article about riffing on my stand-up tips blog, then you know that as a general rule I am not a fan of riffing, especially when it is used as a replacement for a solid and polished stand-up comedy routine.
But there are circumstances when riffing can be a valuable tool for comedians.
One particular instance is when there is a very small audience (10 or less).
In this small audience scenario, a comedian can use riffing to introduce a stand-up comedy bit in a conversational way for a better response than just launching into their stand-up comedy routine.
The key to using riffing effectively in this instance is to ask an audience member a question, have a brief conversational exchange, then transition into the bit related to the question.
This makes a comedian’s stand-up comedy material seem more personal, almost tailored for the audience at hand.
It’s important to know what the question(s) will be and anticipate the potential responses (both the audience responses and your responses) in advance.
And of course, you do want to get to the prepared stand-up comedy material as quickly as possible without appearing to be in a rush to do so.
Note: I would recommend that the riffing that you do with a small audience to introduce an established stand-up comedy bit be as casual and non-threatening as possible. Otherwise, you can end up causing an uncomfortable situation for all the audience members which will reduce (or possibly eliminate) your laughter response when you do get to the stand-up comedy bit you are trying to transition into.
Where comedians can also run into issues is when the conversation (riff) that they initiate with an audience member or audience members becomes extended and no laughs are generated.
For those who want to work on their riffing skills for larger audiences, I would recommend that they start small, experimenting with one or two questions sandwiched between solid stand-up comedy material they can fall back on quickly.
And again, it is best to know the potential answers to the questions and have some prepared responses in advance.
Otherwise, you can open yourself up to hecklers in short order if the riffing doesn’t produce laughs over an extended period of time (which in stand-up comedy is not long).
You will find that most comedians who are masterful at riffing have actually developed a quantity of questions and answers over time, tested with multiple audiences and that have been proven to work consistently.
In other words, what you see as “riffing” by a professional comedian is usually not quite as “improvisational” as it appears.