Comedy Timing

I’ve been thinking about comedy timing and how I can help my local group improve there’s. A scan round the internet provided very few useful sources on the subject. Lots of people think timing is unteachable, and many can’t even adequately describe what it is. So I’ve pretty much had to work from ground up on this, and have put together some idea, which I’ll share here.

As will all things comedic, nothing is a fact, all of it is theory. Mostly it’s untested theory that comes from nothing more than my experience, combined with conjecture and assumption. So we’re on solid ground people!

Firstly we need to separate out comic timing, from the timing of performing a joke. The former is about rhythm, and the patterns of speech that effect how funny a joke is. The latter is about logistics of performing a joke to an audience. This last one is easier to get to grips with.

Performance Timing

Audiences have this horrible habit of interrupting you. There you are in a scene having a conversation with another actor pretending to be a duck talking to it’s psychiatrist, when suddenly the people watching make this horrendous laughing sound. It’s every bit as invasive as a phone ringing, a dog barking, or a 3 year old screaming at you because they want you to give them a biscuit or put a fire out or what ever. In the reality of your character there is no audience. You’re a duck, the other person is the psychiatrist and you’re talking. That’s the reality of the scene. Some lines you say might be amusing to the characters in the scene – a joke between patient and client, but for the most part humour arising is outside of that reality, and should not really be part of the scene. There by lies the problem. As with the phone ringing or the ambulance going by, you cannot talk over invasive noises. You the actor is aware of the laugh (or should be) and as performers we need to let the noise die away before we speak. A laughing audience is distracted, and makes a racket and you need to let them have their laugh and shut up before you can continue. Thus as performers you leave a gap. Just enough of a gap to let the laugh ride, until you’re able to talk again. And if we’re being basic – you don’t acknowledge the gap. It’s an alien life form to be ignored.

So performance timing is simply making sure you don’t talk when the audience is laughing. But I want to illustrate this further. Imagine you’re talking to your doctor, and the conversation goes like this:

You: Doctor. In the waiting room there was a woman with a wooden leg called Clare.
Doctor: Really? What was her other leg called? [Laugh]
You: No, the woman’s name was Clare. I think she said the leg was called Peg. [Small Laugh]
Doctor: Was the wooden leg shorter than the real leg.
You: Yes it was.
Doctor: That’s not Clare that’s Eileen. [Laugh] She’s surprisingly level headed. [Small Laugh]

OK – Rubbish. Lets not pretend. Very poor. But forget that for a minute. Here’s the point. If this were a real conversation, it would have only minimal pauses. It’s a conversation. It would have conversation pauses as the people involved considered and formed a response – so no real pauses at all. But during a show (and lets flatter ourselves and pretend the lines are hilarious) there would be laughs where indicated. So imagine this conversation three ways:

  • As a real life conversation. No real pauses, just a continuous stream of deadpan talking. (Lets call this Reality)
  • As a comedy scene, with laughs where indicated. The performers pause to let the laughs happen. (Lets call this Performance Timing)
  • As the reality of the scene as performed, and this is where it gets trippy. Imagine the characters talking and leaving in the laugh pauses, but there is no laugh. That’s the reality inside the scene. There is no laughter in the reality of the scene, It’s a doctor and patient talking. The people talking stop for no reason to allow for laughter, but in the scenes reality the audience and the laughter doesn’t exist.  (lets call this Performance Reality).

That third way of viewing it is the deceit of performing a comedy; that you pretend to be in a reality, but covertly allow in the world beyond the 4th wall – and you need to not acknowledge that you’ve done it. That reality brings us to the following observations…

  • You need to limit your pauses to allow for the laughs, but no more and no less. Start talking again to quick, and the audience will be distracted and won’t hear what you’re saying.
  • If you pause for too long the pause because more than the break required for laughter. It becomes part of the conversation, and instead of the whole thing feeling normal, it becomes a conversation with weird awkward pauses in. That includes pausing when there is no laugh.
  • To get the timing right you need to listen to the audience. Luckily laughter is usually a bell curve, with a rise and a fall to it. That means you can hear when it has peaked and cut back in just as it tails off.
  • You can practice this pausing by inserting any sort of pause after a potential laugh. Better yet, get a third party to say a bell shaped nonsense word like “oooo-tangle-oo” at the end of lines, and to vary the length of the word, to help you practice variable sized pauses.
  • Pausing involves your whole body. Your facial gestures, your whole manner. Same is true of your other performers. On a really long laugh this can be hard, and can itself illicit a laugh.
  • If the joke is a joke within the reality of the scene, your character would laugh, so do that. But only when it’s humour that the characters think is humour (which shouldn’t be often – people who laugh at their own jokes are idiots).

This whole performance piece is true of all comedy including stand up. The decision to laugh at your own jokes is a performance style and takes a particular type of comedian to pull it off. That’s coupled with the fact that looking like you’re realistically laughing at your own joke night after night after night, is a feat of acting I certainly never mastered. Not stabbing your own eyes out in disgust at the repetition is hard enough. Much stand up takes the form of a conversation to the audience, a valid real conversation, and as such the reality of that conversation would be without laughs, thus Performance Reality still stands. It’s a blurrier line because stand-ups constantly break the 4th wall (stand up is a conversation with people who are actually there).

Comic timing

Now we get the actually meaty animal. Comic timing. This is the sucker that is far harder to explain/teach etc. Firstly it’s not performance timing – that’s why I went to such length to describe that above. Performance timing can get you a laugh in it’s own right as it’s a deceit that that the audience can experience and enjoy. But comic timing is very different. Comic timing is about the pauses and rhythms that make a joke work.

We shall start by making sure we understand that a joke has two parts; a setup, and a punchline:

The Setup is the boring bit. If you just said the setup no one would ever know it was a joke. Their is a sensible answer to “Why did the chicken cross the road?”, is “the other animals on the farm mean that there’s a lot of competition for food on this side of the road, but the chicken is small enough to get through the fence and it can have the verge on the other side of the road all to itself, so of course it tries to get there”. Not funny. True.

The punchline is the bit that transforms the meaning of the setup in a mystical way that causes laughter. (With the famous chicken road crossing joke I actually can’t figure out why it’s funny – I suspect it was hilarious at a time when people kept free range poultry).  In a lot of cases the setup creates a question in the listeners mind. If not a question, then sometimes an in-mind tangible reality of some sort (an imagined situation, or even a predictable conversational topic). In broadest terms the punchline re-frames the reality created by the setup, so the question is turned into a question about a different topic (“woman with wooden leg called Clare – what’s the other leg called”), or the reality gets changed, or the conversation goes off it’s predictable course. These reality changes need to be coupled with an emotional context as well, particularly one that is taboo or uncomfortable. If the listener thought they where talking about someones name (socially acceptable) and suddenly realise they are making an inappropriate reference to that persons disability (“Eileen”)  – they get tense. But the context keeps them safe (“I was just talking about her name”), and as such the tension can be dispersed, and in comes laughter.

Comic Timing relates to how you link the setup and the punchline together. The most credible explanation is that the pause between a setup and punchline increases tension. ”

What do you get when you kiss a sick bird?”… Tension. Waiting. What will come next? I’m guessing it’s going to be funny, but how? Do I know this one? What is it? “Cherpies”.

Some observations…

  • When does a tension enhancing pause become a weird pause that irritates the listener? Irritated listeners don’t laugh. A laugh is a gift, and who gives gifts to people who make you hang around waiting, so they can get a gift off you.
  • Anything that flags you’re telling a joke tends to distract from the joke. Jokes work best when the mind is surprised. That’s why the whole tell us a joke cohersion thing is so tricky and horrible. So really you want to sneak in the pauses. Keep them as short as you can to keep things natural, but tense.
  • The length of pause needs to be natural, so it needs to fit the rhythms of your speech. How long would a pause be if you were trying to scold someone? “Is that your pencil” [Pause to let kid squirm] “No it’s not is it?” [pause – more squirming] “What happens to kids who steal?” [Drag it out] “They loose a finger don’t they” etc.
  • Tension is not always the best mechanism. Confusion can be a great mechanism. The meaning behind the joke matters. “I’m going to give you all my money. Most of my money. Some money. I’ve got a voucher for toothpaste you can have a lend of”. This line could have pauses as we watch the teller back out of the gift giving, but it might also work very well as constant un-paused stream – conveying that he teller took milli seconds (no thought required) in deciding to back out of the gift. The circumstances, the characters, and the type of relationship would all play into which effect was best.
  • Pauses are white space. White space is very important in all art forms. But the shape and size of white space depends on the material it surrounds. Put it this way – the power of white space is how it related together the none white space around it. So you need to consider all context.

So – none of this is that helpful for tangibles of how to learn timing. So I’ll leave you with some ideas:

  • Listen to comedy. Like listening to a foriegn language you will pick up on the rhythms. But remember all comedians are different, so all timing is different. You need to find your own.
  • Pick a short but loved comedy routine and listen to it over a few times. If on video watch it without sound, and listen without watching. Then you do the set. Try it and record it. Play both the original and your version together. Listen for differences. Practice against the original timing and get familiar with how different it feels. Can you be slower than you imagine, can you be faster.
  • Get a list of jokes and practice each one with different timings. Try them out on friends, or record, and leave for a couple of weeks before you replay.
  • Run sets in neutral with no timing. Then surgically insert timing – this makes the whole thing a cerebral exercise.
  • Listen to 2 or 3 comedians and practice there timing, and then run your material with there timing.
  • Sing your material.
  • Run sets in neutral, set your timing to a 1-2-3 pause, and then practice altering the speed of the words around the timing.
  • Perform, perform, perform.

Good luck!


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