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, I’ll start with this:
There are three primary elements that determine how “tight” a comedian’s material is:
1. Punchline frequency, 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 question — should 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”.
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
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 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 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’s 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