Wednesday, June 12, 2013

You Only Get What You Give

Last night I had drinks with a few friends who are also in the entertainment industry. We were discussing comedy and comedy acting and different approaches to it. In the midst of a fun and Prosecco filled conversation one of my friends said something quite offhand that has really stuck with me.

"Sometimes a performer is really good at making a laugh, not just getting a laugh, but making you laugh and seeming to really enjoy that."

That sentence made me really stop and think... I've never considered the difference between making and getting a laugh before. I feel like there is a real difference between the two and it's not just a linguistic detail that can be brushed away. As a comedian, which one am I really interested in? Getting a laugh and feeling that bang of audience response? Or making a laugh to watch people enjoying themselves?

My first instinct is that the comedian needs to get the laugh to have a successful gig.

There's a big difference in audience reactions and how they feel when you're on stage. It's not uncommon for a comedian to come off having suffered what they considered to be a humiliating defeat in the face of all that is hilarious and to speak to audience members who thought it was excellent and have no idea the comedian was suffering from the dry mouthed hell of a stage death. Comedians forget that audiences can be enjoying themselves without booming with laughter. We need to hear the laughs coming back to spur us on to higher energy and risk taking with improvisation and new material. In this respect I'd say that getting the laugh becomes more important than making the laugh because you need to physically get the laugh back to pay for the next energy infusion.

From the relative darkness of the stage it's often quite difficult to see the audience, or at least much past the first two rows, so we rely almost entirely on the calibre of the noise coming back to gauge our success in the gig. If the first joke receives a juicy, unanimous boom of approval then anything less than that for subsequent jokes can make the comedian feel like the gig has soured. Even if every person laughs at every other joke so that there are always 50% of the room laughing, it can feel like a loss - despite the individuals having a good time.

Is that the comedian having inflated expectations of his/her own level of attainment? Hard to say and would change from comedian to comedian. But once you've felt an entire room laugh, it's hard to be satisfied with anything less.

Or is it?

Is there something to be said for a joke which leaves a large number of the audience staring blankly at the microphone, while a select few are wiping the tears from their eyes because they can't believe how funny it was? A niche laugh? Is that making or getting? It's far from the singing revelation of an entire room loving you, but it does elevate you to an elite within the room. Does a joke that makes a select few laugh have a superiority to a joke that any old sod can laugh at? What about a laugh that inspires a reaction other than a laugh?

A nod?
A clap?
A murmur or approval?
A "very good"?

Is it as satisfying for the audience and comedian if a joke makes someone say "that was funny"?

What about heckler interaction? Would any comedian worth their salt set up a gag that helped a heckler get a laugh? Can you be that selfless in a medium that can turn as quickly as stand up comedy? I think in this case you have to look at the intention of the heckler - if the audience are loving it then you can gently encourage the interaction as it's upping the overall laugh rate of your set (which is what people are going to go away thinking about) but if the heckler is quicker than you, and saying things that are causing the rest of the audience to reconsider their enjoyment of you then it's up to you to control the situation and bring it back to your own comedy.

I've seen a lot of gigs where a heckler has been taken down swiftly and viciously by a comedian and it's left the audience wondering what happened that was so awful. From the stage, it can be hard to gauge whether a heckle is an attack or simply an over enthusiastic fan joining in. There's certainly nothing worse than a misguided aficionado being torn a new one by a jumpy comedian who sent nuclear missiles to deal with a scouting party from deepest darkest Wales. But when there are a limited number of responses you can get:


 and milliseconds to decide what to do about them before you look unstable, you have to deal swiftly and hope that you've understood the nature of the interaction appropriately.

So, I guess I've slightly gone off topic here, "making" or "getting" a laugh? I think overall stand-up comedy needs to get the laugh - making a laugh is for writing, TV and other non live performances where the action is already set before the audience is given it. Stand up and live theatre are about an audible dialogue and the approval coming back is a key part of the brilliance of the routine.

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