Most of the covert humour principles (7.2) will also work for overt comedy, but there are some additional tenets to consider when you’re delivering a recognisable joke or humorous line. This is generally more difficult than using covert humour, even with an audience of children.
Discover the timing through repeated delivery
Comedy timing is almost impossible to write about. It is instinctive, capricious and seemingly imponderable. Yet timing is critical in delivering overt humour. It makes all the difference.
The timing of any intentionally funny line is dynamic and responsive. It depends on the live relationship between you and the group, and on how they are comprehending what you say, beat by beat. So whilst I’ve given some principles below, your timing in delivering any line is best discovered with your audiences.
“The words are your tune and the audience is your instrument. You can’t rehearse without your instrument — that makes no sense.”
Dave Gorman (comedian)
Craft the structure of the joke
Most traditional jokes work by tricking people into making an assumption based on the initial premise, further establishing this expectation, and then surprising them with the direction the punch line suddenly takes — setup; reinforce; twist. We often laugh out of relief once we’re able to resolve the tension created by the twist.
So far, so obvious. Now, here’s how to flesh out this skeletal framework. Effective jokes are:
- specific — the more clearly and tangibly you can evoke the same mental image in everyone in your audience at the same time for the set-up and then for the twist, the bigger the response. Use familiar examples, evocative phrases and passionate language. Fluency is funny. Confusion kills comedy.
- concise — the longer the set-up, the greater the risk of distracting them, and the funnier the punch line needs to be to justify the build-up. Comedians toil for hours to cut a single word.
- precise — the exact structure, wording and timing of the joke should give them just long enough to form the mental images you need to elicit for it to make sense, eventually. But not so long they can predict the impending twist. This is a wafer-thin line to walk. Comedy delivery is about controlling the thoughts of your audience and when they experience these thoughts, e.g. pausing after each key image you want them to remember, rather than rushing through your lines.
“It is not so much knowing when to speak, as when to pause.”
Jack Benny (comedian)
- brutal — the bigger the incongruity between set-up and punch line, and the more sudden the twist, the funnier the joke. Laughter is the sound of your audience feeling an intellectual whiplash.
- postdictable — to be satisfying, however, the twist must still be consistent with the clues planted in the set-up, even though it hinged on an interpretation of them which was not predictable. Jokes are like puzzles. But they are puzzles which we’re never given long enough to solve and for which we’d rather be told the answer than have to figure them out for ourselves.
- climactic — the later in the punch line you can introduce the twist, the greater the tension and the less likely you are to step on your laugh. If you’re able to position the pivot on the last word, rejoice.
“A joke is like a beautiful watch. Take the back off and there you’ll see timing, you’ll see economy of movement, you’ll see precision.”
Ken Dodd (comedian)
Commit fully to the line
Have you ever noticed that when you hold back, even fractionally, from landing a funny line with your normal commitment, that the audience response suffers? Sometimes drastically. They can detect something is not quite right without ever being aware of it consciously. Generating collective laughter is a truly chaotic system — tiny changes in initial conditions result in large differences in response. This is why some humour lines need to become part of your fixed content (2.2) so they can be delivered in precisely the same way each time.
Only attack up
One of the downsides of using comedy as an educator is that much of it, especially overt humour, involves a target at whom you are poking fun. Comics are always advised to “attack up” — to target those with power or privilege, or the systems that those in authority have created.
Be as ridiculous as a banana fighting a basketball. Young children have incredible imaginations and delight in the opportunity to play in nonsensical worlds full of random connections. They particularly value illogical humour when it comes unexpectedly from an otherwise sensible adult. Being able to tap into this wonderful world, in a spontaneous and unselfconscious way, connects with younger groups and triggers laughter.
Never ask for the laugh
Audiences, like people you fancy, are experts at detecting any trace of desperation. It is one of the harsh ironies of comedy that the more you come across as trying to be funny, the less funny people will find you. I should know.
Hold for the laugh
But paradoxically, you do need to hold, with a straight face, after you deliver most punchlines. As the comedian and actor Eric Sykes put it, you “have to wait for the joke to hatch.” The real art is knowing what to do with your face and body as you wait for them to catch up. You can’t pre-empt the laugh — that would make you look arrogant. And you can’t be seen to be waiting for the laugh — that would appear needy. Yet you can’t rush on either — that wouldn’t leave any space for the hatching and laughing to happen. If you can resolve this conundrum, you’ve got a career as a stand-up in the bag.
Don’t step on the laugh
Audience laughter is as skittish as a deer caught in a thunderstorm. When you get a laugh, the best thing to do is freeze. Don’t spook it. If you make any movement or sound too soon, it will disappear. It is safest to let the laugh subside significantly before moving or talking again, but don’t wait for it to die completely.
Surf the laugh [ADVANCED]
Experienced presenters, however, can get away with partially stepping on their laughs by using topper lines or tags. When you ride the laughter wave just right, it’s possible to “get on a roll” and build momentum towards bigger subsequent waves.
If you time the delivery of the next line — the topper — just after the first laugh has peaked, they will cut their laugh off to hear you. But they are now in a heightened state which makes it easier for them to laugh even harder this time. It’s possible to repeat this strategy several times with the right sequence of lines and timing — they will unconsciously detect the rhythm of the line-laugh pattern you’ve created. In fact, in this state, they often laugh at certain points purely because of the cadence of your delivery, rather than the humour of the line.
Younger groups won’t have the self-control to edit their laughter quickly enough, so you’ll need to use topper actions instead, e.g. mugging and double-takes.
When you bomb, keep calm and carry on
Overt humour is high-risk and inevitably some of it will fail or bomb. The main problem with bombing is the risk that your visible discomfort infects the audience. If you can, through sheer force of will, appear unconcerned, they will hardly notice it.
Bombing is a necessary part of finding out what overt humour works best for your character and your audiences. Professional stand-ups organise workshop gigs to find out which of their crafted lines get big enough laughs to graduate into their commercial acts. Even these naturally funny people cannot write overt humour without feedback.
Often acknowledging the poor response confidently with a brief verbal or physical saver is all you need to do to rescue the situation, e.g. “Tough crowd, eh?”; or making a wobbling so-so action with your hand and question mark with your face.
If you’re going to bomb deliberately, go nuclear
Using cheesy jokes and puns with your young audiences is fine, but cheddar is embarrassing. Go for Gorgonzola. Stink the room out. Collective groans are just as bonding as shared laughter. Groups love knowingly playing this game with you.