Two Questions About Delivering Stand-up Comedy Material

Here are a couple of great questions I received about delivering stand-up comedy material:

I watched a comic bomb at an open mic a little while ago. He had a routine that was like Jack Handy observations, where almost every line was a punchline, but the topic or theme was depression, and he delivered every line in slow motion like a recording that was slowed down.

And it was depressing; as he bombed, he ramped back up to his normal speaking speed and remarked that the audience’s lack of laughter was a wake up call for him. He thanked them for being honest, saying he realized he wasn’t a comedian and it was time to give up his dream.

My first thought was “you had good material, but your delivery was weird,” because to me, the slow speaking character was the only thing that didn’t really work.

But then I saw him do the same bit the very next night and it went over well, he got laughs and applause throughout the entire routine.

The major difference was, the second night, his material was tighter, he spent less time setting up and more time delivering his punchlines — yet still at that same slow pace.

So the question then, is if someone is doing this exaggerated character technique, like a depressed person or a character on cocaine, even if it’s just an impression of such a character in the middle of a story, should the comedian have more or fewer punchlines to compensate for the change in speed?

I guess what I’m really wondering is, what didn’t work the first time he did the bit but then worked the second time? From my perspective in the audience, he was able to pull it off the second time by delivering more jokes by way of compensation for the lethargic delivery.

Since there are multiple issues involved with the scenario presented above, let me start with this:

There are three primary elements that determine how “tight” a comedian’s material is:

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1. Punchline frequency (laughs per minute), which is relative to..

2. Set-up time for each punchline and…

3. The duration of the audience laughter generated by the punchlines

Audience laughter consumes time. The more time consumed by audience laughter, the less time a comedian has to deliver their stand-up comedy material (including punchlines/tag lines) in any given minute.

A better gauge of how “tight” a comedians material is lies in accumulated seconds of laughter each minute as opposed to the number of punchlines delivered each minute because…

Once a comedian is averaging 18+ seconds of laughter per minute, it doesn’t matter if they are delivering 2 punchlines per minute or 6+ punchlines per minute.

Note: If you go to YouTube and find a stand-up comedy video of a headline level comedian killing on stage, you will usually find that they are delivering 5-6+ punchlines each minute in order to “kill” the audience (averaging 18+ seconds of laughter per minute – regardless of their delivery “style” or speech rate).

This applies to all pro comedians — deadpan comedians with a slower speech rate like Steven Wright or more animated comedians like Brian Regan.

So the answer to the first questionshould the comedian have more or fewer punchlines to compensate for a slower deliver speed is that it depends.

If the comedian is generating less than 18 seconds of laughter in any particular minute, 99% of the time that usually means that the comedian needs to add more punchlines, regardless of delivery “style” or speech rate (exception: starting a new bit on a different topic).

Now to answer the second question…

Let me begin by saying this:

It is a comedian’s delivery (body language, facial expressions, voice inflection and tone variations, etc.) that gives what they say most of the laughter power they have. Words alone don’t enhance a comedian’s delivery no matter how well the words are “crafted”.

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Audiences can quickly tell when they are being blatantly “joked” or if the comedian is delivering material in a way that is not being genuinely expressed by the comedian.

There are only a few reasons why stand-up comedy material doesn’t produce laughs:

1. The material is simply not funny to begin with.

2. The material is funny, but it takes too long to get to any particular punchline.

3. The material is funny, but the delivery of that material is less than optimal, reducing its laughter generation ability.

Number 3 above is most likely what happened to the comedian to which you are referring to.

Without having videos to refer to, I suspect that the improvement in the comedian’s material from one performance to the next was largely due to a much more genuine delivery in the second performance, not necessarily punchline frequency or the “slow motion” style of the delivery.

Let me put this another way:

There is a huge difference between trying to “sell” a fabricated character and expressing a natural characterization of someone else that is delivered in a genuine way — again, regardless of delivery “style” or speech rate.

That is one of the reasons why proper rehearsal of stand-up comedy material is a critical key aspect of being able to generate substantial laughs on stage (in addition to punchline frequency of course).

I should also mention that talking faster is NOT a viable solution for increasing punchline frequency in any minute of stand-up comedy material.

What is critical is that a comedian’s stand-up comedy material is structured to get 4-6 laughs per minute before they ever take it to the stage.

Related Article: The Delivery Style Secret Every New Comedian Should Know

Related Video:

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6 Replies to “Two Questions About Delivering Stand-up Comedy Material”

  1. I agree with Larry’s advice, “Get ’em laugin’ and they’ll warm up to you feal fast!” The people in the audience came EXPECTING to laugh, WANTING to laugh; that’s why they are there! So, if we don’t provide something to laugh at as soon as possible, our task is so much more difficult.

    And yes, Foghorn, I believe we do need to “treat the audience like we’re talking to one person” as you so aptly put it. In my comments on another article on this site, I discussed audiences having ‘personalities’ and suggested that I feel more comfortable with and connect more easily with larger audiences because (I theorize) with smaller audiences we are more likely to see the individuals that make up the group. I don’t know if there’s merit in that concept, but that’s been my observation from personal experience.

    I believe that finding that connection is key. I used to watch Billy Graham, the internationally recognized evangelist, and wonder about his appeal to his massive audiences in many parts of the world. I noticed that personal connection: he always spoke conversationally, and he always made local references: “I was reading [such and such a story in The Local Newspaper] just this morning,” or, “Your mayor was telling me at supper last evening,” etc. And the anecdotes sprinkled throughout his address were usually about ordinary people, often local. Clever.

    Those attributes were a big part of his appeal as an orator, and I think they can easily be adapted for standup. I find they work for me.

  2. Building audience momentum is something I have never considered. I have a bunch of material, but no particular order or method to my madness. I choose some of my stuff for a routine, but didn’t really have a thought out selection process.

    I guess it’s the same as putting the milk and eggs at the back of a grocery store. They do that to make sure you walk past ALL of the merchandise the store has to offer, even though you just want milk, bread, and eggs.

    I need to lead the audience in with some quick witted humor to establish that I can be funny, AND THEN go int some of my longer set-ups.

    I also have to stop practicing with my notes in hand. I might be developing a “Linus” complex where I won’t feel comfortable without my blanket!

  3. Thank you for your very detailed response, it was very clear and now that you said it, I’m looking back on those two performances and saying to myself “duh, of course the audience interaction contributed.” So maybe the delivery was better the second time around, getting him that audience momentum. In hindsight though, perhaps he had some friends in the room who were laughing out loud and building/contributing to the audience momentum, which in turn helped him deliver better. Now that I think about it, the show did seem to have a sort of a bringer show vibe, where the laughter always seemed to start from the same pocket of people in the back of the room. Either way, I enjoyed it more the second time, as an audience member myself. The first time I was just analyzing the jokes, thinking “that would be funny but the delivery sucked.” The second time, he really did deliver better, and I was enjoying the jokes, I wasn’t analyzing them. He had a harder job than other comics in the room, because it was obvious that he was doing a character, and it didn’t appear to be a natural exaggeration of his own personality. For me, since I’ll only ever do character work when impersonating someone else, and for just a couple lines at the most, I won’t have such a hard time. But I don’t intend to bring people out for support, either, so I need to work on getting those first couple laughs, getting them fast, and then keeping the audience momentum.

    • Thank you Jared! Your last sentence awoke a sleeping giant. I have finally realized what Steve has been saying all along. I don’t have to force MY favorite stuff on the audience right away, because it’s not what I say that will determine 100% of my success or failure.

      I have to treat the audience like I’m meeting someone for the first time. A little “small talk” before I burst into my life’s story. Make sure THEY want to hear my story, which will only happen If I show I can be entertaining.

      • Just don’t forget, as you are “small talking” with the audience, your clock is ticking. Like Steve says over and over again, you need to be generating 4-6+ laughs a minute. If you are small talking and their not laughing, you will have some serious time/laughs to make up for due to wasted time. Get em’s laughin’ and they

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