Improving Comedy by Imitating Nathaniel

My cousin Nathaniel (called ‘Nano,’ since that’s how he pronounces his name) has Down Syndrome. He is charismatic, exuberant, affectionate, and driven by a desire for attention. In other words, he’s exactly like a comedian.

Comedy genius

As I’ve been formally studying comedy, reading about the structure of jokes, I think back to some of Nano’s performances: he has an intuitive understanding of basic joke structure. For instance, here’s his favorite joke:

That’s Kaiser. No, I am just kidding. That’s Schaeffer.

Here, “That’s Kaiser” is the premise. It’s a false premise, which establishes the expectation that the person he has identified is Kaiser. “That’s Schaeffer” is the punchline – he reveals the truth that the person he’s pointing to isn’t actually me, but rather my brother. And of course we need the sentence in between them for narrative purposes, because otherwise we’re just making two contradictory statements, one after the other.

He iterated on that joke, too. He punched it up by simply calling people by the wrong name, and then laughing. Instead of telling a joke for the sake of the whole room, he did crowd work with an individual, which serves to really engage that one audience member so that they’ll laugh more and bring up the energy of the whole room.

I don’t mean that Nano is doing this on purpose. He’s genuine, raw, and necessarily improvised, which means that his performances are really authentic and conversational. Sometimes this means that he can lose the audience, or that we might go too long between laugh points and get bored. But we can consciously consider the differences between when his antics make us laugh, versus when we’re annoyed with our family member, and use that information as either a pattern to follow or an antipattern to avoid in our own comedy.

Nano also has a tape recorder, which he’ll use to record the audio of things he likes on YouTube, or just to record himself talking. He’ll play it back, and just listen to previous monologues he’s delivered over and over, intercut with this constantly-expanding YouTube-driven mix tape. It’s common advice that you should record every set, listen to it, and consciously consider how to improve. I actually think there’s value in even the type of undirected listening Nano does – he’s not taking notes and tweaking his jokes, he’s just re-listening. When we do that, it helps subconsciously remind us what the order of the routine was last time; if we spoke imperfectly, it also constantly reminds us of the thing we missed, and helps us avoid repeating the same mistake the next time we do that bit.

So be kind and energetic; be direct in your joke structure, with punchlines as close as is practical to the setup; consider your audience feedback; and record and listen to your sets. Really target Nano’s methods. You’ll be glad you did!