Reflect for a moment about all that is required for a comedian to get a laugh onstage.
It begins offstage with a barely-conscious “blip” passing through the comic’s mind: an inchoate connection between two things not normally thought connected. Recorded then promptly forgotten, the comedian’s subconscious begins to work its special brand of magic determining if there’s any “there” there. (The comedian usually needn’t check back with her subconscious as her subconscious will, when the time is right, check back with her.)
If green-lighted for the stage – most jokes aren’t, of course – the comic’s conscious mind then begins its specialty: reducing it to as few words as possible, owing to the fact that long jokes require bigger laughs than short jokes. Once put into the comedy equivalent of “legislative language”, it must be memorized, tweaked and articulated clearly and confidently as if for the first time ever instead of the third time that night.
None of the above will matter without a properly functioning microphone and sound system, which are like the tires of a car: little thought about yet absolutely essential if the audience is to meet its end of the bargain. Yes, stand-up comedy isn’t a monologue so much as a collaboration with the comedian. The audience must be engaged, meaning no blenders or loud-talking drunks in the vicinity. Even this is not enough, of course, because a comedian, like all speakers, must be interesting at all times.
And even if all of these prerequisites are met it still won’t be enough if, for example, the date is December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001. (Or, if you’re working either coast, November 8, 2016.)
So every time an audience laughs at a comedian’s joke it represents a kind of perfect storm: a functioning sound system, plainspoken English, an engaged audience, a slow news day, and an untold number of other factors. Then consider that all these things must come together over and over, every eight to fifteen seconds or so, for 45 minutes to an hour. There is no laugh track. It’s an incredibly complex constellation which falls apart with so much as the slightest hesitation in the comic’s delivery or a dropped vodka tonic in a waitress’s.
That is the magic of stand-up comedy: the guttural response of the audience making the connection between two disparate thoughts in real time, courtesy of a comedian.
It’s amazing to think that a barely-conscious thought occurring to me in the shower at home in Los Angeles can become, the very next night, a belly laugh to people thousands of miles away in, say, Philadelphia. It all makes me reflect that there’s no such thing as a bad show: only nights in which fewer miracles happen than on others.