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.
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:
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.
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).
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?
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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