How to be a comedian without being funny.

It occurred to me last night, apropos of nothing, that you need two basic skills to be a highly successful stand-up comedian. If you only have one of the skills, you can make a living at it, provided you have it in ample supply. But to be great, you need both.

The obvious one is that you need to be funny. By which I mean that your material, whatever it is, needs to be funny independent of you. Filtered through TV, radio, film, or the mouths and memories of your least-talented audience members, what you say has to make people laugh.

But the one that occurred to me last night, and which is not obvious, is the ability to work a crowd. To look out into that sea of faces, and to read not just the emotional temper of one of them, but that of the entire room, however large or small. And to work with it, and make it work for you.

He walks onto the stage, and he’s got almost no real material. Just the mood of the people watching him. Starting slow, he goofs around, plays silly, pushes here, pulls there, playing with expectation, setting it subtly. And before terribly long, people are laughing. If he’s good at playing the rhythm at which groups’ moods ebb and flow, people will be laughing so hard they’re crying before he leaves.

And yet, the next day, none of the audience will be able to get people who weren’t there laughing. They can describe the experience, maybe, but they can’t replicate it. Because the comdian was playing the audience, not his material.

The great ones, of course, do both. Bill Cosby did it. Steven Wright. Emo Philips. Many others.

Emo and Wright bring in a third factor, persona. Both of them use very specific personas to work the room, and having an audience know that persona (and like it) ahead of time “primes the pump”, so to speak. But their material[1. I keep saying “material” because not every stand-up comedian does “jokes”.] is funny independent of their personas, even if the personas make it funnier.

So if you’ve ever wondered how in blue blazing hell Carrot Top (for instance) still has a career, well, now you know. The man is consumately unfunny, but he knows how to work a room.