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Crowdwork doesn't mean bully the crowd

There's a subculture within standup comedy, where people will proactively seek out audience members being "destroyed" by comedians. Some desire to vicariously seek out audience members being torn apart by a comedian for whatever reason. Many of these videos aren't even particularly funny, but they tap into a sense of justice within people who want to see "their guy" win.

Standing up on stage as a standup comedian can be a terrifying experience. You're exposing yourself to a room full of strangers with the audacity of claiming to be entertaining enough to make them laugh. While the best comedians will make it seem effortless, even delivering low-status material with an unspoken confidence that keeps the audience on board, there's always an undercurrent that it could all derail at any moment. Maybe someone on the lineup isn't doing so well, maybe someone in the audience got a little too drunk, or maybe one of the comedians crossed the edgy line into outright racism or misogyny. The atmosphere can turn quickly, and the comedian is expected to be able to handle it with the same appearance of effortlessness. Situations like these can really trigger the fight-or-flight defence systems in someone unprepared and often results in the comedian verbally assaulting the audience member.

There are a small number of times when this is sadly the only rational action to take. When someone has become so disruptive that they are ruining the night for everyone, and no one at the venue is doing anything to control the situation, it is unfair on everyone involved that the selfishness of one or more people should ruin the night for everyone. However, in the majority of the cases where I see acts doing crowd work in The Netherlands, it's no more than opportunistic schoolyard bullying.

"What is it you do?", "Where do you come from?", "Are you two together?". So often there's an undercurrent of malice behind these questions aimed at audiences who are only guilty of buying a ticket to a comedy show. The answers aren't being used to find something relatable or funny about that situation, to riff off, they are being used to find weaknesses to exploit for a cheap laugh. Of course, the audience laughs along, just like in your school days when you see the weak kid getting picked on, there's an excited energy in knowing it's them and not you and a shock that these societal norms are being broken down right in front of you in this very room.

"I can't believe they said that!"

There's a group of people who don't enjoy standup comedy because most often it's a bunch of entitled white men bullying people who are obliged to sit there and take it. This attitude means that your shows start to appeal to people who are on board with that idea of entertainment. As time goes by, your audiences become those who are ready for the confrontation, the ones who are proactively seeking it out. Is that what you really want? A homogenous comedy scene dependent on cultural stereotypes and insults, or can there be more to it than this?

Crowdwork is about engaging with an audience, about creating a moment in a show that cannot be repeated elsewhere. It's about blurring the line between audience and performer to create something that feels unique about the night you're attending. There's plenty of funny material you can workshop in real time based on an audience member's response that doesn't have to resort to making them look bad to try and make yourself look good. Those who think otherwise are usually the same people who think that comedy isn't as good anymore because they can't be as edgy as they want to be. When your own capabilities are limited, it's easy to blame others for your shortcomings.

There's a thriving English language standup comedy scene here in The Netherlands, and there's a good reason why people are getting excited about many of the acts they see perform around the country. It's time we take things to the next level, ask more of ourselves and push the envelope in terms of creative possibilities. If you read this and feel seen, then ask yourself why that is, and what the real underlying issue here is.

Here's short clip of the low-energy comedian Stewart Lee "destroying" an audience member who clearly is not enjoying the set. Ruined.


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