16 – A JOKE’S NOT A JOKE UNTIL SOMEONE HEARS IT:  by Gene Perret

There’s a well-known philosophical question that asks, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise?”  I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that if a performer tells a joke and no one hears it, it is not a joke.

I recently attended a comedy night – not ventriloquism, stand-up comedy.  Normally, I’m a good audience because I love comedy performers.  This night, though, through a two-hour show, I laughed only about four times.  Were the comedians that bad?  Was their material awful?  I honestly don’t know because I only heard one of them.  He’s the one I laughed at.

I have worked with many young performers and without reading any of their material or seeing any of them perform, I can confidently offer one bit of advice to each of them.  That advice is . . . slow down.

There’s an anxiety in most beginning comedians to get through the ordeal of performing before a live audience as quickly as possible.  Consequently, they rush through their script.  They speak so quickly that the audience can’t really hear what they’re saying.  Remember, if a performer tells a joke and no one hears it, it’s not a joke.

Admittedly, I’m not familiar with many of the techniques of ventriloquism.  I’m sure it has difficulties with projection and pronunciation that other performers don’t have.  Nevertheless, I stand by the statement that audiences won’t laugh at material they can’t hear or understand.  A vent is primarily an entertainer.  Most are comedy entertainers.  They want and they need laughs.  They can only earn audience laughter if the people can hear the jokes.

Regardless of whether you’re speaking in your own voice, or in your character’s voice through ventriloquism, be aware of the tempo of your presentation.  Speak slowly….no, even more slowly.  Some comics rebel when I admonish them on this theme.  Many say, “If I speak any more slowly, I might as well not talk at all.”  I say, “That’s exactly the tempo you want.”

Another fringe benefit of speaking at a moderate rate is that it allows the audience time to process your humor.  In reciting at too quick a tempo, the performer often runs the risk of “stepping on his own lines.”  The legendary comedian, Jack Benny, used to have some sort of signal that would tell his fellow performers when it was safe to speak.  Benny was an expert at milking laughs – that is, getting more from the laugh line than it actually merited.  After someone did a joke to Jack Benny, he would get a second laugh from it with his “take.”  He would turn to the audience with a confused look on his face and they would howl at his reaction.  If the other performer spoke too soon after delivering the line, it would “step on” that secondary laugh.  So take a lesson from one of the masters of timing and allow breathing room in your routine – time for the audience to appreciate the comedy.

Speaking slowly also allows you to properly enunciate each word.  Again, this permits the listeners to “hear” what you’re saying, and not “guess” at what they think you might have said.  Give each word in your routine it’s proper attention.

And, of course, you must project.  You and your stage partner must speak so that the person in the last seat in the auditorium can hear you.  It not only helps the laughter, but it also conveys an aura of confidence, of professionalism.  You’re on stage at the microphone, you definitely want to give the impression that you belong there.

Going back to the recent comedy show that I attended with my writing partner, I would often turn to her during the performance and say, “What did he say?”  Her response usually was, “I have no idea.”  It’s hard to get laughs that way.

So spend time rehearsing your routine.  Rehearse it at the pace you want to deliver it in.  Force yourself to speak at a reasonable tempo and be sure to give each word all the attention that it deserves.  If a word is in your act, it deserves to be heard.  It’s your duty as the performer to make sure it is heard!

The returning laughter you get will make it all worthwhile.


Learn more from Gene Perret with his books, classes, and newsletter.  Information available at www.comedywritersroom.com/store.  Gene also has a free joke service,Perrets’ Humor Files, featuring original lines.  Take a look at www.jokecrafters.com.  You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.

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