In the article on Comedy Acting we looked at the structure of the gag, and the basic principles, which govern comedy performances. Let’s move on to the tools and skills required implementing the telling of the humorous story.
In the articles on acting styles, we set up several parameters for implementing the style of comedy. To review, we determined that in comedy, reality is at a suspended level of believability, distorted, lacking balance and proportion, yet founded on a real truth and real character values.
The general behavior is exaggerated, usually with high energy and a definite positive attitude. Among characters, a wide contrast of types is prevalent and their behavior is readable, definitive, precise, open, and outward.
Emotions are light, decisive, readable, and usually played on the surface. Intentions, while usually meaningful, are pursued with considerable vigor and enthusiasm. The simplistic objectives, apparent and obvious, are played, for the most part, externally.
Pacing in comedy is quick, energetic, fast, and rapid, to limit exploration of transparent stories where logic and reality are distorted; to maintain focus on lighthearted wit and humor; to replace dissipating information with the new. Pace is also intense to drive up sense of urgency or importance.
Timing is highly calculated, highly responsive, building on audience reactions. Sharp accents are also used to emphasize, control focus, and/or punctuate intended humor.
The dramatic flow is much more informational than emotional. The rhythmic pointalistic flow builds upon a simple singular line of thought. There is almost immediate clarity of wants/opposition-hero/villain polarizations.
The premise or theme of a comedy is moderately worthy in ultra serious pursuit, sometimes seeking ridiculous and irrational goals. But comedy is affirmative in spirit with the protagonist almost always being triumphant. And the point of view of life is from the outside, an external observation on human nature, and at best, displays a distortion of a reality to provide higher insights, a better understanding of ourselves, and the truth within us.
In comedy, the goal of the creative team should be to tell the story in a humorous manner. To surprise the audience and make them laugh. To make them feel that life, with all its frustrations, is still worth living. To stretch the soul toward heights where laughter and understanding triumph over hate and fear. And by observing from the outside, the audience forms a new perspective on human nature.
SKILLS FOR IMPLEMENTING COMEDY
As you can see from these requirements, comedy requires a range of abilities. Foremost is the agility to make quick and articulate changes in behavior. Comedy is usually written around fast-moving plots, spirited dialogue, and sudden surprises. Therefore, behavior must be immediately readable for there is little time to question or search for underlying meanings.
This agility extends to the tempo, emphasis, rhythm, and enunciation of dialogue. Much of comedy revolves around the meaning and nuances of the words and if they are unclear or the delivery is off, both the story and humor suffer as a result.
Quick articulated changes are what sets up the plausibility for surprises. A character is moving in one direction and ding; something sets him off in another direction. It could be changes in emotion, intention, attitude, movement, and/or behavior resulting from external or internal dramatic forces. It’s a clear distinct transition jumping for one attitude/intention/etc., to another.
It could be the realization of a new emotion, a new attitude. Or it might be feeling the pain of the blow, the fall or drop from dignity. And it’s played as if it were the first time, breaking the balance of life, of nature. It’s instantaneously readable, as if the behavior almost stops, and then, it takes off in a different direction.
Such readable open articulate behavior makes it possible for the entire audience to read the comic presentation and comprehend it in perfect sync. They must understand and appreciate the humor simultaneously; otherwise the contagious effect of the humor is lost. A roll in the routine or scene is unlikely when the audience is not thinking and reacting as one. Therefore, in order for comedy to work properly, humor must be approached with the lowest common denominator for that specific audience.
The agility to quickly change emotions and intentions is also a required skill for comedy players. Comedy is flighty, unpredictable and has the potential and opportunities for sudden changes. Emotions, therefore, are played on the surface, like a water bug skimming across a pond, capable of changing direction at any moment. If it, however, delves too deep into the water, then it can not turn quickly.
Comedy must be played lightly allowing for the quick changes of direction, for the derailment of thought, and the element and plausibility of surprise. Therefore, the intentions are played externally, apparent, and obvious so the audience can follow effortlessly and in sync.
Comedy plays with the possibilities and usually does so with a sense of mischief. Probabilities are not usually served, but destroyed with surprises beyond our expectations. The passion is for a celebration of fun and the agility to make quick changes serves this passion.
Each level of comedy draws us into its own logic, its own reality and creates for us its own sense of truth. Defining and playing this degree of reality is a complex skill; for not only must it be consistent with the story, the characters and situations, it must also be maintained by the entire acting ensemble. Establishing the proper proportion of reality and distortion is something that is usually sorted out in the rehearsal process. But you will find that when the performance becomes too distorted, the reality of the story becomes questionable. Conversely, when it becomes too real, the comedy aspects suffer. Attaining the proper balance between reality and the comic distortions is an ongoing battle. Understanding the principles that move this balance back and forth will be helpful.
In developing a scene, one must first see the truth or reality of a given character or situation before one can distort or upset its balance. In the following example, a normal statement proves to be a contradiction.
When they made her, they broke the mode.
Then they pretended it was an accident.
The truth might be that the person attacked is far from being perfect. A seemingly complementary statement (the setup) which is then turned around with a contradiction (punch line) revealing the truth upsets the balance in a surprisingly funny way. The reality of this seemingly complementary statement is balanced by distorting this setup with a new and different perspective, one that results in credible humor.
While this revelation was done with dialogue, the director and the actors must look for other innovative ways of revealing the truth, ways that go beyond the limitations of the script. I remember directing a scene where the truth of the character was that he’s a manipulative person, almost a con artist. The dialogue kept saying he was caring and concerned about his newly wed wife who sits with him at the restaurant table. But the truth of the matter was that he was trying to gracefully dump her for his latest obsession, another woman. To reveal this contradiction, on his line:
“I have never felt more close to you then as I do now. “
We had him tilt back in his chair and stare away off into space. Making and implementing this choice helped reveal the truth of the story, the character, and the relationship.
Another important skill is simplicity, that ability to whittle down the performance to the bare essentials. Comedy, to be effective, need only convey the most relevant facts. Excess information only confuses the audience. It is for this reason that story elements, characters, and situations are drawn with broad simple strokes, ones that the audience can clearly and quickly understand.
When we compare drama and comedy, drama is more like a complex multi-colored painting. It pulls us in emotionally and requires time to contemplate its art. Comedy, on the other hand, is more aligned with the cartoon. Only that which is necessary is shown. You look, you see, and little time is needed to comprehend this cerebral information.
The cartoonist defines the subject, captures the vital characteristics, and then exaggerates them, placing a new perspective on the scene, yet always keeping a truth, the essence recognizable.
In comedy acting, the same principles apply. First define the situation, then simplify the character’s actable traits. Look for the extremes: the faults, obsessions, deficiencies, and eccentricities. Yet, find the things that support the direction of the story and its humor. Then exaggerate; distort these traits in some way, yet remaining within the reality and comic boundaries of the story.
Movement in comedy is more definitive than in drama. Head turns, body movements, gestures, and eye behavior tend to be incremental. By incremental, I mean they are accomplished in steps. For instance, a sound off to the side might be acknowledged with a sight turn of the head and eyes, then come to a complete stop. Then the head and eyes follow through to actually looking at the source of the sound. In drama, such movements would be more fluid.
The same applies to gestures. In comedy, there’s an edge to movements and these defining changes in direction makes the behavior immediately readable. One might equate such movements to that of a mechanical man where each action appears detached from the previous one. This segmented, pointalistic movement gives comedy its sense of suspenseful freedom, an ambiguity that allows for a more unpredictable behavior. And in comedy, this uncertainty not only creates greater audience involvement but also sets up the acceptance of more plausible surprises.
Timing, as we’ve mentioned previously, is that ability to sense what is going on in the mind of the audience. In comedy, timing is everything. It moves the pace along quickly without giving the audience too much time to think. Otherwise, they might get side tracked and loose the focus of the joke and the story.
Comedy is the derailing of a train of thought. Pace and timing help keep that thought continuously on track until the beat before the train gets derailed. This tiny pause, or longer if so required, is what cues the audience and says, the payoff or punch line is coming, this is where you laugh. When the entire acting ensemble maintains this pace and timing, the audience soon becomes conditioned to know where the payoffs are and where they should laugh.
Brevity is also a factor in comedy. Information and behavior that are concise and short will often strengthen the all-important surprise ending by giving logic and reason for being there. Comedy, to be effective, needs to be quick and to the point. Comedy needs to be clear and simple in order for the audience to not only comprehend the present (the build), but also remember the past (the setup & plant), and anticipate the future (the payoff or punch line). Brevity and condensing of information is essential so the audience can, with little effort, know and discover the humor.
If one illustrates the considerations in playing comedy pictorially, they might look like funny men stacking boxes in a stair-like configuration. Each box represents a specific comic consideration or technique, the building blocks supporting the humorous story. These precariously stacked blocks, with their edges and the sharp corners, define the clarity and simplicity of humor as well as the potential for quick changes, for sudden drops from dignity, and unexpected surprises.
PERFECTING COMEDY SKILLS
Knowing the necessities of the craft is a big step towards becoming an accomplished actor. The general skills outlined here represent a good share of those the comedy genre requires. The next step is implementing and perfecting them. A difficult task, to say the least, for it necessitates working in front of a typical audience. Workshops or scene study groups will be helpful, but the audience here, made up of other students, is often silently critical rather than openly responsive.
Working in front of an actual audience will give you the opportunity to test the material, experiment with the techniques, plus develop an air of confidence in your craft. Such exposure helps build trust in the qualities of the role and supports the expectations that the audience will respond. Short run plays, showcases, plus performances for community groups offer opportunities to develop and test one’s craft.
Next, let’s look at some of the various types of comic gags you are likely to encounter. Again, it’s important to recognize the elements that set these gags up and make them work.
Much of comedy revolves around funny situations, especially in sitcoms. A mistaken assumption is at the center of many. You can have one character making a misperception about another or both doing likewise about each other. For instance, she mistakes him for a Hollywood star and he thinks she’s a call girl.
In its extremes, the misperception can become the imagined predicament. Here a character mistakenly believes some catastrophe has happened, a loss of job, eviction, death of a pet, or worst yet, believing he or she has a terminal illness.
With misperceptions and imagined predicaments, the audience is usually let in on the gag. However, it’s possible to fool the audience and keep them in the dark, letting them find out at the end that they’ve been taken in too. Such a gag doesn’t contribute much to the story until the end, but it can result in some lively endings.
The above three mistaken assumption gags hinge on the audience believing the situation as presented. And that the characters (or audience) could actually misperceive these circumstances. What usually makes these gags work is that they are supported by the character’s own weaknesses or obsessions. It could be for sex, money, power, status, or just being nosey. Whatever the motivation, if it comes out of the truth of the character, then it will likely lead to a good payoff.
Another gag is role reversal. This gimmick was used in the movie, “Tootsie” where Dustin Hoffman played the role of a female soap opera actress. Role reversal also extends to changes in jobs, “Trading Places”, or responsibilities, “The Odd Couple”, or a character traits evolving through the story. For instance: an evil character becoming kindly.
Stereotyping is the basis for gags involving unorthodox viewpoints. We expect certain types of people to act in a certain way. Any character deviating from these stereotypes can be funny. Example: the meek professor who lives an unusual secret fantasy life — “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. The stereo type has to be clearly established in the audience mind for the derailment to work.
Another situation gag consists of doing something ordinary in an extraordinary way, or doing some odd action that no one normally does. These funny actions are best when the audience has some general idea as to what is about to happen. An example would be the way Kramer of the “Seinfeld TV Show” comes through the door into Jerry’s apartment. It’s as if it’s the biggest emergency in the world, and it turns out to be only an ordinary visit. But the action gets a laugh every time because it comes out of his unpredictable off-the-wall character.
Visual humor must be seen and understood by the entire audience to generate the best response. Playing open to the audience and the blocking relationships play a major key in this endeavor. When a large portion of the audience is visually blocked out of the gag by other characters or the gag plays to the wings of the stage, the full impact of the humor cannot reach the audience. In like manner, unnecessary movement or other distractions can also kill a good gag.
Put-downs and retorts usually go hand in hand and are a good way of creating tension as well as humor. However, the audience can become annoyed if the sympathetic character becomes the target too often. Some sort of retribution is expected. The following exchange from “Married With Children” is a good example of the show’s many verbal sparing matches.
WIFE: You’ve got more hair on your butt than on your head.
HUSBAND: That’s because my head wakes up looking at you.
It’s important in these exchanges to see the blows land and that these verbal barbs inflict some sort of pain or response. With these reactions, no matter how subtle they need be, the conflict is maintained and the story made stronger.
Analogies and descriptions reflect the use of uncommon words or similarities between things otherwise unlike. They create images of situations or characters and while out of proportion or exaggerated, still reflect a humorous side of the truth.
Example: She kisses like a sump pump.
Example: This gal’s been around the block more times than the ice cream truck.
Another type of gag is the double entendre’. This is an ambiguous word or phrase that allows for a double meaning of words, images, and associations — the second of which is generally humorous. In the film “Young Frankenstein”, the limping hunchback Egor greets the guests at the door, then as he leads them off to their rooms, he tells them, “Walk this way”. The two guests do a take, then follow Egor, imitating his foot-dragging hunchback walk. The double entendre, the other meaning (follow me vs. walk this way) has been hidden by convention; otherwise there would be no surprise.
The reversal, how the character reacts at the turn of misfortune, has good comic potential. This is where the fallacies of one’s self-image are usually uncovered and the result can be a public embarrassment. One will also find gags using three items. This gag is called the triple. The first item is the stated truth or expected. The second is a variation reflecting on the first, and the third, the punch line, is a complete deviation from the first two. The following joke by comedian Rodney Dangerfield is a good example of the triple and reversal used together.
RODNEY: I remember my first sexual experience.
It was dark,
I was scared, and…
I was all alone.
There are many other types of gags and they include dialect, word distortion, funny words, over the head put-downs, backhanded compliment, understatement, exaggeration, practical jokes, incongruity, and getting it all wrong. While of less importance, I list these gags here for your own edification.
Irony is also a type of gag. When the writer uses irony, his words mean one thing to the uninitiated, and something quite different to the person in the know. Pretending to praise a person when, in reality, you condemn him is a form of irony. Sometimes irony involves circumstances that are opposite to what should be expected or ones that are highly inappropriate: an oddity of fate. An example might be a politician being arrested by the very law he wrote and sponsored.
OTHER COMIC DEVICES
In comedy, there are types of reactions that are frequently used to emphasize the humor. The slow burn is a slow realization by the character that he has just been had, been duped or conned. This reaction is most productive when the audience knows the cause or the ending and the character is now catching up. Some slow physical action; a turning of the head, a slowing of some motion, or the eyes/gesture or movement combination in unison with the inner realization usually accompanies the slow burn.
The double take is a two-part reaction. The initial reaction is normal behavior while the second reflects the truth or obstacle overlooked in the first observation. Double takes are best reserved for key plot points and should not be over used. An example might be your playing hooky from work and you see your boss in a crowd of people. Your first reaction might not register, but the second look (take) reveals the truth of your predicament. Like most gags, the situation, the relationship, and the consequences must be properly set up in the audience mind for this two-part reaction to work.
The masters of the slow burn and double take are the team of Laurel and Hardy. This pair is also an excellent example of how comedy can be based on a character relationship. Stan is dumb, Ollie impatient. And all the subtle variations of this relationship, and there are many, are based on this distinction. Every small-scale catastrophe comes from some combination of dumbness and ill-judge violent impatience. It’s the blind leading the blind. This relationship is the basic joke of all their films.
In studying a comedy script, the basic joke is one of the first things for which to look. It’s the link to the audience, the core on which they can identify with the story and its characters. For instance, in the “Pink Panther” films, Peter Sellers plays the infamous Inspector Clouseau. The inspector thinks he knows everything, yet, he keeps messing up. Therefore, the “bumbling expert” is the basic joke of these films.
The humor in most basic jokes comes out of some sort of incongruity. If we perceive a sudden playful incongruity that gratifies our wishes and defeats our fears to give us a feeling of liberation, then we can laugh. The basic joke of the story is what sets up expectations; to gratify our hostile, sexual, or selfish fantasies; suddenly, playfully, with a justifiable point.
And the audience laughs when they see and recreate their own identities, unexpectedly and playfully. And each person’s identity is unique. This accounts for the fact that we laugh for different reasons, even while we laugh in unison. And maybe the reason good comedy makes us laugh is that it offers the playful freedom to be ourselves, to see and to laugh at the truth within our lives.
Comedy also opens the door to understanding serious issues and creates a forum for discussing topics we might normally avoid. The television series, “All in the Family” is a good example of comedy confronting issues thought to be off-limits. “Saturday Night Live” opened the door for coverage of political and social issues mainstream newscasts watered down or outright avoided. Numerous plays and movies likewise tackle verboten themes that are camouflaged with humor. While comedy incites laughter, it can also instill awareness and understanding.
This article covers the basics of comedy acting and shows how this versatile wonderful tool can be an instrument for both entertainment and enlightenment. Laughter breaks down our defenses and allows us to see the truth. This chapter and its techniques open the door for such possibilities. And while you may question these principles and their abilities, and fear that the audience will not respond, imagine the joy when you hear waves of laughter instead.