Thought For The Week December 22, 2008
"There is a musicality to comedy. It is very hard to do comedy it you are not musical. There is a timing and a rhythm to a funny moment that has to do with the space just in front of it and the space behind it and that even has to do with the sound of the word." -- Sydney Pollack
"What did the cannibal say after he ate a clown? (pause) That was a delicious happy meal."
The basic idea of that joke is good, but the wording is wrong. There is no rhythm and the sound can be improved.
"What do cannibals call a kettle of clowns? (pause) A happy meal."
Notice the K sound in the second version. Over the decades comedians have observed that a K sound tends to be funny. If you have the choice of two words, one with a K sound and one without, the one with the K sound will tend to be the funniest. However, notice that the set up question does not end with a K sound. The letter K creates what is known as a glottal stop sound. Authors are warned that ending a sentence with a glottal stop is harsh and can be disturbing to the reader. A vowel or sibilant sound makes a smoother transition to the next sentence and thought. Also when speaking we indicate a question with a rising inflection at the end which is difficult to do with a glottal stop.
Read both versions of the joke out loud. Can you tell the difference in the rhythm of the words? Rhythm makes a sentence flow and is a more pleasurable experience for the listener.
The pause between the set up line or question and the punch line is important. There must be enough space for the listener to think about the set up without there being so much time that they guess the surprise that is coming. Then the laugh should come right after the pause. In the first cannibal joke example the additional words create too much space before the funny moment. The laugh is delayed which can decrease its impact.
Then there has to be enough space after the punch line to allow the observer to understand, appreciate, and enjoy what has just occurred.
Rhythm also plays a role in visual humor. The rhythm itself can be part of the humor. Sometimes a character becomes "trapped" into moving to a constant beat that they hear. (That fits Henri Bergson's humor theory that comedy is "the mechanical encrusted on the living.") Sometimes a rhythm causes an audience to anticipate something happening at a specific time and they are surprised when it happens early or late. Moving to a rhythm makes a character graceful. Trying, but failing, to maintain a rhythm establishes that a character is clumsy.
Rhythm is also important in magic. Some sleights like the Flushtration Count and Biddle Count (described in Creativity For Entertainers Volume Three) are more effective if they are done at a steady rhythm because that seems natural and graceful. An uneven rhythm seems awkward and can attract attention at the wrong moment. A purposeful break in the rhythm can focus attention to where you want it. The climax to a magic effect often results in laughter because the sense of surprise is the same as in comedy. It is just as valuable to put a space before and after the magic moment as it is a funny moment.
Music is a great aid to performance because it provides a rhythm. I prefer to perform with a musical background for that reason. I select music that has the desired rhythm for what I am doing. If I can't select the music, I utilize the available music. For example, when I am doing strolling magic at a festival I can't drag a sound system around with me. However, there is usually some kind of musical entertainment. I listen to that music and match my magic to that rhythm.
How do you use rhythm in your performance? How can you use it more effectively? How can you take advantage of the rhythm of music?
Would you like to learn more about comedy writing. I will be doing a lecture on that subject in April. For more information see the lecture schedule below.