Comic timing

My main thing as a director is that people need to face the front and you have to be able to hear what they're saying… Comic timing is all in the rhythm of the writing, so you don't have to grope around for that. Basically, if you try to gloss it or interpret it, it starts to go wrong… In fact the main thing to do was to just back off it.

The comedian Stewart Lee, on directing Jerry Springer – the Opera.

His advice in the first sentence sounds a bit flip, but I still regard it as an important ground rule: all the subtlety and delicate characterisation in the world is worthless if it fails to make it across the footlights. But it's the next part that is so crucial, which echoes older posts on this blog – don't gloss or interpret the writing. This happens so often now (perhaps it always did), where the actor somehow feels the need to make their contribution to the performance demonstrably clear, over and above the requirements of the writing.

Stand-up comedy interests me more and more, as it is usually just a person with a microphone. I can't think of any other medium now where audiences engage in sustained listening to the human voice (and little else) for entertainment. Anyone interested in speaking, particularly in rhythm and stress, should go. And there's no better place to start than with Lee himself, whose ear for cadence, tone, and rhythm is astonishing. I recommend his book, too, How I Escaped my Certain Fate, in which he talks about these things with great clarity. He also reprints some of his routines, but you'll want to hear him deliver them to get the full power. And of course, the humour.

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