The Psychology of Stand-Up Comedy
Why do comedians engage in stand-up, and why to audiences like it?
Posted Jun 05, 2016
Recently I had cause to perform some stand-up comedy (strictly as an amateur of course). It was part of an ongoing series of outreach events in which faculty, graduate students, and other researchers from the community take to the stage to explain their scholarly work to audiences at local comedy clubs. It was daunting but addictive; I ended up doing two nights in two different venues.
As an opening gambit on my second night, I speculated how most faculty I know would likely approach this challenge: namely, by doing a literature search for 'stand-up comedy' on Google Scholar.
This was intended as a joke (thankfully, people laughed), but it actually got me thinking. How much stand-up scholarship is out there?
Turns out there's loads.
Funny people — comedians, class clowns, and pranksters — often seem troubled.
Well, excuuuuuuuse me.
The good news, however, is that we comedians only "seem psychologically unhealthy" but we might in fact be fine. It's largely a contextual matter you see. Here's more from the abstract:
Importantly, we find that the same storyteller is more likely to be perceived to be psychologically unhealthy when telling a story intended to be funny than when telling a story intended to be otherwise interesting.
(I like the way the authors use the phrase "intended to be funny", as if anticipating the storyteller's ineptitude. Everyone's a critic.)
The thrust of this view is that comedy fulfils an important anthropological purpose. Because of our instinct for social group modulation we find humor in so-called "benign violations" of social norms.
But there's more. The authors go on to explain that
...acting non-normatively enhances humor as long as the behavior is not too deviant.
In other words, if you want to be funny, you can go so far as even to scare people, just so long as you eventually demonstrate yourself to be not really scary at all. The reveal will make them laugh. Go on, try it! It’s science!
Another study I found bemoaned the fact that “Individual differences in humor production ability are understudied”. Hmm. I guess this will ultimately depend on your research priorities.
The investigators describe their work as “the first quantitative study of personality traits, humor production ability, humor styles, and intelligence among stand-up comedians,” admirably staking a claim on primacy. They tested 31 professional comedians and found them to have higher scores on a whole range of variables compared to a group of randomly selected college students.
Now, am I being humorless if I point out that this is hardly surprising given the non-matched nature of the comparison group?
For the record, the comics – who, bear in mind, successfully earn their living by communicating verbally – scored higher on “verbal intelligence” than a bunch of randomly selected non-comedians. And the professional stand-ups also scored higher for – drumroll, please – “humor production ability.” Feel free to write your own punchline.
Mine is as follows: somehow I don’t think this will be the last quantitative study of this particular matter.
Yet another paper sought to probe the actual mechanics of successful comedy. It began as follows:
The success of live comedy depends on a performer's ability to “work” an audience. Ethnographic studies suggest that this involves the co-ordinated use of subtle social signals such as body orientation, gesture, gaze by both performers and audience members.
All sounds legit. So what next?
Robots provide a unique opportunity to test the effects of these signals experimentally.
Using a life-size humanoid robot, programmed to perform a stand-up comedy routine, we manipulated the robot's patterns of gesture and gaze and examined their effects on the real-time responses of a live audience.
Although extremely cool, I’m not sure this would work so well. It kind of depends on the robot. I mean BB-8 is cute and all, but he's not exactly ready for stand-up primetime. Geminoid F, on the other hand, could certainly pull it off, mainly because she doesn’t look like a robot at all.
These researchers used a “life-size humanoid” called RoboThespian, who very much does look like a robot. You can see him on this video. Note how instantly hilarious he is even before he starts speaking. If he uses that “I am made of aluminium” line before a live audience then I guarantee you will hear some tittering. I guess my point is he is not really a suitable comparator for, I don’t know, an actual human being.
For the record, the researchers found that audiences tended to laugh when RoboThespian stared at them. They were less impressed when RoboThespian attempted slapstick. In the authors’ words: RoboThespian’s “performative gestures” contributed to “different patterns of audience response.” (Yeah, that's what she said.)
Make of all that what you will. In my experience, robots pretending to be humans are often funny, humans pretending to be robots are generally not, and never the twain shall meet.
A final strand of stand-up research looks at the impact of comedy on audiences. For example, one group of stress researchers found that people prone to repressive coping are significantly more likely to attend stand-up comedy gigs than expressive copers, but no more likely to attend live music or sports events. The authors suggest that repressive copers like live comedy because it aids their strategy of avoiding negative affect.
So much to ponder.
The stand-up events I took part in were called Bright Club (the first rule of which is that you don't make that joke about there being a first rule of Bright Club – it's been done already, a lot).
By convention, Bright Club performances are posted on YouTube so there is now quite an archive. So without further ado, here are my own benign violations...
Remember, laugh at me, not with me.