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Veteran comedian and This Hour Has 22 Minutes star Shaun Majumder explains how to connect with an audience, win over a tough crowd, and leave ’em wanting more.

Canadian Business: You’ve appeared on stage as a sketch comic, a stand-up and a speaker. What’s your secret for connecting with a crowd?

Shaun Majumdar: It’s the same thing you hear from everyone from Buddhist monks to Oprah—you have to be in the moment, let go and listen. You can’t be thinking about how you thought it would go, because then you’re not listening, you’re not in the moment. It’s tricky because the more effort you put into it, the more it’s probably not going to work—it’s so simple, and yet incredibly difficult to achieve. I think of the mindset as like when you’re listening to a really amazing piece of music, and you’re really dialed in, and nothing else exists. That’s the level of focus that I’m trying to achieve when I’m on stage.

What do you do when you feel like you’re losing the crowd?

When you’re listening and attentive, you’re able to go with the flow and follow the crowd, which is so important. I’ll often find myself on stage in unforeseen circumstances and this approach helps me to adjust on my feet.

Unforeseen circumstances like, say, hecklers? How do you handle people who don’t like what you’re presenting?

One time I happened to mention the name Brian Mulroney during a set. There was a drunk old man sitting at the bar and it was like I had just jammed a stick into a hornet’s nest­—he started yelling and swearing. It’s not like I could just say “Shut up.” Instead, I acknowledged him and included him in the show, and eventually we turned it around. Everyone had a laugh, somewhat at his expense, but without being mean.

What do you do when a joke bombs?

You can’t let an unforeseen setback derail you. It’s not easy. Comedians are sensitive souls, and when a joke bombs that can really mess with your ego, your mojo. My advice is to recognize that it’s part of the process. Everyone has jokes that bomb—it’s not a big deal, and it’s never as bad as you think it was. I try to turn it around and make a joke about the joke bombing. An audience will forgive you as long as they feel that you’re trying. If you have the attitude that you’re blaming the audience, they will be less forgiving.

Do you have any tips for reading a crowd? Is that something you can do in advance?

The only way to read a crowd it to listen in the moment. If you try to do it in advance that can be dangerous. I recently did a corporate event in Vancouver. Before going on stage I was warned that this was a group of very conservative, stick-up-their butts, anesthesiologists, so I should probably adjust my set accordingly. I never like listening to that, though, because that opinion might be based on one or two people’s experiences. I went on stage and initially I played it safe, but I noticed they were responding to the more adult material. Turns out they were a pretty sassy group. I started talking about Jian Ghomeshi [Majumder played Ghomeshi on This Hour Has 22 Minutes before the former Q host was fired from the CBC for misconduct] and how that whole thing went down. Normally that’s not the sort of material I would present to a conservative audience, but they went with it and it ended up going really well.

Do you use eye contact to establish intimacy with audience members?

I’m big on eye contact, but it can be dangerous, because looking at specific people can get distracting. I’ll get a grandmother in the front row and all I can think about is my grandmother, and I start thinking, Oh, now I can’t tell certain jokes.

Except that maybe she’s a sassy granny.

Right. Maybe she grew up on a prison farm in northern Ontario.

Majumder stars in season 23 of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which premieres this fall on CBC. This article is from the August 2016 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

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