Nine Levels of Laughter — Humor and Public Speaking

The first time I remember hearing about different types of laughter was at a Jim Richardson comedy workshop.  He talked about small laughs (about a second) which he called titters.  A good, solid laugh was anything between 2-4 seconds, as I remember.  And five seconds or more was a big laugh, a belly laugh.  A professional comic is shooting for as many big laughs as possible and at least four good laughs a minute.  The pro designs a stand-up routine with a typical structure of two set-up lines followed by a punchline.  An even better pace is one set-up line followed by a punchline.

Here are some of my thoughts on Levels of Laughter as they relate to using humor as a public speaker, from the low levels to the high:

1.  Pillar Of Salt.  This is the response of someone who doesn’t think your humor is the least bit funny.  Like a stone statue they react by silently looking at you as though you were invisible.

2.  Poker Face.  This is the person who thinks what you said was funny but you would never guess it from the expression on his or her face.  It might be someone like me, a North Dakota Norwegian introvert.  Someone who loves humor but who isn’t especially expressive.  When attending a humorous speech contest, I’ve occasionally told a friend who was competing not to look at me as a measure of what was funny.  At a comedy club in Montgomery, Alabama, the headliner comic stopped his act, looked at me and said, “Are you having a good time?”  “Yes,” I replied.  “Well then…tell your face!”  In an interview for an article in Speaker Magazine (March 2007), Dan Thurmon observed that when watching a humorous presentation, it’s not unusual to see the “comics and humorists look at each other very seriously and say, ‘Now that’s funny.'”  You need to remember that the Pillar Of Salt reaction doesn’t mean you’re bombing.  It may just be the habitual style of behavior for some of the members of your audience who are enjoying your funny lines.  Not that all funny people are Poker Faces.  S Frank Stringham, an amazingly funny guy and good friend, is also someone who will be the biggest laugher when he’s in your audience.  Some funny people are expressive, some aren’t.  Don’t let it throw you.

3. The Smile.  The next level up is the person who thinks something is funny and reacts by smiling.  No laughing out loud.  I’ve heard it said that Grouch Marx, a very funny guy, was never seen laughing in public.  I can’t find a reference for that, and maybe it’s just an urban legend.  But I do remember seeing him as the host of his TV show, Your Bet Your Life, where he was always reacting to funny comments from his guests with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, never a laugh.  It’s what I call The-Knowing-Look.  He was saying, “Yes, I know that’s funny…and I know…that you know…that I know it’s funny!”  But then YOU never know for sure when watching the people in YOUR audience.  Sometimes you receive a smile from a polite Pillar Of Salt who doesn’t think your humor is the least bit funny.  Don’t let it throw you. Assume the best.

4.  The Titter.  This is the small one second laugh.  The giggle.  The chuckle.  A speech filled with nothing but titter reactions is a speech filled with weak humor.  A titter here and there is fine.  But a steady diet of titters will make you a starving humorist.  Also, be aware that nervous laughter often comes in the form of titters.  If you’re delivering humor that’s slightly on the edge, or off-color, you’re likely to receive more than your share of titters.  But remember, a portion of your titters will come from the Poker Faces, and from them it’s a signal that your material IS funny.  I’ll occasionally let out a light laugh watching a Jay Leno or David Letterman monologue.  I seem to do that more often, laugh out loud, the older I get.  As my dad became older, the more he laughed.  Maybe I’m turning into my dad.  If you’re getting lots of titters, assume the best, but aim higher, for a larger number of bigger laughs from the audience as a whole.

5.  Solid laugh.  This would be our ideal goal, a solid laugh, or better than that, each time we deliver a funny line from the platform.  Two to four seconds of laughter is a solid laugh, above and beyond a nervous titter.  But we know from our own experiences that what is funny to one person is not funny to someone else.  Although I tend to be more reserved than the average person, there are times I’ll react with a big laugh.  One of my favorite funny movies is There’s Something About Mary.  Although it had some lame moments (the zipper scene early in the movie is one that comes to mind), I probably laughed harder at this movie than any other I’ve attended.  I loved the scene where he threw the flaming dog out the window.  Now I’m sure many people didn’t find that as funny as I did.  And maybe there was more at play than I realized when I was watching that scene in the movie.  Maybe there were factors involved such as what was happening in my life on that particular day.  I’ve not watched it a second time, hopefully I’d find it as funny again, but then I might not.  When you’re a speaker, your audience members have their own personal influencing factors happening in their lives.  The science of laughter is not simple.  I remember going to the first Austin Powers movie (the only one I’ve been to).  About half way through (after the “tastes nutty” comment after taking a sip from the coffee pot), I walked out of the theater.  At the start of the film I thought, “This looks like it’ll be a terrific spoof of a James Bond film.”  The longer the film went, the lines became more and more lame.  Of course that was just MY opinion when I looked at my friend and said:  “You ready to leave?”  On the other hand, my hair stylist LOVED the film.  She thought it was one of the funniest movies she had seen in a long time.  We face this each time we speak.  In almost any audience, there will be people who love our material and people who think it’s totally unfunny.  Focus on those who love you.  They are the ones who will be giving you the solid laughs and sending you energy.

6.  Belly laugh.  This is the huge laughter response that gets five seconds or more.  On occasion, a great line will get 10 seconds.  Sometimes 20 or 30 seconds of laughter.  These are magical moments.  Relax.  Enjoy the moment.  Don’t step on your laughs.  You need to remember to let them laugh.  Although President Bush is not normally considered an exceptionally funny guy, his recent speech at the Annual Correspondents Dinner hit the mark and had several magical moments.

7.  Applause.  This is a category beyond the belly laugh and it includes laughter AND applause.  The applause is usually the audience’s way of saying, “Yeah, exactly.  Right on.  That’s so true.  I was thinking the same thing.”  Or expressing some similar thought.

8.  Beyond applause.  When the audience is almost on the verge of losing it, they’ll cough, whistle and cheer, all mixed with the laughter and applause.  I had an observational humor line speaking in Atlanta in 1983 that fell into this category.  Twenty-eight seconds of response.  These moments don’t happen often, unless you consider a quarter-century often.

9.  Loss of Control.  Laughter releases tension.  It relaxes you.  If you laugh too hard, you may have more muscles relax than you planned on.  Wit happens.  The classic “wet your pants” can happen.  It happened once (that I know of) to an audience member who was sitting in the front row during one of my comedy-magic programs.  She ran from the room laughing and shouting, “Stop! Stop! Stop!”  It’s even happened to ME.  I was thirteen and was hiding under a card table (with a sheet over it) in a home-made haunted house which we created in the garage of our home in Martinez, California.  There is a saying in the comedy business, if you repress laughter it builds up pressure within you.  That pressure has to come out one end or the other.  Of course most of us would prefer to be in a room full of people who are laughing.  Before I took my hiding place under the card table, I don’t remember if I had just enjoyed a dinner of beans or not.  But all of a sudden I became a human whoopie cushion.  Then I started to laugh.  That was a mistake.  In a matter of seconds I was doing a one-person re-enactment of the Blazing Saddles campfire scene.  I totally lost it.  A dash into the house solved the problem with a quick change into dry clothes.  The funniest thing I’ve recently seen on TV was a Whose Line Is It Anyway show with guest star Richard Simmons.  The audience members were laughing so hard they were practically falling out of their chairs.  Laugh hard enough and you will lose control.

Here Comes The Judge.  As best you can, avoid pre-judging or over-interpreting the reaction of your audience.  Even if they’re not laughing, you can assume that they’re enjoying your program and your humor, unless they’re throwing things at you.  Most people are just like me…they’re different.  And each person has a default mode of behavior.  I tend to be non-expressive.  Some are just the opposite.  An empowering frame-of-mind, as a speaker, is to assume that everyone is coming from a good place, is enjoying listening to you, and is enjoying your humor.  If that’s not the case, deal with it after your program, not during your program.  Happy speaking!

Copyright 2007 by John Kinde