Adjusting your material based on the type of crowd you're performing for

Should you change your material if you're doing a show in front of a specific kind of crowd? An anonymous commenter here recently wrote:

Just be yourself...I say the same shit to my friends who are African-American or Middle Eastern, who constantly try to pander to the lowest common denominator when they feel intimidated by an audience that is of a different age or ethnicity. Be yourself. Don't use your culture and skin color as a filter, drop the filter and don't be afraid to bomb, sometimes bombing is cool, as long as, you're being genuine and not dumbing your shit down.

To each his own. I think it's silly to think you're going to do the same set no matter where you are. Maybe if you're doing shows in front of the same demographic all the time. But I get up in front of different crowds. Sometimes it's a hipster room, sometimes it's a room filled with foreigners, sometimes it's an urban show, sometimes it's a clean show for a church group, sometimes it's an older crowd, etc. The idea that I should go out and tell the same jokes no matter who is out there seems silly to me.

I think it's part of a comic's job to read a room and respond appropriately. (I'm talking about picking which jokes to use, not changing your existing material.) To me, it's a good challenge to figure out which of my jokes will work best in that room at that moment for that crowd. I don't feel like that's not being myself. Every joke I tell represents some side of myself. It's just a question of which side I want to show at that moment. And which side I think will do best.

And I don't think bombing is cool. I think bombing is failing. The idea that you just stick with the ship even if it's sinking doesn't feel right to me. I think the audience is always teaching you. If you just keep spitting jokes at them no matter what, you're ignoring the lesson they're giving you. If shit's not working, I'd rather abandon my set, riff, and live in the reality of that moment than just be tone-deaf and plow through with jokes that no one in the room cares about.


soce said...

In general, it's easier to be a clean comic than a vulgar one, because a clean comic can always gussie up his set if necessary, but it's much tougher for a foul-mouthed comedian to remove all of the curses when he gets that dream tv / church / schoolchildren / etc gig.

I am a comedic rapper, but I recently got invited to do a show where I would be allowed to do anything BUT rap music. So I ended up playing my violin and singing some r&b and gospel songs. It was actually a lot of fun to change things up that show and connect with a completely different type of audience than my usual hipster fare.

Kent said...

Is it ok to agree with you but also think it was weird that you opened with your ghetto and weed jokes at the black show you posted?

Matt Ruby said...

Kent, it prob wouldn't seem weird if you see me perform a lot. I do those same jokes in front of white audiences all the time. And that ghetto joke is my most common opening joke.

lodon calling said...

Yes but some audiences are very very drunk and very thick .You've prepared all this lovely clever stuff and the audience don't have the attention span or intelligence to listen . So you either adapt or die . You could go down in flames with the clever clever stuff or you adapt .I don't like using the word pander but sometimes in the words of a dear comic friend of mine "You have to tap dance to survive ". Sure, you feel a bit dirty afterwards but that's life !

myq said...

"You either adapt or die."

For some people, death (or bombing) is more honorable than adapting to the point of not being oneself (pandering).

Not every comedian can succeed in every situation.

Bombing isn't "cool", but it is "necessary" (and I shouldn't have used that second set of "quotes").

Definitely, if you're performing for an old folks' home, it makes sense to leave out dirty stuff and references to celebrities that they haven't heard of and jokes involving whispering (because they're deaf, they're old!).

If you're doing an audition set for TV where you can't swear, same thing (but add back in the whispering and celebrity stuff maybe).

Some situations certainly call for utilizing different portions of your act.

Unless it's like, "I'm performing for black people, so I better leave out my racist material."
(I'm mean, that's probably smart, given those circumstances, but maybe also stop having racist material.)

But on the other hand, there are great comics who can do the exact same act, their act, being themselves, in front of all different audiences, from raging drunks to raging intellectuals to non-raging types.
Some people do what they do.

Not every comedian is about being in the moment.

Steven Wright's 90-minute show is nearly completely choreographed like a symphony.

Speaking of, if a classical music group is performing a symphony, they're not going to riff some jazz if the audience isn't into it.

Not saying you shouldn't try to entertain every diverse audience you're in front of to the best of your ability (while maintaining your own self-respect and identity), but some comedians' acts are more like classical music than jazz, more theatrical than spontaneous.

And that's not bad, I don't think.

PS This is what I think. I will not change my thoughts or feelings on this matter. I will not adapt to the situation if you, my audience, do not agree with me.
Unless you make a convincing point.
Then I'll rewrite my jazz symphony.

But I do promise it won't get any shorter.

End first movement.

Hank in Chicago said...

From the Department of Overwrought Metaphors, being a comedian is like being a boxer. You have your own style that you've honed from many hours of practice and training. You have strengths and weaknesses. Each audience is like a different opponent and you must adapt your style each time to most effectively dominate that opponent, playing to your strengths and managing your weaknesses. Sometimes victory requires minor tweaks, sometimes it requires significant overhaul. You learn to trust your quick feet, fast hands and nimble mind to carry you to the closing bell. When it's over you step off the mat with earned pride at being a leader of men. You count your teeth with your tongue. During your post-match shower you question your choice of career and wonder how many illegitimate children you may have sired and in what cities. Will you be able to afford to pay off the mothers who will emerge once you achieve national notoriety for your innovative and fearless boxing style? Might one of the children resemble you in a comical and undeniable fashion? Are you capable of love? Are you worthy of redemption? Will there ever be enough soap to wash away the sin? Would you rather nail the ring card girl waiting outside the locker room in the hotel pool or in the hot tub on the balcony?

It's just like that, right?

Mike Lawrence said...

There's nothing wrong with switching up references or cutting parts of jokes to make a joke work best for a certain audience. Writing and performing to specification is an essential part of the craft.

We have to be entertainers until we're paid enough to be artists.

Kent said...

Matt, that's fair. I haven't seen you enough to jump to the conclusion that I did. I'm sorry for that.

I think Mr. Anonymous and other strict "I am an Artist! No compromises ever!" people have a misconception about changing up your set. It's not as if I have a bag of hacky jokes that I pull from when I see a dumb crowd. I just choose from the jokes that I already find funny and find the ones that best suit the crowd.

I actually got halfway into a joke last night in front of a crowd of 50 and 60-year-olds before realizing that they probably don't know what Guitar Hero is. So I bailed on the joke after the first punchline.

Could I have followed through with the rest of the bit? Yes, but why? This crowd isn't going to enjoy it and it's not in need of workshopping. So I did more relationship stuff, job stuff, talked about the things that I have in common with people my parents' age.

Stubborn, unrelenting "artists" often make bad art because they don't take the audience's perspective into account. Comedy is a conversation, not a lecture.

Mo Diggs said...

I think the problem here is you (Ruby) and the anonymous commenters are speaking in absolutes. You are both right.

If we are talking about references then obviously you should take the audience into consideration.

But if you have a bit about your ethnicity and you are performing for a racist crowd or if you have a strong anti-war bit and the crowd is all "patriotic" I don't think you should compromise your beliefs to fit the audience.

The example I would use here is Patton Oswalt getting drinks thrown at him in Pennsylvania around 2003-2004 for expressing his anti-war views. I don't think he should have tailored his material for that crowd in that particular instance.

Mike Lawrence said...

I have to disagree Mo. You're there to entertain people and make them feel comfortable. I did a show in Jersey and was called a faggot after a bi joke. It was a paid show, I was supposed to do 30 minutes, and they lit me 15 minutes early because of it. And that's on me. I should've known better.

The audience is there to have fun and laugh. If we didn't help them do that, we failed.

myq said...

"You're there to entertain people and make them feel comfortable."

Entertain, certainly.
But making people comfortable?
I don't know that I agree with that.
(So much comedy is rooted in DISCOMFORT. Carlin and Stanhope are two that spring to mind immediately on these terms. Not that they're not making people laugh, but they're certainly not striving to make people comfortable.)

I don't think you failed because someone called you a faggot.

If the audience is full of bigots, or even just one loud bigot, that's not on you.
What if you didn't even say anything about your sexual identity, but someone yelled ignorant shit about your ethnic characteristics?
(e.g. "Jew-nose!" if you had one, say.)

That's not you failing.

If your situation had occurred in a good club, the person who yelled "faggot" would have been ejected.
That's not about your comedy.
That's about that asshole, and unfortunate circumstances.

What about Bill Burr's famous anti-Philly rant? Those people were booing, they were not laughing, it was not comfortable. Was he failing?

No, the circumstances were beyond his control, and he did what he could.

It's just like if the mic power cuts out on you, and the room is too big for a human voice to be heard, that's not YOUR failure.

There are things outside our control, and it's to our benefit if we can adapt to them, but it doesn't mean failure if we don't.
Or not failure on our part.

And again, I'm not saying be unbending about what jokes you do under what circumstances.

But I am saying that there's no one right answer for everyone--Patton, Birbiglia, and many others have done anti-Bush jokes in pro-Bush areas, because they were there to do what they did.

Would it have been the wrong choice to take those jokes out?
Not necessarily.
But was it wrong to leave them in?
I don't think so.

In conclusion, fuck Philly.
Am I right, ladies?

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Real-life anec dote up for analysis:

I have a 4.5 minute set at Carolines whereby dick jokes are getting the strongest response. I have no dick jokes. I figure my strong stuff stands the same chance as my new stuff, so I work out the new ideas. I lose the crowd. I finish weak.

Was I wrong to do the new stuff?

How many of you have known you would bomb ahead of time, or is that a state of mind?

myq said...

I've learned that it's never the most helpful to pre-judge a crowd, to assume that you're not going to do well...

Sometimes we can fail under what should be the best circumstances, or succeed under what should be the worst.
(Whatever "should" means here.)

In this specific situation, what made you so sure your A-game wouldn't have worked?
You say dick jokes were doing the best--was every joke that wasn't a dick joke bombing? Even good jokes?

Whatever the case, I think material that you're confident in should usually have a better chance than material that you're not.

Not that it means you were wrong to try out new stuff... I assume it wasn't a paid spot, so depending on what your goals are/were, doing new stuff could have been a better use of your time. But doing your best stuff could have been also, if not only to see if you were right or wrong about it with that crowd.

soce said...

I like how Abbi's story takes place in the present tense. There are many different solutions to difficult crowds. I think one solution is to do material you are really comfortable with so that it may win the crowd over and get them comfortable with you.

I've done rap shows where everyone is talking about the streets and thug life, and I go out and do my dorkiest nerd material.. while it may not win over all the tough guys, hopefully it will stand out on its own, and some people will "get it".

I think it's good to be able to adapt your set, but ultimately you should be staying true to yourself no matter what you end up doing. I'm glad that you didn't start making up dick jokes just to fit in with everyone else, since I'm assuming that's not your style.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

@ myq: Thanks. Fellow Sandpapersuit reader Luke Cunningham got the crowd's approval, but from the back he and I were noticing that good jokes were going unrewarded. It was the quintessential tough crowd.

I used it as an open mic, but in hindsight it was a showcase opportunity to "practice like you play". Like when Data does stand-up on the Holodeck. I'll work on thinking positively, because 2nd-guessing a crowd ahead of time usually makes me not want to "entertain them", in the Lawrencian sense.

@ soce: I am thanking you for my feedback and I am sipping a soda when my co-worker comes up to me and asks about my productivity...act out...big finish.

soce said...

OMG LOL @ Data doing stand-up on the Holodeck!! I saw that episode! That was absolutely amazing. *Data waves arm* *Crowd cheers, wild applause*

Mo Diggs said...

From a NY Times article on Zach Galifianakis:

“It’s not a selfless thing,” [Zach]told me. “Wherever there’s something that people don’t feel comfortable talking about, that’s where the good jokes are. People might misunderstand you, but I decided, right after my show was canceled, never to dumb my material down for anybody. A bad comic follows his audience, catering to whatever they want; a good comic will always lead.”


After performing a few “characters,” like Guy From Queens Who Is Obsessed With Cargo Shorts — a regular bit that changes only in the particulars from show to show — he announced one that seemed to have been made up on the spot: The Kid Who Doesn’t Know, Down In His Living Room, That His Uncle, Who’s Upstairs, Has Suddenly Gone Deaf. Like many of Galifianakis’s characters, the intro was more elaborate than the performance itself, which consisted of Galifianakis shouting, ‘Uncle David? Uncle Da-vid!’ in an increasingly nervous little kid’s voice. The audience appeared more puzzled than amused, which isn’t especially unusual in the course of a typical Galifianakis set; what was unusual was Galifianakis’s response. The ‘Kid’ sketch went on so long that a number of people in the crowd grew noticeably restless — and then it went on even longer. Much longer. Even the hard-core fans in the room seemed to get a bit uncomfortable. By the time he finally finished, everyone in the room had experienced the awkwardness — and even, to a small degree, the terror — of improvised stand-up firsthand. When I asked Galifianakis about the “Kid” later, he said it was his favorite moment of the night.

Anonymous said...

on a side note .
Any thoughts on following a high energy comic who has ripped the room apart and whom the audience adored .
Is there anyway to follow him or her ?

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Yes. With props. Or puppets.

myq said...

Honestly, following someone who has done great is usually way better than following someone has done horribly.

The energy in the room is good, the people know they're watching a great show.

I mean, unless it's Dane Cook or Chris Rock or someone who everyone in the audience knows and loves and then decides to tune out or just start talking about how amazing it was and ignoring the show.

Maybe I'm being super optimistic or lucky, but I've mostly found this problem more an imaginary hypothesized one than one I've experienced in real life.

Not to downplay it.
It could be a problem, sure.
But I don't think there are really any tricks to dealing with it.
Just try to direct the audience's energy to align with your thing, capture their focus, and other things that are easy for me to type.

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