There is a misconception that the ability to be funny is a natural resource only found within certain ‘special’ people. That people are born with it and others ‘don’t have the knack’. Sod that. As with anything, comedy requires work, discipline and understanding.
Of course, some people can find their groove in comedy more naturally than others. Obviously, people have talent but make no mistake: anyone can learn to be funny. It’s an art form.
Some go into the performance industry wanting to be taken seriously as an actor. And so, they don’t want a thing to do with Comedy. Let me tell you now, comedic timing as an actor is one of the most important tools to utilise. So here at How To Do Theatre, we want to give you a few comedy acting tips to get you started.
Actress Cathryn Hartt once said “A pretty girl in Hollywood is a dime a dozen, but a pretty girl that can do comedy…now you got a job!”
Keep the energy high
One thing you will always notice about a comedic performer, is the energy. Whether its lead with physical comedy, or verbal comedy, or if it’s a good old mix of both, the energy levels are through the roof! For comedy to work, everything needs to be stiff as a board with vitality.
That doesn’t mean you need to be doing cartwheels and be wide-eyed for the entirety of the performance. On the contrary, there are many humorous characters in plays that are as dry as the Sahara! But still, the intensity needs to be present.
Your timing, your expression, your movement, it needs to be on point. It needs to have that specific character trying to pull those laughs out of the bag in a way that surprises the audience. No one wants to pay top-end prices to be in the theatre to see a performer who isn’t giving it their all. That’s everyone, from the ensemble performers to the sideshow clown of the piece to the dramatic character at the centre of it all.
Writer Ralph Marston said “don’t lower your expectations to meet your performance. Raise your level of performance to meet your expectations.” If you were cast as Oz in Singin’ in The Rain and you didn’t give that make ‘em laugh number one hundred and ten percent, then it is going to fall flat.
The easiest way to keep your liveliness at full whack for a performance is to do one thing: have fun. Get excited. Fuel up that adrenaline. Make it clear when you go on stage that you are giving it your all and the character is yours to give all your power to.
If you don’t ? you’ll ?
It’s another grand old saying for you, but there are no truer words for some aspects of the comedic world. ‘If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’. Comedy is born from laughing at misfortune.
Charlie Chaplin once said, “to truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it”.
You’ll find that contemporary plays and stand-up comics will always try to make the best out of a bad situation… if performed tastefully, of course.
In some cases, plays and stand-up comedians will touch on subjects not suitable for the faint of heart, and who can blame them? Disease, negative social constructs, attacks around the world. Apart from waiting for politicians to put safeguards in place, what can be done about it? What can the people do? Laugh. Make jokes.
Of course, the jokes have a line, and if you don’t want to lose your audience, you know not to cross it? But as I mentioned earlier, it’s rebelling. It’s taking what we’re told shouldn’t be discussed and saying ‘fuck that – let’s all have a laugh at it.’
It sends you back to being that kid in the headteacher’s office, being screamed at and dying to laugh. But the bigger picture? It gives the big picture to your audience that life goes on and you keep battling forward.
Your script is your bible
When it comes to performing a comedy script, your lines have been written that way for a purpose. There are different types of comedy: dry, shameless, sarcastic, quirky, the list goes on.
Your writer? They’ve agonised over everything to make it as funny as can be. Every comma, every ellipsis, every exclamation point, they are there to do as much of a job as you are as a performer. Without the script, you’re left to your own devices and you go it alone. A script is your guide through perilous territory.
Of course, improvisation is a par for the course in comedy. But this only works in particular situations or if (god forbid) you or another member of cast forgets a line and you must get the ball rolling again. A lot of thing point comes to one trait: trusting your writer. They have done enough research and had enough experience to know what to do for their characters.
Write what you know
This one relates to both the stand-up comedians and the writers who fancy themselves performers. It’s the old adage that has been passed down the writing generations… write what you know.
With comedy, you must know your material. KNOW it. Be invested in it. For comedy to work, you can’t know half of one thing, and half of something else. If someone wants to perform a joke written about being a barmaid, but the only experience they have with a barmaid is receiving a pint off one, it won’t work.
Comedy is in your surroundings. The annoying regular customer at work. The pet peeves you have about your staff room. Your nan who only ever talks about The Gulf War.
Comedic Material is an everyday occurrence. It takes a keen performer to take notice and adapt it for the stage. Stand-up comedians such as Peter Kay make it their strength to use it in their acts. Playwrights like Willy Russell put so much of their home into their work because its authentic. If you’ve seen it, heard it, tasted it, then its real, and most importantly: its relatable.
Possibly the most important point of the list. Commitment in comedy is fatiguing. It’s tiresome. It can even get boring. But… dare I say it… that’s showbiz, kid.
Do you think that if you are cast in a play that after all your rehearsals and your fifth show you won’t begin to grow tired of the same of joke? Delivered the same old way to the same old audience in the same theatre night after night?
You can see where I’m going with this. Author Tony Robbins was quoted as saying, “there’s no abiding success without commitment.” You need to commit everything to your performance, whether you’re simply a stage actor or a comedian. You need to believe in what you are doing night after night. Otherwise, it will not only become stale for you, it will become stale for everyone.
Comedy is a lot harder to pull off than Drama. Fact (Well, opinion, but you get my drift). The expression ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard’ rings true. So, advice? Own it. Enjoy it. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s all about having fun and showing it.
Love your character and show it off on stage every chance you get? If you get to the sixth performance and despise your character and don’t see a way back? The stage door is that way.
How do overcome your struggles with comedy? What does all this boil down to? All these points boil down to one, solid piece of advice: Be yourself. Be you.
There is this big thing of actors using their inspiration and borrowing from them. Borrowing from them. Be unique. Distinguish yourself. No one wants fifty carbon copies of David Jason walking into their audition rooms or walking on stage every night.
You need to find what makes you funny. What groove you fit into. What do you know that makes you suitable? What has happened in your old job that would be suitable to chuck into a script or into your act?
Look at all the most famous comedians or comedy actors to grace every major stage around the world. Their performance is different. When they are playing the same character from a play, yes the delivery is very similar but the person makes it their own still. You as yourself is your greatest tool. Don’t put yourself down. You can be funny, show it.
If you’ve enjoyed our article around comedy acting tips – then check out our How To Act section of the site for more great articles about the craft of acting!
Since graduating from university with a degree in Drama and Creative Writing, Chris has fully invested in writing; actively producing articles, reviews, stories and scripts. He loves movies, television, discussions, informing, theorising, art, and most of all: writing.