How To Pick a Volunteer

How To Pick a Volunteer
By Brad Weston

There are good volunteers, and then there are downright wretched, hopelessly horrible, miserable excuses of human beings that find themselves on stage in the company of the performer. It is your job as the entertainer to bring the right person on stage. There is an old joke that has become a stock remark for many performers around the world. This line is used when the volunteer isn’t working out so well.

“It’s my fault. I picked you.” That couldn’t be any more accurate.

So what makes a good volunteer? Let me start to answer that by suggesting things that makes a bad one.

    Too Shy
    Physically Impaired
    Unaware of the Comedic Limits
    Alpha Dog Syndrome
    Extreme Talent
    High Status in the Audience
    Food on their Face

Any one of those things on the list can be laying dormant, like a sleeper agent from a foreign country’s secret service, ready to sneak into your show and do irreparable harm. (With the exception of the food on the face.) The stakes are real. If you bring someone onto your stage, you will need to end up having a win, somehow. Usually, the volunteer has to have a win and then leave the stage feeling elevated in some way. If things go badly and without grace, it will take a lot of push to get your audience all back on your side. Even if it wasn’t your fault.

Here is the psychology of it. When there is a member of the audience on stage with you, subconsciously, the audience begins to identify with the volunteer. That means that whatever is happening to the person on stage is happening to them in their minds. If the volunteer gets really nervous, the audience will have a tendency to get really nervous as well. If the volunteer is having fun and is triumphant, then the people watching also feel as if they are winners.

Too Shy
Let’s start with the first thing on the list: too shy? That can be a real damper on any fun you may have. If the volunteer is shy then they will fail to play along with whatever bits of business you have planned. Therefore your show can go a bit flat when you have a volunteer like this. But how can you tell if they are shy? Sometimes you can’t.

A thing to look for is if they are looking around at other people in the crowd while you are approaching them, to see if others are looking at them. If they are self-conscious in the safety of the crowd, they will likely be a real damper on stage. If a potential volunteer is wearing something bright and colorful or weird in some way, you can be pretty certain that they will not be too shy. Good looking people are usually not too shy. They are also more fun for your audience to identify with. I usually pick attractive people unless the bit involves a certain amount of comedic flirting. If that is the case then I will pick someone who is much older than myself. I prefer for it to be clear that the flirting is a light-hearted gag and not an actual attempt to get someone into bed.

Physically Impaired
If you get someone on stage who can not actually do what you are asking them to do, then you are in for trouble. Trouble with a capital T. I have had this happen many times over the years,especially when recruiting young volunteers in a family show setting. I have selected a volunteer who seemed to really want to help out, only to get them onto the stage to find out that they are mentally impaired in some way.

The trick is in all cases, but especially this one, you have got to treat your volunteer well. And they have to win in some way before you send them back to their seat. What I do is I acknowledge that they will not be able to do what I want them to, without saying it out loud of course. Grace! Then I switch to something else that is super easy that they will be able to do. Even if it means back-tracking to something that has already happened in the show. The audience knows that you are on the hook. They will not be bored because they want to know how you are going to get out of it. Any crass-ness on your part will hurt your relationship with your audience. Finish up, get applause for the person, then pick another volunteer and continue with the show.

I have accidentally selected people who couldn’t step up onto the stage. I have picked people missing limbs: I went to borrow a shoe from a person and his whole leg was fake. He pulled the whole leg off and handed it to me to do a trick with. Awkward! You just have to roll with it, remain positive and keep going.

Sometimes the physical impairment that a volunteer has is something that they did to themselves. Here is the rule of thumb, ascertain their drunkenness as compared to the rest of your audience. If this person is far drunker than the rest of the crowd, it’s fair game as long as you are not too hurtful. But if the whole crowd is drunk and you make fun of the person, then they will all internalize what you say to the person and you will alienate the lot of them. By all means be ware of the drunkenness of your volunteer, because drunks, like little lambs in an unfamiliar field in the dark, have a tendency to hurt themselves, which is definitely a buzz kill for the audience.

Unaware of their Comedic Limits
Did you ever have a volunteer try to be funnier than you? It sucks. It’s okay if they just get a little one liner in from time to time, but if they try to hijack your show they had better be the funniest person alive, because it’ll take that kind of audience control to keep the audience focused. The way that I avoid this and some of the other problems is that when I ask for a volunteer I say a bunch of funny things that are qualities that I am looking for in a volunteer and this gives them a chance to act out a little bit before I pick a person. Anyone who acts up before I make my selection is out of the running.

If you need to, simply tell your volunteer that they need to settle down a little bit. Explain to them that they are in extreme danger if they don’t listen carefully. If they are acting up, the audience will know that, so in this case you will get a little bit more lee way in terms of how rude you can be to the person. Just yesterday a person loudly announced,” You do not amuse me.” It got a huge response from the audience. It was both funny and a gauntlet had clearly been thrown down. So I responded with, “That’s odd because you amuse me… It must be your hair.” Yes it was aggressive and a little mean-spirited, but the way I look at it, I am the professional, and anyone messing with a pro on their own turf deserves what they get. The audience was on my side because the person was a jerk.

Alpha Dog Syndrome
This is almost always a male thing. Women can go alpha, but it happens much less often. There is a certain type of guy who wants to be seen as powerful and in control all of the time. They will want to get on stage to put the ‘clown’ in their place. Often they want to be seen as more attractive in the eyes of the crowd. It is best to avoid these people.

If the person has a wicked smile on their face, it is best not to pick them. If they have muscles bulging out of the side of their neck, it is best not to pick them. If they are leaning forward but have their chins lifted up in a derisive way, it is best not to pick them. One caveat to the muscle man thing: sometimes, muscle-bound men can be sweet little angels. You can tell by the sweetness of their smiles. These folks can be amazing volunteers because they are poised and confident and don’t have anything to prove. You have to be careful with them as their egos can bruise easily, but treat them well and you can have a pretty good time with them on stage.

If you end up getting stuck with them on stage the first thing to do is size up their posse. If they have a large group of similarly meated heads, then you can’t as easily get rid of them. You need to be careful not to just send them back right away if you stand the risk of creating a vocal sub group in the audience. I almost always find that it works better if I just stay on my toes and tame the savage beast. I do it by being quicker witted and more aggressive than they. You have the support of the audience in this, so as long as you remain confident and in control. Remember: you control the audience so you are much stronger than a single person. For a more complete understanding of this dynamic, read my article Dealing with Hecklers at

Extreme Talent
If your audience member can juggle better than you, or can ride a unicycle, or do something really cool on stage, you had better be prepared to drop whatever it was you had planned and just go with it. I mean, seriously, if they do something really cool, it’s going to be a huge moment on stage. They are the underdog and the audience is likely to respond to it in a huge way. Don’t squash this moment, just let it happen. I mean, don’t let your show get hijacked, but think of yourself as the MC for a moment. You allowed this to happen on your stage, so you can still take credit for the moment.

Acknowledge how cool the moment was, direct the audience to applaud for the person, and then continue. I have the attitude that if something funny happens and the audience wants to laugh, I just go ahead and let them. It doesn’t matter where the funny moment started, we can all share it together, and I still get credit for running the show.

High Status in the Audience
If you are doing a show for a company, then some of the people in the audience will be managers. You have to be extremely careful with these people. In fact, you need to be careful with everybody, because, come Monday, they will all be working together again. They will all have to slip back into their roles. If a manager gets embarrassed on stage, they will have a more difficult job controlling their employees later on.

Someone in your audience is the CEO. No matter how much in charge you are because it is your audience, they are more in control than you because everyone in the audience relies on this person for their livelihood. Be sensitive to this. This person must be a hero and not a dunce. If you handle this correctly you will get a great recommendation from this company. If you do it wrong then they will never hire another show from anyone ever!

Food on their Face
If there is someone in the audience who is obviously drunk, or stained with gravy, or covered in food, do them a favor and leave them alone. They don’t need to get up in front of a crowd and parade their shame. A rule of thumb here is that if the audience is simply going to feel sorry for them, you shouldn’t use them. Pity is a really difficult emotion to work with on stage.

In conclusion, picking a volunteer can be a ‘make or break’ moment for your act. The audience will be glad for some variety on stage. They will appreciate having someone else to look at other than you. Using a volunteer can recharge the energy level of the audience and is a way to reset the clock. When the performer goes into the audience to bring a volunteer back, it is a great moment to connect with your spectators. This is especially important if you are doing a full length show.

If you do it well, selecting a volunteer will charge up the audience to see one of their representatives succeed. Do it poorly and the show may end early. Always remember to have:
“Grace under pressure.”
No matter what happens, you can bring the show back on track.

Brad Weston is a writer, juggler, and volunteer picker from way back. For more information about him and his work check out his website at

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