God bless Betty White | Source: GIPHY
Comedy lives all around us: the funniest guy at the office, literally just the very existence of cats, and old people trying to use the Internet. Those are examples of comedic people and situations that happen in our day-to-day lives. But when we start to look at comedy as something that is performed, what is it, really? What is it supposed to do in that performance? Who is comedy for?
There is an inherent transaction that occurs in comedy, due to the fact that the job of artists and creators of comedy is to produce content that will make an audience laugh. For instance, a typical joke follows the structure of set up, expectation, and punch line. Here’s a classic example:
Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.
Principal Skinner from The Simpsons | Source: GIPHY
Set up is the question the joker asks us, the audience. Expectation is the idea that, having been asked, we create what we think the answer will be. Punch line is the surprising answer that gets to the other side of the question by subverting what our expectation was in a delightful way — thus eliciting a laugh.
Even at the smallest, most distilled level of comedy, the audience is necessary for its existence. The audience expectation precipitates the punch line and thus creates comedy. Subversion of expectations; events out of the ordinary; these are all delightful surprises that lead to laughter. A friend recently said to me, “Art is not what is on the canvas, it’s what happens between the viewer and the canvas.” Comedy is a dialogue between its performers and its audiences, and how this dialogue unfolds shapes the forms in which comedy is performed.
The average person is familiar with comedy being presented through the form of the television sitcom (short for situation comedy), with its silly circumstances and stock characters that date back to the very first comedies written by the ancient Greeks. In the mid-20th-century though, three forms of performance have emerged and dominated the experience of live comedy: long-form improvisation, stand-up, and sketch/comedic revue. In some way, each form has had to address the dialectic nature of its performance of comedy with its audiences.
Stand-up: Balancing Status and Space
Stand-up is usually a solo performance that incorporates all elements of comedy: jokes, characters, narrative, point of view, and physical comedy. Stand-up is rapid-fire funny. When performing stand-up, it’s just you and the audience. Some think of it as a battle — you’re fighting the audience, delivering punch after punch. Some think of it as a seduction — you’re bringing the audience over to your side, cajoling them to laugh at what you say. Either way, it is an extremely personal form of performance with extreme stakes for the performer.
The dialogue of comedy is always in effect, but the roles should never switch.
Joan Rivers | Source: GIPHY
What’s specifically interesting about stand-up is the idea of status. Comedians are always thinking about status and how it can be manipulated for the purposes of humor. But in stand-up, once you get on stage, you are physically separated from everyone, the spotlight is on you, and your position is usually above the crowd as well. Already, this places the stand-up performer on a literal high-status role. So, as a comic, do you lean into that? Will an audience respond to this situation of status, or will they feel like they’re being lectured? Is the status perceived differently for different performers? Many early female comedians felt the need to exaggerate their outfits or talk down about themselves in order for audiences to feel comfortable enough to laugh with a woman on stage. In 1975, while on The Carol Burnett Show, iconic female comedian Joan Rivers said in her set, “I was such a dog, to get me down the aisle they had to throw a bone.”
So a performer might lower their status for the audience to actually hear them, but the physical space is nevertheless still important. There should be distance between the performer and the audience; the dialogue of comedy is always in effect, but the roles should never switch. It is not the audience’s job to create the content — and the distance is a physical reminder of that. When audiences start to push back in that setting — to talk or heckle — then the performer can take back control via their high status, created through physical space, and rein in the audience seated below them.
Improvisation: Transcience and Choice
Long form improvisation — as it is performed today — began with the Compass Players in 1955, who were endeavoring to perform fully improvised plays in the back of a University of Chicago bar. This particular form starts with an audience suggestion, which then becomes the basis for a series of scenes that are completely made up on the spot. There are rules as well as different forms of long-form improv that ensure every set is not a complete disaster, but as an audience member you will never see the same scene twice — and, as an improviser, you will never perform a specific scene more than once.
Lisa Kudrow on HBO’s The Comeback | Source: GIPHY
As such, the transient nature of improv makes it extremely intimate with the audience because we are all experiencing the moment at the same time. In traditional theater, an actor knows everything about the story and relationships being told before they get on stage. It is their job as an actor to deliver each line and discover each truth as if they were experiencing the situation in real time. The opposite is true for the improviser. As an improviser, you are listening and agreeing to your partner, all while adding new information in order to appear as if you know where the scene is going. Though this might seem terrifying for those uncomfortable with spontaneity, the great thing about improv is that you are not alone: you are always building something with your teammates and the audience. But the scene building, the intimacy, and even the audience suggestion — the things that make improv great — can all backfire on a team and be used against you.
At its core, improvisation is a specific technique of performance that relies on spontaneity. It does not necessarily have to be funny, but has become a vehicle for comedy and satire. So a question many improvisers have to ask themselves is, “Do I try to be funny and fulfill the want of my audience? Or do I honor what my scene partner and what the scene gives me, even when it’s not necessarily comedic?” I, and many people that I work with, believe in the latter. People are interesting just by being themselves and audiences will respond to that.
Denny Siegel and Colin Mochrie on Whose Line Is It Anyway? | Source: GIPHY
But that’s not always everybody’s choice, and improvisers are often told to “follow the fun,” which can be misinterpreted as “follow the funny.” Since your audience is right there, you get an immediate response to what gets a laugh. If one line gets a laugh, you might do something similar to get another laugh. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, improv is based on understanding patterns and trying to heighten those behavioral patterns. But doing this too often can cut you off from your scene partner — it can lead to not listening to information that’s being presented, information that would have made for an entirely better scene had you not sacrificed your scene and your scene partner for the sake of a laugh.
Do I try to be funny and fulfill the want of my audience? Or do I honor what my scene partner and what the scene gives me, even when it’s not necessarily comedic?
Take the following example from my friend Tommy. Before moving to Chicago, Tommy performed at an improv theater in Atlanta that was heavily focused on short-form improv; similar to what you might see on Whose Line Is It Anyway? At the end of the night, however, they would do a long-form set. Tommy relayed to me how the owner of the theater emphasized to the performers that he wanted to sell drinks and laughs — and, ergo, he wanted the improvisers to play to the audience’s taste.
After a long night of drinking, the audience would tend to be rowdier by the time of the long form set. The team would make an acrostic using an audience member’s name, with each line of the acrostic being a suggestion from the audience. Tommy recounted how the audience’s energy would build and build during this suggestion process, to the point where it would get out of hand. Each line of the acrostic would try to top the other in trying to be funny or taboo — but ultimately crass. What happened was no longer comedy but one-upmanship — the very opposite of listening to the scene and those around you.
Sketch and Comedic Revue: The World Around Us
Christopher Walken’s famous “cowbell” sketch from Saturday Night Live | Source: GIPHY
Comedic revue and sketch comedy came out of the vaudeville and variety traditions that faded out in the early 20th-century with the rise of radio and film. Saturday Night Live is probably what most people think of when they hear “sketch comedy,” but there were and are many other notable examples. Revues or sketch shows are comprised of multiple sketches of all forms and categories, presented in a specific running order. At the famed The Second City, revues follow a strict running order for what type of sketch goes where. The running order is for both the audience and the performers. The performers use it to gain the audience’s trust, to gradually invite them over the proverbial line. This means that material that may be riskier or more combative falls later in the running order. You could write the perfect sketch, but if you put it in at the wrong time, without the right buildup, it will probably fall flat.
But no running order is fool-proof. Recently, news from The Second City’s e.t.c. Stage has rocked the comedy community in Chicago. Four out of six actors in A Red Line Runs Through It have abruptly left the show after a six-month long run. This is virtually unheard of due to the prestige and fun of performing in a Second City production. However, reports of volatile audience members reacting to the politically charged satire have been cited as one of the reasons cast members felt inclined to take their bow. Peter Kim told CBS Chicago:
“The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was a man was sitting next to a Hispanic couple… We asked a question to another lady, completely different lady, we said, ‘Hey, ma’am, what is something small that pisses you off, like getting stuck in traffic.’ The man, unsolicited, screamed out, ‘Sitting too close to a Mexican,’ while sitting next to a Hispanic couple.”
– Peter Kim
Kim also reported feeling physically threatened by an audience member who got too close to the stage.
Michael Che on Saturday Night Live | Source: GIPHY
When you watch stand-up, improv, or sketch, you don’t have to laugh. You might not find the content of the show funny. In fact, it might even be uncomfortable. Sketch, in particular, utilizes satire, which in many ways can present an audience with uncomfortable truths about the world we live in. But it could also make you reexamine your personal point of view and help you think about your place in the world. This transaction of thought can often be difficult, and comedy usually eases those bitter moments — a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
What happens though when the sugar doesn’t work? What happens when an audience — or even just a singular audience member — decide to push back? Sketch, stand-up, and improv usually happen in relaxed environments; it’s usually later in the evening, maybe there’s a drink minimum, and the audience is looking to unwind after a long week. It’s a time to escape and connect and laugh. And in many ways, that’s what’s truly wonderful about comedy. But for the performers, this is their job and their craft. They’re having fun on stage because they love what they do, but they also take it seriously. So right there is the potential for a huge disconnect. If an audience member experiences cognitive dissonance — confronted with contradictory ideas of their self-identity, thus resulting in discomfort — they might think that, in what is a relaxed environment for them, it’s okay to push back, to call out, or maybe even get on stage. But for those who are performing, these actions are anything but relaxing.
Comedy is a populist form of entertainment. It is there for the people’s enjoyment; it is there to solidify cultural norms and tether communities together. On an individual level, it’s fun to laugh. On a communal level, it’s also fun to make other people laugh with you. Comics have changed and adapted their performance styles so that audiences will feel relaxed and engaged with the material presented, whether that’s by making a few self-deprecating jokes, building a relationship, or creating an inviting running order. Can comedy change the world? Probably not. Can comedy change an individual’s perspective? I believe that it can. I believe that comedy has the capacity to make someone reevaluate and examine his or her own behavior and ideas because comedy always exists as a dialogue. It is a conversation that is always in flux between performer and audience that follows a call and response pattern. But just like any other dialogue, there needs to be respect between both participants for the punchline to really land successfully.