A new study suggests that the extent to which stand-up comedians succeed at entertaining their audiences is determined by how adept they are in linking humor and emotion.
“Comedy has often been seen to be a bit frivolous, but it’s actually something really important,” states Dr. Tim Miles of the University of Surrey in the UK.
“Research shows that we laugh not so much because something is objectively funny, but because we want people to like us, or we want to feel part of a group that’s laughing – it’s all about making connections.”
Dr. Miles analyzed dozens of questionnaires and interviews with comedy fans and comedians – including the likes of Russell Brand and Robin Williams – and found that both groups place a strong emphasis on “emotional experience.”
He claims that comedians and their audiences are connected by “admiration, empathy and the paradox of identification.” Put simply, this is when the audience can identify with the observations or humor made by a comedian, rather than being able to necessarily identify with them as a performer onstage.
Miles goes on to define the relationship between audience and comedian as “complex” and “symbiotic,” even going as far to suggest it is “a relationship that is, in some ways, similar to a doctor and patient.”
In the interviews Miles analyzed, he observed that comedians considered their comedy as being a kind of “therapeutic service” or “some sort of drug,” while references to medicine, therapy and “feeling better” were often made by audience members in their questionnaire responses.
In his conclusion, Miles recognizes that stand-up comedy is a performance – much in the same way that theatrical acting is – so emotional experiences are an important part of the bond between audience and performer.
He even suggests that audiences “perform,” too – their brains entering “laughter mode” whenever there is an expectation of laughter.
“My work looking at comedians and comedy audiences has shown how live stand-up comedy fulfils a need for feelings of truth, trust, empathy and intimacy between people, which is really important in a society where many people often complain about feeling isolated,” he says.
In that study, researchers showed a 20-minute humorous video to two groups of elderly people – a diabetic group and a healthy group. After watching the video, both groups were required to complete a memory test. Another group of elderly people also had to take the test but did not watch the video.
The researchers found that the groups that watched the video performed better in the memory test, compared with the group that took the test but did not watch the video. They also found that the diabetic group that watched the video registered the greatest improvement in test scores and also had more well-controlled cortisol levels.