On Poetry and Comedy, Part 1

It is a thin line that distinguishes a poem from a stand-up comedy bit. It turns out the two art forms have quite a lot in common and each could benefit by borrowing from the tricks and trades of the other. Let’s take a look at a few main properties that the two share.

First off, in all comedic writing and not just stand-up, there is the basic structure of a joke–the setup, the build, and finally, the delivery of the punchline. Everything that comes before the punchline is drawing the audience in and preparing them for the epiphany, in the form of a good laugh, that comes with the punchline. We often see this very same structure in poems. An entire poem may work to get the reader under a spell only to break the spell in the very end, at just the right moment. The result is not necessarily a laugh, but is equal to a laugh in its satisfaction. What is the difference between a laugh and the aftertaste of a poem?

A second property that poetry and stand-up share is the element of performance. Whether or not the joke is good, the quality of the performance is often what makes or breaks the routine. The performer must have a certain swagger–a tone of voice, body language and gestures, facial expressions, dramatic pauses, breathing, and even clothing–that is necessary to let the audience know they should be laughing. Poetry is no different. Poetry takes swagger.

But even if poetry were written “comedically,” that does not necessarily mean it would get a laugh. What does it mean for something to be “comedic?” There is a deeper resonance to the concept of comedy than merely something that generates a laugh. A laugh is but one example of the range of results that fall under the category of release.

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