Observational comedy

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Observational comedy is a form of humor based on the commonplace aspects of everyday life. It is one of the main types of humor in stand-up comedy.[1] In an observational comedy act the comedian "makes an observation about something from the backwaters of life, an everyday phenomenon that is rarely noticed or discussed."[2] The humor is based on the premise of "Have you ever noticed?"[2] (or "Did you ever notice?"),[3] which has become a comedy cliché.[2] "Observational humour usually took the form of long monologues of personal narrative, and the punch-line was either hard to predict or never came."[4]


British comedians Richard Herring and Jo Caulfield wrote in an article that observational comedy "essentially involves saying 'Did you ever notice?' and then recounting something that will hopefully be universally familiar, but that won't necessarily have been consciously noted by your audience. If it's too obvious an observation it won't be funny (Have you ever noticed how buses always come in threes? Yes.) and if it's too oblique then it won't hit home."[3] Eddie Izzard noted that a comedian's observations "need to be something that people can relate to, for the audience to pick up on it" in order to be considered a successful observational comedy act.[2] Douglas Coupland writes, "Anybody can describe a pre-moistened towelette to you, but it takes a good observational comedian to tell you what, exactly is the 'deal' with them." He adds that observational comedy first of all depends on a "lone noble comedian adrift in the modern world, observing the unobservable-those banalities and fragments of minutiae lurking just below the threshold of perception: Cineplex candy; remote control units."[5]

Observational comedy has been compared to sociology.[6]


Observational comedy became popular in the United States in the 1950s.[2] Although one author suggests that it "has never been particularly new. Even the more 'old-fashioned' jokes it supposedly replaced were often themselves disguised commentaries based on observing human nature."[7] Shelley Berman was one of the pioneers in the field.[2] David Brenner's "brand of observational comedy became a staple for other standups",[8][9] like Jerry Seinfeld, who has been called "the master of observational comedy".[3][10] Seinfeld's "brand of accessible, refined observational humor largely defined 1980s comedy."[11] A 1989 Los Angeles Times article wrote that Seinfeld is "clearly the standard of excellence in observational comedy",[12] while Judd Apatow called Seinfeld "the greatest observational comedian who ever lived".[13] George Carlin was a significant figure in observational comedy since the 1960s and influenced Seinfeld.[14]

The British observational comedy tradition began with the Irish comedian Dave Allen's performances in the early 1970s.[15]

Notable observational comedians[edit]

Criticism of the term[edit]

Richard Zoglin considers the term "observational comedy" misleading because it is not "about politics or social issues or the comedian's own autobiography, but simply about everyday life."[16]


  1. ^ Sankey, Jay (1998). Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy. Routledge. p. 53. ISBN 9781136555633. One of the most popular styles of contemporary stand-up is that of "observational humor." 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Double, Oliver (2014). "Observational comedy". Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy (2nd ed.). London: Methuen Drama. p. 208. ISBN 978-1408174609. 
  3. ^ a b c Herring, Richard; Caulfield, Jo (21 September 2008). "The comedian's toolbox". The Guardian. 
  4. ^ Friedman, Sam (2009). Legitimating A Discredited Art Form: The Changing Field Of British Comedy (PDF). Edinburgh: School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. p. 20. ISBN 1-900522-73-X. 
  5. ^ Grassian, Daniel (2003). Hybrid Fictions: American Literature and Generation X. London: McFarland. p. 182. ISBN 978-0786416325. 
  6. ^ Galea, Patrick (30 January 2012). ""So what’s the deal with that?" – Observational Comedy and Sociology". Electronic Journal of Sociology. 
  7. ^ Byrne, John (2012). Writing Comedy (4th ed.). London: Methuen Drama. p. 10. ISBN 978-1408146453. 
  8. ^ Elber, Lynn (16 March 2014). "Comedian David Brenner, 'Tonight' favorite, dies". Associated Press. ...whose brand of observational comedy became a staple for other standups, including Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser... 
  9. ^ Platt, Larry (15 June 2011). "David Brenner will perform at the Sellersville Theater". Philadelphia Media Network. Brenner gave birth to a generation of "observational" comics - funny men who examined small moments closely and poked fun at life's minutiae. To borrow the now-infamous "Seinfeld" phrase, Brenner's act was the first to be about nothing. 
  10. ^ "Here are Jerry Seinfeld's 10 funniest jokes". New York Post. 17 April 2014. 
  11. ^ Zinoman, Jason (14 October 2012). "On Stage, a Comic’s Still at Home". New York Times. 
  12. ^ Gould, Steven (18 February 1989). "Seinfeld Fans Scratch Heads". Los Angeles Times. 
  13. ^ Weiner, Jonah (20 December 2012). "Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up". New York Times. Judd Apatow, who as a kid in the late ’70s became obsessed with Seinfeld’s stand-up, told me, “From the get-go he was the greatest observational comedian who ever lived — nobody was, or is, as funny as him.” 
  14. ^ Zoglin, Richard (23 June 2008). "How George Carlin Changed Comedy". TIME. His influence can be seen everywhere from the political rants of Lewis Black to the observational comedy of Jerry Seinfeld. 
  15. ^ Double, Oliver (1997). "Dave Allen". Stand-Up! on being a comedian. London: Methuen Publishing. p. 140. ISBN 978-0413703200. This was quite an innovation, because up to this point there had been no tradition of observational comedy in British stand-up. 
  16. ^ Zoglin, Richard (2009). Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1582346250.