Humor is one of the most effective tools for connecting with an audience. It builds bonds and refreshes the mind. And although the right words can make people laugh, humor is more than just words. As speakers, we learn that the impact of humor is heightened by how you say it, what you do when you say it, and how you use silence…the pause. The pause adds punch to the punchline!
One of the reasons the pause strengthens your laugh lines is that it builds tension. There is a relationship between tension and laughter. It’s easier to use comic timing when you understand that relationship. So let’s examine the link.
Many humor texts tell us that laughter is a natural stress reliever because when we laugh, muscle tension melts away. It’s an involuntary reflex…when we laugh our muscles automatically relax.
It’s said that even in wartime, laughter is used to relieve tension. After a bomb explodes nearby and the dust settles, soldiers in a foxhole sometimes break out laughing. It’s one of nature’s ways of relieving the stress…a safety valve.
Several years ago I witnessed this safety valve in action. Two women were driving on a San Diego freeway directly in front of me during rush-hour traffic. Traveling at about 50 miles per hour on the rain-slicked freeway, a car to their right swerved into their lane. The driver in front of me jerked the wheel, causing her car to spin around, and around and around…three and a half times! It never left the lane and it never hit another car. The women’s car and all the other cars on the freeway came to a dead stop. But their car was facing the wrong direction…we were hood-to-hood! As I looked both women in the eyes, they burst into uncontrollable laughter. It’s clear that there is a definite relationship between tension, laughter and release of tension.
Let’s look at how the pause relates to the tension principle in delivering your humor. To begin with, if you’re deliberately building tension, which will climax in laughter, a pause will heighten the tension and make the laughter more intense. For example, the late Sid Lorraine, often called the Dean of Canadian Magicians, employed the tension principle to get laughs. Once while performing at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, he was presenting a “pitchman act,” playing the role of a “snake oil” salesman from the wild west. His voice started to crack. The longer he spoke, the worse his voice became, until he could no longer speak. Silence! Most people in the audience were thinking “Somebody please give the poor man a glass of water!” He then took a drink of his “medicine” and immediately began talking full-throttle! He had caught the audience by surprise, built the tension, extended and strengthened it with a pause, and then reaped the comic’s reward…laughter.
Years ago, when entertaining a military group in Alabama, I used the “answer man” or “Carnack” technique made famous by Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. This is where the entertainer holds an envelope to his head, gives the answer, and then opens the envelope and reads the question. I decided to build some tension enroute to the laughter.
First came the set-up. “The answer is Oscar Meyer, Ball Park and a fighter pilot.” After opening the envelope, I said, “And the question is…name three hot dogs!” By itself, this was a fairly funny line for a group of Air Force officers, some of whom were fighter pilots. But I used it primarily for setting up the joke to follow.
Holding the next envelope to my head, I said, “The answer is…Oscar Meyer, Ball Park and General Willis.” Pause! The tension built to an audible gasp, people thinking “He’s going to call the General a hot dog!” This especially got a strong reaction because their new commander, General Frank Willis, had taken command only three weeks earlier. Opening the envelope, I said, “And the question is (pause) name three franks!” Pause. Tremendous laughter (and relief) filled the room. I built the tension, used the pause to enhance the tension before the punchline, and then used the pause again to let the punchline sink in.
Of course there are times when tension is not built through words or a story line. Even then, the magical pause can strengthen the punchline. When used before the punchline, a pause sets up the anticipation of “here comes the funny stuff!” Anticipation is a form of tension. The impact of the punchline is enhanced by adding a tension relief.
The pause plays another important role when used just before the punchline. The most important part of the joke is the punchline and more specifically the punchword. The pause focuses attention on this key element. The well-placed and timed pause will help ensure that the audience hears the punchline.
The pause also lets people laugh. Years ago, a friend commented, “I’ve figured out why you’re so funny…you insist that we laugh!” She meant that a confident speaker delivers the punchline and pauses for the laughter because he or she knows it will follow. Novices often deliver the punchline and then nervously race on if the laughter doesn’t immediately follow. So dare to be quiet, allow the audience enough time to respond and your humor will hit the mark.
We also use the pause to let our listeners enjoy the laughter to its fullest. Don’t step on the laughs by interrupting the laughter while it’s building. And don’t wait until the laughter has totally ended to resume speaking. An audio tape of your presentation will tell you if you’re discouraging laughter by resuming your talk too soon.
Additionally, you can magnify a funny line by using the pause to accentuate your physical delivery. For example, you might raise your eyebrows. Sometimes the pause can be used to do a “take”–a physical reaction to the situation. Johnny Carson and Jack Benny were masters of a slow take or glance to the right or left to make a line even funnier. Some stand-up comics pause to extend the laughter by making a slow, sweeping eye contact with the audience, from one side of the room to the other.
Yes, silence adds power to the punchline because it heightens the tension. A brief pause gives the audience time to recognize the humor and then react to it. And it draws attention to your physical delivery. So use silence to strengthen your humor and lift laughter to new levels!