The Ideal Audience Size for Humor — Public Speaking

When speaking in public, what is the perfect audience size for delivering humor?

I generally tell Toastmasters who are competing in a humorous speech contest:  The most challenging contest is at the Club level.  As you move to the Area, Division and District, the contests get easier.  This is not only because, with practice, your speech gets better, but also because the size of the audience gets bigger.  A typical Club Contest might have ten people attending.  An Area Contest maybe 30.  A Division Contest might have 50 people.  And at a District Contest we might find 150 people.  These figures can be higher or lower depending on the District or the Region, but this example shows a typical increase in audience size as you win and move forward.

Because of the contagious nature of laughter, a larger audience is better for getting laughs from your funny lines.  Would you rather deliver humor to 10 people or 150?  Most people who have a track record with various size audiences will always pick the larger audience.

So the general answer to that is that larger audiences are usually more responsive than smaller audiences.  But that rule does not always apply.

Let’s apply the rule of extrapolation.  Let’s compare an audience size of 100 people to both larger and smaller audiences. 

Taking the principle of extrapolation to the extreme, we can draw two conclusions.  An audience of 100 is better than an audience of one.  If you want to bomb, try delivering a standup routine to one person in a comedy club.  Then try the same routine for 100 people.  Larger audiences are better.  Next let’s extrapolate in the other direction.  An audience of 100 is better than an audience of 55,000.  Try delivering your comedy routine in as an opener for a Rock Star in a sports arena.  Smaller audiences are better.  The law of extrapolation gives us the answer to the question, “Are large or small audiences better.”  The answer:  It depends.

Before I tell you that there is no magic number, let me share with you what I think is the best audience for delivering humor.  Two hundred people.  Generally, I’ll feel good going into a speech knowing that there will be between 150 and 350 people.  It’s a comfortable humor range.  But even those figures are not set in stone. 

Here are some factors that cause the ideal audience to vary in size.

The wave response. While the rule is that a larger-sized audience is usually better, as we extrapolate to higher numbers we run smack into the principle of the wave factor.  With large audience, usually starting with 400 – 1000 audience members, the audience response to the humor starts to come in waves.  One part of the audience hears the funny line first, or understands it first…another part of the audience is a little slower and their laughter kicks in as they hear the first group laughing.  If you’ve never experienced this, it can throw your timing off.  Laughter response is better if the response is unified and not coming in waves.  And here’s an example of the wave response which has nothing to do with audience size:  Bi-lingual audiences.  You tell a joke.  An interpreter translates the joke.  Those who speak your language laugh first. Those who speak the other language laugh later.  The wave response becomes a factor that influences the perfect-size audience calculation.

Size matters.  As a general rule, it’s important to have a room that is the right size for the audience.  An improv show with 75 people attending will be a dynamite show if set in a room that is the right size, that feels like a comfortable full-house.  Take the same show and move the same 75 people to a theatre that seats 600, and you’ll most likely have to downgrade your expectations for audience response.  This is why reserving the right venue for a speech, a contest, or a show, is so critical to the success of the humor. 

The shape of things.  The room could be in the shape of an L.  This would prevent many of the audience members from seeing each other.  Another shape factor is the height of the ceiling.  Generally speaking, lower ceilings trap the energy and magnify it.  At a speech for 4,000 people (like the Bill Gates speech I attended this week) will likely be in a huge ballroom with really high ceilings.  From a humor standpoint, this is not good.  It sucks the energy out of the laughter.  This is why outdoor settings are horrible for humor.

Room Arrangement.  Banquet seating can be a plus or a minus.  Round tables increase the contagious nature of laughter because people can see others in the audience laughing.  BUT if the audience is over 1000 people, theatre-style seating is much better because it concentrates the laughter rather than dilutes it in a huge banquet hall.  A heavily draped room is bad for acoustics and reduces the contagious factor because energy is absorbed by the decor. 

Humor in the Headlights.  Because of the contagious nature of laughter, a well lit room generally plays better than a dark room.  Many people mistakenly think a dark room is better because they they’re conditioned by comedy clubs with a spotlight-lit stage in a dark room.  That kind of thinking also leads people to the conclusion that sex jokes are the best way to get laughs.  Neither conclusion is correct.  We always play our comedy improv shows to a lit room.  The audience response is better.

Cohesiveness.  A small audience who knows each other is better than a large audience who are strangers to each other.  Part of this is the comfort level created in what I call a cohesive audience.  Part of this is because of the common knowledge foundation on which humor can be based.  Sometimes the cohesiveness of the audience results from the simple fact that the audience has been attending the same convention.  An audience of 100 people attending their fourth day of a convention will be a better audience for humor than an audience of 200 people attending the opening event of the same convention.  Larger is not always better.

Is humor best delivered to a larger audience or a smaller audience? 

The conclusion:

800 people seated theatre style is better than 1000 people seated banquet style.  Smaller is better.

500 people in a theater with 500 seats is better than 100 people in the same theater.  Larger is better.

100 people that speak your language is better than 300 people who speak three different languages.  Smaller is better.

800 people in a lit room is better than 300 people in a dark room.  Larger is better.

100 people from the same company is better than 200 people from all walks of life.  Smaller is better.

200 people in a room with a low ceiling is better than 100 people in a room with a low ceiling.  Larger is better.

Get the idea.  It depends.

So the optimal audience size for humor?  Between 150 – 350.  Unless the room is dark, the ceiling is high, the banquet tables are rectangular, the room is a long and narrow, nobody knows the person seated next to them, and half the audience doesn’t speak your language.  When that’s the case, the optimal size is different.