What Stand-Up Comedy can Teach Us About Musical Structure

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For some reason which I cannot fathom, I find I have signed up for an evening class in stand-up comedy. Given how much of my life I spend chivvying others into scary situations, it is very good for me to do something utterly terrifying, and I am sure everyone I have coached recently will be delighted to know I am well out of my comfort zone; indeed skirting on the borderline between learning and panic.

But in addition to new skills and new friends, the classes are also giving me some new insights into such musical subjects as rhythm, structure and tension-release patterns in performance.

So, the critique of music theory that it focuses too much on the dead thing on the page and not the lived experience of music in performance has been around for a good long while now. It’s more than 50 years, indeed, since the late LB Meyer first presented the world with ways of explaining musical structures framed in terms of engaging the attention and emotions of the listener. So, we’re quite used to thinking: it’s not just a V7, it’s a moment of instability; it’s not just a cadence, it’s psychological closure.

But stand-up comedy has a much more hard-core approach to audience response, because the primary measure of success or failure is whether you get laughs. You can theorise music in terms of a conversation with your audience (and I think it is useful to do so), but you do still have the option of just performing what you’ve prepared and relying on the combination of musical sense and the conventions of the occasion to make the experience meaningful. You can’t do that in stand-up: people are there because they want to laugh, so if you don’t hear any laughter, you know you’re letting them down. (You can see why this is scary, can’t you?)

This purity of purpose, though, allows you to think very clearly about the shape of this audience experience. Let’s look at the structure of an individual joke first. Our tutor, James Cook, drew the following picture to explain it:

The set-up and the punchline are two cliffs. If the audience can’t make it from the set-up to the punchline, they fall into the shark-infested waters of comedy death (I’m quoting pretty near verbatim there). If the cliffs are too near, there’s no thrill. So the trick is to get the cliffs the right distance apart. In class, a joke that’s not quite working – if it’s forced, or obscure – will be described as having cliffs that are too far apart. (This metaphor was the brain-child of Jerry Seinfeld, and is cited in a book by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves.)

Now, if you’ve not read Meyer’s essay on information theory in Music, the Arts, and Ideas for a while, this is a pretty good executive summary, and has the advantage that it doesn’t use the words ‘stochastic’ or ‘architectonic’ either. The more surprising the punchline, the more emotional kick you’re going to get from it; equally, if we’re going to have to work more to understand the punch, then you probably can’t attenuate the cognitive tension so long before we reach it, or we’ll lose the thread and get eaten by sharks.

Audience expectation and background is key here. The more connoisseurship there is, the more you can play with them, spinning things out to get a bigger kick at the end; the more they have to be clever to get it, the better they feel about themselves when they do. Meyer discusses this at a theoretical level, but doesn’t really deal with it in any of his examples – he basically assumed his readership is comprised of musicologists familiar with the classical canon, which was a pretty safe assumption under the circumstances.

It becomes a significantly more urgent question when the reference your punchline relies on has just flown right over your audience’s heads so that, instead of laughing, they are staring at you in baffled resentment. I have been in audiences when people have walked out of contemporary music concerts, so it’s something classical musicians could also usefully have a think about.

Well, this is getting pretty long, and we’ve only looked at the cognitive/emotional shape of the individual joke so far – the equivalent of just analysing the individual phrase of music. So I’ll leave bigger structures (the movement/set, the work/show) for another post.

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