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Inside the Comedy of Stand-up Performers, Writers, and Actors

Three effective ways to communicate what we find funny to a larger audience.

Key points

  • Popular types of formal humor include both stand-up comedians and actors portraying characters developed by playwrights and screenwriters.
  • These feature personas are sympathetic and display a wide range of physical, emotion, cognitive and social vulnerabilities.
  • In such settings, comics and comedic actors are allowed to say and do things that would otherwise be considered highly inappropriate.

In my last three posts, I touched on nonverbal and verbal examples of formal humor. Here I continue exploring the verbal category by discussing two forms of humor prevalent in certain cultures: stand-up comedians versus comedic authors, playwrights, and actors.

As with a few of my previous compositions, I rely heavily on the latter sections of Chapter Four of my book, Why We Laugh: A New Understanding.

Stand-up comedians

Some humor is designed to be presented individually or by small groups of performers who, for the most part, “act” as themselves (or at least as their public personas) rather than a character. We refer to such individuals as stand-up comedians or comics. Comedy writers (in many instances, the comics themselves) formulate the “acts” or “routines.” Stand-up comedians typically perform on stage to live audiences, although these may additionally be distributed over the radio, on television, on recorded media, and now via the Internet.

Successful comics tend to have sympathetic dispositions and relate to audience members as if they were good friends. They freely express their own vulnerabilities, those of other people in their lives (real or imagined personal acquaintances, culturally known figures, etc.), and often the audience members themselves.

Such humorists have many methods for both showcasing frailties and soliciting feelings of sympathy from their audience. They employ imagination in creating humorous scenarios and tend to use exaggeration when dealing with actual events. Comics often convey ideas that seem to momentarily bolster their status only to deflate it so as to solicit Lifting Laughter. They may embarrass audience members to promote Lifting and Self-Lifting Laughter and occasionally give someone enough false praise to prompt Self-Lowering Laughter.

Comics can also interact on stage with human cohorts, animal partners, ventriloquist dummies, or other character-based props that visually or verbally demonstrate a range of shortcomings. Some comics, rather than simply describe people with words, will instead impersonate them, especially individuals with whom the audience is familiar. Such parodies place the targeted individual in a disadvantaged position, for they have (in that moment and context, at least) lost control of how they are viewed by others.

In many instances, comedians act in ways that would generally be impermissible in everyday life. They bring up sensitive or taboo subjects, exaggerate to the point of outright lies, and boldly deride those who would otherwise be immune to public opinion, subjecting themselves to potential retaliation that itself may prompt laughter.

Oladimeji Ajegbile/Pexels
Source: Oladimeji Ajegbile/Pexels

Comedic playwrights, (screen)writers, and actors

If the people we meet and interact with every day can inspire laughter, actors portraying fictional, historical, or contemporary characters can certainly do the same. Comedic actors are adept at simulating funny episodes or situational humor composed by comedic playwrights or screenwriters for an audience. And while these characters’ vulnerabilities are often exaggerated for the audience’s ease of recognition, their actions or sentiments are generally regarded as at least plausible to most observers. There may also be actors in the scene whose role is to point out others’ vulnerabilities, compound their effects, or facilitate the audience’s laughter by chiming in with their own.

In portraying fictional entities, the actors can adopt any physical or behavioral traits needed to accentuate status shifts. They are free to assume arrogant, self-righteous, or pompous attitudes one moment (inspiring Lowering Laughter) and then humble, honorable, and generous ones the next (eventually inspiring Lifting Laughter). Because the relationship with the audience is casual and fleeting, characters are allowed to display behaviors that would, in real life, cause serious problems.

The audience begins with a reasonable expectation of the characters’ safety and success. If they are hurt, they tend to recover in a remarkably short period. The consequences of being insensitive, selfish, irrationally frightened, or horribly uncoordinated seem never to be fully realized. This expectation of safety, both physical and social, allows for the emotional distancing necessary to find amusement in what would be off-putting behavior in the real world.

The potential storylines of a comedy are tremendously varied. Writers put regular people into trying situations, vulnerable people in everyday situations, and, more often than not, vulnerable people in trying situations. There are romantic comedies where everything seems to be against the lead actor and actress getting together, but in the end, we know they do anyway. There are “road” films where the main characters are forced to travel, struggle with strange languages or customs, and run the gauntlet of hapless foes only to finally reach their goal. Another storyline might portray the simple but lovable bumpkin put at odds with the rich, powerful, overreaching society types, but who gets even with them in the final scene. There is the “coming-of-age” film in which our young friends on screen bite off a little more than they can chew or find the odds against them a little greater than they anticipated but persevere nonetheless.

Whatever the context, we find ourselves rooting for the underdogs, the “good” guys and gals, with whomever we most identify in their quest to reach whatever objective the writer creates for them. In their journey, they face adversity, their vulnerabilities come to light, and we’re compelled to help carry them above the fray with our laughter.

There’s no shortage of stand-up comic performances on YouTube. Pick your favorite and note how the comedian highlights his or her vulnerabilities and those of others. Remember, in-person audience members are surrounded by other self-selected fans of the artist, so they have a special affinity for the performer and his or her style of humor. They will laugh more than you will, sitting in front of your computer screen. Nevertheless, you should be able to recognize the techniques they use to solicit laughter.

We don’t all laugh at the same things to the same degree over the course of our lives. Fortunately, a truly comprehensive theory able to explain why we laugh will necessarily reveal why we sometimes don’t. In my next few posts, I’ll delve more deeply into the multitude of factors that influence our laugh response.

© John Charles Simon