On the surface a crowd work album sounds like a terrible idea. Crowd work is inherently built around the direct connection between a comedian and an audience, and it’s already hard to replicate that in a filmed special. How could it possibly work in an album, where you can’t even see the people the comic is talking to?
Moshe Kasher, one of the modern masters of crowd work, has thought long and hard about that conundrum. You can hear his findings on Crowd Surfing, a new album of nothing but crowd work that was released today by Comedy Dynamics. Instead of singling out audience members, he lets them come to him, passing a microphone around the room and asking if anybody has any interesting stories to tell. Those stories, and Kasher’s reactions to them, are more hilarious than any jokes about somebody’s appearance could ever be. The result is the first great comedy album of the year, and a deep dive into a crucial part of Kasher’s live act that has never been captured for posterity this thoroughly before.
Paste recently talked to Kasher about Crowd Surfing and the nature of crowd work. He was incredibly thoughtful and detailed when talking about what he looks for in an audience, what kinds of problems a comedian can face when doing crowd work, and why it’s worse to go easy on a differently-abled audience member than it is to fully engage with them as he would anybody else in the crowd. If you’re a young comic still coming into your own, or just a comedy fan who’s interested in the process behind the act, you’ll probably learn something useful from Kasher’s insights.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paste: When you’re doing crowd work, do you look for distinctive looking people?
Moshe Kasher: 100%. I’ve come to realize about myself that the Moshe Kasher show, if there is such a thing, is always a show—it’s never just my material, it’s always one part material, two parts me going off the cuff, me riffing with the audience or just riffing on the situation, and if you’re a person who performs like that, where the real quintessential experience of seeing you is that you want to be dynamic and in the moment and of the evening, then you will start to become a hungry predator. Not in a cruel way, but I straight up will, if there’s access to the audience [before hand], I’ll just kind of scan the room a little bit and be like “oh thank God, there are some weirdos in the front.” You want that. You pray for that. The worst thing ever is when you walk out on the stage and you’re a crowd work person and it’s just like six of the same golf gear, golf clothing catalogue couples and you’re just like “what am I going to do with this.”
Paste: Do you find yourself falling back on your regular set when you have that kind of audience?
Kasher:: I hate how sincere what I’m about to say sounds, and if it sounds canned, that’s because it is, because I’ve thought about this, and it’s as close to an actual philosophy as I come to, in regards to stand-up comedy, specifically in regard to crowd work, which is that every crowd has a story in them, and if I didn’t find it, it’s not because it wasn’t there, it’s because I didn’t find it. I somehow didn’t do my due diligence as a performer. Even quote-unquote “boring” looking people, nobody’s really boring—everybody’s a monster.
Paste: On the album, you sort of let the crowd come to you, instead of picking people out, you have a microphone going around, and you ask if anybody has a story to tell. Why do you take that tack?
Kasher:: I was specifically dealing with the limitations of the audio format as it pertains to crowd work. Crowd work has this feeling of being very temporary and of the moment, and I think that’s why it sometimes gets a bad rap or a stigma. If you see it or hear it sometimes it feels like “well, if I was there that could be funny but I wasn’t and I didn’t see that person,” especially audio. In audio you don’t get to see that. “I can imagine how that would be funny if I had been there.” But that was the limitation I was trying to deal with.
Some people have beaten that limitation. I think Big Jay Oakerson’s audio crowd work albums are really funny, but I was trying to think how to beat that problem. Originally I was going to call the album Five Questions, but I thought Crowd Surfing—there’s just something I like a little better. And it was just to come up with a list of questions that would elicit from the crowd these crazy stories, ‘cuz like I said I think every crowd and every person has a story, so I was like “if I could come up with the perfect five questions…” And I experimented with it a bit as I was doing live dates leading up to it. I was asking different questions, some of which led to less fruitful answers. Like what’s your craziest celebrity encounter, one guy was like “I once thought I saw Bryant Gumbel.” But everybody’s got a crazy sex story, everybody’s got a crazy drug story, not everybody but some people have a crazy police encounter story, so I was like, yeah, if I ask these five or so questions that will elicit answers and then mic the audience it’ll be come less of a “you had to be there situation” and more of a “wow I can’t believe I’m fucking hearing this” situation.
I can tell you a nice B-side. I was in DC and figured I’d get a lot of good politician stories and instead got “I once thought I saw Bryant Gumbel but then it wasn’t him.” Okay, great story. Another guy was like “I once pissed next to Joe Biden” and I was like oh my god tell me about—what’s up with the dick size, I gotta know, but apparently he didn’t peek. Which I just feel like it was irresponsible of him as a citizen of the United States.
Paste: Speaking of how everybody has a story, what have you learned about human nature from doing crowd work?
Kasher: I have definitely learned—and this is definitely a human nature thing—that people are willing to, in an interaction with a comedian, admit things and talk about things with candor that they would never admit to a group of friends or an individual. But somehow when there’s a stranger on stage in front of them and a crowd of a couple hundred people they’re willing to bare it all. And I think the album actually bears that out.
Paste: Do you ever think some of the stories that you hear are lies?
Kasher: My primary answer to that is I don’t care because it’s fucking awesome. My secondary answer is that I just don’t because you’ve got these people… everybody has their four or five stories that they tell at a party. If you’re in a crowd of 200, 300 people, then you’ve got at least 50 people with a story that’s really insane that they like telling at a party. So I figure if I hear a crazy story this is the greatest, craziest thing that’s ever happened to them and they’ve been waiting for an opportunity to tell it to the masses. Comedians have more good stories than anybody else, or maybe we just pay attention to the good stories that happen to us, but I’ve never heard a story [while doing crowd work] and thought to myself “this is just—no way.” Now, in my private life I hear that all the time. If I ever meet somebody who has too many crazy stories, I’m like, oh okay I think you’re a pathological liar. And I think part of that is I grew up with a pathological liar, and it scars you for life, so any time I meet anybody who’s too interesting, I’m like “okay I’m getting jacked again.”
Paste: What’s your worst crowd work experience?
Kasher: I’ve had everything happen. Absolutely everything. I’ve had people scream I’m going to hell. Everything that could happen. But the worst feeling as a crowd work practitioner is that not only is crowd work, for me, the most fun thing to do on stage—I always say the less written jokes I tell in a set the more fun I was having—but it’s also a secret weapon. Often a person who likes to do crowd work a lot, if it’s a bad crowd, they can go “well I can just revert to that and maybe that can get the crowd to wake up a little bit.” The worst feeling is when there’s a bad crowd and you go into the crowd work and it just doesn’t work at all. It makes things worse. There’s nothing worse than a crowd that takes what you say literally, and crowd work almost—I think I’m one of the kindest crowd work people out there, but it still involves a little bit of poking fun at the people you’re talking to. The worst thing is when a crowd assumes that all of the things that you’re saying about the person that you literally met five seconds ago you mean them, they’re sincere, and you’re just bullying a complete stranger. That is not a good feeling.
I’m genuinely curious about people and I genuinely get delighted when something awesome happens. But even the most insult comedy crowd work person in the world, even the most hardcore—what they do is make fun of people in a way like the scene in The Nutty Professor—even that person genuinely wants the person they’re making fun of to be having a good time and to be enjoying the contract between the perfomer and the audience. It’s just that once in a while you get a crowd that’s just… I’m not even going to blame them, but they’re just not understanding that it’s not a sincere interaction. I’ve seen many incidents of crowd work where it’s like “I’m not positive this is comedic, it just feels like bullying, I’m not sure,” but everyone, every single person takes a risk—and that’s what crowd work is, it’s walking on a tightrope without a net, you’re just throwing something out there and hoping that they’re interesting and fun enough and that you’re smart and quick enough to make it a fun and enjoyable evening.
Every person who does that kind of work on stage has had the experience, and this is the worst feeling, to circle back and ansewr your question, the worst feeling is not when a crowd doesn’t get it, it’s when you fuck up, when you say something—and this will happen to absolutely everybody that does interactive stuff—when you say something where you’re like “okay I thought that would be fun, and I just hurt somebody’s feeling” and there’s nothing fun. The most hardcore, edgiest comedian in the world has no desire to hurt people and make people have a bad evening. Everybody wants everybody to have a good time. So I’ve been on stage where I say something and I’m like okay that felt awful and I’m an asshole and I don’t know what to do, and then you have to start doing these pick up sticks.
I’ll tell you a story. This is a “dangerous” story. One of the things that I really feel passionate about is that if you’re a performer like me, and you’re going through the audience, and you fuck with people—I grew up with disabled parents, both my parents were deaf, and I’ve been in the disability world, I worked as a sign language interpreter for like 15 years before I was a full-time comic, so I’m very familiar with disabled people—and when you are in a crowd work situation and you get to a person that unbeknownst to you has a disability, like a speech disorder or developmental disorder, or they’re blind, or… That happens. If you do this long enough it’s gonna happen, you’re going to stumble on a person accidentally—you might’ve been too scared to interact with that person had you known, but you didn’t know, so you’re like, here I am, I’m in this situation. To me, in that situation, the most ableist or condescending or patronizing thing you can do, when you discover that the person you’re talking to has some kind of disability, and you just fucked with 50 people in a row, and here you are talking to this person, is to go like “oh okay well God bless you, thank you for your service,” and then move on to the next person. Because to me the signal there is “okay well I’m only interacting with ‘real’ people and I don’t consider you ‘real’ enough to take a joke, I don’t consider you an equal to the other people in this audience.” So I believe—I wouldn’t call it courageous, but is it dangerous? 100%. It’s risky to your set. You have to keep going. You have to continue to fuck with that person. Like, you must, or you’re telling that person and the rest of the audience that people with disabilities don’t have good senses of humor or are porcelain dolls that can’t be fucked with. So you have to keep going.
Now, I have found that disabled people are aware that they are disabled, almost 100% of them, are aware of that. And so almost 100% of the people who I have interacted with who are disabled have a great time being interacted with and fucked with. It’s like a breath of fresh air, it’s like “somebody’s treating me like another person in this room.” But I have also found that the people that are sitting around a disabled person will often become sort of unduly deputized as the protector, and so the worst feeling in crowd work is when you are mean—accidentally, genuinely mean—and the worst thing that an audience can do is come to the rescue of somebody who didn’t ask for it. So those are the two worst situations I’ve been in, when I’ve fucked up and was like “wow I shouldn’t have said that”—it’s too late, it’s already been said, because crowd work involves a rapid fire, the first thought that comes to your brain comes out of your mouth situation, and once in a while over a long enough period of time you’re like “that one shouldn’t have been said.” And the other one is when somebody in the audience is screaming at me on behalf of someone that they don’t even know and saying that they shouldn’t be involved in the show because they have a different set of cognitive abilities or speech pattern.
There’s a million little microcalculations. And when it comes to somebody with a disability, what you want, often, is to address the elephant in the room, but sometimes that won’t feel appropriate either. If—and this has happened, I’ve defiitely done crowd work with a person with—I wouldn’t say severe but a mild developmental disability—I’ve done that, because you go through the crowd and you get to somebody and again I won’t allow myself, because I think it’s cowardice and more ableist than anything else to run away and not interact with that person, but I’m also not going to be like “yeah it’s time for the fucking IQ roast.” you have to figure out something to do in that situation that will delight the person you’re talking to and not be hurtful and also dissipate the tension in the room and involve the person you’re talking to. So usually when I’ve been in that situation, which is kind of rare, but usually that involves killing them with kindness, but still teasing in a way that feels fun.
Moshe Kasher’s Crowd Surfing album is out today.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.