Standup Comedy & Backchannel Intimacy - (informal talk)

We went to see Jamie Kennedy at the Palm Beach Improv on Friday night. He was interesting and pretty good but not as fluid and adaptable as Dave Attell. But if he had been more adaptable, I wouldn't have noticed the parallel between what was going on in the comedy club and what danah boyd and Joe McCarthy said about backchannel snark.

Previous discussions have centered on Internet identity issues and intimacy. I'm thinking that there may be a stronger influence in the speaker-audience member relationship and how it is cultivated by (1.) the venue and (2.) the speaker. In this situation, the Internet acts as an amplification device.

Here is the short version: As audience members got more lubricated, the conversational gambits used by the comedian to increase intimacy with his audience became less easy to resist.

Joe McCarthy -
I'm trying to imagine conferences in which "the audience is of equal importance as the speaker". Speakers are typically paid - or at least invited - to present, whereas audience members typically pay to hear and see what the speakers have to say and show. The relationship is, by definition, unequal, which becomes evident when one considers the relative impacts of an attendee not showing up vs. a speaker not showing up. Attendees in the audience may have considerable expertise and experience in the topic(s) the speaker is talking about - in fact, ideally, there is such an alignment - but that does not give the audience the right to be rude, and certainly doesn't give them the right to gang up to tear down the speaker.

danah boyd mentions she thinks that backchannel snark is to be expected when the presentation is entertainment as opposed to informing. (This from her post about offensive chatter during a Web 2.0 meeting.) However the actual content of her presentation concerns attention in the sense of that which seizes one's attention.
Stimulation. People consume content that stimulates their mind and senses. That which angers, excites, energizes, entertains, or otherwise creates an emotional response. This is not always the "best" or most informative content, but that which triggers a reaction.
Thus, the character of the snarky commentary on Twitter is geared to attract the attention of other audience members which is a separate issue from the speaker/audience relationship.

From the speaker's standpoint, the audience member is competing with her. This stands out in a comedy club where the venue is fairly intimate. The lighting and ability of the comedian to overcome the audience chatter is key.

Jamie Kennedy did something unusual that attracted my attention. In his quest for audience contact, he kept shading his eyes from the stage lighting so he could feel he was making better contact with them. When he did that, he spoke directly to one of us, again to increase interaction.

I want to point out something here. I don't think the audience at a comedy club is supposed to actually interact directly with the comedian. Our job is to provide feedback by laughing loudly enough to satisfy the performer. The alcohol-fueled members of the audience lose sight of this and buy into the illusion that the comedian wishes to stop performing and discuss the commenter's views. The situation degenerates, beefy men appear, and chairs are thrown.

This may be off topic but there are physiological issues going on as well. I'm not sure how to attack it but the degree of intimacy may provide a key to understanding the phenomenon. For instance, have you heard about the way a puff of air on your skin from intimate speech can change your perception of 'b' and 'p' sounds? Although the synergy of sensation is not new, research into how it changes our understanding is. Moreover, the lack of it may provide insight into dysfunction.

In the meantime, let's post a notice at the door. "Intimacy Level Expected" 1-5 where 1 means the speaker wants you to keep your mouth shut and honestly doesn't give a damn what your opinion is and 5 means you can run around naked.


  1. Anonymous5:52 PM

    In sociology this would fall under the "interaction ritual" analysis of audience/performer interaction. Substitute Randall Collins' emotional energy - jointly created -- for audience involvement / participation, and specify all the feed-back and feed-forward loops, then specify the success the performer has in manipulating the taken-for-granted cultural environment.

    Glen S. McGhee

  2. What I'm trying to figure out is the intentional mixing up of rituals - of mixing distance standards and speaking out of turn and how it creates discomfort.

    In the case of speakers with a twitter wall projected BEHIND them and no feedback available, the discomfort becomes acute.

    Some speakers are using their own Twitter mediators (friends) to monitor and moderate them while they work with the audience. An awesome idea.