Every now and then I get a request from a college student for information about stand-up comedy for a thesis they are working on.
I don’t usually post my correspondence with students as it tends to be limited in scope and wouldn’t usually make for much of an article.
But in this case, I received a request to answer 6 questions that I thought were pretty good. They were broad in scope, covered a lot of ground and are worth sharing in my opinion.
So here are the 6 questions asked by this particular student along with my answers.
Q1: What are the main components that make up the stand-up art in your criteria?
This question is broad and could be interpreted in a number of ways. So let me start with this:
All spoken word comedy that generates laughter, whether it be offstage or on stage contains the same “components”:
#1: Some easily recognized or understood point of reference expressed in a topic, opinion, observation, experience, etc.
#2: Some measure of truth that is known or can be easily recognized (applies to #1 and #3 below).
#3: An easily recognized or understood point of view or perspective relative to the point of reference that results in a laughter response.
The “fuel” that makes each of these components work on an individual level is the unique sense of humor/comedy talent that a person has inherently and organically developed via countless interpersonal interactions over the course of their life.
A better sense of humor/comedy talent cannot be learned, downloaded or surgically implanted (at least not yet). Yet “conventional” wisdom either expresses or implies that this is what is needed to do well as a comedian and can be learned, when it is simply not possible.
Also, the “conventional” wisdom either expressed or implied by so-called “experts” is that process or mechanisms for generating audience laughter are somehow vastly different than those used off stage. This is a false narrative – these processes or mechanisms are exactly the same, with following primary differences (not all inclusive):
#1: Points of reference and related points of view regarding such need to be known or easily understood by an audience of strangers, not just friends, family, associated or co-workers.
#2: A measure of premeditated brevity (and preparation to deliver that brevity) is required in stand-up comedy in order to deliver an average of 4-6 punchlines and allow time for the associated laughter in any given performing minute. This measure of brevity is generally not an aspect of casual conversations.
#3: Casual conversations tend to be a dialogue, whereas stand-up comedy is a monologue expression.
#4: A measure of stage skill and experience is required for stand-up comedy. We don’t engage in everyday conversations standing on a stage, holding a microphone, addressing large numbers of people with bright lights shining in our face, etc.
Q2: Being that every stand-up comedian is influenced by other comedians, how can one develop a creative monologue? Is a combination of techniques, topics, deliveries, etc. coming from other artists an innovation?
While comedians can have similar points of reference, points of view and perspectives, a comedian should never be dependent upon another comedian in any way when it comes to developing a stand-up comedy act that will work on an individual basis.
An individual’s unique sense of humor/comedy talent was not developed as a result of interaction with comedians, nor was it developed by passing along written materials during offstage conversations.
Don’t get me wrong – there are certain things that can be learned from other comedians. But when it comes to developing a powerful and effective stand-up comedy routine, an individual should be tapping directly into their own sense of humor/comedy talent and not looking at other comedians as some sort of determinate factor.
Q3: How much of the show is improvised, and how much is previously written?
Little if any of a stand-up comedy act (proper) is improvised. A comedian develops and practices or rehearses their act to provide the “appearance of spontaneity” when performing. In other words, a pro comedian knows exactly what they are going to say, when they are going to say it and how they will express it.
To understand this fully, simply go to a professional stand-up comedy show two nights in a row.
What I have described is actually no different than in everyday conversations where an individual collects and expresses stories, quips, quotes, lines, etc. that they use over and over again because they have been proven to get laughs. Some of these differences were described in Q1.
Even when you see a pro comedian interact with an audience (called riffing) on a video or TV show, what you don’t see are the dozens, if not hundreds of audience interactions that occurred to “collect” the questions and associated responses that “appear” to be spontaneous. Some of it can certainly be spontaneous – but most is not.
Usually, the real spontaneity in a stand-up comedy act happens as a result of a heckler or some unexpected interruption in the show.
Q4: What risks can/do you take during the show? How can one avoid them? Are they worth taking?
Let me ask you this – what risks do you take when you use your sense of humor in everyday conversations? You run the risk of severely pissing someone off or otherwise offending them.
The exact same thing is true in stand-up comedy except the threshold is lower for a negative audience response because the audience is not generally people who know you like in offstage conversations. But people are people, onstage or offstage.
There is a popular, yet skewed notion among many comedians that they can say or do whatever they want to on stage in the name of “freedom of speech” without regard to the audience or the potential negative reaction that an audience may demonstrate.
While there may be degree of truth in that, the reality is that “freedom of speech” is a two way street.
Just like a comedian has the “right” to (mostly) say whatever they want, an audience also has the right to categorically reject whatever a comedian presents that is untoward or otherwise offensive and react negatively to what has been presented – again, no different than in casual conversations.
But just like in everyday conversations, angry or offended people aren’t laughing if the humor used is deemed inappropriate. And we learn via countless trial and error episodes where to “draw the line” so that we can avoid those negative reactions.
Q5: What would you recommend to someone who would like to become a stand-up comedian?
#1: Trust the sense of humor/comedy talent that one has already developed.
#2: Don’t look for some “outside” methodology in an attempt to create and develop comedy material for the stage. An individual already has “custom” methodologies that they use effectively that simply need to be condensed, refined and prepared for a stand-up comedy routine.
#3: Realize that there is much to know when it comes to effectively using, refining and applying ones individual sense of humor for the stand-up comedy stage for the reasons that should be apparent from what I have provided in this presentation.
Q6: What should you consider before writing a script?
I would strongly recommend that a new or prospective comedian understand that there is a vast difference between “writing” which is a one dimensional form of communication that only involves words and “writing down” what one wants to say and express in spoken word communication.
Here’s an article on my blog that discusses this specifically:
This student also asked for any other related information that I may be able to provide (articles, scientific journals, other thesis materials) that would provide any sort of amplifying or supporting information. Here’s what provided:
As I mentioned in a previous email, much of the information that I produce is sole source — there is simply not much in the way of direct supporting information because most comedy research tends to be a superficial “cause and effect” approach which simply does not account for the complex process involved with developing a sense of humor.
So, with that said, you can a search engine inquiry using this phrase:
Differences between writing and talking
You will find millions of pages of info. However….
Information from the search above most likely won’t provide a direct correlation between the critical differences of written word comedy and spoken work comedy (which incorporates body language, facial expressions, voice tone fluctuations etc.)
You may also be able to find some useful related info with this type of search:
Impact of body language on spoken word comedy (or humor)
Even if you find some sort of useful reference material using that search term, again — little of it will have a direct correlation to stand-up comedy and will need to be extrapolated.
Hope that helps. Good luck on your thesis!