Scot Nery is a comedy entertainer who performs a pancake juggling show around the world, works in television and film, and creates theatrical prop-oriented productions.

Live Entertainer Scot Nery

Entertainment: Why people watch anything

As part of my journey to figure out what makes live entertainment great, I’d like to take a deep look at why people watch stuff. What intrigues people and makes them stare at something? Anything?

Here is a breakdown I’ve compiled of what compels audiences. I would love your feedback, whether you’re performing or have questions or ideas.

Whether watching a juggling show, a bug on a stick, or a fireworks display, these are the basic elements that will turn someone into a spectator:

  • Self-Placement
  • Pack Membership
  • Learning
  • Notability
  • Basic needs
  • Zombifying

Self-Placement / Projection

An audience finds pleasure in fantasizing that they’re in the position of the performer. Projection is what makes you feel for the character in a movie — it makes you care if they get hurt or put under stress. I even sometimes look at a seagull and think “What’s that like? What’s he thinking?”
Choosing a volunteer is an automatic way to find a focal point for audience’s powers of projection. A master knows the mob will empathize with that person’s triumphs and disasters; if an audience member is embarrassed or rewarded, that emotion is injected into the hearts of the crowd.

Pack Membership

Watching and being enthusiastic about an event could help the audience feel like they’re a part of a group. At a sporting event, you feel like a part of the team while also fitting in as one of the horde of fans. That’s two packs memberships for the price of one!

TV shows often work this angle by using live audiences — the couch potato feels like an extension of the studio crowd. Masters make great use of this by getting audience members to notice each other and mob up against the stage or some unseen villain or reacting as a crowd (seemingly intuitively).

Stage Geeks talk about watchability


A performance can also offer you useful information. Storytelling started as a way to pass experiential knowledge around a campfire, and it’s deeply ingrained in us to live vicariously through other people. Doing so might keep us from being trampled by a mastodon or getting eaten by a sabertooth tiger.

Although we’re no longer living with the perils of cavemen, we still will watch something if we’re going to learn the easy way. Masters aren’t afraid to put something educational in a show — even if the info seems trivial. Tons of people watch cooking shows while ordering pizza.


You want people to be able to sum up a show or part of it in sentence form, as most of our concrete thoughts come out that way. That’s why brand names have slogans.

I believe all great shows have this. People like it and they’ll watch it for that talk-about-it quality. For example, “chainsaw juggling” instantly sounds cool. Miss Saigon has a helicopter that lands on stage. I don’t remember the rest of that musical, but I took away an excitement that I saw that thing and I could tell people that thing and how it did the thing.

If you’re doing some market research, listen to your peers describe what compels them about a show. What sounds like a must-see?

Basic Needs

A dog will eye someone with food or stare down an enemy, humans will eye a performance because they have a sense that something will happen that will immediately benefit them.

Although we’re usually not dealing with issues of survival when watching a show (though we can still get thrills from that sense that we’re “on the brink”), we do receive rewards in other ways. We can watch an infomercial to catch the quick flash of a sale, be fixated on a comedy show because we think it will relieve our stress. I’ve also seen performers give their audience actual gifts at their shows.


This is zoning out. When you watch TV just flipping through the channels because you’re exhausted, you don’t want to commit and you don’t even notice anything happening. Zombifying is a defense mechanism for emotional exhaustion. The best performers avoid the big “Z” because it’s not cathartic, engaging, or moving. Zombifying stuff is watchable, it’s just not what a great artist wants.

Zoning out is sometimes mistaken for being “In the Zone” (being perfectly engaged) which is the opposite, but also results in a loss of sense of time and place.

Did I Miss Anything?
What are other reasons people watch things? Comment below please. I’ll update the blog if I left anything out.

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  • Sam Williams Jan 29 '15 @ 03:33PM
  • When I saw the heading “Basic Needs,” I found myself wondering whether that really describes all the motivations for watching…

    Here are my few other thoughts on reasons to watch things, focused largely on what I would call basic needs, and leaving it to you to decide how much they overlap with your own list of reasons, or wander far afield from the sort of thing that you had in mind –

    1. We are interested in Self-Preservation, so we watch for dangers, such as…
    Fire – we can’t help but watch fire. I suspect this is hard-wired into our brains through the evolution of ancestors who survived and procreated better because they had the tendency to keep track of what fire was doing. I’ve long had a personal theory that the reason it’s so hard for people to tear their eyes away from TV is that the flickering light triggers the fire-watching mechanisms inside us.
    Lightning – much the same thing. A huge flash of light, somewhere nearby? Try *not* to look.
    Threatening Creatures – gotta watch and avoid them, too.
    Pretty much anything that is big and powerful and rushing towards us – or towards our protagonist – is going to grab our attention.

    2. We are interested in Mating, so we keep an eye out for…
    Lovers – sex is not only a basic need, it’s durned fun, too. Whether or not one has a mate, of whatever sort, it’s difficult to not look at members of whatever sex(es) one is attracted to and consider whether one sees value in some aspect of how they might potentially be a mate, whether for oneself or others.
    Life-Partners – most folks come to some point in their lives where they wish to find a specific someone with whom they wish to share the bulk of their lives.
    Procreation-Partners – the urge to make babies comes along to most, too. This turns out to be more easily achieved with a mate of the opposite sex.
    Even if we are not looking for mates for ourselves, the subject is central to human interests and we can’t help but check out what might happen in that arena.

    3. We seek Wish-Fulfillment…
    We like to see jerks get their comeuppance.
    We like to see good guys get their just rewards.
    We like to see characters improve.
    We like to see people escape danger.
    We like to see love work out.

  • Feb 6 '15 @ 08:51AM
  • Sam! awesome! thanks for the comment.

    The first two are exactly what I’m talking about. The third one is a little complicated and I have to think about that. I think the third falls under “narrative.” We are definitely hard-wired to connect with narrative.

    Narrative seems like its own thing, but it’s usually made up of several of my list things combined. Like we are learning about love by watching a love story of Bridget Jones. We imagine ourselves in her shoes, and we hope that we (through her) find a life partner. Right?

  • Jack Kalvan Feb 6 '15 @ 07:37PM
  • I think people want to see:

    1. Human Emotion. You identify with performers who have emotions, and it makes you feel happy, whether the emotions are happy or not. Seeing humans with unpredictable or no emotions makes people uneasy. People like listening to sad music because you get a bonding experience with another person with emotions you identify with. I guess Scot’s first 2 categories above were like bonding as well.

    2. Things that are predictable. Your mind constantly makes predictions about what will happen next, and it’s happy when things are somewhat predictable. When you can’t predict, you feel lost and confused and not entertained. People like music with a beat. And familiar chord progressions. I can’t get into traditional Chinese music because it’s too unpredictable. Of course, if I grew up in China, I would find the sounds soothing and the melodies much more enjoyable.

    3. Things that are better than they predicted. Jokes have a surprise ending which was better than you expected. (And expectations are set up by something you think is predictable.) If you never get anything better than you predict, you become bored. In music, a slightly unexpected change in rhythm, or a turn in the melody, or an unexpected rhyme makes a song much more enjoyable. I avoid the standard juggler presentation: “tell the audience what you are going to do, and then do it.” or worse: “tell the audience you are going to do something, and then do something that’s not as good.” You should always deliver more that they expect.

  • Feb 18 '15 @ 01:07PM
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The Secrets and Masters of Live Entertainment...

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Stop seeing sucky shows, avoid annoyed audiences, find the joy and fulfillment of a perfect performance. This is a list for the die-hard folks who love live entertainment and want to see it improve exponentially.