'Truth, trust, empathy and intimacy'

Academic studies stand-up's benefits

It's a fact most comedians probably already realise, but making an emotional connection with an audience can be more important than the actual jokes.

So says researcher Tim Miles, who also concluded that stand-up can play a vital role in forging connections among audiences.

Dr Miles said: 'Comedy has often been seen to be a bit frivolous, but it's actually something really important. Research shows that we laugh not so much because something is objectively funny, but because we want people to like us, or we want to feel part of a group that's laughing - it's all about making connections.

'My work looking at comedians and comedy audiences has shown how live stand-up comedy fulfils a need for feelings of truth, trust, empathy and intimacy between people, which is really important in a society where many people often complain about feeling isolated.'

For his research, Dr Miles, from the University Of Surrey, analysed dozens of questionnaires and interviews with audience members and comedians, including Russell Brand and Robin Williams.

He says he discovered a strong emphasis on ‘emotional experience’ for both comics and punters. Audiences and comedians were connected by bonds of admiration and empathy and what he calls ‘the paradox of identification’: identifying with the humour or observations made by a comic, but not being able to identify with them in terms of seeing themselves in their place on the stage.

Miles also observed ‘a complex symbiotic relationship between the stand-up comedian and their audience in relation to the body, and well-being – with a relationship that is, in some ways, similar to a doctor and patient’.

Indeed, some comedians felt they offered a ‘therapeutic service, or some sort of drug’; references to medicine, therapy and ‘feeling better’ were made by audience members too.

Writing in the academic journal Comedy Studies, Dr Miles explains: 'Clearly there is some relationship between humour and emotion, as the states we associate with laughter are usually emotional ones – joy, pleasure, nervousness, a desire to integrate – but the exact nature of this relationship seems difficult to establish.'

Miles also points to recent research that suggests audiences ‘perform’ too: their brains enter ‘laughter mode whenever there is an expectation of laughter’.

• 'No greater foe? Rethinking emotion and humour, with particular attention to the relationship between audience members and stand-up comedians' by Dr Tim Miles is published by Taylor & Francis. Read the full article here.

Published: 30 Jul 2014

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