The emotional appeal of stand-up comedy

July 31, 2014

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.

Explore further: 'Psychotic personality' could be key to making people laugh

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

Related Stories

'Psychotic personality' could be key to making people laugh

January 17, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Comedians show high levels of psychotic personality traits, according to new research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Laughter really is the best medicine

September 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.

Research reveals that fake laughter doesn't fool the brain

March 20, 2014
As the world celebrates International Day of Happiness today (Thursday, 20 March), can we tell whether people are truly happy just from their laugh?

Recommended for you

Talking to yourself can help you control stressful emotions

July 26, 2017
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people ...

Heart rate study tests emotional impact of Shakespeare

July 26, 2017
In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make our hearts race more than 400 years on.

Do all people experience similar near-death-experiences?

July 26, 2017
No one really knows what happens when we die, but many people have stories to tell about what they experienced while being close to death. People who have had a near-death-experience usually report very rich and detailed ...

Risk for bipolar disorder associated with faster aging

July 26, 2017
New King's College London research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder may 'age' more rapidly than those without a history of the disease.

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

0 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.