Does humor play best with the lights up…or with the lights down? I’ve written on this topic before. Let me add some additional thoughts.
You have two areas of concern for lighting. First, the lighting for the stage or the performance area. And second, the lighting for the audience area.
We also need to recognize that sometimes you can control the lighting, sometimes you can’t. For example, if you’re performing in a comedy club, it’s unlikely you’ll have much control over the lights. They normally like to have the audience in the dark with bright spots on the stage. If you want something different, you can ask, but be prepared to be happy with whatever they give you.
LIGHTING THE STAGE
Although there are different lighting considerations depending on whether you’re doing a stand-up comedy routine or giving a humorous speech with a message…you will almost always want the stage well lit.
We are creatures of habit. We are used to watching stand-up comedy in a dark room with bright spotlights on the stage. When the show starts, we’ve been conditioned to “get ready to laugh” when the house lights go down and the stage lights go up.
The stage or speaking platform should always be well lit, even for a speech. I’d never suggest a totally dim-lit room, which would include the stage. The speaker or performer must always be clearly seen. And optimal lighting makes the stage brighter than the audience area in most all cases. That directs focus to the stage and ensures that the audience can pick up subtle expressions.
LIGHTING THE AUDIENCE
Laughter is contagious. People are inclined to laugh if they HEAR others laughing and also if they SEE others laughing. When it comes to generating good laughs, the hearing is more important than the seeing…but together they have a synergistic effect to maximize the humor when something funny is presented. Hearing and seeing other people laughing creates a sense of community. That’s good for increasing the laughter. And that’s more likely to happen if the audience is somewhat lit, rather than sitting in the dark.
However, in a comedy club, just as we are trained to expect the spotlights on the stage, we are also expecting to have the house lights dimmed. The audience is often sitting in the dark. If the house lights were on, it would seem strange. It wouldn’t feel right. We would probably laugh less. We’re pre-programmed to laugh in a comedy club’s dark room. Almost any Las Vegas show is performed with the audience un-lit.
Another reason for playing stand-up comedy in the dark is that stand-up comedy frequently includes borderline subject material: Sex, bodily functions, body parts, and non-PC subject matter. A dark room gives us the “privacy” to laugh at something with less concern about being watched and judged. So in that context, a dark room plays best for comedy-club humor.
In my opinion, there is a difference in optimal audience lighting for stand-up comedy performances and public speaking situations. My experience has taught me that speech humor plays best in a room where the audience is lit. Not sunshine bright…but light enough for the audience members to easily see each other. When I hit a punchline, I want people to hear and SEE others laughing. It magnifies the laughs.
And your subject material in a “speech” is usually (and should be) in good taste…so the self-consciousness issue is less of a factor when you are a public speaker with a message rather than a comic doing joke-joke-joke.
In making your lighting choices, you might consider the “performance” aspect of your program. If you’re putting on a “show” and your primary goal is to entertain your audience, a darker room for the audience may be appropriate. This helps match the ambiance with what is expected by the audience. If you’re doing lots of comedy, and maybe some magic, the audience will be placed into the laughing mode quicker if they are in a darker room. That’s what they’re used to when enjoying professional comedy.
On the other hand if you’re doing a motivational after-dinner talk…humor with a message…people will likely be relaxing, connecting, finishing their meal and coffee. Some light on the audience is a good thing. The light in the room helps establish a connection between the speaker and the audience. A speech is never a monologue, it’s always a two-way conversation. But the feedback from the audience is not normally spoken. Eye contact in a lit room strengthens the delivery, drives home the humor, and helps the speaker.
There are pros and cons when it comes to speaking in a light or a dark room. Be aware of the factors, make intelligent choices, and study the effect of your lighting environment on the reaction of your audience. It will help you make smart choices the next time you speak.