In a NY Times piece, Sopan Deb writes about the increasing number of standups who are including crowd work in their sets. That’s when the comedian moves away from regular material in the middle of a set in order to banter with audience members. Many of the performers have such moments captured on video so they can post it to social media later, allowing them to extend their brand without burning their prepared jokes.

Crowd work is hardly new. Paula Poundstone is not only one of the best practitioners, but was one of the first of her generation to do it — and still does. We see her every year and are impressed by how she smoothly integrates her conversations with attendees into her act. Even more impressive, during the two hours she’s on stage, she always remembers the names of those she’s spoken to throughout the evening, and often does a callback to one of them as much as an hour later.

There’s an important lesson in how Paula does crowd work that too many other comics ignore: they have to repeat what the audience members say. After all, the voice of the one on stage is amplified, but it can be near impossible to hear what the audience members say say. When the performer doesn’t tell us, we’re left listening to a one-sided conversation. It’s off-putting.

Aside from Paula and a very few others, the overwhelming majority of comics aren’t able to come up with truly funny stuff on the fly. Their skill is in writing material at home, then honing it night after night as they judge audience responses in real time. But the segments that start with, “… and what do you do for a living?” are never as good as what they walked in the door with.

Paula now almost exclusively works in theaters, but I remember the days she began in comedy clubs, where many of the comics mentioned in Deb’s piece still ply their trade. I don’t go to those clubs as much as I once did, but I have a rule: do not seat me near the stage. I’m there to be a passive observer, not part of someone’s act. Occasionally, whoever’s in charge of assigning seats ignores my request and puts me at a table up front, causing me to avoid eye contact with the performer so they’re less likely to pick on me.

Several years ago, I took my daughter to the long-running Monday Night Magic in New York, where four or five very talented magicians appear over the course of 90 minutes. In this instance, we were seated in the third row, and because I’m tall and large, three of the performers pointed in my direction and gently forced me to “volunteer” to help them out. It made it look like I was some stooge working with the magicians. Fortunately, my friend Todd Robbins was the emcee, and after I’d been chosen yet again, he told the crowd I wasn’t in on it, but was just a pal from St. Louis in town on vacation. I assume he also told the remaining two acts not to choose me.

One of my other pet peeves about standups doing crowd work is when each act picks on the same people in their line of sight. Deb wrote about this in his NYT piece, using comic Ian Karmel’s experience:

Karmel, who sees crowd work as something to fall back on if he is bombing, was performing in Las Vegas last summer, following three younger comedians who exclusively performed crowd work. During his set, he realized that his material wasn’t going over, and also that the crowd had grown tired of banter.

“By the time I got up there, and I needed to pull the ‘In Case of Emergency’ cord, they’d all been talked to so much that everyone in the room was like: ‘Yes, he’s a nurse. She’s the chiropractor,’” Karmel, 39, said. “Everyone knew their stories, even as I was trying to use them for fodder to bail me out.”

This was not a unique case. It happens all the time, and not just with human attendees. In 2018, I wrote about an experience I had at the Improv in Hollywood:

The night I was there, two older guys with service dogs were seated at the table right in front of the stage. I noticed them as I walked in and rolled my eyes, knowing this would be the go-to meme of the next two hours. Sure enough, not one of the dozen comics who took the stage failed to notice them and comment. They acted surprised to see the dogs, as if they were the first ones that night to notice there were non-human animals in the room.

I kept wondering why the woman who was emceeing didn’t report the presence of the dogs to the other comics waiting at the bar for their chance to go on. That way they wouldn’t be surprised, followed by stumbling around for something clever to say about the pooches. Certainly, after the first three or four comedians had fallen into this trap, word should have gotten back to those who would follow: yeah, there are two dogs in your line of sight, but just ignore them! Not one of them was able to. The penultimate comic actually spent more time on — and paid more attention to — the dogs than the humans in the room, bending down to pet them and make those dumb “who’s a good boy?” remarks in a sickening baby voice.

The problem’s the same when it’s human beings who catch every comic’s eye. As with the dogs, I wonder why none of the other performers notice which audience members the comics who precede them banter with. Having that information would allow them to choose others and explore different areas to discuss rather than stumbling down the same well-trodden conversational paths.

Here’s a wacky idea: why don’t you ignore me and everyone else who’s sitting down? We’re the ones who paid to see you work — unlike all those TikTok viewers you so desperately want to attract.