What’s the right way to deliver a humorous VO line? Part 3 of 3
May 03 2018
There’s a wrong way to tell a joke. But there’s often more than one right way. Part of what makes the “right” way work is that it coincides with the character of the person telling it. (Or rather, the persona of the character. And by “joke,” we mean any humorous line.) Is the person high-energy, or low-key? Are they cynical, or silly? Are they known to be serious, but with a comic payoff?
Your character affects your listener’s expectations, patience, and viewpoint as they listen. It also affects the way you time the joke – and thus the laugh.
As we mused at the end of Part Two, can you learn comedy timing without having entertained friends or coworkers all your life? Yes, maybe you can. But timing is not as simple as some people think. Here are some tips.
(Reminder: The term “comedy timing” doesn’t refer to how long it takes to tell a joke. In its simplest sense, it refers to knowing just the right moment to deliver the punch line. In the real world of humorous discourse, it’s more complex than that. But it’s still not about how long it takes to read the script.)
There are two basic components of delivering a joke: timing and pacing.
Timing. Maybe it should be called comedy pausing.
Timing involves knowing where to pause, how long to pause, and why.
In the context of comedy or dramatic direction, you’ll often hear the word, “beat.” For example, “Between these two words, wait a beat.”
How long is a “beat”? Just longer than normal. Long enough to set up a bit of tension. Or to cue the audience that the next line is your punch line. Or to catch your audience’s minds running ahead of what you’re saying, which – as they realize they don’t know what’s coming up – then trips them up. They may think they know what you’re going to say next, but suddenly they realize they don’t know. At that exact moment, you break the suspense by delivering your line.
It can all take place in a split second, almost literally a heartbeat. Half a tick of the mental metronome.
The reason it works, and the reason it’s almost impossible to pin down, is because listening to a joke involves the brain. Our brains are predictive. They like to guess what’s coming next. And – most important – they don’t operate in real time. Sights and sounds enter our brain a bit before they enter our consciousness. And, as we become aware of them, our brain assembles the input, in as much or little detail as the situation seems to require. (This may be why the plate you drop, or a car crash, seems to be happening in slow motion – like a slow-motion movie, you’re processing a lot more “frames” than you usually do.)
So it is with comedy. Every brain in your audience is moving in time along with you, thinking they can predict what you’ll say next – or wondering what – as you match your patter to their energy and bring them along at just the right pace for the moment. Suddenly they realize they’ve “assembled” the input incorrectly, and they laugh.
How and when to pause
Here’s an example from one of our Monthly Audition Contests. The scene involves two metallic robots, and one says he is attracted to the other. The listener assumes that means romantic attraction (whatever that is among robots). It turns out, however, that the “attraction” is because the other robot has been playing with some nearby equipment…
“Don’t get me wrong. Will you please turn off that electromagnet?”
How should you deliver this? Where should you put the beat?
Conventional lay wisdom says to pause just before the surprise meaning is revealed. So, would that be just before “electromagnet”? Maybe not, because the words “turn off” don’t arise from romance, so if you say them too early, you’re weakening the surprise.
You could pause before “turn off,” but that’s an unnatural place to pause. Comedy tends to work best when it’s natural. So maybe put the beat between the sentences? Except, there’s always a pause between sentences, so pausing a split second longer might not have the desired effect.
As we said, there’s no one “right” way to tell it. There’s not even one right way or place to pause – because other aspects of your delivery add into it.
For example, if you pause after “please” you could lengthen the pause (several beats), which would set up the listener’s expectation that something interesting is about to follow. Or you could stretch the word “please,” (e.g.: “puh-leeeze”), saying it in a way that’s funny in itself. Then a pause at that point would be natural, both because your delivery is already unnatural, and because your listener needs (we hope) a moment to react to your funny pronunciation.
So, probably the worst place to pause is before the final word, for two reasons:
1. As we said, the listener is already catching up to you, thanks to “turn off…”
2. It’s a long word, and a rather cerebral one at that, so it takes some actual thinking. Better to present the electromagnet in context with “turn off.” (If the joke ended with a short, simple word (e.g., “kite”) or a word that’s funny in itself (e.g., “Bunsen burner”), the situation might be different. )
Another element of timing is pacing.
A study of “beats” is not the only aspect of comedy timing. There is also the matter of pacing. No, not the kind of pacing around that Groucho did. Now we are talking about the speed of your speech, or slowness, whatever.
Pacing can be fast, it can be slow, and it can vary. In fact, it should.
Consider the robot’s line, above. Should you dwell on “Don’t get me wrong” or should you get through it quickly? Conventional wisdom suggests that you say it clearly, but don’t milk it. There’s absolutely nothing funny about those words in themselves. What might be funny is the way you say them – for example, suddenly embarrassed. Or hitting the word “wrong.” But even then, to express the emotion (embarrassment), you should probably say those words quickly. In addition to not boring the listener, and not yet leading them to think that they’re hearing the joke, the relatively rapid pace will make the next sentence’s change-up even more effective.
Consider the style of George Carlin. In the latter half of his career he was not only a comedian or humorist. He was also a sort of poet. His routines were very well rehearsed, and he recited them with precision. Often, as in his “Seven Words” routine, he spoke with a machine-gun pace. That was the poetry. Then he would slow, or even stop abruptly. That was the comedy. It was as if we, the audience, traveling along with his momentum, mentally tripping over ourselves as he paused.
But other forms of comedy require regular pausing. For example, in Ellen DeGeneres‘ early standup routines, many of her jokes involved tacking on an unexpected detail (a tag, or capper) that completely changed the meaning. Like this:
“I used to wander around the woods when I was a kid … because my parents would put me there.”
“My grandmother started walking 5 miles a day when she was 60, (beat) she’s 97 today and we don’t know where the h**l she is. (pause) I’m kidding, we know where she is. She’s in prison. (pause) I’m kidding again. I kid a lot because (beat) I’m Canadian.”
Notice how Ellen speeds through her tags. That way, the audience gets each as a whole thought; she doesn’t let them be distracted by parsing the tag as she says it. Also note that she does NOT pause before some of the punch lines (e.g., “She’s in prison”). This, too, keeps the audience from being distracted by unnecessary thinking – if they had time to think up their own punch line to the tag’s setup (“We know where she is”), her punch line would be less effective.
Sometimes the pause even affects the meaning. Consider the classic Henny Youngman line, “Take my wife … please.”
Then again, some classic comics didn’t always pause. Speaking of Groucho, consider his early movies. He’d often deliver one line right after another with barely a breath in between. This worked because there were so many funny lines that if you missed one, there would always be another. And the next character would give you time for your mind to catch up:
“You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I came here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.”
Now, forget (almost) everything we’ve just said.
Wow. Given a script with lots of funny lines, do you need to put it under such analysis just to make it work? No. In fact, if you make a habit of that, you might find yourself in analysis.
Like many other aspects of voice-over, it’s a learning process. Once you’ve learned it, it becomes sort of second nature.
It’s also not nearly everything that’s involved. In fact, tests involving college students delivering moderately funny material revealed that the placement of pauses alone did not tend to make the lines more effective.
That’s partly because, as we’ve noted, every audience (and in VO, every listener) is different.
It’s also because funny lines rarely exist in limbo. They’re part of a script, with other funny lines before and after. All in all, it’s how you time them in relation to each other that starts an audience rolling in the aisles. Watch an extended routine by a major comedian. The major pauses are after the joke, as the audience reaction builds. The comedian then delivers the next line just as the audience is peaking.
As an extreme example, remember Jack Benny.
On a shorter, and often much less funny scale, there’s the “rimshot,” where the drummer hits a sharp drum note after the punch line. Long a tool, crutch, or in-joke in less sophisticated comedy circles, it does serve a multiple purpose: It cues the audience that they just heard a joke. It caps the joke and builds in the pause. Maybe it even wakes the audience up.
As we said, no two situations are the same. Very often the situation will involve a combination of these techniques. The comedian or actor on stage senses audience energy and works with it.
Tips for self-directing a funny script
So, when you’re self-directing, with NO audience, how do you know? Boil it all down to these tips:
1. Use the Joker card. If there’s one common thread in all this, it’s that the listener is following your story, assuming they see (in their mind) what you’re describing, then suddenly they realize you’re describing something else. Your listener is anticipating, even racing you to get to the punch line. But you know the joke, they don’t. Before you play that last card, hold up a moment. Let them stew, if only for a few milliseconds.
2. Play the surprise card. How long should you delay? Just long enough that you’ve acquired their attention, but less time than it takes them to think. You should play the surprise card a split second before they can come up with it themselves. This causes not just surprise, but also embarrassment (that they couldn’t predict your next words). Both are key ingredients in humor.
3. Play it for all it’s worth. Some humor is delivered deadpan. Some involves a certain style. When it’s deadpan (no special emphasis on words, no particular excitement in the voice), the payoff (the surprise) in effect causes the listener to say (to themselves), “Why didn’t I think of that?” or “Hey, what’d he say?” But sometimes a little push helps. For example, when George Carlin made his observation about ironically ubiquitous drug store signs, he didn’t just say “drugs.” He said it loud, stretched-out and in a comic voice: “D -R-U-G-S!”
4. Know when to hold ’em. Once you’ve delivered the punch line, allow time for reaction. In a live-audience situation, the reaction may be immediate, or it may be delayed (as the meaning, or even the fact that you’ve told a joke sinks in). From experience, the actor or comedian knows when to wait or the laugh, and then resumes as the laughter begins to die down. (Or, if the laugh doesn’t come, the actor knows to press on.). Alone in a sound booth, you’ll need to do the same. To develop this sense, observe comedians at work, as well as observing your own natural reactions when watching or listening to humor.
Another way to hone your timing (these are not mutually exclusive) is to be observant.
For example, watch this Tim Conway interview on Conan, which includes part of his classic “Dentist” sketch. The sketch is a classic and the whole scene is hilarious. But much of it is visual humor. Timing is still very much involved, but as instruction, it may not relate well to voice acting. Instead, watch how Conway plays the audience and the other two people on stage. The laughs don’t always come immediately, but Korman helps elicit them by waiting – in effect giving a clue that we just heard something funny, and we have permission to laugh.
Here’s another Tim Conway classic, about an elephant, where he breaks up the entire cast of Mama’s Family with his ad-libs. Note how each line comes a split second before one of the others is about to say something.
The funny thing in this is that Carol Burnett has the next line, but she can’t compose herself enough to deliver it. Conway, broken up himself, just waits until she’s ready, and when, after several false starts, she seems about to say her line, Conway continues his story.
In case the last line isn’t clear, Vicki Lawrence, in character as Mama, gives him a bit of his own medicine, with perfect timing as she says, “Are you sure that little a*****e is through?”
He was. And, finally, … so are we.
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The Art and Science of Comedic Timing By Thomas MacMillan