“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh,” the English poet W.H. Auden once said.
He was right: nothing else has quite the same power to make us feel relaxed, or to connect people together, like the ability to laugh at the same jokes.
Which is why stand-up comedians are so powerful. They can captivate a room, uniting complete strangers over a joke, putting their audience at ease – and sometimes on edge - simultaneously.
You may not realise it, but every stand-up show you attend provides the opportunity for you to make a connection. Comedians play that role: through laughter, they can bring us closer to our friends or bond us with complete strangers. Stand-up comedians teach us to find common ground in a room full of people we’ve never met, who have totally different life experiences and possibly nothing whatsoever in common with us. And they do this in mere minutes.
We chatted to some stand-up comedians to find out their secrets to making the audience feel connected with one another. And, of course, how to get them to laugh, over and over and over again.
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First rule of thumb when you’re a comedian? You need to be able to laugh at yourself.
Award-winning comic Diane Spencer
, whose hour-long comedy specials are available to watch on YouTube
, says that after an initial opener, she'll usually start to poke fun at herself.
“Perhaps a reference to how I look, and how I'm a fallible human being like everyone else, so in a very basic sense I suppose their subconscious shared thoughts would be, ‘She IS ginger’, ‘I do that too’, ‘What a silly sod’.
“Being honest with myself about things I do, and being able to share that in a concise manner and then making a joke about my own failures is how I say, ‘Look, you're not alone, I do stupid things as well’. And if they don't do stupid things, well they can laugh AT me for all I care,” she adds.
Remember, if stand-up comedians can show their audience how comfortable they are laughing at themselves, then it’s easier for the audience members to loosen up and ultimately have a laugh at their own expense.
“To laugh is to be vulnerable. If you laugh at something, it immediately reveals something about you - you either relate to an observation, or it confuses you in an amusing way, or you are embarrassed for yourself or someone else, or perhaps you find something funny that you shouldn't do. If people laugh together, it is likely to be for the same reasons. It's a way of immediately knowing if someone feels the same way about something as you do,” explains comedian Bec Hill
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Even though a stand-up comedian is an actor in many ways, playing up certain aspects of their personality for effect, they still need to come across as authentic.
“You have to let them see you. The audience has to trust you in order to go on whatever ride you’re about to take them on. So by showing them yourself honestly, they begin to love you and are willing to go anywhere with you,” says Zach Zucker, one-half of comedy duo Zach & Viggo
And when you’re true to yourself, you can warm the audience right up, regardless of how funny the jokes actually are.
“It really doesn’t matter how good your material is - if the audience isn’t with you, they aren’t going to like what you’re doing. As the performer, we have to love what we’re doing, otherwise why would anyone want to watch?” Zucker says.
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Stand-up comedy requires lots of practice and effort, and part of that is learning about who you might be speaking to. In order to appeal to others, you need to think about where your audience might be vulnerable and which kind of jokes will alienate rather than unite. And then you need to know where to draw the line – which is why comic Tom Ward
always starts with the general and then gets more specific as the show progresses.
“I see it that if you’re tackling something, you pull back, get broader at first to test the water, get less specific and go wider-screen to the overall topic,” Ward, whose second show, Love Machine
, will be at Tron this August, says.
“And be warm rather than nasty on whatever it is, so at least if it is ‘just you’ they can see that you’re not pulling rank or don’t feel excluded. And then they can laugh at you for being a weirdo if indeed they don’t relate or don’t want to admit they relate!”
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For a group of complete strangers watching a comedian at a gig, certain things will bind them in the moment – a latecomer’s arrival, the hard-to-miss hen party dressed in feather boas at front. Comedians use these tools to help put their audience at ease – and they can help comics build up the common ground between their different spectators.
“There's the simple things that unite them which are specific to that moment in time - something odd about the room, a call-back to a conversation an audience member had with another comedian, an unplanned occurrence such as a glass breaking or someone walking in late and of course they sit at the front,” says Spencer.
“To do that you need to have an ability to look objectively at the moment, have a lightning wit and comment in a funny way without making it look forced.”
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Different comics have different techniques for warming up the audience, but they all agree that the opening sets the tone in terms of creating an inviting, cosy, atmosphere for the evening.
“I have a few 'gauge' jokes that I use early on to see what the audience texture is - not just whether they laugh but how
they laugh,” says Australian comedian Alice Fraser
, host of the weekly Tea With Alice
“I'll chat with them about getting into the head space of the show, and maybe slightly play up my own nervousness. I know that the more nervous I am, the more tightly controlled and smooth I am on stage - that can be alienating so I'll deliberately try to make a chink for people to get in and see me as a person.”
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“Don’t do material about London Underground if you are performing in Glasgow!” says Lynne Parker, founder and chief executive of Funny Women
and executive producer of the Funny Women Awards.
Sounds obvious, right? But one way to establish a connection between yourself and the audience – and help the audience members connect with one another – is to talk about things they’ll all know, or ‘get’, like the local football team’s victory over another team or the notorious weather in a certain area.
“I have seen so many comedians make the mistake of telling jokes that have no connection to the location where they are performing. If the event is for a cause or charity, find out as much as possible and tailor your material appropriately,” says Parker.
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Comedy isn’t just about the jokes, or even the delivery. Watch a stand-up comic in action: are they pacing around the stage? Falling all over themselves? Making insane facial expressions? That’s all part of the show – and part of what gets the audience comfortable, relaxed and laughing.
“I use my body to put myself in the poses of relaxation. I'll crouch down on the stage or turn to the side, or open my arms out. It reminds me to relax, and I think it helps the audience too,” says Fraser.
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Not every comedian’s joke is going to be funny – not to everyone in the room (sometimes, not to anyone in the room). Which is why the delivery is so important.
According to Hill, a bad delivery can kill the best joke, but a strong delivery can make even a mediocre joke hilarious. “Both jokes and delivery will help you to connect with an audience, but delivery will get you further,” she says.
Zach & Viggo also stress the importance of delivery when it comes to connecting with their audience. Once you’ve gotten an audience on-side, you can get away with pretty much anything.
“Our material is mostly bad, but that’s kind of the point. You can do whatever you want if the audience finds you charming. It doesn’t matter what you say or what you do, if they’re on your side they’re happy to follow you wherever you go. You just have to do whatever you do with conviction and charm,” admits Zucker.
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No audience wants a comedian to fail – another bond that helps give everyone in the room some common ground. They all want to have a good time and enjoy the show, not feel like it was an evening wasted.
Zach & Viggo say they are “constantly reminding themselves that the audience is always on the performer’s side". People come to comedy shows because they want to laugh. It doesn’t matter how you do it - as long as you deliver on your promise of making them laugh they’ll be kind to you.
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“It's hard to hate someone you're laughing with. The moment of laughter is the moment of a shared idea. So laughter is in itself common ground,” says Fraser.
We’ve all heard that laughter is the best medicine, how studies have shown it can lower stress levels, help anger subside and even make us forget about pain. We also know laughter can bring us together when we have nothing else in common with a person, or even harbour an active dislike towards someone else.
“If two people laugh at something, they have something in common. We laugh when we’re surprised and delighted by something, and it releases endorphins that make you happy. So you got a room of people who are high on laughter, of course they’re gonna feel connected to each other,” finishes Zucker.