I first got into stand-up comedy as the result of an NLP project where I was tasked with using NLP modeling approaches to figure out how to be funny. I chose a handful of comedians to model, one of them being the British comedian Jimmy Carr, and created a rudimentary “cheat sheat” for how to write and perform comedy. To test it out I booked a performance at a comedy night and was surprised when I got a positive reaction, particularly from a couple of professional comedians in the room who said I should give stand-up comedy a go. This wasn’t my intention but I thought it would be a laugh. Pun intended.
In my first couple of years of standup comedy, my reactions were hit and miss. Often I would get a great reaction from the audience, but at other times it just didn’t work. The thing that frustrated me at the time is that more experienced comedians would do well in the rooms that I didn’t, so I had no-one but myself to blame. When I spoke to the more experienced comedians they told me that I just needed to give the audience what they wanted. But what did they want? And how was it possible to figure that out in a the short time I had on stage? So I decided to ask another question, which was “What do the audience need?”, which I then generalised to “What do people need?”. Because surely if a comedian gave the audience what they needed on a psychological level, that would be more powerful than giving what they want.
The 6 Human Needs Model
Looking back at my NLP study there were a few different models to explain human needs, and the one I found I particularly useful was the Robbins 6 Human Needs Model. I had previously used this model for creating effective presentations in the workplace, and found that it also fit perfectly with stand-up comedy. Looking at my performances with the 6 Human Needs model in mind, it became clear to me why the best comedians were better than me, and what I had to do to improve.
The model theorises that people strive to satisfy six basic human needs; Certainty, Uncertainty, Connection, Significance, Contribution, and Growth. The first four needs, Uncertainty, Certainty, Connection, and Significance, are the primal needs that we all meet in one way or another. The last two, Contribution and Growth, are spiritual needs which are not as important for survival but add fulfillment to life. The more needs an activity gives us, the more we will be drawn to that activity.
Stand-up comedian fulfils these needs for their audiences as follows:
Audiences enjoy comedy as it gives them a different experience from their day to day life, which is uncertianty in the form of variety. The comedian says and does things which the audience don’t expect, often by taking something that they audience are familiar with and twisting it in some way with comedy logic. Uncertainty is heightened when the comedian is deliering the setup to a piece of humour, tension builds, until it is released when the comedian reveals the punchline.
Certainty is created once a punchline to a piece is delivered. The audience go from not knowing what is going on (uncertainty), to knowing what is going on (certainty). Often if the uncertainty is higher, then the swing to the uncertainty is more exciting. Comedians also give the audience certianty when they first deliver something funny, the audience are now certain that they know what they are doing and they belong up on the stage. The same occurs when the comedy character is coherent and understandable, the audience then “get” the comedian and relax into enjoying the show.
Comedians do a whole lot better when they can connect with the audience. The swing from uncertainty to certainty is enough to get an audience laughing, but to really connect with them on a consistant basis, more is required. Comedians establish a connection with their audience by looking at them, building rapport, and using human emotions and attitudes that the audience can relate to. The comedian makes the audience feel that they are with them, and this takes the comedy relationship to a whole new level.
Related to connection is significance. Connection is enhanced if the comedian gives the audience an experience that they feel is just for them, and that if they came on a different night then they wouldn’t have experienced it. The comedian achieves this by acknowledging the audience, the room they are in, and the area the comedy club is in. Often they will make a remark about the local town or a faux derogitory remark about the neighbourhood rival town. Often they will remark upon certain characters in the room, often being characters who are known and liked by the audience.
The comedian makes the audience feel that they are not only watching and experiencing comedy, but contributing to it. Comedians will take information given to them and weave it into something new, and the person in the audience who the information was provided by or derived from feels they contributed. Comedians often prepare material that can be smoothly transitioned to after audience interaction, giving them the feeling that they contributed even though it was contrived. Audiences also feel contribution if they add energy to a room, which is often elicited on cue with interaction such as “Give us a cheer if…”. The audience cheer, energy increases, and they feel part of that.
It is less common for comedians to fulfil the audiences need for growth. Comedians who have a social message often leave audiences feeling they’ve learned something they can take with them. Comedians who are “intelligent” might make the audience feel more intelligent by experiencing their material. The audience experiencing an ultra-confident comedian may feel the comedian’s confidence rubs off on them.
More information about the use of the Six Human Needs model will be included in future Metaphors of Comedy training events and literature. For more information, visit www.metaphorsofcomedy.com and sign up to the newsletter below.