Comic Timing – Discussing the Undiscussable

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comic timing

I’d. . .timing. . .damn. . . I‘d like to. . .timing. . .oops. . . I’d like to discuss a subject that I don’t bel…timing?. . .lieve. . .shit. . . I’d like to discuss an aspect of comedy that I don’t believe can be meaningfully discussed – timing. Like love, happiness, and sushi, comic timing defies analysis.

There have been many attempts to define it, but most were futile. Years ago in their book, How to Be a Comedian for Fun and Profit, Harry King and Lee Lauger wrote, “Timing is knowing when to stop speaking in the midst of a routine in order to allow thinking time for the audience to prepare itself for the laugh that is coming up.” Not much of a definition, but it is a great piece of advice.

The only thing that’s certain about comic timing is that it’s essential to being funny. And that’s why we’re going to discuss it, not because it’ll be meaningful, but because it’ll be useful.

In discussing a subjective area such as timing, I’ve found that it often helps to start with a story.

Several years ago, I was studying Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) with its co-founder, John Grinder, and co-developer, Judy DeLozier. Knowing NLP to be a heady subject, John and Judy wanted everyone to get their bodies involved in the learning process, so they offered a class in African dancing with live drumming.

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Well, I had done a fair amount of dance, but African dancing was a new experience for me. I quickly discovered that the undulating movements, the unique rhythms, and the improvisational style of the changing steps was not a style indigenous to Caucasian people.

Feeling rather frustrated, I went to the head of this African group, Titos Sampa, and asked him for help. He said, “You’re counting and trying to do the moves correctly, right?” I replied, “Right.” Titos laughed and advised me, “Stop all that. Watch the lead dancer and become the drum.” I inquired, “Become the drum? Become the drum? Americans start dancing when the band starts playing, and we stop dancing when it stops. Become the drum?” Titos clarified, “Feel the drum in your chest, move as the drum moves, and you’ll do much better.”

I tried it. It was strange, but it worked. Feeling the drum’s rhythms in my chest allowed me to find these unfamiliar African movements in my body. I was astounded at the effectiveness of becoming the drum.

After several months of the African dancing, I was getting fairly good, so I decided I wanted to do some drumming. I asked Titos, and he agreed. The drumming was more difficult than the dancing. Getting one rudimentary beat took me half an hour. My biggest problem, though, was that the group of three drummers kept changing the tempo. In unison, they’d speed up or slow down for no apparent reason. I was completely flummoxed. It was as if there was some drumming muse that they were all plugged into and I wasn’t even near the socket.

After that night’s dancing and drumming, I asked Titos what the impetus was for the changing tempo. “Oh that,” he replied. “We’re following the dancers.” I was flabbergasted. “Wait. Wait. The drummers are following the dancers? But when I was a dancer, you told me to become the drum. So if the dancers are following the drummers and the drummers are following the dancers, there’s no one in charge!” A huge grin washed across Titos’ face as he proclaimed, “Exactly. Now you got it.” He laughed a booming laugh and walked away.

I stood in a stupor talking to myself, “I’ve got what?” Then it dawned on me. No one is in charge. No one is ever in charge. We all affect one another. Sometimes we’re a dancer. Sometimes we’re a drummer. At different times we’re all leading and following. It’s a loop of affecting and being affected.

My definitioncomic timing book of comic timing is African dancing and drumming. The audience is following the comedian and the comedian is following the audience. The comedian doesn’t have timing; the comedian spontaneously creates timing based on how he or she is being affected by the audience. You can’t decide on it ahead of time because it’s an act of creativity that happens in the present.

This sheds more light on the validity of the principle: the relationship with the audience is the most important thing. If you concentrate only on doing your material just as you rehearsed it, your timing will be based on trying to repeat your rehearsal, not on how you affect the audience and how the audience affects you in the present. Each show has different timing because each show has a different audience.

This is why comedians don’t like to analyze their ability to be funny. The most important ingredient is a phenomenon that cannot be defined in words. It’s like the taste of a strawberry. I can describe what a strawberry tastes like from now until I die, but it won’t help you understand it. The only way to know how a strawberry tastes is simply to taste one.

The only way to know comic timing is to experience it for yourself. Great comedians have comic timing, but they can’t discuss it in any meaningful way because it’s different every time. Though I believe that comic timing can be learned, it can’t be taught. The only way you’ll learn it is through trial and error. If you have it already, it’s because you went through that trial and error in your childhood.

The purpose of my discussion here is simply to explain that comic timing happens in the moment, in the feedback loop between you and each individual audience. There’s no need to discuss or even think about comic timing, but you will have it if you – dance with your audience.

Tag: Comic Timing

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