Yesterday, I went to a comedy conference at the British Library in London and learned a few things.
Lucy Greeves who, with comedian Jimmy Carr, wrote the book The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes, used the interesting simile that a joke is like a knight’s move on a chess board – it goes forward, then there’s an unexpected sideways move. That’s the punchline.
And Chris C.P. Lee (now a Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Salford, but previously a performer in cult musical comedy group Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias) claimed there were no comedy double acts until the 1920s for legal reasons – because two people performing on stage in the UK were legally defined as being part of a theatrical “play” and music halls were not licensed for theatrical performances at that time.
The most jaw-dropping claim, though, came from Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire who said research showed that, when a man tells a joke, 70% of the women in an audience laugh. But, when a woman tells a joke, only 30% of the men in the audience laugh.
There was no explanation of this.
But maybe it really is true that men and women laugh at different things.
Long-time comedy scriptwriter and performer Barry Cryer suggested that women laugh at life, whereas men laugh at gags.
And comedian Arthur Smith suggested, perhaps rather mischievously, that jokes are appreciated like an orgasm: men like an exciting build-up and a sudden release of tension – a gag with a quick punchline – whereas women prefer stories to gags – a slower, longer build-up.
But, as the old saying goes, to get a hit record you need a song AND a singer.
Back in the showbiz mists of the last century, I remember being at the Edinburgh Fringe and every night for three weeks standing in the balcony of the original Gilded Balloon – before the venue got burnt down – watching the end of comedian Sean Lock’s act. He used to try out a different new gag every night and, if I worked, he would add the gag into future shows and remove an old one.
There was one gag he tried – involving a fork and doggie style sex – which I was fascinated by because it was a very good gag but, as far as I could see from my very good vantage point looking down on the audience from the balcony, all the men laughed at it but none of the women did.
Unusually, Sean persisted with this gag fo three or possibly four nights – with no laughs from the women – until all the men AND all the women laughed. After that, ever night, everyone laughed. As far as I could hear, he had changed none of the words and had not changed the delivery. I asked him what he had done.
“I changed the way I said it,” he told me. “I made myself slightly more innocent. So it’s less threatening.”
I tried to spot this in future performances but, even after he told me, I couldn’t see what he had changed.
The successful result, though, was clearly there to see and the difference was dramatic.
The sign of a great comic. Which Sean is.
You need a song AND a singer to have a hit record.