I once worked on the staff of a very popular television variety show. At a writers meeting, the producer/head writer gave all of us a bit of advice. He said, “Remember to tell the audience when to laugh.”
I thought that was the dumbest suggestion I had ever heard from a comedy writer. I just assumed the audience would laugh spontaneously. If they heard something funny, they reacted. After a few more years of experience writing comedy for variety shows, sitcoms, and standup comedians, I came to the conclusion that this gentleman’s recommendation was priceless.
One would think that comedy performers would welcome laughs. And they do . . . but not all laughs. There are certain laughs that they’d rather do without and some that they would try to avoid at all costs.
One type of laughter that’s not welcome when you’re performing is the “sympathy laugh.” This usually happens when the performer has a table of friends and relatives who feel obliged to laugh at everything. The rest of the audience may be silent, but this group is chuckling and guffawing. This is embarrassing for a performer because it highlights the fact that the act is not going over well with the general audience. It’s only getting laughs from “the family.”
There’s also laughter that’s out of sync with the delivery. The hilarity comes at the wrong time. Folks may laugh at the setup line rather than the punch line. It’s not only disconcerting, but it also destroys the rhythm of the joke. By the time the comic gets to the solid punch line, all the laughter has been wasted on the straight line. No performer wants to endure this.
Sporadic laughter is upsetting, too. People in the back of the room laugh half-heartedly at one joke. People to the left may laugh at another line. The folks on the right could find a different joke hilarious. There’s no consistency to the audience response, which tells the performer there’s no consistency to the act.
Then, of course, the one type of laughter that is incredibly demoralizing is when the listeners laugh at you rather than at your jokes. They feel you’re not only a weak performer, but so bad that you’re laughable.
So what do comedy performers want? They want predictable, consistent, coordinated, laughter that is genuinely spontaneous. But how do you get genuine laughs that are programmed? You, the performer must program them. You have to orchestrate the audience reactions. You have to tell them when to laugh.
You may have heard it said of a comedian that he or she could get laughs just from reading a phone book. It’s meant as a tremendous compliment to the performer’s talent, but it’s not true. There actually have been performers who have tried it. A comic would come onstage and simply read names out of the phone book. Eventually, the audience would catch on and it would be amusing, but it doesn’t provoke honest laughter. Why? Because no one in the audience knows when to laugh. Should they laugh after the tenth name is read? Maybe they’ll begin to chuckle after the fifteenth name is mentioned. Nobody knows.
However, it might be possible to read from a phone book and get big laughs. Suppose while the comic is reading he dozes off and starts snoring. People will laugh at that. Perhaps his head will begin to droop and bang loudly on the microphone waking him suddenly. That’ll get a response. Maybe he’ll stay asleep and actually fall off the stool. Even bigger laughs to that move.
What’s the difference between just reading the names and adding the schtick that is mentioned in the above paragraph? These comedic moves are the triggers that generate the laughter. These moves are telling the audience when to laugh.
You, the performer, should be aware of where the laughs are. You must construct your lines in such a way that you maximize the impact of the humor. That basically, is the punch line. It must be phrased well, and it must be placed strategically. That’s the writer’s or the performer’s responsibility.
Here’s a fine Rodney Dangerfield line to illustrate telling the audience when to laugh:
My father gave me a bat for Christmas. First time I tried to play with it, it flew away.
That line, delivered that way, should generate an honest laugh from the audience. However, you can destroy it. For example:
My father gave me a bat for Christmas . . . not the baseball kind, the flying kind. First time I tried to play with it, it flew away.
Notice the audience doesn’t laugh when you say “the flying kind” because it’s not necessarily a surprise. And they don’t laugh when you say “It flew away” because the surprise is already gone.
In writing your scripts, reread them and make sure that you know where the laughs are. Be positive that you can appreciate the humor you’re conveying. Then double check to make sure you’re giving the audience definite and explicit directions on when to laugh. If you’re not sure, they probably won’t be sure. That’s not acceptable.
The comic must be in charge. The comic must orchestrate the laughter. It must come when you want it to come. You, the performer, must tell the audience when they should laugh.
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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