Monday, December 14, 2009

The 4 Differences Between Stand-Up Comedy and Humorous Speaking

On Monday night, I was interviewed by fellow speaking expert Felicia Slattery on the subject of using humor in public speaking, and specifically regarding my book, Go Ahead and Laugh.

Among the many subjects we discussed were the differences between stand-up comedy and humorous speaking. I see four distinct differences that keep these two skill sets separate:

1) Intent

Stand-up comedy's goal is to create nothing but laugh after laugh. Humorous speaking still focuses on an overall message, a call to action, which is punctuated by comedy.

2) Rhythm

Effective stand-up comedians look for laughter 4-8 times per minute, whereas effective humorous speakers may have some minutes with several laughs sandwiched around several minutes with some or no laughter, depending on the topic, setting, and overall message.

3) Appropriateness

Stand-up comedy commonly steps over normal bounds of decency in both topic choice and language usage. Humorous speakers rarey have that luxury.

4) Expectations

Stand-up comics face a crowd demanding they be not just funny, but rolling on the floor funny. Audiences want to be entertained and taken as far out of their normal lives as possible. Speakers use humor to soften reality, provide a light moment, and give their audience an opportunity to relax, and allow the important points of the speech to sink in. As brilliant as Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Engvall, and Jeff Foxworthy are, they are not expected, as speakers are, to actually create a message that makes a lasting difference.

Despite the vast differences, learning stand-up comedy techniques is quite valuable to a speaker looking to use more humor in their talk. Find a local comedy club that features an open mic night, jot down a 2-3 minute routine, and take your speaking skills out for a spin on a new track. You'll quickly discover what works and what doesn't, you'll pick up comedic timing, and you'll learn how to read and react to an audience - all skills that will add to your current platform talents.

Just as valuable as putting yourself in front of others is taking notes on your 'competition', and Headliners that appear later that evening, or later in the week. Learn from their laugh lines, listen for their patterns, and take notes on their 'saver' techniques: how they save themselves from humor that doesn't work.

If nothing else, check out YouTube for comedians and get your notepad out. Bill Cosby is one of my favorites because he often walks the tightrope between humorous speaking and stand-up comedy. A masterful story-teller, it's easy to forget he is still, at heart, a comedian vs. a speaker.

While the worlds of stand-up comedy and humorous speaking are in different orbits, the more comfortable you become with telling humorous stories, using funny situations and phrasing, and finding the humor in your speaking, the better you'll be when you work to Speak...and Deliver.


  1. Interesting article! I think George Carlin did a great job of blurring this line. In some of his bits, I'm not sure whether his main intent is to make you laugh, or make you think.

    He certainly gets laughs at the stand-up rhythm, but doesn't sacrifice his point to do so.

    Goodness knows he violated #3 with regularity.

    And I think his audience actually expects to hear politically-charged thought-provoking content. While ostensibly it's a night of stand-up, in my opinion the arguments he makes are as compelling as any good debater.

    See what I mean here:

    When somebody can walk the line well, it's a great way to hold focus while you make your points. I think it's a great tip to have people learn by watching standup.

    We tried to get outside of the box and walk that line to some degree with our Chamber mixer event. Instead of a dry elevator speech, we tried to incorporate humor to get attention, but at the same time hoped that our message would get through. It's possible we sacrificed the latter for the former, but people certainly know our names now. Check it out here:

    Keep up the great work,

  2. I watched almost all Youtube standup videos. Can you please recommend something new for me? Maybe some website or blog. Thank you!



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