The Zen Comedian, though a practiced master of handling and communicating with his audience, does not participate in what is often called “crowd work.” The Zen Comedian tells us that as Master Rickles demonstrated in his 1968 album “Hello Dummy!,” a complete performance can be made purely out of a communication with specific audience members, but to call this “crowd work” is a misnomer. Listening to the album, it seems obvious to me that Master Rickles had a list in his head of racially offensive material, looked his audience over, and went to work, marking off racial strata in his head and ensuring to offend everyone.
Towards the middle of the album, Master Rickles looked in the front row, and seeing a man of middle eastern descent, said “this is Americana, an Arab sitting in front of a Jew. And I say this from my heart, you pain in the ass I don’t want ya here.” Rickles then went on to say “I’d rather have the colored guy [in front] at least he’d do a coupla numbers for me.” The crowd roared with laughter at this, and though this type of material could accurately be called “crowd work,” the Zen Comedian tells us to recognize how practiced and professional its delivery is. From the way this racially charged vitriol spilled out of Master Rickles, we can see that though their targets were not selected until the performance, these jokes were written well beforehand.
The lesson to be culled from Master Rickles is not, I believe, that brash racial insensitivity is innately hilarious, because it isn’t. Though I may in the future write an article discussing the Zen Comedian’s position on racial avarice, for now I am simply calling attention to Rickles’s openness. I believe this is Rickles’ greatest lesson, that the comedian, when looking over his or her audience, need not see challenge, but possibility. This is a lesson I myself, in my simplistic and amateurish fashion, have attempted to utilize. Recently I did a show at a comic book store during which I made a joke about how simple it would be for any of the audience to steal some merchandise, and many people laughed. This itself was not what I would call ad-libbing, as I’d thought of this joke before the show had begun, but as I told the joke a great opportunity to ad-lib occurred to me, and I got the biggest laugh of my set.
As I joked about stealing from the comic-book store, it occurred to me that I should likely discourage that type of behavior, so I did. I said, with as much flair as I could manage, that I would not rob anything “unless I steal yo’ girl.” At this assertion, the audience roared with guffaws, as it played to my strengths in self-deprecation. My statement, about how I was liable to “steal yo’ girl” was a plainly ludicrous statement for me to make, being that I am a skinny, bespectacled intellectual, or what would likely be called a “nerd.” Using my own openness, observational skills, and knowledge of myself, I was able to ad-lib in a way that I received more full and enthusiastic laughter than any of my pre-written “bits” were able to. Through the lesson’s gained from Master Rickles about observation and openness, I showed myself how ad-libbing, with proper preparation, is one of any comedian’s most valuable assets.