In this article I’m going to share with you the biggest secret in comedy.
Recently I posted an article and promoted it on Facebook. I got some great comments on that article, but some of the comments…? Disappointing. Hilariously, disappointing!
The article talked about the brain. Left-side/Right-side theory and how it is involved in processing information.
One of the comments was, “Stupid! I thought this was going to be an article about comedy, but this dude is talking about the brain. What’s the brain got to do with comedy?!”
I get it. There are a lot of people out there who have been told that you can’t learn comedy.
You hear them say things like, “You can’t learn to be funny.” “You either got it or you don’t.” “You’re born with it.” And they just take that as the unwavering truth, the gospel–despite the fact that there’s evidence right in front of them that so easily proves that theory WRONG!
Those skeptics just haven’t taken the time to really think it through. To really drill down and understand what makes comedy, comedy. They go up on stage, talk to the audience and HOPE that the audience sometimes laughs.
Understanding WHY an Audience Laughs
One of the problems is they don’t know WHY an audience laughs.
When you think about it that way, that just sounds crazy!
Could you imagine trying to fix a light switch and connecting one wire to the another wire and just hoping that it will work?
When you understand WHY, then you can start the process of developing your own level of mastery when it comes to comedy.
I’m not saying that every joke will work. The audience is always the final judge. Even the masters get shit wrong.
But when you understand comedy from a mastery perspective, you get a lot more of it right.
George Carlin said he knew with 98 percent accuracy that a joke was going to get a laugh before he got on stage.
Ninety-eight percent! I want to be like that.
However, to get to a level of mastery with your comedy, you first have to understand why people laugh and how comedy works.
The Biggest Secret in Comedy Is…
And here’s where I share with you the biggest secret in comedy…
The human brain responds with laughter to nine psychological stimuli, I like to call them “laughter triggers.” I cover these triggers in depth, in my book “Breaking Comedy’s DNA,” and in my joke writing and stand-up classes.
The most common laughter trigger is surprise. The irony –for most of you–is that understanding that the most common laughter trigger is surprise is really no big surprise.
But there’s more to it than that...
It all boils down to expectation and anticipation.
When you surprise someone with what they expect you to say or do, odds are–if nobody gets hurt– you will trigger their brain to send a signal out that makes them laugh.
If you read on, you will find out that creating that surprise can be relatively simple.
It is based on how the brain works. Our brains are wired to create very definite expectations.
It’s how we learn and evolve from babies to adults.
Expectation is Developed Through Experience
When we learn to catch a ball, we develop an expectation of how that ball moves through the air: the speed, the trajectory. We process that data and we move our bodies to where we expect that ball will wind up. But we need the experience and the practice to develop that expectation.
That’s why when we first learn to catch a ball, we suck at it, because we haven’t had the experience of learning what to expect when the ball is thrown.
After some practice, we move effortlessly to where we expect the ball to be, instantly processing the data of speed, friction, trajectory that is being presented to us from the moment the ball is released, when it’s moving threw the air and the instant before it hits our hands.
We’ve developed definite expectations based on that repeated experience. After some repeated practice we feel like we’ve gotten really good at it.
Then, someone throws a frisbee…
Remember the first time you tried to catch a frisbee? It kind of jerked up and down, went over your head and passed you. You thought no way I can catch that! Only to watch it reverse directions and come back to you. WTF?!
It’s all because we develop definite expectations based on our experiences.
It’s the same thing in comedy. Audiences are made of people (last time I checked), and people create very linear expectations with language so they anticipate what we are going to say logically, linearly and in the context of what we are saying.
That’s how we process conversation. When we listen to what people say we are already anticipating the endings to their sentences.
We have no choice. That’s how the brain works.
Comedians can exploit this scientific brain fact and use it to their advantage to create laughter.
If someone says to you, “Knock, knock…” how do you instantly want to respond?
If English is your first language and you understand the game of Knock-knock jokes and have had some experience with them, odds are you wanted to say, “Who’s there?”
Because that is the expectation that has been created from your experience. And that’s such an advantage to comedians and magicians.
Surprise in Simple Conversation
It happens with simple sentences and simple situations too.
If I say, “I was at the Silver Legacy Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada last week. I woke up in the morning and the housekeeper was banging on the door… finally I had to get up and let her out.”
If you’ve stayed at hotels and had experiences with housekeepers banging on your door, you’ve created expectations based on your experience that the housekeeper is outside the room, wanting to come into to the room so they can clean it.
The audience has this expectation too. It is so ingrained in the mind of the person in the audience that they are already finishing the story you are telling with acutely linear expectations.
That last second switch of the expectation is what triggers the laugh.
Here’s where it gets really powerful
If you already know this, good! What you might not know is that if you do it correctly, the audience will always fall for it, because their brains cannot process what is expected and what is not expected at the same time. It’s impossible.
But this is just the simplest example of shattering the audience’s expectation. There are tons of other methods and techniques you can learn to use to create laughter.
So the next time someone says to you, “What’s the brain got to do with comedy?” You can say, Oh, I don’t know, how about everything?!”