Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science?

Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science? No, that’s not a joke. Watching confident, established comedians ‘trying out new material’ reveals the use of scientific methods. This approach is also taught on stand-up comedy courses. In this post I’ll outline some key issues in science, how comedians adopt these principles to hone their craft and how this approach can be applied to all areas of personal and professional development.

Science is all about probabilities not absolutes

One of the biggest misconceptions about science is that it deals in absolutes. It doesn’t. Scientific method is all about probability. Scientists don’t prove anything but simply demonstrate, statistically, that there’s a slim possibility that their results occurred due to chance. Scientists design experiments to control for noise, those extraneous variables that may confound results. The aim is to demonstrate a strong probability that there is a cause and effect between variables (by eliminating chance). For the stand-up comedian, the aim is to demonstrate that a joke causes laughter.

Objectivity versus subjectivity in science and comedy

It’s often stated that science is all about objectivity. In my own research work (as a social psychologist) I challenge this notion. I maintain that science is about bounded subjectivity. If you claim to be objective you are still taking a stance. This is not objectivity. The only true form of objectivity is indifference. Scientists as human beings will have a vested interested in the outcome of their research. There is a whole body of research in psychology to demonstrate experimenter effects. Sometimes scientists are blinded by their own unconscious biases and see the results they want to see. The idea of ‘bounded subjectivity’ is a useful concept for stand-up comics. It’s ludicrous to suggest that comedians don’t care about the results of their efforts. However, it’s helpful to control for unconscious bias. This is achieved by trying jokes out in front of different audiences, at different times and in different places.

The science of stand-up comedy

Watching professional (and gifted amateur) stand-up comedians emphasizes the value of taking a detached, scientific approach. A stand-up comedian begins by writing some material (jokes) and then tests them out in front of an audience. It begins with what makes the comedian laugh (subjectivity) and then the hypothesis that ‘this stuff will make other people laugh’. Testing the material yields results: people laugh or they don’t. People may laugh in unexpected places. This feedback is useful in refining comedy hypotheses. Of course it’s important to replicate the experiment and test the material out on a number of samples and in different contexts (bounded subjectivity). In research terms this is similar to controlling for confounding variables. With this approach, it’s the smallest of changes that can make a joke work on a more consistent basis. I have seen comedians who repeated try out a joke (that they particularly like) without a change and without a laugh, over and over again. If they took the time to use the feedback they might see where to make the adjustment.

The art of not taking it personally

I’ve heard my scientist colleagues complain that they got bad results, which emphasizes the lack of objectivity. Science is often built on a determination to get the ‘right’ results. ‘Mistakes’ in science can be expensive. I’ve also seen comedian friends allow a ‘bad gig’ to send them into a ‘depression’ for days. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for comedians is The Eleven O’Clock Rule by British stand-up comedian, Sarah Millican. Put simply, after a gig, you have up until eleven o’clock the next day, irrespective of whether it’s a ‘disaster’ or a ‘triumph’. You can either whine or gloat until then. After that, you move on.

One comedian who also adopts a scientific approach is Tom Stade. I was lucky enough to attend a new material night and Mr Stade turned up as a special guest to try out new material. He takes to the stage and switches on a digital recorder, places it on a stool and then he’s off. After ‘bringing the house down’, he turns, switches off the recorder and off he goes. I saw him perform the same material in a more polished form a few months later and get even more laughs. Many comedians would have been overjoyed with the first attempt. I suspect there were a few recordings between the first and subsequent version. Tom Stade is economical with words. He doesn’t waste them. Pauses and gestures and tone all wring laughter from the material. Another more extreme example of a scientific approach is Emo Philips where not a single word is wasted. His idiot-savant like manner disguises the absolute precision.

Some comedian friends adopt  a scientific approach and record everything, as you are advised to do on comedy courses. Others ignore the advice and keep delivering the same punch lines in the same way and come off stage bemused and frustrated when they don’t get the laughs they think it deserves. One comedy friend set himself the goal of coming up with a great five minutes of material and continually honed this material. His persistence paid off as he persistently wins gong shows up and down the country. I’ve seen others, randomly throwing together sets and complaining when it doesn’t ‘go down a storm.

The scientific approach just doesn’t have to apply to the material but also about other aspects of the performance, such as what needs to happen for me to have fun at the gig, relax and create rapport with the audience? The science shouldn’t take the heart out of it, just help to encourage continuous development and help to create a bit of distance, a buffer zone between the disciple and the discipline, the art and the artist.

Extending the scientific approach to personal and professional development

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodI went on stand-up comedy course, in part, as research on my book Unlock your Confidence. The same approach works for all goals in any area of personal and professional development. Use personal experiments to ‘try things on for size’ with the threat of failure. It’s all about the feedback. There’s no beating yourself up when things go wrong or taking things to personally. Just as with the stand-up comic, the lack of a laugh (‘the right result’) shouldn’t reduce you to tears. Neither should it be taken as an indication of self-esteem. It’s just a sign that you need to make adjustments and try again. Building confidence in anything takes two types of courage: the courage to take the first step and the courage to persist (in line with feedback). Confidence is a process.

Be scientific, be detached, be persistent, collect data, use the data, refine your approach, have fun!

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