Saturday, September 20, 2008

Respect Your Audience

I saw a comedian earlier tonight. 

He was okay, some good ideas, but his big problem was one I see a lot in pop-culture (TV, comics, movies); an assumption that your audience needs everything explained to them.

While this was a recurring thread throughout his set, there was one bit in particular that really highlighted this problem and frustrated me. Here is the start of the bit, to the best of my recollection:

"I do have a little bit of a drinking problem, but I try to strike a balance, so I exercise. I try to run a mile for every beer I drink. This only ever becomes a problem when I start dating a girl who's really into exercise, and she wants to know what I do to keep in shape... and I eventually tell her that I run five or six miles a day."

At this point in the bit several people in the audience, including me, laughed. We had all already made the jump from "run a mile for every beer I drink" to "run five or six miles a day." This was a pretty good joke.

The comedian, however, looked surprised, stopped his bit for the breifest of moments and actually said to the audience, "Huh, okay, well, that's not the funny part..." and then continued the bit. He continued this story for two or three more minutes, eventually getting to the punchline of  explaining to the audience again that those miles were based on the number of beers he drinks. 

Now, it's important to note that some people did laugh. It was a fairly small crowd of people (maybe 30), and some of them only laughed once the comic got to the end of the long-winded version. But for me at least, by making me wait for a few minutes, he lost me completely. By adding this hand-holding two minutes to the end, the bit became inelegant, his tone seemed to change to condescending, and I became bored with it.

This sort of thinking, that people are too dumb to keep up, has permeated pop-culture, and serves as a reminder that reaching the "lowest common denominator" is something that can come from form as well as content. 

When creators dodge this, when they trust people are capable of understanding their work, then audiences more often feel engaged rather than confused, and focus harder to have a real dialog with that work. And when that connection is made, it's usually far stronger than had everything been spelled out for them.
If this comic trusted his audience more to be able to keep up with him, he might have gotten one big laugh instead of splitting it and losing half the audience, gotten an additional two minutes to squeeze a new bit into, and maybe gotten a new fan. Instead he just got a few small chuckles, an extra two minutes of no punch lines, and me blogging about how crappy his routine was.

Respect your audience and we'll respect you back.


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