Utilizing Humor in Declamation

Declamation is an event were genres are not pre-determined. There are no rules stating that a speech must be dramatic in nature to be used in the event. Inversely, there are no regulations that stipulate a speech must be comedic. Further still, the two genres are not forbidden to be mingled into a dramedy. The only concrete law in regards to what type of piece qualifies for a Declamation is that the speech must have been previously delivered in a public setting. Thus, it is confusing, and mildly upsetting, when a majority of pieces focus on a serious issue or lack comedic one-liners. Drama does not necessarily equate to a winning piece. In fact, the use of comedy offers benefits a drama could hardly conceive.

To begin, a piece that focuses solely on a heavy issue can be dull to an audience. If an entire room offers a variety of pieces dealing with social inequality, AIDS, cancer, or politics the impact a somber piece has on an individual diminishes. Too many humorless topics becomes draining on a person, and the only way to cope is to grow detached. Often, a slew of grim speeches leads to an audience which is jaded. Now it will only be the truly exceptional, or truly shocking, which will be imprinted upon an audience. While a genuinely stunning, dramatic piece should be a goal of any speaker determined to be serious-minded, few will achieve this. That leaves a tremendous amount of middle ground to be filled with seemingly generic speeches.

However, there is a solution to avoid becoming one of the forgotten masses. Choose to be different. Selecting a piece with added comedic elements (even if a few lines) and a lighter tone will help distinguish oneself. Not to imply that this alone will be sufficient for being remembered, but it is a positive improvement upon the “this speech is dark so a 1 is deserved” bandwagon. Comedy is something that tends to remain with an audience longer than a mediocre piece. A brilliant joke or amusing lines/delivery can be quoted. A light tone also leaves an audience feeling good and happy; certainly two excellent characteristics. So, if one is considering using comedy within their speech there are a few guidelines:

1. Do not be giddy for the sake of being giddy.

Choosing a piece with comedy just to have comedy is a silly reason to select a speech. The basic act of telling a joke is not what wins a round. Actually, weak humor still leaves a competitor very much in that middle ground of mediocrity. A piece that is zany and outlandish just because, with very little reason or substance behind it, is ultimately a terrible piece that will be tricky for an audience to find convincing. The comedy has to mean something; that is why comedy works. It discusses a serious issue but with a humorous tone so people can learn and grow. A piece that does not fulfill this idea might not be a piece worth doing.

2. Poorly done comedy is tragic.

Comedy requires a knack for timing. It should also be done by a person willing to accept that sometimes they will have to play the fool even though there is intelligence behind that foolish demeanor. To be blunt, a person who cannot laugh at themselves, who are unwilling to be humorously vulnerable, and who lacks timing should not do a piece heavily comedic. The idea of anyone described above even attempting to perform a speech by George Carlin, Jon Stewart, or "insert comedian here” is frightening. A competitor who knows their strengths is a competitor who can win, with or without humor.

3. Use a blend and honesty.

This expands upon the first regulation listed, but choosing a piece which only offers humor can lead to a weak piece. A brilliant speech is one which can mix comedy with drama and knows when to use one or the other. A piece that is sincere and honestly discuses a subject will allow for an audience to fully connect. Search for a piece that is not “trying too hard” to be thoughtful yet kooky. Balance and embracing being natural is what fosters a great piece. The audience should never feel as if the piece is pretentious or contrived because it is strained in an attempt to be something it can never be. In the words of Holden Caulfield, “I hate phonies.” And so does the audience.

4. Be judgmental.

When using humor it benefits to think critically. Consider the use of comedy in that instant. Does playing up the joke for that line benefit the piece? If it does, then play around and discover the best way to deliver that line--pauses, use of dynamics, timing, tone, etc. are all used to deliver a joke. There is also the need to judge if a piece is going humorously overboard. Where is the line between pushing too hard for a laugh and playing it just right? Comedy and drama are both incredibly subjective. What one finds deserving of a chuckle another might loath. The only thing a performer can do is question their delivery and offer a truthful performance.

Actually, there is one more thing a performer can do.

5. Evolve.

Listen to the audience and judge their reaction to a delivery choice for a joke. Did the method of humor deployment work? If not, why? Read critiques and make adjustments based on judge comment consensus and inspiration one may get while reading critique sheets. Ask team members for constructive criticism. Also, while in a round learn to read an audience and adjust one’s delivery while in round to meet the needs of the audience. (If an audience is not responding to a deadpan technique then try slight adjustments to work with them.) Particularly in rounds early in the season, consider an audience as a test crowd to hones one’s speech. If a piece was flat half the round, what is the harm in mild experimenting? Further, react to an audience; use their attention and laughter as fuel for an energized piece. Though, do not loose control of the piece by becoming too manic of course! Through adaptation and evolution a piece is almost certain to remain fresh and engaging.

Comedy is not an easy genre to do well. Often, performers fall short of their expectations, and usually the least expected line receives the most generous laugh. It is unpredictable. However, doing humor well can be a way to have a stand-out Declamation. Especially when paired with a message which is relatable through the humor. In the words of literary critic Harry Levin, “The most protean aspect of comedy is its potentiality for transcending itself, for responding to the conditions of tragedy by laughing in the darkness.” A piece which can achieve this has a chance at becoming a winning speech on the Declamation circuit.