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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A Place on The Great Bull – My Crowning Achievement?

Pic: Dr Gary Wood on Big Brother's Little BrotherWhen stand-up comedian, James Cook, sent me a Facebook message that read ‘I think we may have something in common’. I was intrigued. I’d attended James’s Stand-Up comedy course, partly as a bit of research for some courses I was writing about confidence and partly to see if I could stand up and make people laugh. Anyway I digress. I’d kind of assumed that we already had quite a lot in common – apparently not –  so what new revelation might ‘a click of the mouse’ hold?

The Great Bull Map of Birmingham 'Celebrity'

The Great Bull – The Crowning Achievement of Dr Gary Wood

It was a link to the ‘Birmingham it’s not sh*t’ website. This looks promising, I thought. (Not!)

The post entitled The Great Bull mirrors The Great Bear, where celebrities’ names instead of stations are on the London Underground map. This new version does the same for Birmingham. I quickly found James Cook on the map – he was the stop before Stewart Lee. A well deserved accolade. However, I could not see how this meant that we had something (more) in common. Much to my surprise, I did find my name over at ‘the rough end’ on the Reality TV line. I’m so pleased that those appearances on Big Brother’s Little Brother and Trisha  (as a life coach) paid off over my long, hard years of study. However, curiously, I’m flattered. I suppose it’s better than being on there for being a serial killer.

Whereas James Cook is over on the Tony Hancock end (with Lenny Henry), I’m on the Robert Kilroy-Silk end along with Enoch Powell and Bill Oddie. Although over on my side we have William Shakespeare and Bob Carolgees. Being on the Reality TV route I suppose I must clutch at straws.

This bit of nonsense and whimsy has made me think of the importance of ‘just doing something’. Everyone who knows me knows that I take any opportunity to encourage people to continue learning. I also constantly seek out new learning opportunities and new challenges, particular when they scare me. I often make the point:

We live and we learn!

Life will teach you lessons whether you like it or not.

So, why not set your own agenda?

I like to take control of some of my own agenda for my learning. Setting learning goals that stretch us contributes to happiness and builds confidence and esteem. I often say that it doesn’t matter what you learn as long as you actively continue to do so. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a stand-up comedy course but I can heartily recommend it. You might want to learn a different language, learn to play a musical instrument, learn to bake or tap dance or polish up on computer skills or wood whittling. It doesn’t matter that none of these may not gain you a ‘prestigious’ place on the map of your city. It will, however, transform your own internal landscape. Never underestimate the power and knock on effect of learning something new. Don’t let others put you off. Just do something for you. Learning something new. Yes that’s my feedle attempt to get off Reality TV and on to William Shakespeare line. Yes I have a long way to go, but trying will be fun.

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Never Trust a Tabloid with Statistics

I was alerted to the great news that a pair of conjoined twins have been successfully surgically separated. Reported in The Daily Mail, it is stated that only one in ten million survive this operation. A comment on facebook questioned whether ten million such operations had been performed or was the figure just “plucked out of the air” (. . . I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate). Checking on the source of the statistic, the Facing the World website uses it slightly differently:

Cases of craniopagus (head-to-head) conjoined twins are extremely rare – only 1:10 million survive to infancy.

This is not the same as the Daily Mail’s claim. The practice of slightly altering statistics to fit the story or sometimes blatant misreporting often happens because journalists are on a deadline and often do not understand the things they report, or just want to tweak the facts and figures to make a better story. So the moral of this story is to check the sources of tabloid stories, or any news story for that matter.

If you need an easy-to-read crash course in statistics then I recommend: Darrell Huff’s entertaining book: How to Lie with Statistics

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I’m Sorry But This “Research” is Just Another Crummy, Half-Baked, PR Stunt

I took part in a radio discussion today for BBC Coventry and Warwickshire to discuss some new “research” about how “Brits” apologize too much. I’m sorry but it’s not proper research and the figures are meaningless. It’s another one of those thinly veiled PR stories that masquerades as real research. (I should know, I have been a part of them in the past, so I know how it works). The amount of free coverage in newspapers, radio and television is translated in to figures of ‘how much would this have costed if we’d have to pay for advertising’? Of course, tabloids and local radio, love this kind of stuff. It fills a few column inches or a few minutes of airtime. And so to the “research” which is really about selling a factory-made bagels, which incidentally may be full of sugar and highly processed flour and so are very unhealthy. Sorry.

Apparently, we “Brits”, if such a thing exists as the typical Brit exists, apologize eight times a day.That’s 2,920 times a year and 233,600 times a year, according to this half-baked research. It assumes that there is only one possible meaning for the word “sorry” and that every time it’s used is for an apology. It totally overlooks the subtleties of the English language and how context and tone of voice play a crucial part in defining what we say. We can use ‘sorry’ to express disgust, to be sarcastic, to imply the other person is at fault, to express disbelief, instead of ‘excuse me’ and to interrupt a conversation, as well as using sorry to mean ‘sorry’.

The crummy PR stunt (sorry, research) also offers “brashness coaching” via a helpline so that Brits can become more like New Yorkers, which according to this research means being rude and presumably throwing out all vestiges of subtlety from our language and eating more bagels.

Yes, we use the word ‘sorry’ a great deal. In fact, according to Professor Susan Hunston (University of Birmingham), the other expert on the radio programme, ‘sorry’ is used 318.3 words per million. Whereas, ‘please; is used only 192 words per million. So rather than reducing the number of times we say ‘sorry’, maybe we should increase the number of times we say ‘please’.

The ability to apologize is a mark of strength, generosity and empathy, all of which are qualities more enviable than is brashness. So let’s not apologize for saying ‘sorry’. It’s a marker of the subtlety of our language and how playful we are with words. It’s also an indication of the subtle ways in which we manage our social interactions. Sorry is an extremely effective shortcut to flag the violation of social norms whilst simultaneously taking the heat out of confrontation. ‘Sorry’ has multiple meanings. Eating too many factory-made bagels will massively increase your calorific intake, expand your waistline (and hips) and may contribute to your premature death of multiple obesity-linked diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart-disease. Unlike being unnecessarily brash and eating too many bagels, saying sorry is unlikely to kill you!

How’s that for directness?

Sorry!

Not!

Out & About: Mapping LGBT Lives in Birmingham

Out & About: Mapping LGBT Lives in Birmingham  is a research project commissioned by Birmingham City Council to map the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans) community in the city. The data were collected over a five month period via an on-line survey by the charity Birmingham LGBT, and I analysed them. Essentially, the report aims to fill a gap in knowledge. Previously there were no data available to assess the needs of the LGBT community. The Equality Act 2010 has created the impetus to gather information to ensure equality of service provision.
The research comes at an exciting time for the city. Birmingham LGBT won a substantial grant from the Big Lottery Fund to establish an LGBT Health and Wellbeing Centre to act as a ‘one stop shop’ for the community and community groups, and will work with other service providers to address health inequalities within the LGBT Community.
Amongst the findings, Out and About indicated that one in five respondents had attempted suicide and more than one in five had self harmed. Both of these were more likely if the people had been victims of hate crimes. Cohort comparisons for experiences at school indicated that the younger cohort (under 35s) were more likely to have been ‘out’ at school than were the older cohort (35+) but also more likely to have been bullied. The general picture was of a paucity of information and resources at schools on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as a lack of active strategies in schools to tackle homophobia. The report calls for improvements in education provision to tackle homophobia and awareness raising.
Out & About also offers recommendations for improving the LGBT cultural appeal of Birmingham. The first step is simply that Birmingham needs to take a leaf out of the book of its festival of queer culture (now in its third year) and promote itself more effectively and *Shout! about what the city has to offer.
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A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part Five: Managing Time & the Spice in Your Life

This is the fifth of my posts offering psychological insights into the computer game Cafe World.

Café World (CW) is a café-themed, goals-based computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. As discussed in Part Four (Self-Service Motivation & Strategy), playing any game requires a strategy and that includes how to make the best use of time.
My strategy was to make the best use of my time. I allocated one hour per day. This was half hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening. I admit that I was not always disciplined in sticking to this. Goals In CW overlap like soap-opera story lines stringing the player along to the next goal and the next and the next. It’s easy to lose track of time and spend more than one intends to. Now, after a month or so, I had honed my strategy to cook dishes with the highest points on the maximum number of stoves. So, in the final weeks, I was advancing one level per day on one hour’s playing time per day, aside from occasional lapses in discipline. I found myself advancing rapidly through the levels. However, I noticed that some players were able to advance two or three levels per day. To achieve this, one must treat CW like a job and play several hours per day, seven days per week. Now this is a double edged sword, for I can see how playing CW can be considered an achievement. It does require strategy, cooperation and a time investment. However, the amount of time it requires to become a star player means there is no time left to pursue real world goals.

Intrigued, I looked at the Facebook pages for the people in my neighbourhood. Players making modest to high advancement in CW had a mixture of posts for other applications, groups and friends. For those making very rapid progress, their Facebook profiles were virtually filled with CW posts, throughout the day. Now, the concept of Work-Life balance has become a popular concept in personal and professional development. The concept of Café World-Life balance is lesser known. As the old saying goes ‘Variety is the spice of life’. This means that we have to spice our lives with more than the virtual reality of Café World.

We all want to be good at something, make a contribution and enjoy recognition for our achievements. Being great at playing CW is indeed an achievement but it should not be an end in itself. Part of the reason for writing this post is to make point that a sense of fulfilment in life can be attained by making the most of our transferable skills. Playing CW requires focus, motivation and determination and action. It also presents us with a moment for reflection.As I have revealed in this series of posts, I certainly learned something about myself and playing CW served to remind me of my life skills, at the time I was facing unfamiliar tasks in the real world. It certainly helped me reconnect with my playfulness, something as adults we often forget.

Spending hours playing CW is not necessarily a bad thing, but if it becomes the focus of our day, it robs us of the opportunity to apply these skills to real world goals. If ‘significance’ is an important value in your life, then consider what other ways this value may be supported. If you are aiming to reduce boredom, then consider other ways to make life more interesting, particularly those which support your goals. Bordeom relief is a form of emotion-focused coping. Playing CW can help to block out negative emotions, temporarily. However, emotion-focused coping should only really be a short-term solution. It’s a quick fix but it doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem, that is, boredom. Instead, it just deals with the symptoms. Negative emotions can effectively put us on a sort of remote control. We are controlled by the negative emotions and act in habitual, quick-fix ways to relieve the symptoms. (See my post Dicing with Boredom. . . and Coping Styles). So is playing CW, for hours each day, a way of coping for you?

Control-focused coping is about addressing the root cause of the problem, not just the symptoms. Café World, hopefully, will have help remind you of your transferable skills. In this series of posts we have considered values (Just Being Sociable), goal-setting (Goal-Setting On the Table), cognitive flexibility (Non-Stick, Non-Stuck, Cognitive Flexibility), motivational strategy (Self-Service Motivation & Strategy) and in this post, the use of time and emotion-focused coping. The question is, how do you apply these insights and your skills to get more of what you want out of the real world?

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Become Your Own Time ‘Lord’

Become a time 'lord'

Becoming your own time 'lord'

Where did the year go?

If you’ve found yourself uttering this, you’ve recognised that time speeds up as you get older. The main reason is that as we age, each new year becomes  an ever diminishing proportion of our total time on the planet. Between the age of one and two that year represents living half of your life again. Whereas by the age of ten, another year means living a tenth of your life. And on it goes, the incredibly shrinking year. When you were a child and you were told ‘we’re going out in a hour’, you’d think ‘No! Do I have to wait a whole hour?’ Now if someone says you’ll be going out in an hour you’d complain ‘An hour? I’ll never be ready in time’.

So the question is, can we do anything about it? Can we slow time?

Slowing It Down, Spicy Style
In Making Time,  Steve Taylor sets out the psychological laws of time and how we can change our perception of time. One law follows the theme of ‘variety is the spice of life’ or ‘a change is as good as a rest’.  So to slow down time you need to seek out new experiences and new environments. Do you have any secret goes or ambitions that you forego for a few hours in front of the television? Just breaking up your routine can help. Have you ever noticed that the first time you go somewhere no, the journey seems longer than the next time? That’s because the second time you go your brain has mapped out the journey and it’s already started to become familiar and for some of the decision you react automatically. So mix things up a little. Take different routes on familiar journeys, try a new food every week, go shopping at different places, read a type of book or newspaper different to your normal choices, try out some classes and so on. Try some personal experiments doing different things to see if you can slow time. Also, write down some short-term, medium term and long term goals and act on them.

Speeding It Up (but being happier)
Another psychological law of time is something of a paradox. When we are absorbed in something we love doing then time seems to go more quickly. However to balance this, time spent in these states of total absorption is one definition of happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) calls this state of absorption being in ‘flow’. At the heart of his philosophy is also goal-setting. I remember a conversation with my granddad when I was about 14 years old. I asked him if he had any regrets. He had two: getting a tattoo and not planning for his retirement. I never understood the significance of ‘planning for retirement’ until I read Flow. We can set goals for just about anything, they are promises to ourselves – something to get out of bed, or off the couch  for.

The Alternative
Now there is an alternative ways to slow down time. Just sit there and do nothing just staring blankly into space. Paradoxically, each day will drag interminably but years will seem to fly by.

It’s Your Life So Take It Personally
As a teacher and a coach I subscribe to the philosophy  ‘It’s your life so take it personally‘. So don’t ‘kill time’ and don’t complain about having too much time on your hands or not enough time to do the things you like. Many of us waste time by choosing to do nothing else instead. You don’t have to look back over another year and ask ‘where the hell did the year go and what have I done with it?’ Okay, so you may not become a time ‘lord’ in the sense that you can travel across the universe but by using the psychological laws of time you can take charge of your destiny. So take a deep breath and get started. Time flies – seize the day.

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