Comedy is a route many actors use to break into high profile TV and film. It allows you to work large in voice and movement and, in a way, it illuminates voice and movement for drama, because it allows you to see a broader range of what you can do.
I’ve never thought of myself as a “funny” person. Can’t tell a joke to save me. Often referred to as quiet and aloof around those I don’t know well. But I started doing comedy in theatre and found that for me it was the one instance where the phrase “make a bold choice” seemed to make sense.
Plus it’s safe. If you make a bold choice in a drama audition and people laugh, that’s bad. If it’s a comedy role you’re after and they laugh, that’s good.
I’ve just booked a couple of comedy roles in upcoming productions, one film and one theatre, so I’ve been researching the finer points.
One good source is Scott Sedita’s book The Eight Characters of Comedy: A Guide to Sitcom Acting and Writing. Sedita provides background on the history of the genre, as well as timing, technique and how to find your comedic "note." He then illustrates his points by profiling eight distinct comedy characters seen on television, and the common traits of each. There’s the Logical Smart One, the Lovable Loser, the Neurotic, the Dumb One, the Bitch/Bastard, the Womanizer/Manizer, the Materialistic One, and those that are In Their Own Universe. You’ll recognize many of these from your favorite shows.
Acting coach Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher, in a recent article in Backstage magazine, says most successful sitcoms today feature narcissists or buffoons. He says our technology driven, social media immersed lives have made us, and/or those with whom we spend time, more self-involved and foolish. (See the full article here.) He suggests that actors study the current crop of comedies – shows like “Mom,” “The Comeback,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and “The Mindy Project” – and consider how our worst qualities might be fun for people to spend time with.
Good comedy also depends on technique, and for that Dallas-based acting coach Cathryn Hart sketches out a few quick tips that can help actors pump up their scenes (full article plus a demonstration video here.) Hart says:
Most comedy has clean beats: make a face/say a line. It’s simple. Make a face, then say a line. It’s good to move first before a line anyway, as it makes a cool beat. And, on camera, it makes for a better edit. Plus, it forces you to have reactions. The beats can be quite fast or a slow reaction that you milk for laughs. This is great for basic commercial timing, too.
Be sure to make your funny face toward the audience or camera. That would seem obvious, but the audience can’t laugh if they can’t see your face. Always cheat your reactions toward the audience.
Get your energy up. Run/jump around the room before your audition or performance and get your blood pumping. Comedy has an energy to it, a buzz, even if you’re doing very laid-back humor. You have to be having fun to do good comedy, so get your juices flowing. Everything will happen faster and more easily.
Pick up your cues. If you aren’t getting your laughs, try just picking up your cues. Almost feel like you are overlapping your cues and it will put new life into the scene. Never let the audience catch up to you.
Have fun and play the moment. Set yourself free to just play with whatever is right in front of you. This is where all the magic is. Connect to the other actor, trust to live dangerously, and always make one last funny face before you exit.
Obviously, and despite any lack of joke-telling ability, comedy isn’t just for those who are naturally funny. You can develop your skills and end up a better actor all around. For example, Hart’s first tip – make a face/say a line – can apply to drama as well. If you think your line in your head, then say it, an appropriate reaction will come naturally and, in effect, introduce the words. It’s an old technique that works.