I think it’s one of those things where you know what it is when you see it, but you can’t quite define it concretely. Is it the “pregnant pause” right before the punchline? I think it is one thing which the recent Simpsons episodes are missing-the jokes come a little too quick, there no room for the gag to “breathe”. Is that it?
I think it’s either how long you wait before delivering punchline or how quickly you can chime in with something witty in a more spontaneous and casual setting.
A good joke has a rhythm to it. You need to allow the proper amount of time for the setup to sink in before delivering a precise dose of cognitive dissonance. It’s even more important if you’re going for jokes on top of jokes – you have to wait for your audience to get the first joke, but not long enough so they start analyzing it and missing teh funnay on the next one.
“What’s the most important thing for a comedian to know?”
"I don’t know. What’s – "
There are many variations on what sort of timing works for what comedian. It depends on the jokes and style.
I suspect that the fast pace and timing of the Simpsons and other adult cartoons is on purpose; if kids see part of it, it goes right over their heads and off to the next OBVIOUS joke.
A famous good example comes from Jack Benny, whose character was a famous skinflint.
Benny is in an alley, and robber comes up to him and pulls a gun.
Robber: Your money or your life!
Pause for a few seconds.
Rober - louder now: Your money or your life!
Benny: I’m thinking, I’m thinking.
The timing makes this joke.
I’ve found it works well if it’s like this:
'Ask me what’s the most important thing for a comedian to know.
If the comedian asks the question, he’s liable to just get ‘What?’, which leaves no time for the punchline.
“What’s the most important thing for a comedian to know?”
It helps if you stare at the other guy disconcertingly while you wait, as well.
I think the reason a lot of comedies succeed or fail is not down to the jokes or performances, but the editing. If you don’t have an editor or director who recognises good comic timing, it can totally screw up a show or film.
What I find is that jokes in comics that I don’t find funny are hilarious when delivered with the proper timing. I think the comics assume a slower reading level, as I find more nerdy comics hilarious.
My favorite example of the importance of timing is from the movie Spinal Tap. People love to quote the bit about the amplifier that “goes to 11”, but the fact that the knobs go to 11 isn’t funny. The funny is the pause. The IMDB quote section has it as:
Marty DiBergi: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?
Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.
…but that [pause] should actually be expanded to:
[Nigel pauses with an utterly cow-like expression on his face indicating a complete lack of understanding of the thing Marty DiBergi just said] These go to eleven.
The pause is the joke.
I think, if we’re analyzing it, the thing is you want to give the audience just enough time to almost, but not quite figure out what the punchline is going to be. Ideally I suppose the punchline should hit exactly as I figure it out, but it’s risky because if you’re a split second too late you’re completely screwed.
Timing is 90% of comedy. You can ruin fantastically clever jokes with poor timing, but you can make reading the phonebook hilarious if you have excellent timing.
This is one reason I didn’t hate Dane Cook at the start of his career, as much as he might deserve it. His sense of delivery and timing is utterly hilarious. Daniel Tosh is another with pitch-perfect timing; what he actually says is horrific, but the way he says it can have me crying with laughter.
One of the best jokes to try for the timing is:
An individual human being goes back to the doctor to receive the results of recently run extensive tests. This exchange ensues:
P: Okay, Doc, what can you tell me?
D: Well, it’s not very good news. You have a fast-spreading global cancer that is destroying your vital organs at a terrifying pace.
P: Jesus, Doc. Is there anything you can do?
D: Afraid not. It’s terminal and there’s not even an effective treatment or surgery that would slow it down.
P: Well, Doc, how long do I have?
P: Ten what? Years? Months? Weeks? Days?
A variation of the joke mentioned above is “You know why some people don’t tell jokes welltiming.” Through the word “well,” the sentence is inflected as a question and then the word “timing” has to be spit out before the word “well” has fully escaped.
Last night’s episode of Big Bang Theory had a moment of fantastic timing from Jim Parsons (Sheldon). Someone mentions Adam West, and Penny of course asks, “Who’s Adam West?” Parsons’ head snaps up so quickly in shock that what should have been an amusing moment was very, very funny. If he had waited another couple of milliseconds it would have looked like an obvious gag. Instead, it looked like an honestly shocked and appalled reaction on the character’s part.
Jim Parsons is really the reason Big Bang Theory works as well as it does. Yes, Sheldon is a caricature, and more often than not he’s painfully over the top. But Parsons’ acting, and particularly his timing, is so good that he can sell average jokes and gags and make them funnier than they should be.
Sometimes, it’s easier to notice when timing is OFF than when it’s working.
At my bachelor party, back in the mid-Eighties, I saw a teenage Chris Rock performing at a club called the Comedy Cellar. He was absolutely AWFUL. Of all the comedians I saw that night, he was the one I’d have told “Pack it in, you’ll never make it in this business.” But just 2 or 3 years later, I saw him on the Arsenio Hall show doing the EXACT same jokes I’d seen him doing at my bachelor party… and he was KILLING!
The material was, apparently, good all along. What Rock didn’t have the first time was the right sense of timing, the right sense of how to work the audience. If I could play BOTH sets for you, you’d see exactly how much difference on-stage timing makes.
If you listen to old “Burns and Allen” radio, you can actually hear George Burns correct Gracie and other members of his cast. He’ll say, “No you should’ve waited. Now let’s start over, I’ll give you a beat…”
Watch Cary Grant do a take in one of his comedies (Arsenic and Old Lace, Bringing Up Baby, Operation Petticoat, etc.). One second less it would have just been a person reacting, one second longer and it would have been pointless, but as it was, it was gold. That’s timing.
Yeah, you can’t boil it down to a simple “it’s the pause.” Some times it’s the lack of a pause, sometimes it’s drawing the pause out longer than would ever happen in real life.
Take a look at the classic “Driving Test” clip from Taxi. In the first part of the clip, it’s all about Jim’s pauses – licking his pencil, shaking his head, etc. When he gets to the actual joke (“What does a yellow light mean?”) you’ll see that there’s no pause between the answer (“Slow down.”) and his response (“Okay.”) What doubles the power of the joke is that Jim’s response time is normal, but he just doesn’t get it.