The Squeaky Wheel

How to protect your psychological health, improve your relationships, and enhance your self-esteem.

Charlie Sheen and the Science of Stand-Up Comedy

Charlie Sheen and the science of stand-up comedy

Charlie Sheen and Mike 'The Situation' Sorrentino both tried their hand at stand-up comedy recently and failed miserably. Here is what happened to each of them-and why.

When stand-up comedy is done well, it looks effortless. The comic appears to be hanging out, casually relaying stories or making observations that just happen to have hilarious punch lines.  We imagine this is how great comics are in real life-people who tell stories that just come out funny.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, stand-up comedy shares more with experimental science than it does with other performance disciplines.

All Stand-Up Comics Are Also Experimental Scientists

Jerry Seinfeld is a master comedian. His laid back observational humor always seems effortless. However to prepare for a show, Seinfeld does what both stand-up comics and scientists must do-he spends months in the 'lab' experimenting. For comics, each joke is an experiment and they run those experiments in their 'labs'-small comedy clubs.

See All Stories In

The Laughing Cure

To bolster immunity, relieve stress, alleviate pain, laugh a little.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I have performed stand-up comedy hundreds of times and more than once while I was at a small club in New York City (I never got past 'small clubs' in comedy), Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and other A-list comics came in unannounced to 'borrow the stage' and try out new material. Of course, for fledgling comics like me, it was an opportunity to witness an unexpected master-class in stand-up comedy preparation.

Comics try every joke in their arsenal many times and in many ways so they can compare the audience's reactions to see which version of the joke gets the biggest laughs. Even seemingly off-the-cuff comments are rehearsed repeatedly. Just like real scientists who must test their favorite theories, if an experiment fails-if a joke they love isn't working-both scientist and comic must drop it, no matter how much it pains them to do so.

Comics go to such lengths because every audience is unique and they have to discover which version of the joke works most consistently. They cannot merely assume that if a joke worked with one audience, it will work with another; just as scientists cannot conclude anything from an experiment that has only a single subject.

There Are No Small Failures in Stand-Up Comedy-Only Huge Disasters

Laughter is infectious. Hearing others laugh makes us more prone to laugh as well (which is why most television comedies use laugh-tracks). Just as laughter is infectious, when jokes miss at a live comedy show it creates the opposite reaction-the audience becomes tense. If too many jokes fail, the audience stops laughing entirely (known as 'bombing').

To avoid bombing, comics use 'saves' when jokes fail. Saves are statements such as "You didn't like that? That's weird, it was really funny in my head," or "Come on folks, these jokes won't laugh at themselves." By acknowledging the joke didn't work, the comic dissipates the tension and gives the audience permission to get back into a laughing mood. Of course, 'saves' only work if they are well delivered and used sparingly, no more than a couple of times in a given set.

One of the most 'rookie' mistakes a comic can make is to show the audience they are panicking when a joke fails. Seeing the comic panic only increases the audience's discomfort and makes it harder for the comic to get them laughing again.

Because of these audience dynamics, stand-up comedians are never far from the danger zone of bombing. Even a show that is going well can derail alarmingly quickly-something both Charlie Sheen and Mike 'The Situation' Sorrentino recently discovered.

Charlie Sheen Gets Booed Off the Stage in His Debut

Sheen's sold-out "My Violent Torpedo of Truth-Defeat is Not an Option" tour began in Detroit on Saturday April 2 2011. He took the stage to cheers and high expectations. However, as soon as he began his untested 'material' (for example, asking how many audience members use crack cocaine-because it's Detroit!), the audience realized that Sheen was no stand-up comic.

The audience started booing-loudly. Having no stand-up comedy experience meant Sheen had no 'saves' he could use...so he resorted to begging, "Come on, guys...I'm willing to open up." Desperation only makes an audience more tense and uncomfortable. Sheen's audience only got angrier. Eventually they began walking out while chanting they wanted refunds.  

The only reason Sheen appeared to have comedy chops (despite acting on a scripted sit-com-which is a different animal entirely) is rants on television and on the internet. However, Sheen and many of his followers failed to recognize that when watching Sheen's often nonsensical ravings, people were laughing at him as much as they were laughing with him. Something the Detroit Audience realized as soon as he started his 'act'.

Ugly as Sheen's debut night was, Jersey Shore star Mike 'The Situation' Sorrentino's foray into stand-up comedy was even worse.

The Epic Bomb-Mike 'The Situation' Sorrentino's Roast of Donald Trump

The Donald Trump roast on Comedy Central had an excellent host in Seth Macfarlane and an impressive cast of hilarious stand-up comics such as Lisa Lampanelli, Whitney Cummings and Jeffery Ross who were joined by Larry King, Snoop Dog, and Marlee Matlin (an interpreter spoke her jokes as she signed them-and she was hilarious).

When his turn came, 'The Situation' swaggered up to the podium wearing sunglasses. While those looked cool on Snoop Dog, they only made Sorrentino look like he was afraid to look the audience in the eye. The moment he started telling jokes, it was clear he had good reason.

His first joke fell flat, the second was worse and it went rapidly downhill from there-culminating in heckles and boos from the audience. Like Sheen, Sorento also lacked experience with 'saves' and turned to pleading instead. "This is my first time doing comedy!" Sorrentino whined. "And your last!" Jeffery Ross yelled out. The booing continued. The host took over the podium, sighed and said what everyone was thinking, "Ouch!"

The bottom line is-there are no shortcuts in stand-up comedy. To ignore that most basic of truths one has to be either arrogant or crazy, or like Charlie Sheen-both.

This week on my personal blog: Are Funny Complaint Letters Effective?

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. more...

Subscribe to The Squeaky Wheel

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?