“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” We’re surrounded by comedy today. Turn to Facebook or pop-over to YouTube and you will see millions of attempts to be funny; some are, most are not. Human beings have an innate desire to want to make others smile. We build trust by sharing a laugh, a sense of community is created when a group of people can sit and laugh together. In the theatre, we’ve harnessed that desire and attempted to make you laugh long before cat videos and viral puppies. So, how do we do it? How did Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke harness their funny bone? Here are some useful tips if you want to play like Pagliacci.
1. Identify Your Type
Long ago, Commedia dell’arte was building on the characters we naturally find funny, servants like Harlequinno and Trufaldino, misers like Pantalone, and braggarts like El Capitano. Today, we still use these troupes to build upon: Bugs Bunny, Mr. Burns, and Zapp Brannigan. We’re not saying to be a stereotype, but what we are suggesting is to build upon what you naturally have.
Is your sense of humor dry and sarcastic? Silly? Absurd? Shameless? Vulgar? Arrogant? The Logical Smart One? The Lovable Loser? The Wild Card? Finding a niche is essential, and then exploring the character is vital.
When you walk into a room, what do people see? Do you come off a little stuck up? That can be funny. Comedy is about expectation and reality, and playing with perceptions. Key & Peele are masters at toying with reality. Check out their sketch below and watch how they play your anticipation against you:
2. Explore your Character
To be a successful comedy actor, you have to study the art form, and the best way to do that is with work, be it in a class or on stage. Find a place to perform and hammer out your reps. Stand-up comedians build their material one show at a time. Seinfeld is famous for his “one joke a day” calendar. If you want to be funny you have to practice.
Ask any comedian and they will tell you comedy is all about rhythm, timing, and pace, and it’s your job as a comedic actor to identify those things in each script. Don’t add. Don’t subtract. Discover the pace. Discover the rhythm. Play within the notes. A musician does not add to the composition, he performs and brings his talents to the music. A comedian is a storyteller, a comedic actor is a storyteller. Learn the tools of good writing and use them to your advantage.
Below, watch how Jim Gaffigan explores something we all know: McDonalds. He uses pace to build the comedy and builds off our fears and ideas. This bit seems unscripted, but it has been hammered out hundreds of times:
3. Breaking is Not Funny
What makes comedy so difficult? Commitment. As a comedy actor, you need to be 100 percent committed to the dialogue, physical actions, jokes, technique, and especially the characters. Often, we are laughing at the folly of the character.
In farce, the characters have no idea they are in a farce. Deadpool may be popular right now, but he is poplar because comedy existed before him. Deadpool would not work if he was the first character. He needs Spirderman, Wolverine, and the Captain America to exist to be who he is. Therefore, commit to the work.
Watch below as John Cleese from Fawlty Towers uses the character to his advantage. Basil is brash, conservative, and hilarious. He is fully dedicated to the reality of the character, and thus the comedy is amped up:
Bonus: Have fun.
Confidence is about understanding. By being disciplined and doing your work, you can play within the form. Great improvisers are not manic movers and people who simply fly off the rails: they are performers who have learned the craft and know how to play the game. Comedy is the exact same idea. We learn the script. We know the language. We listen to the moment. We know the lines so well we don’t have to recall them. We play.