The secret of comedy, they say, is timing. This is such a well-known truism, that it has, in its fame, become false.
The only remaining secret of comedy is the weather.
Like a meteorologist, comedians (by which I mean anyone attempting to make another person laugh, whether professionally or not) see the world around them in topographies of pressure.
They are constantly monitoring the world around them for areas of rising pressure that they can lance like cloudbursts with their wit.
The well-timed release of such pressure is what makes people laugh.
Ah – timing!
Yes, timing, although no longer much of a secret, is still important to comedy.
Lance too early and there is no pressure to release; lance too late and all kinds of things might go wrong. In stand-up, the audience might have got bored with the preamble; in conversation, they might have moved on to a different subject; in conflict, they might have got too wound up and become closed off to a comic intervention.
Say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the atmosphere can turn pretty sour.
That’s why the BBC won’t let us have a plot-line about a missing stylist – even though she wasn’t missing at all, but on holiday. They don’t want to risk the atmosphere turning sour.
Part of reading the meteorological chart of conversation is knowing not only when and where pressure is building, but also whether to lance that pressure at all.
Not all human interaction is served by comedy. There is a reason why lawyer and stand-up are separate professions. It’s not that the lawyer can’t use comedy, nor the stand-up evidence and argument, but each will favour the discourse style of their field.
You may spot the perfect moment to lance the pressure in a tense negotiation over the custody of your children during divorce proceedings; that does not mean that the judge will look favourably upon a hilarious reference to his wig.
On the plus side, you will know almost instantaneously that you have misread the comic moment. If you are sensitive without being precious, you use this failure to calibrate your instruments.
What are your instruments? Simply: your eyes and your ears. But more on that next week.