The emotional appeal of stand-up comedy

Comics taking to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe this week should take note: how much of a hit they are with their audiences won't be down to just their jokes. As Dr Tim Miles from the University of Surrey has discovered, the link between humour and emotion plays a large part in how well an audience connects with a comedian, and vice versa.

Writing in the journal Comedy Studies, Dr Miles explains: "Clearly there is some relationship between humour and emotion, as the states we associate with laughter are usually emotional ones (joy, pleasure, nervousness, a desire to integrate); but the exact nature of this relationship seems difficult to establish."

Commenting on his study Dr Miles states, "Comedy has often been seen to be a bit frivolous, but it's actually something really important. Research shows that we laugh not so much because something is objectively funny, but because we want people to like us, or we want to feel part of a group that's laughing - it's all about making connections. My work looking at comedians and comedy audiences has shown how live stand-up comedy fulfils a need for feelings of truth, trust, empathy and intimacy between people, which is really important in a society where many people often complain about feeling isolated."

As part of his research, Miles analysed dozens of questionnaires and interviews with both audience members and comedians, including Russell Brand and Robin Williams. What he discovered was a strong emphasis on 'emotional experience' for both stand-up comedians and audience members. Audiences and comedians were connected by bonds of 'admiration' and 'empathy' and what he calls 'the paradox of identification': identifying with the humour or observations made by a comic, but not being able to identify with them in terms of seeing themselves in their place on the stage.

Miles also observed 'a complex symbiotic relationship between the stand-up comedian and their audience in relation to the body, and well-being – with a that is, in some ways, similar to a doctor and patient'. Indeed, some comedians felt they offered a 'therapeutic service, or some sort of drug'; references to medicine, therapy and 'feeling better' were made by audience members too.

Miles concludes that stand-up comedy is a 'performance' like any other, so emotional experiences like identification, interaction, empathy, mutual therapy, well-being and a need for recognition all play an important part. He also points to recent research that suggests audiences 'perform' too: their brains enter 'laughter mode whenever there is an expectation of laughter'. At least that's what the performers at this year's Fringe will be hoping as they try to connect with their audiences.

More information: "No greater foe? Rethinking emotion and humour, with particular attention to the relationship between audience members and stand-up comedians." Tim Miles. Comedy Studies, 2014. DOI: 10.1080/2040610X.2014.905093

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Robot does standup for London audience (w/ Video)

Aug 17, 2013

(Phys.org) —Robots as military gear haulers? Got it. Assembly line handlers? Got it. Waiters for the elderly? Check. Stand-up comics? Huh? A new role for robots may be trending, with the recent performance ...

Comedy Central to launch Twitter comedy festival

Apr 22, 2013

Putting a new test to the adage that brevity is the soul of wit, Comedy Central is partnering with Twitter for a comedy festival played out in 140 characters and 6-second videos.

Laughter really is the best medicine

Sep 14, 2011

A rattling good laugh with friends will help you deal with pain thanks to opiate-like chemicals that flood the brain, according to a British study released on Wednesday.

Recommended for you

Understanding psychosis and schizophrenia

20 hours ago

A report published today by the British Psychological Society's Division of Clinical Psychology challenges received wisdom about the nature of mental illness.

"Body recognition" compares with fingerprint ID

Nov 27, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—University of Adelaide forensic anatomy researchers are making advances in the use of "body recognition" for criminal and missing persons cases, to help with identification when a face ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.