The Art and Science of Comedic Timing

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Photo: Jonathan Kantor/Getty Images

This week, Science of Us is exploring time: what makes it feel like it’s speeding up or slowing down, how we learn to tell the difference, and how we can learn to control it either way.

Conventional wisdom dictates that timing is the secret to comedy. Kazakhstani reporter Borat Sagdiyev learned as much during his travels through America for his classic 2006 documentary, Borat! He visited a humor coach, who tried to impart a basic principle of comedic timing using a “not joke” about the color of Borat’s suit.

“This suit is black … that’s a pause … not!” the coach demonstrated, stressing the importance of having a space between the setup and the punch line.

This is obviously barely a joke, if it even deserves that name. (The real humor in this scene is that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is playing the role of the buffoonish Borat to toy with the humor coach, who doesn’t realize the joke is on him.) It nevertheless perfectly illustrates one of the most widely accepted notions about timing in comedy: pausing before the punch line. But this conventional wisdom about comic timing might be all wrong, and not just because the joke about the suit isn’t funny.

Social science and psychological research on comic timing is limited, but what exists suggests that the layperson’s understanding of how the rhythm of joke delivery works is totally mistaken. It may be that our sense of the importance of comic timing comes more from how we perceive jokes than from how they’re delivered. And, for comedians, the timing after the punch line is what really counts.

As psychologist Dean Buonomano points out in his new book about time and the human brain, our mind not only tracks the passage of time, but it can stretch or compress our sense of that passage in various ways. Consider, for instance, how people who have been in a car accident report that time seemed to stand still. Is there a similar phenomenon at work in comedy? According to psychologists who study humor, time may seem to stop for a second because our brain is catching up with a clever punch line.

One of the few studies on comic timing was published in 2011 by Salvatore Attardo, a linguist at Texas A&M University. Attardo, the former editor of HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research, said that he found the same claim was made everywhere, from comedy manuals to scholarly research papers: Timing is essential to comedy, and comedians emphasize punch lines with a pause. Attardo set out to quantify that comedic pause with an experiment in which he asked college students to tell two jokes, one of their choosing and and one given to them — a not-especially-funny story about an engineer and a talking frog. “When we started out, we thought that this folk theory of timing was correct,” Attardo said. “What we discovered is that it’s complete nonsense.” The data showed that timing changes are simply not a factor in the delivery of jokes, either in speeding up or slowing down or pausing before a punch line.

Attardo said that when he shared his findings with professional comedians, they were not in the least bit surprised. People who make their living by making people laugh have a much more nuanced appreciation of comic timing — as an art, rather than a science. Greg Dean, a Los Angeles comedian who has been performing and teaching stand-up for 40 years, said that when people talk about a comedian having great timing, they really mean that he or she has found a way to both lead and respond to the energy of the audience, like a drummer might with a dancer.

Comic timing is essential, but ineffable and ever-changing from one audience to another, Dean said. “That’s the reason people say comedy timing is the most important thing but nobody can talk about it in any useful way,” he told me. However, Dean added that he has two timing principles that he teaches his students, rules of thumb that can help a comedian begin to work with the rhythm of an audience. Interestingly, both focus on what happens after a joke, not before it.

Dean said he once saw Milton Berle perform, and noticed him toying with timing during the audience laughter after his jokes. “I was watching him and he’d do a setup and a punch, the laugh would go up, and as it peaked he would say, ‘two, three, four,’ and start the next joke. He was making fun of the timing of it.”

Dean said he started analyzing audience laughter and found that a good, solid laugh usually comprises an initial burst, then a pause for breath, then a rise to a peak. He teaches his students to come in with the next joke just as the peak has passed, like Berle did. That’s the first principle, which he calls classic timing, or one-liner timing.

The second principle involves what’s called tagging your jokes, adding a quick verbal redirection after the punch line, once or even several times. For instance, Dean said, he might say, “For Father’s Day I took my father out. It only took seven shots.” After the audience laughs at that, he might add something like, “Most people don’t get their priest that drunk.” That’s a tag, adding a new twist that surprises the audience and keeps them laughing.

Normally you don’t want to interrupt laughter, but tag timing is different, Dean said. The key is to deliver the tag when the audience is taking its breath after the initial burst of laughter. A good comedian can ratchet up the laughter with repeated tags and even begin to train the audience to hold its breath, to anticipate the tag like a dancer anticipates a change in a drummer’s beat.

Dean stressed that these principles are just rough guides. A successful comedian reads what each audience needs and delivers at the right time for that night’s crowd, which could be completely different from the previous and the following night. “The timing is in the relationship. It’s in the feedback loop.”

Psychologist Peter McGraw offered another way to think about how comedians handle timing, based on the theory of humor he outlines in his book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, called “the benign violation theory.” His idea is that things are funny when they somehow violate a norm or expectation without causing real harm. “We laugh at things that are wrong, yet okay; threatening, yet safe; confusing, yet make sense,” McGraw said.

Puns are an easy example. When you say, “I’m hungry,” and your dad replies, “Hi, Hungry! I’m Dad!” he is annoyingly altering the expected meaning of “I’m” — a benign violation of conversational norms.

Timing factors into this theory in a couple of ways. First, for a joke to work, it has to be both benign and a violation simultaneously. A double entendre doesn’t work if the two entendres don’t occur to the listener at the same time.

Second, if you’re going to build a joke around a big violation, you need to invest enough time to make it benign. McGraw offered Louis C.K. as an example of a comedian who can get audiences to laugh at shocking, terrible things, because he knows how much to linger on benign qualifiers ahead of the violation, to make something very wrong feel very funny.

McGraw pointed to one of Louis C.K.’s “of course, but maybe” jokes, in which Louis C.K. says that while of course kids with deadly allergies should be protected from exposure to nuts, just maybe “if touching a nut kills you you’re supposed to die.” Louis C.K. spends over a minute setting up the context — he assures everyone that he really believes that dangerous foods absolutely must be kept away from vulnerable people — in order to present the idea that people should just let kids die so that it lands just right.

“I think that what Louis C.K. explicitly or implicitly knows is, if he’s going to say something on its own that would be terrifying, he needs to spend time to offset it,” McGraw said. The audience still feels like letting kids die is a shocking idea, which gives the joke its transgressive power, but Louis C.K. has put in the time to make it okay to laugh at that idea.

This conception of comic timing is not what most people think of when they say that timing is the secret to comedy. Nor is Greg Dean’s idea about post-punch-line timing. So what accounts for the persistence of the idea that comic timing means putting a pregnant pause right before the laugh line?

Sal Attardo said he hasn’t found any research on this subject, but he offered a theory that it comes from Henny Youngman: “He had a particular joke that became extremely famous: “Take my wife … Please!” That joke, which featured a pause, became so iconic that it implanted that notion of comic timing into the popular consciousness, Attardo says.

McGraw said he doubts that explanation, since he thinks there are probably a lot of 22-year-olds who have never heard of Henny Youngman and still subscribe to the pregnant pause theory of comedy. “My guess is that there might be a perceptual issue in this,” McGraw said. It may be that jokes depend on a kind of misdirection that creates the sensation of a gap in the mind of the listener, he said.

Bob Mankoff, the former cartoon editor for The New Yorker, who, as it happens, has a master’s degree in experimental psychology, offered a similar theory. Jokes depend on surprise — the revelation of an unexpected meaning or idea — which stops the brain in its tracks.

“When we switch the script, our minds pause. That’s the delay. The delay is in our understanding, so we perceive the pause,” Mankoff said.

Determining whether this theory is true, Mankoff said, would require scanning someone’s brain while telling them jokes. That research is yet to be done, but we may one day find that comic timing is ultimately in the mind of the joke-beholder and not, as Borat’s humor coach would have us believe, in the proper placement of a pre-punch-line pause.

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The Art and Science of Comedic Timing