The Use of Timing to Make Your Humor Connect
Humor is more than just words.
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
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
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
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
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
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!
Copyright 2006 by John Kinde
You may republish this article with the following credit line:
"Copyright by John Kinde, who is a humor specialist in the training and speaking business for over 30 years specializing in teambuilding, customer service and stress management. Free Special Reports: Show Me The Funny -- Tips for Adding Humor to Your Presentations and When They Don't Laugh -- What To Do When the Laughter Doesn't Come. Humor Power Tips newsletter, articles and blog are available at www.humorpower.com."