In my last job in America before moving to Sweden, I was a marketing supervisor for Nintendo of America (dream job). I had ten people working for me and one of several that I’d end up firing for committing fraud (it was very easy to steal from Nintendo and many could not resist temptation) was also a bass player in a bluegrass band. They played a number of festivals each year, no original music of their own but covers of classic standards.

Over lunch one day, I asked him if they ever got bored, playing other artists’ work, over and over and over again. He said no, because he wasn’t alone on stage. He wasn’t just playing to the audience, he was playing with his bandmates. Although I was a decade and a hemisphere away from my standup debut, he knew it was a passionate interest of mine, and he said he couldn’t imagine trying that himself as, after all, a comic is totally alone up there. I agreed.

Years later, I’d realize that we were both wrong. A comic may have the stage to themselves but they’re never alone. They have the audience as a partner, for better or for worse. Partners whether they like it or not.

Standup as a genre is a massive umbrella term for a whole host of styles. Damn near anything can be standup, but the best comes across as a conversation between the comic and the crowd. A conversation being talking with the crowd, not talking to them or, worse, talking at them. For example, Hannah Gadsby released a brilliant standup special called Nanette, yet many critics said it wasn’t standup, it was a TED Talk. While I don’t agree, I do understand; at times it feels that the crowd is irrelevant. She could be alone in the room and it wouldn’t affect her performance at all.

Rookies and comedians who perform as characters tend to deliver on stage the same way they practice in their apartments to no one. One of the many laws of standup is to get the audience’s attention in the first thirty seconds; I remember a night when a comic failed to do so in the first thirty, or the next, or the next… she was bombing, hard, but didn’t seem to notice, nor care. As the minutes of painful silence wore on, the club owner went from shaking his head to pacing angrily. “What is she doing up there?!” he asked no one in particular.

“She’s going through her script,” I replied. I’d seen this act before and, to her credit, she was usually far more successful. But it was clear that it didn’t matter if the crowd was booing or giving her a standing ovation. She was performing in a vacuum.

Being oblivious to the crowd’s mood is not a skill(?) most comics possess. A conversation takes two and even though we shouldn’t blame the audience for our own failures, some crowds are worse than others and they affect us. I had a clear example of contrasts this past weekend, hosting a club Friday and Saturday night. I took the stage Friday night to a large crowd, only to notice a few had already nodded off. If someone’s asleep at the start of a two-hour show, it’s not generally a good sign. I’ve certainly experienced far worse nights there, but it was one of those shows where the audience would laugh briefly at a joke they liked and then return to absolute zero until the next joke they liked. There was no ongoing energy, just occasional laughs like sporadic gunfire. It affected the comics, who took the stage with an aura of “ugh, it’s going to be one of those nights,” which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Saturday, though, what a difference. We’d had a big crowd on Friday, but Saturday’s was nearly twice in size and ten times the energy. They were awake and ready to have a good time and every comic was excited to get on stage and everyone did very well, a self-fulfilling prophecy once again.

It’s a tired cliché when a host tells a crowd, “The energy you give is the energy you get,” but this is where it comes from. Friday night’s crowd was dull and that should make us work harder to entertain them, but ask yourself: if you’re talking with someone and they look bored, how inspired are you to continue that conversation? On the flip side, if they’re hanging on your every word, you’ll be even more animated.

The audience is our partner in crime. But sometimes they suck and make us do all the work.