Pandora has been offering comedy for over two years now and we thought it was about time we shared some of the inner workings of our Comedy Genome Project. This month we have a guest post from our esteemed Comedy Analyst, Dave Thomason. In addition to analyzing comedy bits in his day job, Dave is a fine stand up comic in his own right. Thanks for reading!
I think it’s some sort of rule that if you’re going to talk about analyzing comedy, you have to mention that E.B. White quote: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.” I’ve been analyzing comedy at Pandora for two-and-a-half years, and I thought it would be fun to explore some of the characteristics we listen for in a typical comedy track.
In our Comedy Genome, the categories of genes I find most interesting are the ones that characterize the “Comic Hook” of a particular track. These genes try to answer the question, “What’s funny about this?” We don’t have an objective measure of funniness; a joke that you find hilarious and insightful, another person may find dull and offensive. But what we try to do is keep track of some of the most common devices comedians use in pursuit of a laugh.
Ask a random person to tell you a joke, and you’ll probably hear the comic hook of “misdirection”. This is where the comedian sets-up certain expectations and then delivers an unanticipated outcome. For example: “I just flew in from Reno…and boy, are my arms tired!” Old-timey street jokes (e.g., “a man walks into a bar…”) often employ misdirection, but you’ll see most modern comedians only use it every once in a while. A popular exception to this is Anthony Jeselnik who, despite his edgy subject matter, uses a very traditional set-up & punchline / bait & switch joke structure.
Another comic hook we track is “stupidity”. It’s a very basic human instinct to laugh at other peoples’ dumb behavior. Some of the more self-deprecating comics get laughs by telling stories of times when they’ve acted foolish. The comedian Brian Regan is famous for his “dumb-guy” voice, which he often uses as sort of an impression of himself to emphasize his own stupidity. But being self-deprecating isn’t a prerequisite to using this comic device; comedians who do characters and impressions get the same sort of laugh by being foolish while portraying someone else.
By far, the most common comic hooks used by modern comedians are “juxtapositions & exaggeration”. Today’s most popular stand-up comedians are defined by their unique point-of-view, and their bits are typically discussions of a particular topic or observation rather than a simple set-up & punchline. The humor in this sort of material comes through in the way that they describe or portray certain details of the world around them. They may juxtapose two concepts (e.g., Richard Pryor comparing Doberman dogs to the girl in the Exorcist), exaggerate some characteristic (e.g., Maria Bamford’s excessively loud impression of her dad clearing his throat), or imagine a ridiculous situation (e.g., Al Madrigal portraying the selection of a day laborer outside of a Home Depot as a Dating Game Show). Our gene for this comic hook intends to identify all of these instances where the comedian gets a laugh by presenting a ludicrous thought or image.
These are the comic hooks that today’s comics use most frequently, but we have several more in the Comedy Genome. We’re proud to be giving comedy the academic treatment it deserves! Our Genome provides a lot of insight into the many different ways people can make other people laugh.