Have you ever had something happen to you, and you just had to tell someone so they could laugh, too? That's observational comedy! This is a building block of many comedy routines, and it's important to know why it's effective and how to write it.
Observational comedy is based on the irony of day-to-day experiences. This brand of comedy takes what is familiar to the general public, observes it, and finds humor in it. Observational comedy is perfect for entertaining audiences because it is based on relatable experiences.
However, there's a bit more to it than that; it's a lot harder than it looks. Telling stories is all well and good, but they need to be told in the right way to make an impact on a large group.
"Did You Ever Notice?"
Richard Zoglin has said that the term 'observational comedy' can be misleading because it's not about big topics like politics or the comedian's personal history. Instead, it's simply things that the comedian has noticed about the mundane, everyday existence we all live in. It's not about using complex language or any type of trickery. Observational comedy is simply laughing about the irony of our everyday lives; this makes this brand of comedy perfect for entertaining vast audiences because everyone can relate to it.
A lot of observations begin with "did you ever notice", followed by a recounting of something universally, or at least locally, familiar. Things like the frustration of folding a fitted sheet, or the fine line between being hungry and being bored. Or even something as simple as: "Ever notice how anyone driving slower than you is a moron but anyone driving faster is a maniac?"
There is a fine line in these jokes, too. If the observation is too, well, obvious, it won't be funny. On the other hand, if it's too obscure, it won't hit home with your audience. Your audience needs to be able to relate. to what you're telling them. Not many people in L.A. will find humor in the daily experiences of, say, a Redneck in Tennessee, and vice versa. A great deal of comedy comes from knowing and relating to your audience.
Examples of Observational Comedians
For reference, here is a list of popular observational comedians:
- Jerry Seinfeld has been called "the master of observational comedy". A 1989 Los Angeles Times article deemed him the standard of excellence in observational comedy. He was one of the main stars on the show Seinfeld which was a sitcom. This sitcom used a lot of observational comedy as it followed the daily life of various characters.
- Jim Gaffigan is a famous American comedian that focuses on his weight and desire for food in most of his shows and bits. He also spends time questioning social norms and talking about the things we usually hide but we all do. My favorite bit is one involving the fries at the bottom of a McDonald's bag and how they are the best ones, usually requiring their own sauce packet.
- John Mulaney, another famous American comedian. His comedic career began as an office assistant at Comedy Central, performing on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and later performing on Saturday Night Live. His comedy covers American culture, social awkwardness, religion, pop culture, and drug use. An excellent example of his observational comedy is his famous bit "Cancelling Plans is like Heroin", shown below.
- Trevor Noah is famous for both his stand-up comedy, his opening acts for Gabriel Iglesias and Russell Peters, as well as for his work on The Daily Show. His comedy is based on his experiences as a child of mixed race, as well as relating what it's like to be a black man in America. Trevor immigrated to America from South America, which has supplemented his comedy by giving him a different perspective on American life and culture.
- Sara Millican is a British comedian, listed as one of the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom in 2013. Though the majority of her initial material is based on her previous failed marriage, she is now famous for her observations on relationships, body image, as well as life as a homebody.
- Eddie Murphy is an American actor and comedian. He became famous on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live and was ranked number ten on Comedy Central's list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time. His comedy covers African-American culture, race relations and racism, marriage, and pop culture.
- Gabriel Iglesias is an American comedian of Mexican heritage, famous for his observations on weight and racial relations. He uses the word 'fluffy' to talk about his weight and how he views it. An example of his observational comedy is his bit on how different Latinos speak Spanish (the video is shown below).
A great example of observational comedy is Iglesias' special, Fluffy Goes to India. This show was performed in San Francisco, where most people don't know anything about daily life in India. Gabriel is able to tie in his experiences with something they can relate to. For example, his bit about how Indians move their heads left-to-right when speaking; he ties this observation with another-that Latinos and African-Americans do the same head motion, but slightly differently- to make the joke relatable and amusing to different groups of people in the audience.
I'd like to add a lesser-known, less professional comedian to the list: Youtuber Brandon Farris. Although significantly less famous than the other comedians listed here, Farris is an excellent example of observational comedy, as the majority of his videos are him relating his daily experiences, then riffing on the irony of it.
His comedy is widely relatable, with experiences such as forgetting your receipt at Walmart, stomach growls at bad times, and finding a spider in your shower.
Formats for Observational Comedy
The most common form of observational comedy is just comedians and their shows. Some may appear on or host late-night shows and throw in bits of observational comedy. Jimmy Fallon does some observational comedy on his show The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He has a segment called Thank You Notes where he writes comedic thank you notes that make fun of everyday life. In one example in this segment, he thanks a relative for always bringing a really weird dish to Thanksgiving Dinner.
Sitcoms are commonly used as a form of observational comedy because their whole plot is based on daily life. The show Friends follows six friends and their lives as they experience different relationships, spend every day together, get different jobs, experience highs and lows, etc. A lot of jokes in the show surround their mistakes or the way they act in certain situations, which is often observational comedy.
Parodies are another format for observational comedy. Not all parodies are observational comedy, some are just making fun of celebrities, movies, music, etc. Some shows like The Office or Superstore are parodies of daily life working in the office or at a supermarket. This parody of daily life creates relatable scenarios for those working at those places. An example would be from The Office and how they portray all office meetings as pointless when they show the workers more focused on the box bouncing around the television screen.
Finding humor in everyday interactions is the basis of observational comedy.
Advice from the Master
The master of observational comedy, Jerry Seinfeld, has given these five steps to creating an observational comedy routine.
- Start with a funny topic. In observational comedy, this would be a generally familiar experience. You can use common gatherings, events, work, family, etc. Once you have a topic, it's time to run with it.
- Think of the emotion and images from the experience. This will bulk up your joke and may lead to even more content for you to use. When it comes to creating more jokes from the initial experience, Jerry Seinfeld said, "Two to three is good; four to five is great; more and you're a master." Adding details to the way things look or act, brings the reader into your joke and they can then picture the wackiness of the situation.
- Assemble the jokes logically and connect them. A comedic set needs to flow from one joke to the next. Segways are vital in connecting the jokes in a set; practice smoothly transitioning from the end of one joke to the build-up of the next. If the shift from one joke to the other is too jarring, you can risk losing your audience.
- Compress the jokes and adjust the pacing. Successful comedians know how to trigger "the roll". This means effectively delivering one joke in quick succession to another, so the audience doesn't fully stop laughing. Instead, the laughter builds, and each well-timed joke makes everyone laugh even harder.
- Tell your jokes in front of smaller groups. This can mean telling your jokes to family and friends, before moving to open mic nights and amateur shows. Testing your jokes allows you to weed out jokes that don't quite hit well enough to be funny, as well as fix the pacing and order of your set. Performing in front of friends and family can help you build confidence in your skills so that by the time you're in front of an audience, you can be assured that you are fully capable of making them laugh.
While Seinfeld’s advice is a great base, here is another step-by-step of how to create and polish your observational humor skills.
- Look Around and Observe. The backbone of comedy is the observations the comedian makes. Your observations will be twice as important in observational comedy. Try to keep a constant look at what is happening around you, and look at it from a different perspective. To use one of the previous examples: folding a fitted sheet. At the moment, this activity is frustrating at best. But, when looked at from a different perspective, we can see the humor in it. That is where observational comedy begins.
- Imagination and Creativity. Most people are nowhere near as creative as they can be. When it comes to observational humor, don’t restrict your imagination. Let your mind wander, and you’ll be able to make jokes about the most mundane experiences in your life. Go as far as to question why we do something and explain it in simpler terms. For example, you could say cereal is just soaking colorful wheat products for a bit before eating them.
- Share Your Observations. A lot of your observations may deal with private moments in your life, things you wouldn’t normally bring up in friendly conversation. Understandably, it will be difficult to share these with others, especially strangers. It helps to remember that, because we share so much of our life experience, that whatever has happened to you has undoubtedly happened to plenty of other people. Set your insecurities and unease aside and share your observations freely.
- Let Your Audience Share. Observational comedy is funny because of how relatable it is. Once your audience can relate to you, you’ll have their full attention. The quickest way to speed up this process is by letting them take part in your set. Like having a conversation— encourage your audience to share their experiences and ask questions. Sara Millican is a great example of this— a lot of her show is asking questions and having her audience tell their own experiences, which adds to her comedy set by giving her the opportunity to riff off of their observations. Humor is all about sharing experiences, connecting with others, and relating to each other—it’s much easier to do this when both the comedian and the audience can speak out.
Now that you have the basics, you're ready to try your hand at observational comedy. Remember, observe your surroundings, try to keep a new and fresh perspective in your day-to-day life. Find the humor in it, work it into a comedy act, and share with others. Good luck!