Essay: How the room affects laughter in stand-up comedy
In the ten years I have been performing stand-up comedy, I have learned a few undeniable truths: never drink before performing, always stick to your time, and never, ever, address the woman wearing the bachelorette party tiara. But there are some subtler truths as well -- lessons in architecture and usage of space that inform how a performer and audience will interact.
Perhaps more than other any other art form, comedy cannot exist for its own sake. Comedy requires a bond between performer and audience. And if either ingredient sucks, comedy doesn’t happen. But just as in real cooking, the container you put your ingredients in has some influence on the soup you’re creating.
A very large space, like a 2,000 seat theater, requires a lot of one ingredient (audience) for the recipe to work. A small crowd in a large space will be spread out and their laughter will scatter and die without building any momentum. Also, a small crowd in a large space seems to feel overly self-conscious, as if they’ve been duped into seeing something that isn’t worth seeing. Conversely, when you walk into a crowded theater, you think: "This should be good! All of these people also want to be here!"
As a stand-up comedy performer, a large space seems daunting until you adapt to the small changes. You have to pace your timing slightly more slowly, because your jokes are rolling out in an ocean of thousands instead of pinballing around in a crowded basement. You also have to learn not to rely on facial expressions, as only perhaps a hundred out of two thousand audience members can see them clearly. Comedy can definitely work in a big space, but it isn’t ideal.
In this clip, I’m delivering jokes to roughly 1,000 people in a 2,000 seat venue. And as you can see, it’s pretty lonely up there.
A bad space can be large or small. But the key issue is usually layout. An audience needs to feel comfortable to loosen up enough to laugh, and they need as few distractions as possible. In an awkwardly laid-out space, the crowd might be forced to stand, or there might be pillars, ATM machines or other obstacles that mess up the sightlines for a seated audience. Or the flow of the space might be interrupted by a giant bar.
As you can see in the next clip, keeping the attention of a large, thin rectangle of audience proved impossible, even when I pretended to have a crying fit on stage. (The two comics who went on after me, Adam Cayton-Holland and Ben Roy, both nationally-touring pros, also failed in the space despite attempting to win the crowd over by, respectively, speaking only in Spanish and leading the audience in a sing-a-long of the "Full House" theme song.)
I realize that calling something "perfect" can seem too bold. But I believe perfect spaces for comedy do exist. A perfect space is small enough to be intimate, with minimal distractions.
In this final clip, I’m telling the same joke I told in the first example, to perhaps forty people. But you can see how conducive this space is to comedy energy.
This performance is at Denver’s downtown Comedy Works, a comedy club venerated across the country as one of the very best.
For one thing, the seats are almost on top of one another. There is no elbow room. If you’re sitting next to someone, you’re almost on their lap, which does wonders to break the ice between strangers. Another big factor is the space’s low, almost cave-like interior, with its stone walls and low ceiling that seem to magnify even a small crowd’s laughs.
This is the club that Dave Chapelle was in when he said: “You people are lucky. You know you have the best indie club in the country right here.”
Comedy can inhabit any space, from tiny back rooms that seat ten people, to world-class performance spaces such as Red Rocks Amphitheatre. But the layout of a room can tell you what to expect before the first audience member ever steps across the threshold.
Great spaces for comedy are not so easy to come by, though. Sometimes, when I walk into an empty venue and take a look around, I think: "This should be good." More often, though, I say to myself: "Why didn’t I stick with college?"
Andrew Orvedahl is a stand-up comedian, actor and writer based in Denver, Colorado.