For a long time I have wanted to try stand up comedy. People have consistently told me that I have a good sense of humor and I experience pleasure and satisfaction when I make people laugh. I recognize there is a lot of ego and perhaps insecurity behind this motivation. There is very little that is altruistic about being on stage commanding the focus of the room’s attention, with my voice amplified by the only microphone in the room and speaking the words of my creation in the hopes that the people observing me will not only approve but will also be moved to laugh. I suppose an argument could be made that there is some aspect of altruism in the desire to make people laugh but (if I am being honest) any altruism involved would only account for a minute portion of my motivation. Altruism is there, I suppose, but it is vastly overshadowed by the ego in my estimation.
Anyway, recently I had the opportunity to perform stand up comedy in an actual comedy club. My performance went well enough for a beginner and the experience of facing my fear of standing before an audience, making myself vulnerable to their judgment and then coming out the other side unscathed was exhilarating. Although, the entire experience of developing material and seeing it through to its performance was not exactly how I had envisioned it, the process was satisfying. It was also educational in a lot of ways. One of the most interesting concepts I learned through this process was that laughter often results from a misdirection of the audience or by presenting the audience with an unexpected idea or take on an idea.
Making people laugh is to varying degrees both an art and a science. It is an art because effective comics have the ability to read an audience and react to them intuitively. I notice this both through observing experienced comics but also through my own experience. Indeed, some of the biggest laughs I got were in response to off the cuff remarks I made in the moment which were completely unplanned. On the other hand, making people laugh is also a science in that there are specific techniques used by comedians all the time to elicit laughter from their audience. Misdirection or surprising the audience is one of these techniques. What I mean by this is that a comedian will set an audience up by making them think he or she is going in one direction but will then surprise them by taking them in a completely different direction. The classic example of this is Henny Yongman’s “Take my wife… please!” line. By this line the audience is first led to believe that Mr. Youngman is making a point using a his wife as an example but then he takes the audience by surprise when he says “please” which changes the meaning of his original statement to mean, “please take my wife away from me.”
The question as to why misdirection produces laughter is more complicated to explain. As far as I know, there is no definitive answer to this but I think it has to do with creating a “vacuum of cognitive dissonance” which the mind must fill with something. In other words, the misdirection creates a void of confusion in the mind which compels the mind to come up with an explanation to dispel the confusion. The simple answer the mind comes up with to explain the misdirection is that the comedian is trying to be funny and the realization of this creates laughter which then breaks the tension caused by the confusion. Of course breaking it down like this sort of takes the funny out of the experience. But then again, observing comedians work their craft with this in mind can make their material funny for a different reason.
It is interesting that the pleasurable experience of laughter is elicited through misdirection or surprise. This suggests that there is something pleasurable about not being in control or by not being aware of what will happen next. This reminds me of Alan Watts’ description of human consciousness. As he described it, human consciousness is a divine self-delusion. That is, the omniscient, immortal divinity became bored always knowing what is going to happen next and devised a plan whereby it could be surprised. This surprised state of mind is the predicament in which we currently find ourselves according to Watts. Of course, if this were true that would make humans God with which I assume some people might take issue. However, all this is to say that there is something entertaining about being surprised especially when contrasted with a regular experience of not being surprised. Just as there would be something comforting about resting in an unsurprising existence if one is constantly being surprised.
Here is a video of my most recent performance. I find it interesting to observe what lines actually elicit laughter in the audience. Some of this is explained by the idea that laughter is elicited when the audience is misdirected. Of course this does not entirely explain it because there are times when the audience is misdirected and they do not laugh.
Of note: The “Matt stole all my ashy skin material” remark in the beginning is an example of an off the cuff remark that got a good reaction from the crowd. This was in reference to a comedian who preceded me named Matt who is African American and talked about how his skin gets “ashy” when the weather turns cold. Anyone familiar with this would know that my being white is part of what makes this remark funny. It can be thought of as a misdirection because it was probably an unexpected thing for me to say.
Perhaps the misdirection has to be clever enough in some way in order to be funny. Perhaps it all depends on the state of mind of the audience and if enough people can relate to what is being said in order for it to be funny. Obviously, there are a lot of variables at play and what will or will not elicit laughter in any particular audience is a bit of a mystery.