Crowd work is the off-the-cuff act of talking directly with audience members instead of using scripted and rehearsed bits. It’s not about having a set monologue that you repeat nightly in the hopes of always having the same type of audience be receptive to it. It’s a type of improv, where the audience delivers information and the comedian acts upon it, but it goes a step further. It’s a back and forth conversation between performer and audience. It involves timing, observation, and being able to make up jokes on the spot. It’s being in the moment. Done right, crowd work is one of the hardest things to do, and Portlander Jake Silberman does it right.
“How many times you bomb leads you to realize that no matter how bad something feels, it’ll pass. Once you face a room full of people staring at you blankly after a joke falls flat, you develop a thick skin and it really starts to become part of the job.” Silberman
Silberman thrives on being in the moment, be it on stage or interviewing the man on the street. He’s that rare comedian who can create magic out of nothing by merely asking a question that sets off a whole chain of events. He might ask a question to say, drumline buddies visiting town. Maybe he’ll ask, “What’s the trouble you can get into in a photo booth” or “give the simple reasons why this country is falling apart.” Silberman waits for their reply, and then the audience’s reaction, and he goes from there. It’s this spontaneity that makes Silberman so dynamic at crowd work.
We sat down with Silberman to ask, why Portland, why comedy and more
Bridgeliner: Why Portland?
Jake Silberman: I ended up in Portland on kind of a whim. I was living in Minneapolis, where I’m from, but went to the Evergreen State College in Olympia, so I knew I liked the west coast. A friend from Evergreen lived in Portland and told me I could come out anytime and that I’d be able to crash with him while I got settled. Shortly after that I took the train out and lived on his couch for a few months and I’ve been here for almost 9 years.
Bridgeliner: How has living here affected your comedy?
Silberman: When I started comedy, Portland had a really strong scene. There was a ton of talent here to look up to and learn from. It’s a city that supports comedy well, as lots of venues are open to hosting a show. Any artist has a relationship to the place they’re doing their art. Portland obviously has a strong reputation for being a very progressive city, and although the audiences in certain rooms might be a bit sensitive to certain topics, overall the people are smart and they want good comedy. You learn to work around people’s sensitivities to get to the jokes you want to tell, and Portland has helped me do that.
Bridgeliner: You do stand-up and you do man-on-the-streets. How are they different?
Jake Silberman: With standup, there’s definitely more of a plan. I have a general idea about how my set might go, and even if things go a different way, I still feel I have a sense of control. With the man on the street videos, it’s a balancing act of blending in with your surroundings while still getting in there and asking questions. You aren’t the center of attention, and I generally try to not insert my opinion when interviewing someone. Both get you used to rejection, as some people simply don’t want to talk to a camera and some jokes simply don’t work. They are both similar in the fact that you have to be present, quick on your feet and willing to adapt on the fly. I really enjoy doing both. I like being involved in what’s going on, I’m interested in talking to people, and finding out why they show up to events, hearing their perspectives, regardless of if I agree or not. Hopefully we can continue the work, as people seem to enjoy it.
Bridgeliner: Other than the obvious, how has COVID affected your comedy?
Jake Silberman: Appreciation. Not being able to do it for almost a year, I just really know this is what I want to be doing with my life. I’m getting more joy out of it, just trying to value each time I get on stage, regardless of the outcome. I’m lucky to have gotten to the point where I’m at, and I just want to work as hard as possible to get to the next level.
Bridgeliner: Name some of the people who have made big influences on your work.
Jake Silberman: Bill Burr was the comic who got me thinking about trying comedy. I started listening to his podcast and found him hilarious, then looked up his clips and just couldn’t stop laughing.
Bridgeliner: What did you do before comedy? Have you ever worked a 9 to 5 job?
Jake Silberman: Yeah, I’ve had plenty of day jobs. Before the pandemic, I was working as a writer for a toy company’s YouTube channel for four years. It was creative but I also hated being in an office all day. My goal is to never have to work a 9-5 again, if possible.
Bridgeliner: Which skills have you gained that help you perform more effectively as a comic?
Jake Silberman: Self confidence is a big one. I definitely fall into the anxious/depressed, comic stereotype on some level, but doing comedy for years has made me more assured of myself. How many times you bomb leads you to realize that no matter how bad something feels, it’ll pass. Once you face a room full of people staring at you blankly after a joke falls flat, you develop a thick skin and it really starts to become part of the job.
Bridgeliner: Do you think artists/comedians have a responsibility to address social issues?
Jake Silberman: Comedians are naturally going to talk about what’s on people’s minds, so social issues will certainly be brought up. The only real responsibility for a comedian is to be funny. If you can do that and make a point, that’s cool, but if you’re just being funny, you’ve done your job. It does seem that comedy is more and more looked at as a place for answers to issues, which has had mixed effects in my opinion. On one hand, comedy has taken more of a spotlight, which means more people want to come out to shows. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s best that we look at comedians as experts. Certainly comics have skills that can add to the conversation. I think a comic’s value is that we can point out the bad logic, the ignorance, the part of life that doesn’t make sense. A good comic, at least on stage, shouldn’t really have any allegiances. If one side does something dumb, you should aim your jokes at that.
Bridgeliner: What’s the best piece of advice another comedian ever gave you?
Jake Silberman: Nothing from any specific comic, but the best ones are always working, always trying something new and never settling. That’s what I aim to do, just strive to get better everyday and focus on myself and what I can control.
Bridgeliner: Do you follow a process or ritual before a performance to get rid of nerves or performance anxiety?
Jake Silberman: In the past I haven’t, but the longer I do it, the more I realize how important it is to get into the right mental space to perform. As comedy becomes more and more a “career,” you owe it to the audience to give them your best, and that requires bringing the right energy to the stage. If I look at my phone or am just kind of zoned out before I get on stage, I think it tends to show in my performance.
Bridgeliner: Is there any subject off limits for you?
Jake Silberman: There is nothing off limits for a comedian. That being said, each audience will have their lines of what they will and won’t accept. Taboo subjects lead to much smaller windows of what jokes you’ll be able to get away with, but the best comics can walk that line while still being funny. Funny over everything is really the only rule. You can make a joke about your cat or the holocaust, but either way, it has to be funny.
Bridgeliner: Let’s bring it back to Portland. Where’s your favorite restaurant and what do you order?
Jake Silberman: I definitely don’t take full advantage of the food in Portland. I’m not a huge sit down restaurant guy and generally am good with a slice of pizza or a burrito from Robo Taco.
Bridgeliner: The Portland music scene – who is your favorite Portland band?
Jake Silberman: I hardly go to concerts anymore, but my buddy Foxtradamus is an amazing rapper that I wish more people knew about.
Bridgeliner: What’s something you just want people to know?
Jake Silberman: I’m thankful that I get to be doing comedy right now. It’s exciting to figure out the business side of it, something I really wasn’t focused on until recently. Being your own boss has its challenges but if you can figure it out, it’s worth all the stress. I’m hoping that I can continue to build an audience and that my comedy and body of work grows and evolves. If people want to do something simply to support me, give me a follow on Spotify, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram /or YouTube. The numbers on those things really do matter these days. And of course, come out to a show!