Updated: Dec 3, 2021
A stand-up will send me a video of their set and I will watch it, meeting them subsequently to discuss my observations on their material and performance, and how both might be improved and developed. One of the key areas I am looking for in performance is, as you might image, timing. Some people have great timing. Others less so. But everyone can improve. But what is comic timing? It's simply: knowing when to pause and for how long.
Often, with newer comics, I'll watch a set where the timing has been more or less sacrificed because they're racing through their act. When I question why they delivered their act so rapidly, they often respond: "so that I got through all the material". And often they'll say, "I knew I had a bit too much stuff, so I had to race through it." To them this makes perfect sense. But as Oliver Double said when we spoke for my book and I mentioned this tendency to him: "that's a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the job. The job isn't to get through the material. The job is to be funny for a given length of time."
Whether or not you get through what you've planned to say is immaterial. Slow down, connect with the audience, be present for each moment of the set. Become aware of the spaces between things. Think in terms of ending when the time is up, not when you've said everything. And simply go on stage with less than you think you 'need'. That way you can start to play with timing. A very common timing pattern is:
SET-UP (pause) PAYOFF.
The pause (often just a 'beat') is to give a moment for the audience to digest what you have just said. If it’s misdirection this can be especially important. This is to give them a moment to fall into your trap. If you just rush on, they won't have had a chance to form the assumption you're about to explode. And remember that set-up/ payoff is not just about one-liners. Even in a conversational piece when you hit the laugh line that’s the payoff, so whatever preceded it is the set-up. The pause between set-up and payoff can really help. To put it more generally, there are pauses of anticipation where some expectation or tension has been built up and then the comic waits……before providing the release. Not all comics leave this pause all the time – you can hear some comics run set-up and payoff together but often they are doing something to mark the transition, like a change in intonation or emotion when they hit the payoff.
If the set-up is a longer one with information to digest (that is preparing the ground for the payoff), then the pacing and timing of the set-up is as key as timing the laugh moment. When I spoke with Richard Lindesay for my book, he told me: ‘I’ve got a background in IT where you have to explain complicated concepts to people who are not familiar with them. There’s a parallel there, where I’m thinking “What information do the audience need, how much should I feed them at a time for them to assimilate it, and in what order should I give it to them?”'
Then a pause for the laugh is key. You're getting the audience into the rhythm of your comedy by giving them their space. Even if the laugh doesn’t come you need to leave the pause. (Although probably a shorter pause.) It will be very hard for the audience to start laughing if there is no space for them to do so. This takes confidence and experience, It's very hard to stick with your desired timing when the audience aren't giving you anything. But speeding up and not pausing at all doesn't achieve anything - apart from it all ending more quickly. If you freak out and speed up because you're not getting the reaction you want, then you've greatly reduced whatever chance there was of the act working.
Getting this kind of timing right can help the laughs come. As people develop their performance on my stand-up course, we find that as people became more confident with leaving the pauses, playing with them and adding character and attitude, then laughs started to come more readily.
As I say on the course: always stop talking when there’s a laugh... even if you don’t know why they’re laughing! Even if the laugh was generated by a heckle. (If the laugh did come from a heckle, the confident thing to do is to wait while everyone laughs and then respond.) It’s a common issue of less experienced comics that they ‘crash the laugh’ – they just keep going and talk over it. (Especially when they feel they have 'too much material' and that they've 'got to get through it') Over time this diminishes the laughs you get as there is no room for them to respond.
Stopping talking when there's a laugh may sound simple but it is one of the hardest things for new comics to achieve. Often, they go onstage and it all passes by in a blur, with them barely registering how the audience reacted. Having the awareness and the presence on stage to tune in to the audience and time your delivery accordingly is a skill that comes with time. When I spoke to Geoff Whiting for the book, he told me: ‘It takes a lot of stage time to get really good timing. In my case I’d say about three or four years in, I’d nailed the timing. I think some people may have more of an innate ability with timing. But with some comics it has to be drummed into them. You have to really coach them to get it right.’
And I know from coaching people in the class that new acts can feel uncomfortable just standing there waiting for a laugh. So here is something effective that you might do in the pause: hold the emotion of the payoff. (Recalling that the 'payoff' is whatever made them laugh - not just the punchline to a gag.) If, for example. you are confused on the payoff, while they laugh, hold that look of confusion. If you're angry, continue to feel that anger while they're laughing. This also means that what they're laughing at is still happening, which fuels the laugh.
Your timing must be in tune with the audience. Take your timing from them.The moment to start talking again is just before the laugh dies away. Whether the laugh is big or small you’re listening out for that moment. This keeps the momentum. You may at times let it go to silence – for example at the end of a section – but generally you continue just before it goes to silence.
Firstly, watch some YouTube clips of established comics that you like but this time pay attention to the pauses. Ask yourself: When do they pause? Why? And for how long? Picking three comics with contrasting styles would be good. Again, when I spoke with Oliver Double for the book, he told me that when he coaches stand-ups, "I show them specific clips where I’m looking at the use of pauses. There’s a clip of Stephen Carlin and one of Susan Calman, and I watch it with them and point out: They pause there because the next line is a really funny line and they don’t want you to just rush past it, they want you to feel the value of it.' So that's an example of a pause and why they did it."
Having watched these comedy clips with your attention on the spaces between things, turn to your own material. Pick two videos of yourself in gigs. Ideally one that went well and one less so. Watch those videos with the same eye for timing. Again, when are you pausing, why, and how effective is it? Are there places where you could do with pausing but don't? Is there a difference in timing between the good gig and the less good one? (There almost certainly will be. It's hard to get the timing right if the audience aren't with you - and poor timing just compounds the problem.)
Then once you have got some insights into your own timing, with some material you know well, on stage, shift your attention from the words to the spaces between the words. Feel the effect these spaces have on the audience and how they respond. Play with them. See what happens. This is a beautiful exercise if the audience are really with you and you are in the moment.