One of the first things I learned as a clown was how to choose a person from the crowd. The rule was: Only play where you are invited. If a person was smiling and seemed eager to engage, great. Pull out the feather duster, the Harpo Marx horn, the water squirting daisy. If they were sending out “Leave me alone!” signals, then leave them alone and find someone else to sprinkle with confetti.
Seriously. Don’t take it personally, just move on and find someone else.
There are some very skilled performers who make it part of their schtick to push this particular envelope, and they are able to get away with quite a bit more than the average person, but unless you thrive on potential conflict, or are brave enough to not care at all if a bit fails, or are supremely confident in your ability to win over the toughest critic, then you are better off playing by the rules and choosing easier targets.
This becomes even more true when selecting audience members to come up on the stage to help you with a routine. There is a lot more pressure on them, a much greater risk to them, and much more at stake for you.
If I combine what I learned at the start, while clowning, with what I discovered over time, while doing improvisation as an actor, it is possible to compile a handy guide. Of sorts. Which I am happy to share.
Let’s start with the people to avoid:
1. Drunk people. People who have been drinking. The inebriated guests. The ones who are a little tipsy. However you want to say it, they are drunk, and they will ruin every joke. They will step on every gag, or rather… stumble and stagger on every gag. They will knock things over, including themselves. Things will break. Or spill. Or shatter.
Engaging drunk people in any way while performing is a terrible idea, but sometimes it is unavoidable, as in “Everyone at this party where you are being paid to perform is drunk.” In that case, there is not much you can do but hope the person who booked you is also drunk and unable to tell how badly it is going.
Otherwise, avoid them at all costs. Drunk people are wildly unpredictable. Their judgement is impaired. They have no sense of boundaries when it comes to personal space. They will destroy your timing, and in comedy, timing is everything.
I’ve had drunk people spill their drinks all over my Tarot card spread. I’ve seen drinking glasses hit the floor and explode in shards. I’ve had drunk people knock over candles, spraying hot wax on nearby guests, or onto my black silk tablecloth.
I had a drunk woman run straight at me, while I was dressed as Santa Claus, and launch herself up into my arms, without having any idea of whether or not I could catch her. For all she knew, I might have been an older man. I might have had a bad back. She could have knocked me over and one or both of us might have been hurt and then she would be looking at a lawsuit.
Not to mention all the flirty drunk women who have yanked off my white beard. Or tugged at my French waiter costume, trying to remove it.
As for the men, they can turn into oversized frat boys. At a recent mime gig, one drunk adult frat boy keep rushing me like a football player and lifting me up. He seemed to think that was funny, for reasons apparent to no one but him.
Aside from all of this, the audience will be extremely uncomfortable if you bring a drunk person onstage. They will be able to tell that you are not in control. That the drunk person is out of control, out of your control, and if the audience can sense that you have lost control, then you have lost them.
2. Anyone who is not looking at you. This may seem ridiculously obvious, that someone who is making a point of avoiding eye contact with you is not interested in being part of the show, but you’d be surprised how many performers choose to ignore the clues.
Once, I was seated in the front row of an interactive play. The first actress to step onto the stage struck me as someone who did not know what she was doing. Which made me intensely uneasy. I pretended to read the program. This should have been a clear signal to leave me alone.
Unlike any performer with a hint of sense, she marched straight over to me. The last person she should have chosen. She took the program out of my hand, trying to force me to engage with her. While the entire audience squirmed.
Naturally, I froze up and did not say a word. I simply gazed at her in the least encouraging way I could muster. Eventually, she realized this was going nowhere, and moved on to someone else.
Why challenge an audience member? Why put them on the spot and make everyone uncomfortable? Wouldn’t it be better, for the show, to simply choose someone who is hoping to be chosen? Wouldn’t that be more helpful? Wouldn’t your own performance be better?
3. Extremely old or frail persons. This one is a bit tricky, because often a spritely senior citizen can be a great deal of fun. Older people tend to care less about what people think of them, and so they will say exactly what’s on their minds, and truth is always funnier than pretense. Usually, older people are a hoot.
However, if you chose an elderly person who appears to be having difficulty doing whatever physical tasks you have given them to do, including climbing up onto the stage, then your audience will be concerned, instead of amused. The jokes will not work.
As a side story, I was doing a sketch at the NY Renaissance Faire, and needed a participant from the crowd. I chose a lady with a cane.
“Hop on up here!”
Those were my exact words. What I didn’t realize is that she was missing a leg. I’d just assumed she had a sprained ankle or something, and otherwise, she seemed a good sport.
Interestingly, my nonchalance worked. The lady, indeed a good sport, seemed to appreciate that I treated her just like a regular person, which of course she was. Now, I’m no saint, the truth is I hadn’t noticed the missing leg, but even so, the routine worked. The audience laughed on cue.
Even more bizarrely, for this same sketch on another day, I chose a young man who was missing an arm! Once again, I did not notice that he was missing anything. I was too busy looking at his face. He was positively beaming at me. It would have been foolish not to choose him.
Well, the routine worked like magic. He had such a big personality, and was so clearly enjoying himself onstage, that the audience was howling. So there is no need to avoid persons with missing limbs, or other physical impairments. Just as long as they can do what you ask without making the audience feel sorry for them.
4. Other actors. Dear god in heaven, don’t let another actor step into the spotlight with you. They will try to upstage you. They will have their own ideas about how things should proceed, and won’t let you lead. Most importantly, they will not be genuine. The audience will suspect, perhaps unconsciously, that they are a plant, and will resent what they may perceive as a gimmick.
You are much better off, always, choosing a volunteer who is funny by accident. The audience will see that happening, seemingly by itself (unaware of the skill you are deftly demonstrating,) and they will feel as if they are in on the jokes as they tumble out.
Now for the fun part. The people you should choose. I’ve already mentioned anyone looking you in the eyes and beaming their eagerness your way. Time to focus on more specific types of beaming:
1. The lady dressed in bold yellow and black stripes. The guy in the bright pink polo with plaid pants. The woman with the face of the Dalia Lama on the front of her tee shirt. The guy in the umbrella hat. Definitely him.
Anyone who wears bright colors, or clothing that otherwise screams for attention, is hoping to receive that attention. No one dresses like a bumble bee unless they are perfectly comfortable having people look at them. They thrive in the spotlight. They will drink it up. All the focus you send their way will pay off, big time.
There is something else, even more important. When you introduce a person who is dressed in a way that is highly noticeable, you are establishing an inside joke with the audience. For the rest of the show, all you have to do is refer back to the Queen Bee, and you will get an automatic laugh.
2. The tall, muscular, super manly macho man. This is a promise. If he is in the bit, it will be funny.
An audience will only laugh at a person, who is not a performer, if they sense that he can handle whatever you throw at him. They will laugh at. Not laugh with. There is a big difference.
It’s not okay for them to laugh at a child, or a sweet little old lady, or a person who seems nervous. They might laugh with that person, but they will never laugh at them. That would be cruel.
However, you bring a big strong tough guy on the stage with you, and you can get away with almost anything. He would have to let you. Just to prove what a man he is… and that is comedy gold.
3. The pretty girl. Another promise. I’m not entirely sure why this works, but there is no denying that it does work. Go for the pretty girl. Stand next to her. Have her hold a prop. Any prop. Ask her to say something. Anything. The audience will laugh, and you won’t even be trying.
Here’s something odd: This does not hold true for the other gender. A handsome man does not have the same effect on an audience as a pretty woman. At least, not in comedy. Why is that so? Your guess is as good as mine.
4. Teenaged boys. They are the easiest audience, and the most willing participants. They will be game for anything. They are just bursting to get up in front of everyone and play. They are not afraid to run, or get wet, or messy, or look foolish. In fact, they love looking foolish.
None of that is true with most teenaged girls. Sure, there are exceptions, but at that age, girls tend to be more self conscious. More aware of what others may think of them. More concerned with fitting in, and being just like so and so.
Boys tend to hold onto childhood longer, and even when they are in the awkward stage, as older teens, that too can be funny. An awkward teen can turn an audience into a cheering section. They will catch him noticing that he is being funny, and they’ll be happy to encourage him. Which will give him confidence, and he’ll be funny some more.
5. The overweight person. This is another tricky one, and difficult to explain, but undeniably true. People who have a very generous waistline also tend to have a very generous sense of humor.
I have no idea why this is so, but perhaps people who take great pleasure in food have a philosophy about enjoying life to the fullest? I’m guessing, here. What I do know is that if you choose the overweight guy or gal, he or she is likely to laugh easily and often, and the audience will be laughing right along with them. This time, I do mean with them.
Once, I was playing a rude waiter, and accidentally spilled a tray full of water glasses on a poor woman. The water glasses were full. Of water. Ice, too. It was not something I would ever have done on purpose. That mischievous, I am not.
This woman was rather large, and she was wearing white! I began apologizing right away, but the woman was laughing! She thought it was hysterical! She must have believed that this was part of my act, and she didn’t mind that I had drenched her in ice cold water. I was astonished.
Another time, I directed a play called “My Fat Friend.” Lynn Redgrave starred in the original production, which was British… and vicious. Most of the jokes were about how the title character was fat. She had a bitchy old male friend who mercilessly poked fun at her.
The producer, with an uncanny ability to know what her audience would like, asked me to clean up the four letter words, but when I expressed my concern about the biting humor, she said, “Everyone has a fat friend…”
She was absolutely right, and I trusted her, then lucked into a way around the unpleasant fat jokes. At the auditions, there was a young man who read well for the bitchy old friend. He had a wonderful chemistry with the actress I was considering for the lead, and he was somewhat full figured himself. By casting him, the entire tone of the show lightened. He wasn’t making fun of her in a mean way. It was more like he could get away with teasing her, because they both knew he was not exactly svelte, either.
After the show closed, the producer wrote to tell me it was sold out every night, and was the hit of the season. Part of the reason for that, I believe, is because I knew how to choose the right beaming person from the crowd.