You don't have to be an artist to be a good comedian

Max Dickens has his theory

What is a good comedian? Many people have tried to answer this question. I define it as someone who produces the most enjoyable experience possible in their audience – and will be using the psychology of enjoyment to make my point.

Studies into pleasure suggest that optimal enjoyment occurs in experiences that lie between anxiety and boredom. Basically: if it is too easy for you it is boring and you won’t enjoy it, and if it is too hard then you won’t enjoy it either. For example, Roger Federer doesn’t enjoy playing tennis against me because he finds it too easy and therefore boring. Likewise I hate playing tennis against Roger Federer because I am scared of his fast serve. The lesson is: experienced and skilful players need more to challenge them. This diagram summarises nicely:

So how can this be applied to comedy? Well, we need to think about different types of comedy fan. Comedy fans are differentiated by the different levels of experience they have watching comedy and therefore how much they know/understand about the technicalities of what is unfolding in-front of the , and the topics being tackled by the comedian –  eg do they know it’s ‘hack’ or is it fresh?). The more comedy they watch the more this bank of knowledge grows.

According to the science of pleasure, infrequent comedy fans need to be challenged less in order to enjoy the experience. However, those people who watch a lot of comedy need to be challenged more by the material/performance they are watching. Thus it is possible to have a comedian who can produce vast pleasure for people who are inexperienced comedy watchers, and also to have a comedian who can produce cast pleasure for people who have watched a lot of comedy.

Those comedians who appeal to connoisseurs may be over the heads of those of watch comedy infrequently. It does not follow however that the inexperienced fan is any more stupid/less worthy than the connoisseur: it’s just an accident of experience.

Likewise, it does not follow that a comedian should be vilified for appealing to the infrequent comedy goer. Or that he is any less skilful in doing so. In the same way, it doesn’t follow that a comedian should be simply lauded for appealing to connoisseurs. Both comedians are skilful in their own right. Both, it seems, would fail to produce a pleasurable experience in a comedy watcher sector that they don’t currently inhabit. There is a reason why Stewart Lee hasn’t been booked for McIntyre’s road show. And there is a reason that experienced comedy fans shun Peter Kay’s gigs.

Being a comedian for comedy connoisseurs, it seems to me, is to challenge the clichés and traditions of the genre. To not do that would be to bore your audience. This may seem artistic in a way that a more mainstream act is not. But being a good comedian is not predicated on being artistic. Nor is it predicated, as Stewart Lee suggests in his excellent book, on being an outsider looking in on society and challenging it. That is a mere accident of the past: just because it happened in the Eighties doesn’t mean that it defines stand-up comedy for eternity. Being a good comedian is predicated on producing the most enjoyment possible for your audience.

Another issue that is important in defining a good comedian is the idea of ‘duties’. We all have duties as comedians, and they are defined by an audience’s expectations. People who watch comedy infrequently tune into the genre on TV or radio, or come to live shows with the expectation that they will be made to laugh. They want to be entertained, not challenged. As this expectation exists this is our number one duty if we gig in clubs or on mainstream TV/radio shows. If you don’t make them laugh hard for 20 minutes you have failed.

The expectations/duties relationship changes, however, when people pick which comedians they want to see. I don’t go and watch Stewart Lee because he is going to deliver a gag-heavy club set. But because I know he is going to be intelligent and innovative. Therefore his duty is different, because he doesn’t set up the expectation that it is going to be a mainstream ‘gaggy’ show.

Comedy connoisseurs have different expectations to ordinary punters. The acts that perform to these different types of audience thus have different duties. The fulfilment of which is what marks them out as a good comedian. Just like there isn’t a spectrum of comedy audience members hat runs in a straight line between two extremes of ‘moron’ and ‘perfect taste’ there isn’t a spectrum of comedians that runs from ‘bad’ to ‘genius’. There are different types of audience member, and also different types of comedian. You can be great within your type as a comedian.

Published: 5 Oct 2010

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