What is meant by "comedic timing"?

Every once in a while, you will here it said of a comedian or comic actor/actress that they have the skill of great comedic timing. I’m not really sure what that means. Can anyone explain what exactly this means, ipossibly ncluding good or bad examples of comedic timing?

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What a dumb question.

Not!

If you paused for the right amount of time before reading the last line, you’d have found me hilarious!

It probably means one of two things:

  1. Having a perfect zinger suddenly on hand when a situation arises - where it’s just the perfect joke at the perfect time (you can’t be more than a few seconds late, otherwise your window of opportunity has passed.)

  2. Being able to build a crescendo of humor via slowly building up the “setting” or intensity for the punch line - there’s a skill in it, like a climax of humor and guffaws that would deflate like a balloon if it hadn’t been crested and built up first.

Knowing when to speak. The classic example is Jack Benny. A thief points a gun at him and says “Your money or your life.”
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“I said, ‘Your money or your life.’”
“I’m thinking it over.”

If Benny had come in immediately, the joke wouldn’t have been funny. It’s the pause that makes it work.

It’s a skill that all comedians have to learn – do you go right to the punchline or do you draw things out? Sometimes one works, sometimes the other does.

This John Mulaney bit on “What’s New Pussycat” is a masterclass in comedic timing. Here’s an article breaking it down.

The first example that popped into my head, an old Emo Phillips joke where he’s talking about his family sitting around the breakfast table, and his sister was sitting there with her breasts hanging out, feeding her baby.

Cereal.

It’s just not as funny without that slight pause.

And the reverse:

Knock, knock

Who’s there?

Interrupting Cow

Interrupting CoMOOOOOOO!

I imagine you could get a classic routine, like Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s On First,” to fail miserably by saying all the right words, with the right inflections, but absolutely botching the timing—the pacing and rhythm of the routine.

In Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, the villains’ spaceship is chasing the heroes’ spaceship. The lead hero gives the order “Jam their radar!”

The scene cuts to an exterior shot of a radar dish. There is a brief pause, just long enough for you to think, “Nah, too easy. Would Brooks go for a joke that obvious?”

Yes, he would. And the fact that you have just been second-guessing him makes it funnier.

In the edited-for-television version, the pause is much shorter, and the joke is not nearly as funny.

Thanks for the responses so far. John Mulaney is one of my favorite comedians and I am famiiar with “The Salt and Pepper Diner” so that helps, thanks. Also familiar with “Who’s on First” and I agree that it could be rendered less funny by changing the timing of the delivery.

What about the case of people making a joke (usually tasteless) and people say “too soon”.? Is that comedic timing or something else? And can the same joke actually be funny if enough time has passed? Examples of you have them.

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This old gag illustrates it perfectly. I first heard it in a Dick Cavett interview with Dudley Moore.

Moore: “Go ahead, ask me what’s the secret to comedy.”

Cavett: “What’s the secr–”

Moore: “Timing.”

No, it doesn’t means this. As others have said, it’s about method, execution, internal timing - how a joke is told.

Even this I think is barely encompassed by the usual definition. It’s much more your 2).

No, that’s not comedic timing. That’s more … cultural timing? Appropriateness? I dunno. That said, you can make a “too soon” type of joke and make it work.

Jokes about tragedies, for instance, need at least a little time to pass before they “should” be told, otherwise they are seen as offensive. The modern example is Gilbert Godfrey telling a 9/11 joke soon after the event of 2001, and the audience yelling out “too soon” so he just told a version of The Aristocrats joke instead, and marvelled that they found that more acceptable.

“Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” would have been treated as treasonous in 1865.

My personal hypothesis is that the perfect timing consists of the comic saying the punchline, at exactly the same moment that the audience figures it out on their own. This “constructive interference” between internal thought processes and external events produces strong and positive emotion in us, i.e., humor.

An earlier example of “too soon” would be Howard Stern’s live phone call to the reservation desk of the Air Florida airline, asking the price for a trip from Washington National airport to the 14th Street bridge the day *after *an Air Florida flight had gone down in the Potomac at the bridge.

Really, there is no time when that joke is funny, even as black humor.

He faked the call. Still in bad taste.

Ah, timing.

During the youth of my sons I saw two middle-school productions of scenes from The Taming of the Shrew. Said productions both had these lines:

PETRUCCHIO: I hear you have a daughter called Katherine, fair and virtuous.
BAPTISTA: I have a daughter, sir, called Katherine.

In one production this line got a laugh, because the kid playing Baptista made some room for it–some room for the audience to understand that he did not consider his daughter fair and virtuous.

The other kid did not get a laugh, because he did not leave room for it.

There’s more to it than timing, but timing helps.

Basically timing is about creating a dialogue.

Yes, only one person in the dialogue is talking; the performer. But the performer has to lead a member of the audience into thinking certain thoughts. So it’s a dialogue where one half is spoken and the other half is mental.

And timing is when the performer is able to respond to what the audience was thinking at the moment they’re thinking it.

If Benny hadn’t been so well known for his stinginess, that joke wouldn’t have been funny, either. It took both.