Comedy Timing. How does it work in voice-over? Part 2 of 3
Apr 26 2018
A stage actor or stand-up comedian has something of an advantage over those of us who work alone in a booth. Audience feedback. One of the things you get from an audience, along with a certain energy and maybe (for better or worse) a sense of “danger,” is that you know if a joke worked or not. And you can experiment with varying your delivery in order to make a funny line work its best.
Even a movie actor has a crew around them, and a director to help them along. If you’re self-directing and don’t have years of experience at delivering funny lines, how do you know when you’ve achieved what writer Larry Gelbart has called, “a nerve well struck”?
One way is to be observant and develop your sense of comedy timing.
What “comedy timing” is not
First we should clarify – in voice-over work, there are three very different types of “timing.” Professionals know one from the other, but all involve the same word.
- In one sense, “timing” refers to how long the read is. Is it 10 seconds or 30? Can the 30-second script be read in 27 seconds? For more on that, see our article, “15, 30, 60,… The Art of Voice-Over Timing.” It’s not what we’re discussing here.
- In another sense, “timing” in voice-over means the same thing as in everyday life – namely, being in the right place at the right time. If you land a voice-over job for that reason, that’s good timing. If the script is funny, you might even quip that it is good comedy timing. But it’s not what we’re discussing here.
What comedy timing IS
The third meaning is what we’re talking about here:
- When (and how) to say a line for maximum comedic or (sometimes) other effect.
In practice, the three meanings are easily differentiated by the situation.
Understanding comedy timing requires a lifetime of conversational joking (or being class clown), or knowing what makes comedy work, or both. There is no one explanation. In fact, there are many theories … some are scientific, some are the just result of general observation. For an overview of comedic theory, see Part One of this series.
Why we laugh and when
Our brains are wired to laugh under specific conditions. Any of almost countless small factors can make a difference. The question of when and how to deliver the line isn’t simple, and it doesn’t have a simple answer.
In a stage setting, from performance to performance the level and timing of audience laughter will vary. As anyone who’s been on stage knows from experience, every audience is different. People laugh more readily in a group. Different people have different senses of humor, and their perspective is colored by different sets and levels of knowledge. People don’t laugh if they’re not paying attention. (Just ask the unfortunate stand-up comedian who draws the “check spot” for the night – that’s the time when management distributes the bills and everyone’s reaching for their wallets.)
On any given evening, some audiences will be more boisterous, more uneasy, more empathetic, or whatever, than on other nights. Audience response might come at different points, even when played exactly the same.
This is no less the case with comedy.
An audience does not come to the theater as a blank slate. They want to focus on you, and it’s the performer’s job to attain and hold that focus … but the audience members are influenced by the day’s news, by events in their personal lives, by the temperature in the theater, by the sense of humor of the person sitting next to them, by their knowledge of the subject, and countless other factors.
Furthermore, a funny line doesn’t exist in limbo (unless you’re delivering an old-style comedy routine consisting of sometimes unrelated jokes, a la some old-style comics). Lines build, sometimes coming in series (usually threes). Your job is to set up a rhythm, to time the triad so as to set up your listener’s expectation and keep them comfortable yet lead them a bit off-balance.
Even though audiences will vary, there are common threads. When the Marx Brothers made their early movies, they worked efficiently because the scripts were taken from shows they had performed on stage – they knew exactly how much time to allow for the laugh, despite not having the movie audience in front of them.
Then, there was Jack Benny. He was known for just standing there, letting the audience stew and nervously chuckle while they wondered what bon mot Benny would come up with. This lent itself to one of his most famous lines, where a robber demanded, “Your money or your life.” Benny said nothing, for what seemed an eternity while the audience tittered in anticipation. The robber, said, “Didn’t you hear me? I said your money or your life.” Finally, at just the right moment, Benny replied, “I’m thinking it over!”
That classic required not only a live audience, but many years of experience. Is it possible to learn comedy timing without such experience? Especially if you’ve never exactly been the life of the party by nature?
Yes, for many people it is possible. And in our next installment, we’ll give some tips.
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15, 30, 60,… The Art of Voice-Over Timing (This is about reading to length, not comedy timing.)
6 Ways to read VO copy faster or slower, still naturally. June 30, 2016