For many in the industry today, the influence of Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn looms large. The free-wheeling discussion show was a nightly glimpse into the merciless but hysterical world of New York comedy, and a more honest look at off-stage interactions than television normally provides.
So while Crowd Work with Colin Quinn wasn’t exactly Tough Crowd, it had enough shared factors to please longtime fans. As part of the New York Comedy Festival, the show had originally been billed as a Tough Crowd reunion at The Creek and The Cave in Long Island City, Queens. Instead, Crowd Work was a more traditional stand-up event with, as the title suggests, an emphasis on working the crowd.
Crowd work is always a gamble. When it’s pulled off, it brings an electricity to the room that prepared material can rarely match. When it doesn’t, even great comics can struggle to recover. So the idea of show devoted to that sole element of live stand up is appealing, and it seems like a natural fit for a devoted comedy audience at a festival.
But despite being a part of the NYCF, Crowd Work certainly didn’t have ideal circumstances. A snowstorm had arrived a few hours earlier, forcing the show to start late and with a smaller audience than expected. And for an endeavor devoted to interacting with audience members, the dark and narrow theater at The Creek and the Cave was a challenge.
With that setting, it’s a testament to the skills of Quinn and his guests Bonnie McFarlane and Rich Vos that the gamble was so successful. Every comic’s set was a mix of prepared material (particularly topical jokes) and crowd work. As they each turned their attention to the mostly-male attendees, the vibe bordered on a roast of the first few rows.
Unsurprisingly with such veteran performers, the show was solid from start to finish, though the crowd-work element meant each performer had some ups and downs. Vos’s strong “headlining” set was particularly memorable for the sheer luck of finding an audience member who described his job as “taking homeless people to the movies.” “I cannot wait to work that into a bit,” Vos said, delighted with his find.
During the sets, the other two could increasingly be seen peeking through from the back until, during Vos’s set, Quinn and McFarlane just pulled the curtain aside and watched. At the end, all three went on stage, ostensibly for a discussion about crowd work. In reality, it was a chance to pick at each other’s sets and mock their peers with the brutal honesty that comes from being friends with (or married to) a comedian. As was the case with Tough Crowd, the heart of Crowd Work wasn’t about the crowd at all, but the comics’ connections with each other.