Comedy Writing and Timing

by Doug Stevenson 2000

Story Theater Tip of the Month: TIMING

As a coach, one of the most gratifying aspects of what I do is to help people with their comedic timing. For natural comedians, timing is an instinctive ability to know when to pause and for exactly how long. For them, timing is like the syncopation of music. At its best, comedic timing is the interplay of inflection, gesture, pacing, attitude and rhythm. It’s like jazz with words.

When I am coaching a student, I may work on their timing of a phrase or sequence over and over until the student feels the rhythm of the timing. It is impossible to do on paper.

There is, however, something that you can do to improve your comedic timing and it’s a lot of fun: Rent comedy concert videos and study them three ways.

First, watch the video all the way through just for fun. Don’t study, just watch and enjoy. On the second viewing, close your eyes and listen. Listen for the timing, the pauses, vocal attitudes and inflections. When you hear something really funny, rewind and listen again. With your eyes closed you will hear the rhythm and tempo, the music of timing.

If you’re really into it, turn down the sound on the third viewing and watch the physical expressions and the use of body language and gesture.

This exercise is particularly helpful if you can find a video of someone that you feel has a presentation style similar to yours. So, the next time you rent a video, laugh and learn at the same time.

HOW TO BE FUNNIER: EXAGGERATION & PLAYFULNESS

After working with hundreds of students on their stories and presentations, I have come to one definitive conclusion. People are already funny. So why do they keep coming to me for comedy coaching? Because they have spent so many years trying NOT to be funny that they don’t have a clue what their funny looks, sounds and feels like. My job is to reveal to them what is already there. And it’s not always easy.

The challenge of humor is to be as funny on the platform, as you are at work or at the kitchen table. That means that you must be able to see your silly behavior away from the platform in order to bring that funny to the platform. You must objectify your neurosis, categorize your quirks and capitalize on your insanity. In other words, you must be able to see yourself as the world sees you.

Let’s face it, we’re all weird. Whether you are an up tight anal-retentive neurotic or a loosy goosy cornucopia of creative excesses, you are, to those who observe you from the outside, uniquely quirky and weird. If you intend to be funny, weird is good. That means that you have something to work with. You don’t need material, you ARE material!

We’re going to focus on two elements that will help you to take what you have going for you and make it funnier. The two elements are exaggeration and playfulness.

In comedic terms, exaggeration simply means that you go farther. Take your idea, gesture or example and keep going, broaden it. Many funny folks exaggerate physically with their body or face. I have yet to work with a student who wasn’t able to find laughs simply by pausing at a specific moment and using their face or body to react to a line that they have just spoken. The element that many of my students are uncomfortable with is the time that is takes for physical comedy to work. Physical comedy, whether it’s a gesture, a freeze or a facial expression, takes time. You have to deliver your sentence, fill the next moment with a physical reaction and then you can go on. And it always takes longer than most speakers think. If you observe yourself closely, you may discover that you are more animated off the platform than on it. In other words, you exaggerate naturally, and then tone it down for performance. That’s backwards. Exaggerate and you will get laughs.

Playfulness is a quality, but also is an ingredient in comedic performance. Funny people have fun while they perform.

I like to tease and poke fun at members of my audience. In order to do that, I have to pretend that they have given me permission to treat them like my buddies. I assume a familiarity and intimacy that is manufactured rather than earned. I then proceed to play with them as if I’ve known them for years. The playfulness occurs on two levels. The first level is with myself. The second level is with the audience. When the speaker has fun with his or her own personality, material and style, it gives the audience permission to laugh along with the speaker. We know this as self-deprecating humor. I call it self-loving humor. Without loving yourself, it is hard to make fun of yourself in a way that creates connection and safety with the audience. Having created a level of safety with your audience, then they will allow you to be playful with them, as well. So loosen up and get playful!

COMEDY WRITING

Comedy is structure combined with delivery. While delivery is essential, structure is equally important. In fact, when the structure is excellent, almost anyone can deliver the same material and it will get the laugh. That is why comedy writers make such a good living. They are masters of structure. And, they are weird.

Let’s look at a “triple” that I use to illustrate the difference in personality styles between myself and my 16 year old son.

In a triple, you use three examples. The first two set a pattern and the third breaks the pattern with a humorous twist.

“My stepson Bennett and I couldn’t be more different. I’m an extrovert, he’s an introvert. I’m creative, he’s linear. I’m verbal, he’s an engineer.”

Triples get a laugh because of structure. Whenever you plan to give one “for instance” to illustrate a point, use three instead. In the example that I used above, I always get a good laugh on the word, engineer. Why? Let’s break it down.

First of all, I’m playing off of common knowledge with some personality descriptions. Everyone is aware of the personality categories of introverts and extroverts. That example lays the foundation for the whole bit. You have to start with something obvious and easy to grasp. Introverts and extroverts sets up the pattern of opposites. “Creative” and “linear” continues the pattern because creative people are known to be non-linear thinkers.

To aid in this second example I use a gesture with my hands to indicate the difference between creative and linear. On the word “creative” my hands fly all over the place. On the word “linear” I hold my hands in front of me with the palms facing each other about three inches apart. I then move them from right to left as if organizing my socks by the day of the week.

When I say the word “verbal”, the logical progression of opposites would be “non-verbal.” That is where you break the pattern and get the laugh. By substituting the word “engineer” I have used the ultimate weapon of comedy structure, surprise. It is the illogical, logical substitution. Engineers are non-verbal. Since there are engineers in most business audiences, and since engineers have been the constant brunt of jokes since the beginning of time, the device works. Let’s look at it again.

“My son Bennett and I couldn’t be more different. I’m an extrovert, he’s an introvert. I’m creative, he’s linear. I’m verbal, he’s an engineer.”

Where does this kind of structure evolve? In the writing. It happens when you work on your lines and their delivery. You may get lucky and discover something funny spontaneously on the platform every once in awhile, but if you want results that you can count on day in and day out, write your comedy.
You can learn timing, comedy writing, exaggeration and playfulness from the masters of NSA by purchasing videos from the NSA website. I recommend Jeanne Robertson’s keynote from the August 2000 NSA convention in Washington, D.C. (WWW.NSASPEAKER.ORG)

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Copyright 2005 by Doug Stevenson. Reprinted with permission. Doug Stevenson is the creator of the Story Theater Method. He is an author, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. Reach Doug at www.storytheater.net or 800.573.6196