If you follow my writing, you know I talk quite a bit about humour.
It’s a little weird, I know, considering I’m (a) not a comedian, and
(b) seldom the funniest guy in the room (on good days I’m number two or three). Still, in my defence, I did train in mental health after medical school and I find humour an endlessly fascinating study in psychology.
Like how being funny requires mad empathy.
It’s not immediately obvious if you don’t really think about it, but once you do, you can’t miss it.
Empathy (if you need a recap) is the human ability to do what is commonly referred to as “walk in another’s shoes,” or “see through others’ eyes.” It’s an amazing ability, empathy, and one at the root of our ability to communicate with one another. (Some people are actually born with difficulty empathising, and so come across to other people as “just wicked”—but, to be honest, some people really are just wicked. But I digress.)
Anyway, you get what empathy is.
And you can see, too, how strong levels of empathy can make people amazingly better at communication or negotiation…and at comedy.
Being funny requires you to be on top of their empathy game the whole time they’re telling jokes. To get people laughing (and keep them that way) you have to know how they’re feeling and what jokes they’re likely to respond to. You have to know when a joke is not working and (on the spur of the moment) figure out how to pivot to switch up the funny. You have to know when a joke is working so you can stay in the moment and milk it for what it’s worth. And you have to know when to move on to another joke.
Live humour is serious work, folks.
That’s why stand up is so terrifying. I mean, it’s bad enough when you’re just trying to do it among your friends—everyone knows that terrible moment when you’ve just tried to be funny, and you’ve gotten to the end of the joke, but everyone is staring at you, still waiting for the punchline.
Even as a child growing up, to be confirmed as “dry”—secondary school slang for being unfunny—was one of the worst of fates. Of course, you can see how that led to a negative feedback cycle: most people didn’t try to be funny because the punishment for failure was so great, but then few people got a grasp on humour because they weren’t even trying. Most people’s motto may well have been: better to be quiet and not be thought unfunny than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Imagine, then, the tension a new comedian must experience facing a crowd, feeling uncertain, and knowing that failure here may well be crushing.
And I’m not being dramatic when I say “crushing.”
Because, no kidding, woe betide the comedian who should have the nerve to be unfunny: they will find the reaction vicious. Even when the people watching didn’t pay for it (like on YouTube or Instagram videos), audiences still react like the poor dear promised to give their cousin a job and then bailed out. (And you wondered why so many comedians turn out to be familiar with depression.)
The best comedians know how to read people. They’re masters of empathy.
Maybe we could show a little empathy to the worst ones, too?