Comedian Debra DiGiovanni Delves Into The Science of Funny


For Debra DiGiovanni, speaking to a full house is much more appealing than speaking to a group of six.

The visual artist turned comedian has been doing stand-up for more than 15 years. While she knows that she’s most comfortable when behind a microphone, the industry and audiences are still getting accustomed to seeing more women take the stage.

In the world of stand-up comedy, does the person delivering the joke influence how audiences react? In this episode of Her Story, we delve into the science of funny and talk to Debra about her experience as a female comedian.

Stand-up comedy is harder than you think.

There’s the obvious pressure that comes with being on stage in front of an audience that’s waiting for you to make them laugh. But then there’s the fact that writing jokes for the stage calls for a specific strategy.

Someone who knows how to have a group of people in stitches at a party can’t necessarily get audiences to react the same way. It’s something many people don’t realize until they intentionally analyze it or try it themselves. For me, it was the latter.

I used to work on a cruise ship as part of the entertainment staff: calling bingo, hosting trivia and leading conga lines. In the middle of my contract, I was promoted to being the ship’s comedy club manager. I was nervous. No kidding — it was far from the pool-side gig I had come to know so well. I was now charge of introducing the headliners and warming up a late-night audience.

Like many people, I had a repertoire of anecdotes that I knew were crowd-pleasers at parties, but to my surprise they didn’t land with audiences when I told them on stage.

Talking to Debra made me feel better though.

“I still bomb. I still have terrible sets. Even 15 years in. You still have bad shows sometimes and it’s good for you,” she says.

It was. I was motivated to work with comedians to rejig my stories so they’d translate as stand-up bits. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was just making certain aspects more extreme in order to create a “benign violation.” It’s a theory outlined in The Humor Code, co-written by behavioural scientist Peter McGraw, who tries to explain the science of funny.

“People laugh at things that are wrong, yet OK. Things that are threatening yet safe. Things that don’t make sense, yet make sense,” he says. “It’s these two perceptions that, when brought together, create this positive emotional effect.”

Debra clearly gets it. She recently completed her first solo national tour with Just For Laughs! and is a three-time recipient of the Canadian Comedy Award for best female comic.

“When people applaud for you… it just satisfies the soul,” she says. “I think the first time you really connect with the crowd, it’s magic.”

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About Amanda Cupido