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What is comedic timing?

By BBC Maestro

Comedy
Last updated: 16 March 2023

Whether you want to do stand-up comedy, or simply want to get better at telling stories and doing presentations, there’s one secret ingredient that will help you: comedic timing. 

But what exactly is it? How can it make you better at telling jokes? And how can you improve your comedic timing? Let’s find out below.

What is comedic timing?

When you see a really great comedian perform live, you’ll notice they have something special that sets them apart from others. A certain je ne sais quoi.

It’s not that their jokes are necessarily funnier – although that helps, of course. It’s usually that they have great comic timing.

So, what is it, exactly?

Put simply, comedic timing is the art of telling a joke so that it lands exactly right. It’s using pace and rhythm to heighten the effect of a joke. If you get it right, you can get a big laugh from your audience. Get it wrong, and you run the risk of the joke falling flat.

One method of comic timing which everyone knows about is leaving a pause before delivering the punchline of a joke. Sacha Baron Cohen highlights this technique in his film Borat. The eponymous Borat is trying to learn how to tell a joke and visits a humour coach for guidance. The coach tries to teach him how to tell a ‘not’ joke. An example of a 'not' joke is when you say a statement or question that sounds as though it is humorous but in fact isn’t, so you pause after you say it and then say ‘not’. In the scene referenced, and in typical Borat style, he doesn’t get the delivery quite right.

That gives you a good idea of how comic timing can be used – but it’s not quite as simple as leaving a pregnant pause before you deliver the punch line, every time. That works for some jokes, but audiences have come to expect it now. So good comic timing is much more nuanced than that. It’s more intuitive and each joke needs slightly different comic timing for it to achieve the maximum impact.

A microphone

What are the main aspects of comic timing?

There are a few key factors you need to think about when it comes to comedic timing if you’re doing stand-up comedy:

  1. The pregnant pause: As we’ve already mentioned, one of the most familiar aspects of comic timing is the pause (known as a ‘beat’) before delivering the punchline.
  2. The pause after the punchline: Once you’ve delivered a joke, it’s usually a good idea to pause to let the audience catch up. It may take a couple of moments for our brains to catch up with a clever punch line, and pausing after a joke also allows the laughter to dissipate, so your audience doesn’t miss your next joke.
  3. Your pacing and rhythm: Take too long to deliver a joke and the audience may lose interest – unless, of course, that’s your comic persona and they expect it from you. Alternatively, if you talk too quickly, the audience might miss key elements of your set-up, meaning the joke doesn’t land.
  4. Building on your punchline: Do you just tell one joke and leave it at that? Or can you do something unexpected, by building on your punchline to take the joke in a different direction? Adding an additional joke quickly, when your audience doesn’t expect it, can get a big reaction and lots of laughs.

Most important of all, though, is being able to read your audience and anticipate what they want. If you do a stand-up show two nights in a row, you could get two completely different audiences – and two completely different sets of reactions to your jokes.

As Billy Connolly says in his online comedy course, “audiences are good if you’re good. You have to turn it on and do it for them. They’re not mugs!”

In other words, you must put in the work to get a laugh from your audience. Just because your perfectly set-up joke with a long pause before the punchline worked for an audience in Dundee doesn’t mean it’ll work for the next night’s audience in Carlisle.

 “If you say the same words in the same order night after night, not only will you eventually bore yourself, but the audience will sense it.”

Comedic timing isn’t just about you as a performer – it’s also about your audience.

Why is comedic timing important?

Comedic timing is the secret to comedy success. But why is it so important?

Firstly, your timing is part of what makes a joke ‘good’ or not. Sometimes, the joke itself isn’t even that funny – but your timing and pace make it land well.

It also helps to set audience expectations. Good jokes often rely on the element of surprise – comedians subvert expectations in the punchline. But for the surprise to work, our brains need to have first understood what’s being said. That’s why the pregnant pause is such a well-used technique, as it allows the audience to comprehend the set-up of the joke, before twisting it and taking it in a different direction with the punchline.

Pauses, of course, also give the audience time to laugh before you launch into the next joke. Good comic timing also enables you to get into a rhythm.

The structure of your set dictates your timing to some degree. How long do you want to spend setting up a joke? Do you want to take five minutes setting the scene and building up to a big reveal, only to deliver a really mundane punchline? Some people would find comedy in that. Or do you want to deliver one-liner after one-liner? Others would enjoy this too. It’s up to you to develop your own sense of comic timing and find out what works for your style, and your audiences.

An empty stage

How to have good comedic timing 

While some people naturally have great timing and everything they say seems to be hilarious, for most comedians, it’s something that they’ve actively worked on over the years. So, how can you improve your comic timing?

Practice

Practice makes perfect. Your favourite comedian, who delivers jokes with effortless ease? They’ve learned the art of making it look easy.

“A lot of work and preparation has gone into that seemingly easy performance,” says Billy Connolly. “They’re just so practised and experienced that they’ve learned the art of making it look simple. The truth is that those lines have been honed, refined over time and they’re just successfully hiding the working-out.”

Don’t just practise your jokes, though. You should also practise how you deliver them. Play around with telling them in different ways and setting them up differently until you find the timing that works best.

Learn your material – but don’t fall into the trap of just reading a script to your audience.

“Once you’ve written it, throw it away. Stand-up isn’t a speech. It’s real, it’s messy, it’s chaotic. Go on stage knowing your punchline, but not knowing how you’re going to get there. Know the crucial information that you need in your set-up, and find your way through the story. That way you’ll tell the story, rather than reciting it.”

Telling a story rather than reciting it is one of the best ways to connect with your audience – plus it gives you the opportunity to tweak your set as you gauge how they’re responding to it. That means you can adapt your timing as well, getting to the punchline faster if you think you need to or taking a more circuitous route to get to the laughter.

Develop your stage presence

One of the reasons that beginner comedians stick closely to the script is because they don’t have the confidence to deviate from it. Part of that confidence comes from developing a strong stage presence.

Stage presence is all about building confidence, connecting with your audience and being in the moment. You can even develop a stage persona if that helps you to deliver your set more confidently. All of these things will help you to hone your comic timing and help you to go off-piste with your set when you sense it’s not quite working.

Billy Connolly recommends mixing it up and ‘breaking your set’ – the act of deliberately sabotaging your own comedy in order to see if you can improvise new ways of expressing old jokes. He says:

“Throw in some banana skins for yourself. Go off on a tangent. Talk about something new. Head off for a new punchline and see what happens. Just remember to do so with chutzpah, safe in the knowledge that your audience will still like it if you own it.”

Learn from others

As a comedian, it’s crucial to study the craft. Learn from what other comedians have done in the past and understand how they’ve set up jokes and perfected their own comic timing. As Billy Connolly explains, it’s impossible to create a completely uninfluenced form of comedy:

“All comedians (indeed all artists) are a blend of influences from people they admire; reinterpretations of performance techniques, voices and gag shapes that have themselves evolved from other performers throughout history. It’s not just recommended to be influenced by other comics who you respect and admire; it’s essential.”

So, watch other comedians, learn how they do it and take influence from their comic timing – but be careful not to cross the line into stealing jokes.

Swap ideas

If you want to know if a joke really works, ask for the opinion of another comedian. While your friends and family might reassure you that everything you say is hilarious, your fellow stand-ups will tell it like it is.

Sharing ideas and asking for advice on your comic timing can help you to spot what isn’t working, and what needs further development.

 

There’s no exact formula for comic timing – it’s something you’ll develop naturally the more you tell jokes and interact with different audiences. So don’t be afraid to get out there and give it a go.

Want to discover more tips about comedy from one of the very best in the industry? Check out Sir Billy Connolly’s comedy course, designed to give you the knowledge and confidence to write, develop and perform your own stand-up comedy.

 

A collection of BBC Maestri including Julia Donaldson, Alan Moore and Edgar Wright displayed alongside some gift boxes with orange bows

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