There are three big factors for judging what an audience may or may not like, although sometimes they’ll surprise you and be on board for anything (or nothing). These factors are location, age, and race. I get into this topic a lot deeper in my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage (yes, I’m tired of the plugs too, but they work), but for this entry I’ll give the basics on these three factors.
Age is only dangerous when it’s the extremes. If most of the crowd is over sixty, good luck. Odds are they aren’t drinking, happy, or hip to your lingo. Drunk college stories won’t relate to them and they’re offended by things if you’re young. If they’re too young (16-23) they won’t get a lot of your act either…unless it’s packed with fart jokes. Congrats on connecting with them, have fun doing after-proms. They’re not bad people, they just don’t “get it” yet. Disclaimer *I know some of you get it, I’m just saying this from experience from dealing with the majority. There are some gigs just not worth taking (also covered heavily in my book).
Location can make crowds touchy. For example, in Little Rock they’re pretty damn sensitive about being Arkansas natives. If you’re mentioning a place of business, make sure the people know about that business. A lot of the Midwest doesn’t have IKEA so it’s always funny to see L.A. comics bomb a joke unaware of that fact. I’ve done it too, turns out Huntington, WV has no idea what Steak-n-Shake is (as of 2004 when I was there last). This also relates to sports jokes which were covered a few weeks ago. Socio-economics can also determine how smart or slow a crowd might be, but again, it’s hard to be 100% accurate so give them a chance.
Race is a pretty easy one to spot (duh). If it’s an urban room, there are some things that just won’t work. I’ve covered this matter in this blog and in my book so I won’t repeat a lot of that information. One thing worth repeating is that white audiences are the most sensitive and will be offended on behalf of the small minority in the room. Call them out on this with confidence.
The problem that a lot of comics have with altering setlists is that they’re still in the first five years of their career and don’t have an arsenal of bits to pick from. It’s okay, be patient and don’t rush into a feature spots that you aren’t ready for. Once you get to the point of having more bits to choose from, you’ll find that most of your bits are universal anyway. (Dude, get in a relationship.)
Finally, the most important thing to remember is not to start tailoring your bits towards one-nighters or really any specific kind of show whether it be college, casino, or alternative to name a few. Pidgeon holes = bad.