The Art Of Stand Up Comedy

BLOG: 24th October 2019

In Session One of the Workshop at Burdalls Yard on October 3rd I made various references to DYNAMICS and the RELATIONSHIP to the FOURTH WALL. Here are the original texts on the subject from my book ATTITUDE. Probably as concise as I have ever conceived it.

The Now Agenda



A stand-up comedy performance involves direct communication with an audience. Performing rather than acting.

The Actor is playing a role. The deceit is known. The Actor and the audience have a contract - The actor plays a role and the audience suspends its disbelief and agrees to be transported to the time and place of the play and watch the action through an imaginary Fourth Wall. As soon as the play is over, the contract ends and everybody applauds and waves at each other.

A raconteur comedian walks on stage relatively naked and speaks directly to the audience in the first person. There is no contract only a nebulous agreement that the performance is spontaneous and authentic. Even though the set-piece jokes, skits and monologues may be learned word for word, the audience will over-look such constructs so long as they get to laugh and feel included.

Stand-up comedians, when telling a story or describing an event, may chose to erect a temporary fourth wall and inhabit their musings, memories and imaginings by acting out a character, short scene or conversation. But whatever the frequency and duration of these fragments, they will constantly return to directly addressing the audience by briefly sharing the implications of what's being said, with passing comments, rhetorical questions, and facial muggings. The audience are spoken to, conferred with and confided in, and more importantly their responses are acknowledged. Consequently the timing, placing or even the inclusion of some of these asides to the room will vary from moment to moment, gig to gig; as will the amount of additional material and the moments of pure improvisation.


Stand-up comedy therefore has two agendas - performing prepared material; plus all the business of delivering it to this audience on this particular occasion.

This double agenda has been described by comedian Ken Dodd as Then and Now. "A funny thing happened to me on my way to the theatre (Then). Oh yes! You can laugh, Mrs. And I wish the rest of you would."(Now).

The 'Now agenda' defines stand-up comedy. To deal with the ‘Now’ and assist with just about everything else, it’s important to have at least a competency badge in two basic clown techniques.


The outrageous costume and antics of a clown create a range of immediate reactions: adults point and smile, children laugh, and toddlers are mesmerised, traumatised or burst into tears. Clowns thrive in this state of affairs. They happily drop their token business and start to improvise, switching playfully between two distinct modes of expression - Mimicry: aping, ridiculing, and generally sending up their subjects; and Mugging: Sharing exaggerated little cameos of their own feelings with the audience via looks, double takes and visual asides. The greater the response, the more opportunity for creative play - re-working the familiar and experimenting with the immediate. Juggling and riding a unicycle need be no more than an intro - an excuse to perform.


Historically in low-budget touring Shakespearean theatre, the actor manager (usually a barnstorming old ham) playing the lead role, would be left standing in the last act, downstage centre, booming out the final speech. Strewn all round him were his cast, in the minor roles, slaughtered, playing dead, bored, thinking about last orders down the pub and suppressing fits of giggling. Hence corpsing.


Corpsing is a simple 'Now" technique that can assist a performer in all sorts of situations. While introducing a joke or funny story the well-timed corpse can build expectation "I'm laughing just thinking about telling you this story." After a punchline a corpse can mark time while the audience laughter subsides "Yes. That is so funny I can understand why you're still laughing".

Clearly it's a deceit at the edge of reality and should be used sparingly, although not everyone believes that; there's always one isn't there? Billy Connolly has developed an infectious corpsing style of delivery, which he indulges continually to the extent that it is an important element of his core stage persona. Attitude: Giggling, gregarious stage-Glaswegian oik. You'd have to see his stage act three times to make a decent guess as to how much of it is random. My reckoning would be that it's well over 90% embedded in routine and varies only in degree. Its effect however is to establish and sustain a very engaging 'now' performance.


When performers employ devices like corpsing that involve switching personas and shifting from one seemingly authentic emotional state to another, and manage to extricate themselves from embarrassing situations, they inevitably expose the entire performance for what it is - a performance, and not the authentic communication it pretends to be. This aspect of the performer's art with its echoes in our own often deceitful emotional behaviour, is I believe, the seedshit of a blossoming taboo against the deconstruction of stand-up comedy, epitomised by the myth that "You can either do it or you can't do it, but you certainly can't learn it or teach it."


At Hood Fayre in the early eighties, I watched in awe as the Fool, Jonathon Kay was introduced on to the main cabaret stage. It was a long walk from the wings to the mic and it took him several minutes. He stopped on entering and waited for the spotlight to find him. He grinned and acknowledged us and the situation. He was then drawn to the edge of the stage by someone giggling in the front row. He mimicked them and mugged his thoughts to the rest of us. He mimed questions, translated answers and suggested scenarios all without saying a word. By the time he’d reached the mic and finally spoke, he had us believing that some of those in the front row were half asleep having danced all night, some were stoned, one was sulking because their tent had collapsed, another was shy, one was coming on to him and several were up for anything because they’d been drinking competitively. We laughed at every gesture and expression and at every familiar reference. We laughed at his delicacy, daring, lightness of touch, impishness, sense of mock propriety and we laughed because we were being reminded of the simple joy of creative play.


All successful performers use scaled down versions of these basic techniques. Mugging is an elegant shorthand for expressing who you are and what you feel. At his best, Frankie Howerd’s mugging was masterful – Attitude encapsulated in a veritable armoury of salacious lip-puckering glances, eyebrow-raising asides, pleas for sympathy and looks of world–weary resignation to the room.

'Addressing the Now' can sometimes require more than just a cursory 'working the room'. There are those occasions when an external event so demands attention, that a failure to deal with it reveals the deceit and nullifies the potency of the live performance. For the comedian this amounts to a dereliction of duty. (Further reading Pages 31-32 Attitude.)