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.
In comedy lingo, a “punchline” is the point at which a comedian delivers a line from which they expect a laugh. I would like to suggest another idiom, and instead refer to it as a “surprise”.
While still idiomatic, “surprising an audience” is more accurate to what is happening than “delivering a punchline”. Punchline implies that the comedian is applying a force to the audience, so implies a one-way relationship where the comedian has the control. The reality of comedy is that it is a two-way relationship with the comedian offering their comedy to the audience, and the audience either being surprised or not. The latter encourages the comedian focus on the audience rather than themselves, and to adjust accordingly if things are not going to their initial plan.
Also, surprise is a broader idiom than punchline. The comedic activity that preceeds a laugh may be a line, but it may not be. Often a comedian will get a laugh by a look, a movement, or even the omission of a word. Focussing on delivering surprises therefore gives the comedian a broader scope of what they can do to envoke laughter from the audience.
Lastly, but probably most importantly, “punchline” aligns with several other conflict-based comedy phrases, such as “killing it”, “smashing it” and “dying out there”, implying a broader metaphor of conflict. This doesn’t fit the reality of standup comedy, which is that an audience are volunteering to be there and the comedian’s desire is to entertain them. Thinking of standup performances as a conflict contributes to the stress and anxiety commonly experienced by stand-up comedians.
Surprise is one of the key elements of Metaphors of Comedy, particularly the comedy writing and performing method of Explaining Surprises Clearly. More information on these approaches will be included in future Metaphors of Comedy training events and literature.
See www.MetaphorsofComedy.com for more info, and sign up below for email updates.
Going to a comedy show is a bit like going to a fairground. You generally know what you're in for, you know that it is likely to be safe, you expect it to be amusing, and you expect there to be variety and surprise.
You may not like every ride. Some rides will be for you, some won't. Some rides might be more suitable for those with less of a nervous disposition, some family friendly, some horrifying. There may be some rides that you are familiar with and yet still enjoy, and others which you have not experienced before. You might like these unfamiliar rides, you might not.
The comedians are the tour guides, and the rides are the jokes. The comedian has to entice you onto the ride by making it look interesting and worth the time and bother. The ride then has to be enjoyable, and have a level of surprise. Some rides are like a long winding entertaining tale that ends in a sudden enthralling drop, so are enjoyable along the way and surprising at the end. Others are more short and abrupt, and just as you are getting used to the ride it goes off in multiple different directions with many surprises.
If the comedian gets it right by enticing you onto the best rides, keeping it interesting, and keeping it surprising, then you will know they're in a safe pair of hands and trust them enough to go on more of their rides. If the comedian misjudges and entices the you onto a ride that don't suit you, you might not want to go on another one. If the rides are too long without being interesting along the way, you may lost interest and want to get off before the surprise. If the rides don't have enough of a surprise element, you might not bother getting onboard another ride.
So to sum up my magical fairground theory of comedy, the comedian's job is to:
It's been said that the fear of public speaking is up there with the fear of death. Ironically, the next thing that is thought to happen after death is a gruelling self-promotional presentation, from which the location of the eternal soul is decided. With this in mind, you would think more people would be more keen to practice public speaking while alive. Yet most people avoid public speaking at all costs.
Think back to childhood. When the adults are talking, the children are told to be quiet and not interrupt. ‘Children,’ they say, ‘should be seen and not heard.’ These huge flawless people run the world. They are bigger, stronger, and more important than you. Talking in front of them is a privilege and you have to learn that.
So the first choice as a child is to speak up anyway, so basically stage a rebellion against the adults. As a small child this can be extremely daunting, and besides the adults are the ones who decide whether or not you get chocolate, so it’s definitely not worth the risk.
The other choice is to wait until the adults give you permission to talk. It’s a family dinner and the adults are getting bored of talking to each other and all of a sudden the limelight is on you. “Child, get up in front of all us adults and tell us what you have been doing at school”. This is a big moment! After being told to be quiet for so long, all of a sudden you have to satisfy them with an entertaining school-based impro set. No pressure.
The next day you are sitting in class talking quietly with a friend about something that is a lot more interesting than what the lesson is about. The big adult in the front of the class notices and shouts to you, “If that is so interesting, get up and tell the rest of the class!” Although this is an obvious trap, what can you do? The adult has spoken, now get up and do what you are told. Perform, monkey!
So, it’s little surprise that later in life people are apprehensive about public speaking. We are conditioned to think of it as a big, scary, and important thing that we have to get right. Given the choice most adults therefore avoid it and only give it a go when they are formally expected to such as being a best man and reading out a brilliant comedic and poetic speech downloaded from the Internet.
A little attitude adjustment and change in strategy can make a big difference. Start off by treating public speaking as you do with any other activity that you are new at. Seldom do people participate in Formula 1 driving when they are on their learners drivers license. Have realistic expectations about how good you need to be at first, because if you expect yourself to be perfect then that’s just setting yourself up for failure.
Get in the habit of putting yourself in positions where you are likely to fail. It will be a while before you are a brilliant speaker, so the sooner you get used to getting it wrong and realise that’s not so bad, the quicker you can get on with focusing on improving.
And don’t try to get good at everything at once. When planning your next talk, pick a single aspect of the performance to focus on. Maybe just focus on how you use your hands, your voice, or timing. Trying to improve too many things at once adds too much pressure so don’t set it up to be so difficult. Small improvements add up to big ones if you stick at it.
People ask me, "What's doing standup comedy like?"
The language used to metaphorically describe standup comedy is rather dire. If the audience like them, the comedian "killed", and if they don't, they "died". Comedians say "You smashed it" and deliver "punchlines". The language tends to be conceptually similar to a battle between the comedian and the audience.
But is comedy like a battle? And is it useful to think of comedy this way?
To me, comedy is like doing little word puzzles and sharing them with others. Sometimes these puzzles may be impossible to complete, and sometimes they may be possible but not aesthetically pleasing to others. Often, the puzzles work just right, and when shared the right way are enjoyed by most people. Sometimes an audience will like whatever puzzles they see, and sometimes audiences just don't like your kind of puzzle.
And there's little point getting overexcited if people really like your puzzles, or disappointed if they don't. They're just puzzles for gods sake.
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