It always irks me that actors who play dramatic roles grab most of the Oscar statuettes when comedy is just as hard to pull off… if not harder. I can think of plenty of comedians who are also good at drama, but far fewer dramatic actors who have starred in successful comedies.
Okay, Oscar rant out of the way, here’s my point: comedy is an art. Humor relies not only on content (funny punchlines) but also on timing and “knowing the room.” Meaning, you have to know what will amuse the particular audience in front of you. As a visiting author, in one day, you’ll be presenting to audiences with very different funny bones.
Here are some guidelines:
Pre-K, kindergarten and first grade love physical slapstick humor and “silly humor,” like funny noises and words. Don’t worry. You needn’t be as athletic and daring as Charlie Chaplin to get a slapstick laugh. I have one spot in my program where, while searching for something in an empty bag, I put the bag on my head. Younger kids love that, even if it does ruin my hair. They also like silly humor, such as knock-knock jokes. In another part of the session, during a comical story, I talk about teachers hanging out of the windows of a school, screaming “Ahhh!” This I deliver as more of a goofy than scary sound. Younger kids always laugh at this, too.
Second and third graders are fun because they still like the silly stuff, but they have a higher vocabulary and greater cultural literacy, so they often “get” more sophisticated jokes. For instance, they would likely understand a reference to characters in well-known fairytales or TV shows. If you’re good at impressions, they’ll love that, but you’ll need to make sure you’re doing an impression of a character/person they know. They also love accents, but be careful with that. No inappropriate stereotypes, please!! But if you can do a spot-on Yoda or Golem, go for it!
Fourth through sixth grade students are not only different from their younger school mates, they can also vary widely, in their level of sophistication, from one region or even one TOWN to another. Once, during a visit to a rural region, I presented at schools that seemed identical, if you compared demographics. And yet, at one school, the older students seemed very jaded while the next day, at a school up the road, the older student assembly was one of the best I’ve ever had. I later learned that much of the success of the second visit was thanks to the librarian, who had done an amazing job of preparing the students. They had visited my website and really looked it over thoroughly, so they felt they knew me. At the first school, I’m not even sure the students knew why they were being called into the auditorium. So that points to the important of preparation for a school visit. (I’ll cover that in a later post.)
This means that with older students, it’s sometimes harder to know what to expect. Still, I have a pretty set “patter” now for my message. I know which parts will get laughs fairly consistently. With an older audience, humor relies a lot on the timing of your delivery.
I learned something new about timing and delivery some years ago, when I was in a production of TINTYPES, a musical that — at one point in the show — borrows jokes from old Vaudeville routines. None of the jokes drew huge laughs because they were originally written for a turn-of-the-20th-century audience. But one night, I suddenly discovered the magical key to big laughs for at least one joke. The secret was all in the timing and the direction in which I delivered the punch line. The set up to the punchline went something like this. My frumpy character complains about a man trying to kiss her. My fellow actor asks something like, “What was the problem?” My reply: “I hadda help him!” Badump BUMP!
When I delivered that line simply as a reply to my fellow actor’s question, directing my line to the actor, the joke got a titter but no big laughs. But one night, I paused for a “beat,” then turned my head and delivered “I hadda help him!” directly to the audience. HUGE laugh. And every night after that, as long as I used exactly that timing and delivery.
So keep that in mind if you have a joke you think is funny but isn’t landing with umph. It may be less about the content of the joke and more about your delivery. Try pausing for a “beat” (about a half second of silence) before saying the punchline. Also try turning your body sideways to the audience (as I was in that Vaudeville sketch, facing the other actor) and then turning only your face to the audience, in a very deliberate way, when you say the punchline.
And by “punchline,” I don’t mean just Bob Hope style jokes. I mean any comedic point that you intend to be humorous.
Lastly, don’t forget to use your whole body in your talk. Move around the floor (I try to avoid being up on a raised stage) using large gestures that can be seen from the back of the room. If you really need some inspiration about brilliant timing, look up any Abbot and Costello routine on YouTube, particularly their famous Baseball sketch. I’ve seen it a thousand times and I STILL laugh, all because of their brilliant timing.
Have you discovered a type of humor that really works with a particular age group? Please share in the comments below!
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