On a Friday a few weeks back, while hosting Maffia Comedy Club, I mentioned to the headliner during the break that the crowd felt pretty tight, wasn’t giving us much energy. The headliner suggested that I do crowd work, maybe that would help. Long-time readers of this blog know my feelings towards crowd work; while not militarily anti-, I’m not a big fan.

Abstaining from giving her my full rant against crowd work, I simply told her that it’s not something I do. She then pointed out what I believe is the biggest motivation for a host to do crowd work, that it would provide information to the comics that they could use during their sets. I agreed with her that it’s a lovely thought, in theory, but ultimately pointless as comics don’t pay attention. As I would be hosting the night after as well, I mentioned a comic on Saturday’s lineup that I knew would arrive late and end up asking someone in the crowd the same questions they’d been asked once or twice before. “Well, I pay attention,” she replied, only to later ask someone in the crowd the same question they’d been asked before. Hey, we all have lots on our minds during a show.

All that being said, I have given crowd work a lot of thought lately. Specifically, that I should do it more (read: at all), not because a host should, but to knock myself out of my comfort zone. I’ve gone from hosting very often to nearly exclusively hosting. I’m very good at it, thank you very much, even without crowd work, but even I can get tired of my own voice. I always host the same way, same style, same material, to the point that I could go on stage half-asleep and run on autopilot. Because of that, I find doing sets at other clubs more exciting, as I try out new material (and actually feel nervous).

Working as a game show host at On Air has forced me out of my comfort zone since shows include segments where I interview participants. I’m glad to say I’ve come a long way but there’s still room for improvement. After all, I’m nearly 48 and talking to people has never been a strength of mine. However, one thing I’ve noticed there – and also at Maffia this past weekend, when I added crowd work to my intro – is that, while I ask questions and try to react naturally to whatever they say, I tend to quickly steer the conversation into material I’ve said a million times before. It’s the vocal equivalent of grabbing the mic stand. Security in comfort.

This past weekend, I saw a comic make his return to the stage after a bit of a break. He started out with several minutes of untested material, which is not recommended, but to his credit it was good, albeit talky. The crowd liked it, but he wasn’t doing as well as in the past, and I could tell he knew it. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him so nervous, leaning forward so far he reminded me of a sprinter in the starting blocks. He gradually returned to old material and the change was profound, leaning back on his heels, much more relaxed, the volume dial on the crowd increasing.

It’s the irony of standup that we develop a set that’s a guaranteed winner only to quickly tire of it. Not all of us, of course; I could name several comics who were already veterans when I started who have barely written anything new in the twelve years since. They don’t have to. They’re reliable killers and aren’t tired of their own voices, God bless them. It’s our job to entertain the crowd and they do their job well.

And yet… Although I’m aware of my job to entertain and it’s on my priority list, it’s low on the list. I want them to enjoy my set but I think it’s fair to say I want to enjoy it more. Still, my enjoyment is tied to theirs. I recently did a set at another club, ten minutes of mostly new material, and while the crowd enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but throw in towards the end, “I hope you enjoyed this TedTalk as much as me.” I’m happy I did it, happy they liked it, but would be happier if they laughed as much as I’d expected. That’s the process, though, to work out new material, and I’m not doing nearly enough of that. Standup isn’t always about laughs but you don’t need to read a blog about standup to know that laughs are a pretty important part of it.

Some comics might find the comfort zone a great place in which to live. It’s nice and safe and secure to me, too, but that makes it feel like a trap. It’s a constant temptation to settle for what already works rather than try anything new. A place to be good but never great.