I used to think that new performers had to learn how to make people laugh. And quite often this is what they think too.
However I’ve changed my mind about this recently. I think the actual core problem isn’t ‘making’ people laugh, it’s ‘letting’ people laugh.
Comedy performers are not scared of NOT getting laughs, I think the actual problem is that they are scared when the laughs actually happen. Comedy performers are scared of getting laughs.
They think they want to make people laugh, but the first time it starts to happen they do everything they can to stop it immediately.
Sometimes I wonder if performers are subconsciously doing everything they can to not be funny.
A new stand up keeps saying ‘no seriously’, ‘only joking’, ‘why are you laughing’, ‘stop laughing’ etc. Eventually the audience listen, and stop laughing.
New stand ups leave big gaps between their lines, so that the crowd settle back to normal and the laughter stops.
A clown exercise. Student is in the room instructed to make people laugh. He tries to sit on a radiator that is to thin to support him. We laugh. So he stops trying to sit on the radiator and does other things instead. We don’t laugh. If he’d kept on trying to sit on the radiator we would have kept laughing.
Sketch workshop. Set up of a patient who is deaf coming in to tell the doctor that the doctor’s car is parked on double yellow lines. Every time the patient tries to tell him using sign language the doctor misunderstands him, diagnoses something horrible and then removes part of the patient’s anatomy. The game sounds simple, and it made us laugh, but the actors put in extra bits like having an examination – that stopped the explanation of the parked car AND removal of body parts (the funny bits).
Impro Show. A comedy character – an Earwig spy, is getting a lot of laughs from the audience. The other actors tell it repeatedly to shut up, which it does, so the audience stop laughing. The actors stomp on the earwig and kill it. The actors have limited and stopped the funny thing.
- Why don’t we pursue and expand what is obviously making people laugh?
- Why do we ‘turn off the funny’?
- Why are we programmed to avoid long term laughter?
- Why don’t comedy actors and performers seem to like it when an audience actually laughs?
- Why does laughter make us shut down what we were doing?
Fear of ridicule
When we are growing up a group often laughs AT someone who is different from the group as a group signal to change that thing in order to later be incorporated into the group and gain greater safety.
So when the new improviser hears laughter they sometimes actually stop doing what they were doing (i.e. the funny thing) so that it immediately stops.
But the comic actor and comedian in the modern world should not differentiate between being laughed AT and being laughed WITH. In fact deliberately making a group laugh AT you is fun.
Don’t fear ‘making a fool of yourself’ in comedy. You are already making a fool of yourself, you’re doing comedy.
When growing up the kid that makes everyone in the classroom laugh is often seen as naughty or is referred to as the class room joker.
The act of making people laugh is therefore undervalued and also seen as a bad thing from quite a young age. It is the pointless, uncontrollable and naughty thing that distracts from the serious school business of studying how waterfalls form gorges.
This continues outside school with the most common adult response to the sound of laughter being told to “shut up”.
At work and meetings people have a laugh, before getting down to ‘serious business’. Laughing in the workplace is often seen as disrespectful to the status hierarchy and people who are constantly laughing at work are probably seen as skiving off or childish and unprofessional. We still make people laugh in a naughty way – sending emails, quick looks, secret coffee meetings etc.
So no wonder the performer doesn’t pursue the laughter – to do so has been programmed in them as naughty, childish, unhelpful and distracting.
Moderating energy and lack of control
I’ve already mentioned a few times already the lack of control that comes from laughter, and I think it’s another quite primeval instinct.
If you think about it a room full of people laughing in a room for an hour is quite a strange sight. They open up their mouths and make strange noises, they shudder, they crease up, they breathe funny, they slap their sides and each other, they shake. (This bit mentioned in Jimmy Carr’s The Naked Jape).
They have basically been made entirely useless in one big mass. They would be unable to operate machinery in such a condition.
If you are the one responsible for making a group do this it’s no wonder that it takes a lot of guts to keep doing it to them. You are basically solely responsible for sending a group into a really odd state.
You’re lack of control and lack or responsibility on stage has given rise to the audience abandoning control and responsibility, which ironically you then feel responsible for and have an urge to control.
Experienced stand ups and improvisers make use of this state and build on it. They keep giving and giving so that the atmosphere builds and builds. Inexperienced performers actively try and stop it – they fear the primeval animal instinct they have unleashed.
New stand ups tend to leave massive pauses between jokes. Ask them and they’d say it was their ‘style’ but I think it’s actually to allow the crowd to return to ‘normal’ to make sure nothing untoward happens. The crowd aren’t there to be normal though, they are there to laugh uncontrollably.
Improvisers do something similar. A scene tips, into the place where action happens, which leads to laughter. But immediately a scared improviser will make everything better, right the balance, make it safe. The action stops and nobody is laughing, and yet they think this is helpful. They want to be a comedy performer yet the moment anything untoward or energetic happens they balance it and stop it.
Couples who own dogs have often noticed that the dog will sit between them on the couch the second they attempt to have a cuddle or get a bit flirty – the dog will put itself between them and steadily sit there. It looks cute but apparently it comes from the pack mentality of conserving energy. Dog/wolf packs attempt to conserve energy, which limits the need to hunt, by limiting internal fighting, flirting, and general interaction.
So sometimes the comedian can inadvertently play this role, and actually serve to balance the group and make it normal, when actually we want to tip it into the world of excitement and instability.
– Fight your fear, let people laugh with you, at you and around you.
– Be positive in sketch development to expand the core funny bits and spot the game in the mess.
– If people are laughing, do it, and then do it more and make it more.
– Keep doing it, there is no limit to how much people can laugh other than how much you want to let them laugh.
– If people aren’t laughing, do something else.
– Directing comedy is easy. Experiment and play until you find something that makes people laugh. Expand that thing and play with it more. If people are laughing it’s probably funny. Be constructive and positive, but also be honest and critical.
Keith Johnstone says laughter is misleading, and I do agree somewhat in that it can be misleading and that’s where experience helps. But overall if you don’t think laughter is important, you shouldn’t be doing comedy.