The Brick Wall and the Water Cooler

comedy I was on the UIL Spelling team in his school (nerd alert). I walked in for an exam once and sat next to my classmate. She informed me that I couldn’t sit next to her. I thought she was joking, so I responded in my bitchiest tone, “Whatever, Jennifer. I don’t want to sit next to you anyway.” She stared at me with a slight look of disgust. And though this was not a look I was entirely unaccustomed to coming from a female, I quickly realized that she’d been serious.

So, yeah. A high school academic competition probably isn’t the ideal place for humor. And that’s an important distinction that people often don’t think about. Space can be just as important as content when it comes to comedy.

As an audience—and we’re all audience all the time, but more on that later—we go into every new situation with a set of predetermined expectations. Stuffy academics (like me, sometimes) call this Audience Expectancy, and it’s actually closely related to the “frames” I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Basically, when you walk into a comedy club, you expect to laugh. Therefore, you’re more inclined to laugh. Even at things that aren’t necessarily that funny. But you want to laugh. And in that case, you probably even paid to laugh. So dammit, you’re gonna laugh!

And if you’re about to take a test you’ve studied your ass off for, you probably won’t find much of anything funny.

Of course, there are always exceptions. After all, laughing is a way to release tension. But there still needs to be an element within your expectations that allows for the possibility of finding something funny.

Some of this depends on the individual. People have different senses of humor. I’m one of those people that is inclined to try and find the humor in everything. Other people are more serious.

One of the things that increases the expectancy for humor is the security of the space. A comedy club is safe, because you expect to be challenged by humor. So you’re more geared to adjust that frame and laugh.

The same works for TV. Sitcoms, short for situational comedy, are funny at least in part because we typically watch them sitting on our couch. It’s safe, so we’re more inclined to be receptive to humor.

Beyond just the feeling of safety, company is also important. Laughter is cathartic, but it’s also a unifying action. It’s an indication that we’re all OK.

See, our inclination toward safety goes beyond the physical space into the psychological, as well. We naturally want to get along, and acknowledging to others that we’re all in on the joke is important. This is again in play with the comedy club, but it works in other places, too. You may be alone when watching the latest episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but the next day at work when you’re talking about it “around the water cooler,” or any other requisite space where you gather with co-workers and friends, you re-hash the jokes from the show to confirm that, in fact, yes it was funny and we’re all OK.

Of course, this concept extends beyond just how we look at comedy. We spend so much of our life just trying to get along that we almost go into autopilot sometimes. And that’s the point here.

Being aware of why we laugh can make the laughs much better and more meaningful. It can help the truly funny stuff stand out.

Because, here’s the deal. We’ve all been out at the comedy club and heard that comic who gets most of his laughs from dropping an f-bomb in the middle of the joke. It’s cheap. Bad language makes us snicker, but it’s not actually funny…unless, of course, it’s used as a perfectly placed punctuation to a joke. But, in general, there are a lot of people out there who get laughs simply by trying to shock it out of people.

For audience and performers both, thinking about why we laugh, and what causes us to laugh, can improve laughing. It holds all of us to a higher standard and, hopefully, raises the level of our comedy.

Look at TV comedy. Seinfeld found humor in the everyday mundanity of our lives. Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer particularly show what happens when the boundaries are pushed just perfectly. There is some language and racy subjects, but they’re still hemmed in by network standards, so it makes them have to get laughs through the content more than the shock of broaching a taboo issue.

It’s a subtle thing, granted. But thinking about the places we laugh and what expectations we bring to those places can enhance our understanding and appreciation of humor. And that increases our identification and inclusion. For anyone practicing comedy, whether in improv, stand-up, or acting, knowing how to use this to your advantage can take your performance to an entirely new level.

Think about audience. How are we an audience? What does it mean to be an audience? It’s about connection. So, connect with your audience. It doesn’t take much scrolling through BuzzFeed listicles to see that we all deal with the same crap day in and day out. So, use that and the audience’s desire to laugh to achieve new heights in comedy.

The Top Five Places I Laugh the Most

  1. Dallas Comedy House (of course)
  2. At the bar with my friends
  3. Listening to the Ticket
  4. My apartment
  5. The Margo Jones Theatre

Kris Noteboom is a Level 2 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

Upcoming Workshops: Dina and Andy

Dina Facklis and Andy St. ClairThere’s a new business-world trend that has a direct relation to improv: Asking why. Business leaders are asking themselves why they’re doing something, rather than asking what they do or how they do it. It’s a great trend, and I hope it sticks. For improv, stating why (or attaching the world “because”) will also help you during your scene work.

“Emotions are always great for improvising scenes, but you have to be specific,” said Dina Facklis, a Chicago-based improviser who was recently named Improviser of the Year at iO Chicago. “For example, ‘I hate that you got the last cheeseburger; I’m so happy that I don’t have to get married now.’ These are just teasers, but they start giving insight into who we are by being more specific. When I say emotions, people just want to say ‘I’m so happy’ or ‘I’m so excited.’ That does nothing. Specifics are key.”

Facklis and her improv partner, Andy St. Clair, will be coming to the DCH March 2-4 for a show and a series of workshops focusing on initiating scenes, monologues, writing, and remembering to have fun while performing.

Monologues can be tricky, because you don’t want to be considered a scene hog.

“Economy is key,” Facklis said. “A monologue can be three sentences long, if it gets to the point.”

An example, Facklis says, could be a guy with a Southern accent entering a scene with a girl.

“‘Mama wanted me to come and apologize,’ the guy says. ‘She knows I don’t like saying sorry, so she also made me bring this casserole. She said you liked casserole--which seems stupid to me.’ That sets up a multitude of stuff right away.

“The secret to improv, I believe, is saying the least possible and showing the most possible,” Facklis continued. “Maybe your character is long-winded, but I would never want that to be someone’s go-to. Think of comedy’s best characters and how they communicate who they are--Kramer on Seinfeld, for example. He walks into a room, and you immediately get a feeling off of him before he says a word.”

Even though adding specifics and being economical with language are good guides, your overall strategy should be to have fun. Isn’t that why we perform improv, because it’s fun?

“I don’t do anything that I’m not inspired by,” Facklis said. “Even if that means taking an extra second to respond. I also perform with people who make me laugh and make me want to be better.”

A sure way to make yourself better on stage is to take one (or all) of Facklis and St. Clair’s workshops. You’ll get to work with some of the best country’s improvisers and perform with new people you may have never met. Taking their workshops should be a no-brainer answer to “why.”

March 2

6-8:30 p.m.

Scene Intensive with Dina Facklis

Believe it or not, starting a great scene is easier than you think--you’re the only thing getting in its way. This intensive will get you out of your head and into a place where successful scenes can’t help but happen. Get ready for an early evening of effortless scenework that will help you figure it all out! (14 person maximum) Register
March 3

3:30-6 p.m.

Finding the Comedy Gold in Your Improvisation with Andy St. Clair

The No. 1 rule of improv: have fun! How many times do you forget that little gem? From personal experience, my guess would be A LOT. Hell, with all the rules and nuances of improv, who wouldn't forget? This workshop will show improvisers how to make the rules work for them while having a ton of funso that you have a ball while mining every single piece of comedy gold you can from a scene! (14 person maximum) Register
March 3 & 4

Noon-3 p.m.

Monologue Development with Andy St. Clair

You can count on this: You have more characters in yourself than you think. And this workshop is not only about finding them, it's also about developing a written piece from them that is carefully structured with perfect timing. This workshop will conclude with a showcase of these monologues on that Sunday night at DCH. (14 person maximum) Register
March 3 & 4

3-6 p.m.

Writing Scenes from Improv with Dina Facklis

How many scenes do you have in your improvisation past that you wish you had written down? I personally have ABOUT ONE MILLION. This workshop will allow you to either bring in beat outlines for a scene that you've already improvised or find your scene with a partner through improvisation. You will then work with me to write this scene as to maximize its potential in terms of timing, character development and story arc. This workshop will also conclude with a showcase of these monologues that Sunday night at DCH. (14 person maximum, please feel free to sign up in pairs) Register