Soapbox: Don’t Tread on Your Punchlines

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soapboxThere’s a particularly annoying thing that happens every so often to a stand-up comedian: you’ve delivered a set-up and are leaving a beat of silence for the audience to absorb it before giving them the punchline, and some ‘wag’ in the audience (as in person who considers themselves funny, rather than your wife or girlfriend) shouts into the gap. Sometimes they guess your punchline, sometimes they make up a different one, but either way, they take all the comedic potential energy you have carefully built up and discharge it so that whatever you do next will fall flat.

Today’s soapbox theme is not to inveigh against them, as, although there are things you can do to reduce the chances of it happening, or to cope when it does, you can’t fundamentally control an audience’s behaviour.

Instead, I am going to be opinionated about people, in particular vocal ensembles (since that is mostly the social world of this blog), who effectively do this to themselves.

Sometimes this comes in the form of how a song is introduced. The Telfordaires have a couple of songs in which the first two or three phrases are all about misdirection: we are pretending to be heartfelt and sincere about something, to set up the first punchline that reveals us to be more frivolous and/or shallow than we looked at first. If the person introducing the song tells you with great relish what the song is all about before we start singing it, there is almost no point in going on to sing it, since the primary Reveal has been pre-empted.

More often, though, treading on punchlines occurs within the flow of performance, in the form of visual cues that give the game away before the lyrics do.

There are two dimensions to this, gestural and timing. The timing is about the verbal content of humour, where there is a specific moment – generally called the punchline but often, especially in sung comedy, a punch-word – at which the joke lands. This is the moment where instead of the thing that you were expecting, the meaning changes and something entertainingly incongruous emerges. It often feels obvious in retrospect, but it triggers the laugh because even if we intuited where things were headed we didn’t quite see it coming.

Songs are great for landing with punchwords as the metrical structure and rhyme scheme set up the timing for you. Everyone knows the pacing of what is to come, and so everyone is ready to meet you at the cadence, where the laugh arrives. If you start acting out the concept of the punchline during the line at the end of which the joke lands, you are essentially heckling yourself visually, undermining the laugh.

There is a joke (my google-fu is failing to tell me who coined it) that asks:

Why do people point to their wrist when asking for the time…but don't point to their crotch when they ask where the bathroom is?

This joke summarises the gestural dimension of how people can all too easily tread on their own punchlines. It’s a particular instance of the very literal gestures that are seen as rather low-grade, old-fashioned choreographic tropes.

In terms of non-verbal communication theory, these types of gestures are classified as pantomimic. That is, they replicate (and indeed could replace) the verbal content, as opposed to speech-accompanying gestures that make no sense by themselves, but facilitate comprehension of a verbal utterance. Using pantomimic gestures to duplicate a song’s lyrics can thus come over as patronising or exaggerated, as it looks like you don’t trust the primary means of communication to convey the information accurately.

There may be specific, particularly important punchlines (as in ones on which the comprehension of a later joke relies) that can benefit from pantomimic reinforcement, but when used routinely, pantomimic gestures tend to give the impression that you think the audience is too stupid to understand the joke without having it explained. To use the metaphor of a joke’s structure as cliffs, pantomimic gestures move them closer together.

(Flashback to a very very drunk audience who absolutely loved the very very obvious jokes of a fellow stand-up act after staring at me in blank bafflement during my own set; I heard one of them say, ‘Oh I like these jokes, I can understand them’. So, the point isn’t that pantomimic gestures are necessarily bad, but that you only need to use them when for whatever reason the cliffs might be too far apart for the listeners you are currently performing too.)

Either way, any visual material you use in combination with song needs to let the song itself do the work. Any song that you could sing while accompanying yourself on the piano (or indeed any other instrument, I was just thinking about Victoria Wood, whom I revere), doesn’t need gestures for the jokes to work, and may be undermined by adding them.

If you want to add in extra jokes in the visual dimension that aren’t in the lyrics, that’s an entirely different proposition. Again, just make sure you don’t tread on the punchlines of the jokes that are in there already.

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