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.