Hey, where you from? What do you do? Nice shirt.
Are these really the building blocks of an emerging art form?
Crowd work, the comic’s chatter with the audience in between jokes, has long been derided as the cheapest way to get laughs. But lately it’s been receiving more attention and respect from performers who have moved it from a supplementary part of their act to the main event.
In the past few years, the stand-ups Judah Friedlander, Andrew Schulz and Ian Bagg released specials built around crowd work; Big Jay Oakerson recorded a crowd work album, his second; and last week, Moshe Kasher released his own, “Crowd Surfing.”
Asked why this subgenre is booming now, Kasher pointed to the broader proliferation of stand-up specials that typically erase the spontaneous banter of live performance. “The living-in-the-moment part of stand-up, which is integral, has gotten short shrift,” he said in a recent interview by Skype, suggesting that these specials are less of a departure from traditional acts than a return to fundamentals.
“It’s foundational and an essential part of stand-up,” he said of crowd work. “If you look at vaudeville in theaters vamping between acts, it was always jokes written and banter in the moment.”
Anyone who regularly sees live comedy knows that the hours on HBO and Netflix never entirely capture the atmosphere inside a small room when a comic is killing. Trying to recreate that ambience on a screen may be doomed to fail, but this cluster of specials gets closer, borrowing some of the feel of unpredictability and sense of danger for their own distinct ends. What stands out in these specials is that while they share elements, like a white male point of view and a taste for insults and sex jokes, they are, like any worthwhile artistic genre, flexible enough to accommodate very different styles.
In his very funny Netflix special “America Is the Greatest Country in the United States,” Friedlander, playing an outrageously arrogant expert on all things, uses crowd work as a kind of misdirection, a trick to make his finely crafted jokes seem more off the cuff than they are. When he finds out an audience member lives in TriBeCa, he calls the neighborhood a model of diversity in a joke that was clearly part of his repertoire. “Where else can you find hedge fund C.E.O.s living right next door to venture capitalists both upstairs from a CVS inside a Walgreens?” he asks, adding: “Which are both inside a Citibank?”
For Friedlander, crowd work is a tool, one he assimilates into a set that feels as polished and writerly as a carefully developed routine. Bagg takes the opposite approach; crowd work is not a means to an end so much as the goal itself. His jokes are far less intricate, and his wiseguy persona is nowhere near as vividly drawn, but his quips feel organic. His freewheeling act is raggedly spontaneous. He’s incredibly quick, alert to the fun of things going off the rails. As you can tell from the title of his special, “Conversations,” he’s the rare comic truly committed to dialogue. If he has prepared material, it’s not obvious. Anything too polished would get in the way of what he seems to be aiming for: an act that feels entirely committed to the comedy when two strangers meet.
The only comic who seems to really listen to his audience with more focus is Oakerson, who can be found in clubs, often past midnight, chatting with patrons about their filthiest thoughts.
He drills down on the few subjects he really cares about (sex, money, penis size) like a wily and shameless investigative journalist desperate for scoops. He asks the usual questions about work and where you’re from, but he also tosses out some better ones like “Are you successful?” — which is just vague enough to produce a revealing result.
Schulz, a rising star who released the free “Crowd Work Special,” on YouTube last year, has similar interests but a shorter attention span. Quick on his feet, he pounces on the first joke he sees, making meals out of first impressions and well-worn stereotypes. Such a strategy staves off long stretches without laughs, but prevents getting much from the crowd.
Kasher’s album takes full advantage of the audience, in part because of the meaty questions he asks. He begins with five (including “What’s your wildest sexual experience?”) intended to produce juicy stories. And he gets them. He is very aware of the quality of the story. If it’s just O.K., he interrupts more. If it’s terrible, he might follow it up with the burn: “Now let me explain to you what a story is.”
While he teases, his approach is gentler than most, the insults laced with self-mockery. On the spectrum from freewheeling to more structured, he falls in the middle, letting audiences tell their stories, then riffing until he finds the perfect punch line. And yet, he concedes he has a couple of stock comments. If he asks about someone’s job and the answer involves the military, he thanks them for defending his freedom before the punch line: “You’d be disappointed to know what I am doing with it.”
He begins his album by saying that crowd work has long been maligned but adds that there are masters of the craft, singling out Don Rickles, Patrice O’Neal and Paula Poundstone. I would include Todd Barry, who, along with Oakerson, anticipated this trend with his 2014 special “The Crowd Work Tour,” a documentary of his only doing shows off the cuff, his sarcasm so pristine that he can tease with the lightest of touches.
Barry’s mockery always seems like it’s about to go for the kill but never does. And that restraint is part of what distinguishes him. In a form known for broad targets and performers chuckling at their own lines, he goes out of his way to avoid anything too easy and maintains a stoic deadpan. When a patron makes a comment filled with sexual innuendo on his special, you can feel the audience await the obvious comeback. Barry looks right at him and says, “I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” and the crowd roars.