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Understanding Performance Comedy

Part I: Deconstructing a comedic juggling routine.

Key points

  • Many performance genres can be tailored for comedic effect, including traditionally “serious” performance genres.
  • Physical humor often follows a framework where confidence gives way to anxiety and each sign of success is followed by some level of setback.
  • In a juggling performance, the audience responds with laughter at moments when the juggler intentionally draws attention to his shortfalls.

When asked to think of comedy, many of us will key in on the standards: comedic movies, television sitcoms, live stand-up comedians, and the like. But there are numerous entertainers who imbue traditionally “serious” performance genres with a humorous component. A quick search on YouTube for The Smothers Brothers, Victor Borge, or Paul Hunt will give you an idea of this type of transformation.

Here I present a cursory analysis of Frank Olivier’s performance on The Tonight Show. Click here and then open the link in new browser window.

I comment below on what Olivier did or said to inspired each bout of laughter, beginning with the time stamp at its onset. Arrows indicate moments where I consider someone’s status to have risen or lowered. As you watch, consider pausing the video after each round to see if our interpretations align.

0:34 A single audience member responds with a seemingly unwarranted "ha"↘. Several audience members laugh in response. I’ll delve more deeply into contagious laughter in the months ahead.

0:58 Olivier, juggling 5 balls↗, confesses he knows only one of “thousands of 5-ball variations.”↘

1:04 Olivier initiates a 5-ball variation↗, then points out, speaking aloud to himself, “Oh great, they don’t even notice.”↘

1:12 Olivier, juggling 5 balls↗, drops one ball. "One of these variations…4-ball juggling."↘

1:19 After saying 4 to 5 ball pick-up extremely difficult ↗, Olivier drops a second ball, "So, I thought I'd show you 3 balls to 4 balls first."↘

1:34 Olivier feigns picking up 4th ball↗ then reveals, “I missed. It’s still there.”↘

1:38 Olivier says, "But some of you were applauding, huh." Audience↘

1:41 Olivier misinterprets motive behind applause. "Thanks for the encouragement."↘

1:56 Olivier, succeeds with first pick-up.↗ "Four balls to 5 balls is near impossible…for me to do."↘

1:59 Olivier appears to accidentally kick dropped ball to edge of table, "Oh, no."↘

2:23 Olivier surreptitiously stops juggling↘ to pick up ball, then comes out juggling all 5↗. Olivier glosses over his deception, "Wow! You should have seen that.”↘

3:00 After difficult 5-ball variations ↗, Olivier reveals the next trick’s uninspired name, “The neck catch.”↘

3:05 Frantically juggling, "Right now, I'm trying to decide which one."↘

3:08 Tosses one ball up high↗, but aborts his attempt. "Up…oh, not that one."↘

Olivier finishes this portion of the performance with two successful neck catches↗ returning to the status quo.

3:34 "Light (announcer) Ed (McMahon) on fire.↘ Just a joke." The ludicrous request evokes vision of Ed being assaulted.

3:49 Olivier, nervously, regarding potential pain in his groin region. "…I'm going to perform the mounting↘…of the 6-ft. unicycle".

3:58 Olivier, in a high-pitched voice, mimics others who failed, "…the mounting of the 6-ft. unicycle."↘

4:12 Olivier assumes Carson can/will ride the unicycle.↘

4:18 Olivier suggests that there may be some risk of injury to Carson. "Good luck."↘

4:27 Olivier mounts unicycle on first attempt↗ but very unstable and in pain. "Ow!"↘

4:34 "OK Johnny…not quite yet."↘ Olivier, still feigning laughter, more unstable than ever.↘

4:51 Olivier, still struggling, has the confidence to do more than he needs. "I'd like to do my one unicycle impression…"↗

4:54 "…Joe Cocker on a unicycle,"↘ referring to a famous singer who Olivier vaguely resembles, so no real impersonation.

5:02 Olivier still flailing, "I've got it under control Johnny, bring me the torches."↘

5:08 "Wait, I'll be over in a moment."↘

5:11 Olivier misses rendezvous, "Hang on."↘

5:15 "Give me your hand", then places his hand on Carson’s head in attempt to regain balance.↘

5:35 Olivier re Carson’s face at the same level as Olivier’s rear, "We're dancing cheek to cheek."↗ Clever wordplay glosses over seemingly stalled performance.↘

5:43 Olivier still holding onto Carson’s head, "Stand up a little straighter."↘ Building laughter to applause as the “captured” Carson↘ tries to stand straight as Olivier holds onto Carson’s shoulders.

6:04 Olivier, "Heeeeere's Johnny!" Carson being controlled.↘

6:07 Olivier to Carson, "Light the torches…over here".↘ Pointing out lit torches are physical hazards.

6:10 Olivier, continuing to flounder and sensing Carson trying to leave, grabs him around neck with lit torches, "That's great but don't leave yet."↘ Flames close to Carson’s face.

6:23 Olivier leaning on Carson’s head, "You are a man of tremendous influence."↘ He goes off on a tangent ignoring Carson’s anxiety.

6:26 "Can you talk to Ed about getting me onto (his TV show) Star Search?"↘ The current opportunity is only a stepping stone to something better.

6:36 Torches near Carson’s face draw attention to threat of painful burns.↘

6:41 "Don't worry, I don't intend to hurt you, it's going to be an accident."↘

6:49 "When I let go of your head…you run." Indicates physical danger.↘

6:52 Olivier moves Carson’s head so he doesn’t have control of his body.↘

6:55 "You don't mind me using you like this? Same↘

7:10 Olivier to Carson returning to his desk, "Thanks for having me on your show."↗ Slight laughter. Carson may regret the invite and Olivier is oblivious.↘

7:16 Olivier’s “finale" clearly feigns both juggling and laughter.↘ Deception reveals Olivier’s reticence.

7:31 Olivier regarding under-the-leg throw, "Yeah, you got it."↘ Affirms upcoming trick will be both difficult and dangerous.

7:36 "This trick is entitled…the juggler… in heat."↘ Audience imagines him being burned.

7:50 Olivier successfully completes his trick and performance.↗ Status quo.

The audience responded with laughter to those moments when Olivier’s words or actions intentionally drew attention to his shortfalls. Throughout his performance, Olivier’s status ebbed and waned as his skills were first showcased and then found wanting. Confidence gave way to anxiety and each sign of success was followed by some setback. Nearly all physical humor follows this broad framework.

Physical vulnerabilities are nearly universal. They are qualities that members of every culture can identify with: injury, hunger, and thirst, or poor strength, agility, endurance, coordination, balance, sensorial acuteness, and so on. When in friendly social environments, highlighting them seems a quite reliable means of soliciting laughter.

© John Charles Simon