This One Fact may be the Answer to Your Comedic Timing
I was considering titling this essay, "The momentum of Emotion vs. The electrical Impulses of Logic," because at a scientific level that's kind of what I'm talking about. But at a comedian level, it's really all about understanding comedic timing.
I'm currently reading a book that was recommended to me by George Carlin. I forgot all about the book, until I saw an interview where Carlin mentions the book, *The Act of Creation, by Arthur Koestler.
The book reads like a psychological and philosophical abstract of creativity and humor, but there are some golden nuggets to be mined in the book. I think any comedian or humorist should absolutely have it in their library.
This article focuses on just a tiny segment that I re-interpreted to reflect its impact on comedic (or dramatic) timing and the science behind it. Because understanding why is necessary to truly understand how.
Intellect vs. Emotion
You may have read my approach to the subject of comedic timing in my book Breaking Comedy's D.N.A. where I look at the same thing from a left-brain / right-brain angle.
But this passage gave me another look at it and I thought was profound enough that I had to put together a quick article for all of you.
In the Act of Creation, Koestler discusses the difference between how our brains process emotion and logic:
"Thinking, in its physiological aspect, is based on electro-chemical
activities in the cerebral cortex and related regions of the brain, involving
energy transactions which are minute compared to the massive
glandular, visceral, and muscular changes that occur when emotions
In a nutshell, Koestler is saying that logic and intellect use are quick-firing impulses while laughter is a process of emotion which involve two totally different sets of timing.
Understanding this "bi-sociation" between the intellect and the emotion of laughter gives the comedian a leg up and it is beneficial to understand this if you are to develop a level of expertise on the subject of humor.
Application as a Stand-up Comedian
Comedians who perform their stand-up bits can sometimes talk right over their laugh points by continuing their logical progression of their verbal banter without giving the audience time for their minds to transfer the logic of their words to the place in the depths of our brains that support the occurrence of emotions.
The quick electrical impulses that allow us to process words and logic happen almost instantly, but the emotional process needs time. That's why when you listen to a story, you hear and understand the words, but it takes several milliseconds to seconds for the body to react with an emotion, whatever the emotion, whether it's comical laughter or the dramatic gasp .
Here's a passage I just wrote that includes a couple of humorous moments and a dramatic moment. You'll see that with each of these emotional beats, the listener or reader would need some time to react with an emotion.
I tell this story from a character who has that nervous, quick-pacing to their delivery. She kinda runs the sentences together, which many comedians do early in their exploration of stand-up.
It's like we're afraid to pause, because if we do the audience will discover that we're complete frauds! (You ever feel this way? I have).
"My cat's name is Trixy. I spell it with a Y rather than an IE. I know a lot of people would just spell it with an IE but I wanted Trixy to be different, so that's why I spell it with a Y. Kinda like, "Y DID YOU POOP ON THE RUG?!" So anyway Trixy's a house cat. She likes to be indoors. The other night she did get out, by the way, and she got all the way to my neighbor's driveway. His name is Jim. She was just laying there underneath Jim's truck. Jim has diabetes and has these purple spotches on his skin--do they call them spotches or splotches? Anyway, Jim came out to go to the grocery store and just backed up right over Trixy, so sad, right? " So I just found out that my mother is a narcissist. Now I understand why she spends her days taking selfies..."
If this story was told to you at a party, sometime later, the speaker might wind up saying something like, "I can't believe you don't care about Trixy... I mean I just told you she got run over by my neighbor and you didn't even flinch!"
But if the person telling the story understood the difference between how the brain process logic and emotion, she would be a better communicator because she would have better timing.
They Should Teach Us This Stuff Growing Up
But it's not her fault!
Nobody teaches us this stuff when we're growing up. It's just one of those things that people learn through exposure and experience if they are open to that kind of creative stimuli.
The brain is engaged in processing so much that is going on in that paragraph: the sounds of the consonants and vowels, then turning them into words, then the context in which those words are intended, then the ideas and the logic, and finally the context of the story. Plus, there's new information too that the listener has to process.
Consider that all of this is happening at the logical level of the brain. The region on the roof of the brain that processes verbal symbols. This logical information is processed quickly.
Then, when she mentions that her cat was run over, that's emotional!
It takes the brain maybe a second to two seconds to activate all of the physio-logical, glandular, muscular, visceral parts of ourselves that must engage for emotions to happen. It is only then when the listener can respond with an emotion; a gasp or an...
"Oh my God! No! NOT TRIXY?!!!"
My point is that laughter is an emotional response and it needs more reaction time than logic.
It is the responsibility of the comedian to understand that it takes a second, two seconds--sometimes more, for those emotions to catch up to the logic. If you, as a performer don't allow those emotional moments to process and manifest into a physical reaction by your audience, you are "stealing" away the enjoyment of the story from your listener, while simultaneously killing your story.
In other words, if the above story was a stand-up bit, the cat wouldn't be the only thing that died... (PAUSE to allow emotions to process).
Understand what you're writing. Identify where you think the laugh points are in your story and when you hit them, just STOP.
Stop talking for a couple of beats to allow the audience's emotions to catch up.
If you're writing your bits on a page, insert visual cues so you know where to pause. Some people use "//" to indicate where they want to take a pause as they're practicing the routine.
It may seem amateurish to some, but when you're rehearsing, it's super-helpful when you're still learning your voice and getting comfortable on stage.
Timing is not Divine. It's Learned.
Comedic timing is often viewed as some abstract concept.
You'll often hear humorists or comedians talk about it like it's this mysterious trait that someone needs to be blessed with by the comedy gods in order for somebody to be good at it.
But that is pure nonsense! Comedic timing something that can totally be learned, just like when we're learning to walk, before we learn to put one foot in front of the other, first we have to learn balance.
Same thing with comedic timing. Before someone can laugh they need time for the logic of the words to communicate with the mechanisms that activate laughter.
I had this conversation with Jerry Seinfeld back in the day. He said, "timing is just not something you can teach people."
I said, "Jerry, can you teach acting?"
He said, "Of course! All the best actors say that they took acting classes and trained."
I said, "Acting is reacting. And reacting is timing. It's listening, processing and responding with an authentic emotion... therefore, if you can teach acting, you can teach timing."
But it's hard for people to grasp this.
Which is why I offer this additional perspective, because learning anything is best when it is approached from several angles, sometimes it's just that certain angle that flips the switch in the student's mind that can make all the difference.
I hope this unique angle helps to provide you with just another piece of the puzzle of comedic timing, brings value to your day, and helps you to become better at your craft.
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