Sarah Johnston breaks down the intricacies of how stand-up comedians consistently make us laugh
In my opinion, the atmosphere at a comedy show is one of the best feelings ever. There is nothing quite like being in the audience with your best friends, with a light alcoholic buzz going on, listening to someone tell you the worst and most embarrassing parts of their life, and encouraging you to laugh at them. There is such a buzz in watching comedy – an electric, almost giddy joy – in knowing that in a matter of minutes or seconds, you are going to be laughing. When you watch a comedian at work it often feels quite casual, with the back and forth of hecklers and audience participation, but comedians have perfected the precise science of altering your body chemistry to their benefit. So if you’re a wannabe comedian, or if you just like an occasional giggle at a Netflix special, read on and find out why comedy works, and how to scientifically guarantee to be the funniest person in a room.
The first and most important thing to setting up a great comedy show is, well… the setting! Now the setting here is not referring to the location or the venue or anything physical, the setting refers to the atmosphere you create. What kind of mood do you want the audience to have when you start off? It takes us only one-tenth of a second to judge someone upon meeting them for the first time, and the human brain can actually make judgements on someone before meeting them or even hearing of them.
One of our base instincts as humans, and something I discussed in my article about the science of music, is the fight or flight response. It’s an ingrained, subconscious reaction to a new person or situation leftover from our early evolution from cavemen, designed to help us in dangerous situations. In new and scary situations, the brain floods with adrenaline and increased blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the brain to allow us to think and move more quickly than usual. This means when we encounter danger, we are prepared to take it on (fight mode) or get out of there as fast as possible (flight mode).
Now a comedy show may seem as far from a dangerous situation as possible – except from the horrifying price of the drinks – but comedy works by building up tension and then releasing it. The whole premise of a joke is that someone makes a statement which stresses the listener out and then gives the punchline which reassures them everything is okay and causes the body to relax and the brain to flood with chemicals that make you feel happy. The issue comes if you leave the build-up for too long, at which point the stress-release reaction won’t occur and the body will instead store stress and start to build up adrenaline. The environment in which you watch a comedy show can have a huge impact on your reaction to the jokes told. This is why so many straight-to-screen specials have incredibly short title sequences at the start, to avoid you building up any amount of tension that can stress you out. They know if they start quickly and don’t give you much time to judge them, you are more likely to have a positive reaction. This is also why lots of comedians start shows with one-liners; they are a quick and easy tension-and-release exercise that makes the audience feel more comfortable and trusting of them, and hence more likely to enjoy the show. So if you’re giving your own stand-up performance, think about the tone you set: an audience that can sing along to Disney hits while they wait for a show to start will be a lot more comfortable than 100 people sitting in silence in an auditorium for half an hour.
It’s now time to actually make it to the stage! As I said above, humans judge one another incredibly quickly so your first impression really does count. There is a scientific formula for making a good first impression and it’s based on three things: body language, social filtering, and communication. Your body language is the most obvious one – if you come out on stage hunched over and dragging your feet, the audience knows you don’t want to be there – but there are more subtle tricks to consider too. Having open body language is incredibly important in making people trust you. If you watch comedians, a lot of the time they walk on to stage with their arms splayed wide and waving. This lets your brain subconsciously know that they have nothing to hide and that they are being vulnerable so you’re not in any danger. Another important trick is eye contact and more specifically avoiding it. Even if you are a comedian who wants to interact with the audience, you should never make eye contact. Direct eye-contact is something which humans again have a subconscious reaction to – breaking eye-contact defines you as the weaker individual, and so if you want to avoid an awkward staring match, instead of looking directly into your audience’s eyes, look at the spot between their eyebrows to give the illusion of eye-contact without the pressure. This dominance leads to the second of the features, social filtering.
Social filtering is all about your brain subconsciously finding its ‘role’ in any situation. If you want to engage an audience then you need to make sure you appear as the dominant character in a given situation. This may seem quite counter-intuitive – if you’re the one on the stage surely you’re in charge? However, once again our brains subconsciously pick up on how others behave towards us and translate that into how dangerous a situation is. You want to make the impression that you are in charge, but that you are not a ‘threat’. This means you don’t want to start your show with an insult to your audience. I know that sounds obvious, but lots of common one-liners that are used to start shows are designed to be rude and cheeky to get the audience's attention. You need to be very careful that any quips like this can be both understood by your audience, without them relating to it in a way that offends them. A common way to do this is to be specific in the way you market your show. You can choose a title or theme that appeals to a certain demographic or use the way you present yourself as a brand to dictate your content.
However, you also don’t want to ‘roll over and show your belly’ immediately. You’ve probably heard of the (false) idea of the roles in a wolf-pack with an alpha, betas, and omegas. There is some aspect of this ingrained subconsciously in humans; there are people we know not to mess with and those we know are on a certain level with us. If the opening of your show makes your audience feel sorry for you or like they are more authoritative than you are, you will lose the ability to build the tension which is so key to telling a joke. Many comedians play up self-deprecation or oversell their social awkwardness, but you’ll notice they never use those themes in the opening of their show because they need to establish the right level of dominance first.
The final aspect is communication. You want to make sure your audience understands you not only verbally but non-verbally. You should make sure every sentence is clear so that people don’t waste time trying to read between the lines. This is because the brain can only really focus on one input at a time, so if you tell a joke and someone is sitting trying to figure it out their brain will effectively shut down listening to anything else you’ve said until they’ve worked it out.
So well done you, you’ve made it on stage, you’ve told your first joke and the audience trusts you – how do you keep them engaged? Comedy often uses a technique called ‘subverting the third’ which involves telling a joke where on the third beat you do something unexpected which catches the audience off guard and causes them to laugh. Using threes is very important as socially we have become accustomed to the number 3 and things coming in trios. The specific origins are somewhat lost to time, but we know culturally as far back as the Roman times, people expressed a preference for information given in threes. When as a comedian, you change the predictable third to something unusual.
Another important technique is in delaying the punchline. This stems from the idea that we enjoy things more when we know what is coming – it’s why we love rewatching movies and get more joy from knowing where a plot is going because we don’t have the same sensation of tension without release. In delaying the punchline, a comedian will set up a joke in such a way that the audience knows or is able to predict the punchline, but it is never said. The comedian then moves on to a different subject, leaving the tension of the unfinished joke to build in the viewer's mind and cause anticipation. Later on, the comedian will circle back around, usually very quickly, to the joke, drop the punchline, and accept the roaring applause. This is because our brain gets satisfaction from completing patterns and finishing ‘tasks’. Processing the build-up is subconsciously using up a lot of your brain, and when the punchline is finally dropped the brain releases lots of hormones which makes you feel satisfied. A particularly good example of delaying a punchline can be found in Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Douglas’, where she explains the whole show and all the jokes at the start and then circles back around to each punchline throughout the performance. If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend it for a masterclass in using comedy scientifically.
The final part of the formula to a great comedy performance is, of course, the ending. Usually, comedians save a big joke until last, take time to build up an elaborate story, and then pull out a fantastic punchline, and everyone laughs and leaves thinking that the show was great. The scientific secret behind this is in fact that you can do an hour of mediocre comedy, but as long as the last joke is fantastic, people will walk away happy. This technique is also commonly used in romantic comedy movies and is characterized by finishing the climax of the movie with an upbeat, inspiring, catchy song. The idea is you finish the show in a way that causes a final surge of hormones so that people go home on a high. Usually, this involves dopamine, which is a hormone your brain uses to motivate and reward itself. When you finish your last big punch line, the last lot of dopamine hits the audience's brain and before they can even think about building any more tension, you want to finish the act. This is why a lot of comedians drop and final punchline and, without waiting for an audience reaction, say goodnight. It causes the brain to release both the hormone build-up from the joke and any other held tension because your brain recognizes the tension has ended all at once and gives the body an extra boost.
And that’s it! That’s the scientific method to have a great comedy performance! The rest of a show: content, theme, medium etc. are entirely down to you as a performer but if you can understand the science of how your audience reacts to different parts of your act you can use that to help you give a great set.
The only final advice I can offer is that like science, comedy involves experimenting. You probably won’t nail all your jokes the first time you do them, but you can use the results to tweak your set until it's running smoothly. I’m not saying you need to start a lab book with the results of each show you do – although it probably wouldn’t hurt – but changing one variable at a time can help you put together the ideal act. And if things aren’t going so well for you on stage, just remember that everyone’s experiment blows up once in a while…