I’ve been performing live improv comedy for nearly five years now, and I’ve learned good timing can be really, really hard to master. But it’s not just comedians who struggle with perfect timing — the constant changes in our lives, the new opportunities, the strangers we meet every day, are all rapidly blinking lights in an arcade game. We’re just trying to hit the jackpot button in the right place at the right time.
College, in particular, with a four-year timer placed on self-discovery, lends itself to a particular brand of disastrous timing — whether it be in the form of figuring out your dream major three years too late or signing on to a yearlong lease only to realize your roommates are all conspiring against you.
I carry with me my own portfolio of poorly timed experiences, both comedic and personal.
In long-form improv, there’s usually two improvisers performing a scene together at a time. When the scene reaches its funniest peak, another improviser from the set will “swipe” it, signaling both the scene’s end and the beginning of a new scene with different improvisers playing different characters. Smart swiping can elevate the quality of an improv set dramatically — cut a scene off too early and you lose out on potentially juicy material, but let a scene go on too long and the improvisers might run out of steam, forcing the scene to fizzle out.
With that in mind, there’s a saying that’s been adopted by some improv teams — if you think a scene should have been swiped, it probably should have been swiped ten seconds ago.
When my long-distance boyfriend broke up with me last year, he asked if we could stay friends, and spoke in vague terms about the possibility of getting back together if I chose to attend a graduate school near his. Our relationship was a tragedy of timing — one we embarked upon knowing it would end like this, with him moving to the East Coast and me left behind to finish my final year at UC Berkeley.
Bad timing was at the foundation of our breakup. But we made it a hell of a lot worse on ourselves by not swiping the scene when we should have — instead maintaining a tenuous friendship that slowly and painfully fizzled out as he moved on. I tried my damndest to move on too — but again, the timing was off. If I could hold out for just a short year, I thought I could fight my way back to him. And shaking off those thoughts takes extra time that I didn’t necessarily have if I wanted to romantically enjoy my final year of college.
I was told, more than once, that what I really needed was a healthy dose of rebound sex. But this proved to also be a matter of timing. The “benign violation theory” of comedy suggests that comedy is most effective when audiences are presented with something threatening in a context that’s safe or acceptable. If your joke is topical — namely, in response to a real-life unfortunate event — there’s only a brief window between “too soon” and “too safe.”
An article by Tom Jacobs in Pacific Standard describes this well: “So if you fear an approaching hurricane could actually hurt you, your interests, or someone you love, there’s nothing funny about it. If the threat has safely passed, its potential to generate humor rapidly retreats. But the moment when you feel you have dodged a bullet: That’s ripe for laughs.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine that the same theory and opportunistic timing applies to rebound sex. But by the time I felt ready, I had missed the window in which to really emotionally benefit from a rebound. A brief make out and three hours of swiping on Tinder were as far as I got before I realized I was too far past wanting that kind of catharsis.
I’d jeopardize my integrity as a comedian if I left you with the impression that my timing is always bad, all the time. What’s interesting is that, in what little research there’s been on comedic timing, it’s been found that the timing during the joke isn’t actually the most critical component in generating laughs — it’s how a comedian times out what comes directly after.
My ex dumped me on day four of my six-day trip to the East Coast to visit him. Day six would have been our anniversary. I had nowhere to go for those two days, so we acted natural. We went on a hike, baked banana bread and shared a bed. Even I had to recognize the hilarity in such an absurd situation — and when I returned, I salvaged the pain of our breakup by converting it into comedic gold, sharing the news of my broken heart in the form of an elaborate joke-filled story. My comedic timing in this moment, finally, was spot on. And it felt really, really good.
Having learned my lesson, I swore off entering a new relationship in my final months of college, determined to master the art of timing once and for all. But of course, that’s exactly when I fall for someone else. And maybe, it’s not about the right person at the right time — it’s about finding the person who makes time stand still.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].