Why I don’t like standup comedy

The other day, the wife was watching some standup comedy on Netflix when I walked by, and she asked me to stop and watch for a couple of minutes. Apparently the joke was funny.  Maybe it was, but those two minutes also taught me why I don’t like the genre. It’s the low “bit rate”.

Recently I read this book called The Design of Everyday Things. Among other things, it talked about why most people prefer reading to listening – because reading is much faster. We read at approximately 300 words per minute, while we can listen to a maximum of 50 words per minute. So minute-for-minute, you get a lot more information (in terms of words) from reading.

Which is why podcasts are hard to listen to unless you’re combining them with another activity, such as driving or commuting or exercising. If you’re only listening to a podcast and doing nothing else, you’ll get bored. Because the rate of information flow is low. In that sense, a good podcast offers much more than words – there will be information embedded in the voices, tones, any accompanying music, etc. so that more information can be transmitted to compensate for the low bit rate.

The same thing applies to video as well – the rate of flow of words is much lower than text, but the visuals more than compensate for it. In fact, good movies and shows (in my view) are those that overwhelm your senses with a high rate of flow of information that they keep you engrossed and occupied, and deliver “high information”.

So coming to standup comedy – the reason I don’t like it is because of its low bit rate. Most standup comics speak at a rate slower than Atal Behari Vajpayee, possibly because they want (canned) laughter during each of their pauses. So standup usually goes at well under 50 words per minute.

And there is nothing to compensate for this low bit rate. Visuals are flat – just a person standing on a stage and talking. There is very little action. In the samples that I’ve sampled, the jokes are nice but nothing extraordinary. And there is no information content – it’s just jokes for the sake of it. Finally, you are expecting to be told jokes all the time, and so there is no surprise in the timing of jokes.

So if it were up to me (I’m no standup comic, so it would be never up to me), how would I change it to make it more interesting? The first thing would be to convey additional information through the visual. The low verbal bit rate seems to be endemic to the genre, so that might be hard to change. So adding further information through better visuals can help.

Props might be a good first addition (from my experience with NED Talks, lecture demonstrations were very very well received). Better sets, maybe. Maybe some music (Shekhar Suman already had this with the “rubber band” on Movers and Shakers all those years ago). Anyway, I’m least qualified to comment on this except as a non-customer!

There’s one thing I’ve never understood about standup comics, though – why do they never use collar mikes?

Using all available information

In “real-life” problems, it is not necessary to use all the given data. 

My mind goes back eleven years, to the first exam in the Quantitative Methods course at IIMB. The exam contained a monster probability problem. It was so monstrous that only some two or three out of my batch of 180 could solve it. And it was monstrous because it required you to use every given piece of information (most people missed out the “X and Y are independent” statement, since this bit of information was in words, while everything else was in numbers).

In school, you get used to solving problems where you are required to use all the given information and only the given information to solve the given problem. Taken out of the school setting, however, this is not true any more. Sometimes in “real life”, you have problems where next to no data is available, for which you need to make assumptions (hopefully intelligent) and solve the problem.

And there are times  in “real life” when you are flooded with so much data that a large part of the problem solving process is in the identification of what data is actually relevant and what you can ignore. And it can often happen that different pieces of given information contradict each other and deciding upon what to use and what to ignore is critical to efficient solution, and the decision is an art form.

Yet, in the past I’ve observed that people are not happy when you don’t use all the information at your disposal. The general feeling is that ignoring information leads to a suboptimal model – one which could be bettered by including the additional information. There are several reasons, though, that one might choose to leave out information while solving a real-life problem:

  • Some pieces of available information are mutually contradictory, so taking them both into account will lead to no solution.
  • A piece of data may not add any value after taking into account the other data at hand
  • The incremental impact of a particular piece of information is so marginal that you don’t lose much by ignoring it
  • Making use of all available information can lead to increased complexity in the model, and the incremental impact of the information may not warrant this complexity
  • It might be possible to use established models if you were to use part of the information. So we lose precision for a known model. Not always recommended but done.

The important takeaway, though, is that knowing what information to use is an art, and this forms a massive difference between textbook problems and real-life problems.