons.

      I’ve also seen the benefits that TV has conferred onto Gilson Lubin and Quinn C. Martin, my two mentors in comedy.

      So, when TV came along asking me to write and be in front of the camera, I asked myself, hey, why am I doing stand-up again? Oh, to get on TV? Oh, ok. So I have the opportunity to be on TV now? Oh, ok. Let me focus on that then, lol.

      But I’ve realized that I’d love to be a great stand-up comedian. I’d love to travel and take my act around the world. I love comedy, writing, reading, and traveling. If I can do a combination of that on my own terms, I’ll be a happy man.

      Any topics or ideas that you’d like me to delve further in on this blog?

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