Although you may think comedic actors make you laugh because they’re especially talented and naturally funny, in reality, they’ve studied and practiced their trade long and hard.
Successful comedy isn’t merely about saying something hilarious; it’s about delivering a line at precisely the right beat, pausing for an appropriate amount of time and physically controlling your body in a manner that appears out-of-control. And above all, you must look completely natural while doing so.
Comedic acting may very well be the most difficult performance art to learn, but also the most rewarding to master. Therefore actors must approach comedy like any other fine craft – with dedication, fortitude, confidence and perseverance.
So if you believe you too would love feeling the immense joy that comes with inspiring crowds to roar with laughter, you must begin diligently studying and practicing the following techniques. We must get you ready for the show!
First, it’s crucial to understand what exactly comedy is. What makes us laugh so hard?
Before we delve into the techniques of comedic acting, it’s important to discuss what makes a comedy a comedy (you may be surprised by the irony). Comedy is about suffering. That’s right – pain, sadness, tragedy, and injustices are all the perfect foundations for a funny story. (I told you it was ironic!)
The old adage, “you’ll either laugh or cry,” couldn’t be truer when it comes to comedy. The more a character is in trouble, the funnier it is to watch – hence the term “comedy of errors.” Desperation, unpredictability and deep situational entanglements force protagonists to solve improbable (and often crazy) situations with exaggerated (and hilarious) solutions.
The rough and daunting experiences characters find themselves forced to face are exactly what keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, cringing, wincing, screaming, howling and smiling from ear to ear. In essence, comedy is laughing at someone else’s expense – the character’s suffering.
Yet, the final and most important element of every comedy – and the one that sets it apart from drama – is that comedies always have a happy ending. (Yay! The character is saved from the madness!)
So how do young actors learn how to be funny?
You must develop your own funny personality. Be unique!
Think about the all of the successful comedians you know. They all have a distinctive personality, don’t they? Every time you see a movie staring Will Farrell, you instantly recognize his one-of-a-kind mannerisms and characteristics. By perfecting his unique comedic shtick, Will has become hugely popular. If you can achieve the same thing, you will be on your way up the comedic ladder.
But how do you do this? How do you develop a distinguishing and recognizable, “funny man” personality? Well first of all, don’t merely think in terms of “funny man or funny woman.” Very often, comedy is about opposites; every comedy must have a straight man and a clown.
Which do you think your natural personality falls in line with – the character who throws the pie, or the one who gets hit with the pie? Are you silly, sarcastic, quirky or quick? Do you have a dry sense of humor or are you over-the-top and physically funny?
To become a successful comedian, you must find your innate sense of humor and then develop it. So take some time to decide who your comedic personality will be (take notes, sketch it out, brainstorm). And don’t forget, people get very tired of “the same old thing” – unusual, unconventional, surprising and new always wins!
Practice physical humor – one of the oldest traditions in comedy.
Even before Vaudeville, actors were using their bodies to move in ways that’d make crowds double over with laughter. And once again, physical humor usually comes in the form of folly (cartoons like Looney Tunes are a true testament to this – that poor Wile E. Coyote!). Whether the character happens to stub their toe, get nailed by a passing bird or even hit by a bus, if the scene is framed correctly, there will be laughter.
Therefore you must learn the very tricky skill of looking like you’re in terrible pain when you’re really not. Some professionals equate the difficulty of these techniques to stage combat – and the only way to master “a dance” is through repetition. You must practice these scenes over and over again. (Which we’ll discuss further in our final tip.)
Learn to give up control. Forget who you are and become your character.
To be a fantastic actor (comedic or dramatic), you must utterly lose yourself in your role. Act through every pore and every inch of your mind, body and soul. By letting go, you will appear authentic; and that’s the most an actor can ever do, look completely natural.
Do your absolute best not to over-act. Don’t try to be funny. Don’t fake it. Don’t get embarrassed. Don’t expect laughs by over-exaggerating your facial expressions. If the script is well written and funny, then the laughs will come – do not force them! One of the worst errors a comedic actor can make is to anticipate laughter.
You must trust your training and your talent. You must believe in the power of the script; and you must believe that the situation you’re in (the scene) is real. Let the moment take over, and BE your character.
Understand timing and the script. (This is vital!)
Timing: Although we just discussed not anticipating laughter, a very important aspect of comedic timing is pausing for the audience to laugh (that is, if they are laughing). Young or novice actors often get nervous and roll through the pauses, forcing the crowd to either stop laughing or left wondering what they just missed in the dialogue. The amount of time that you should pause for laughter comes with practice and experience.
In fact, perfecting timing in general comes with practice. It can be different for every actor and become a distinctive element of your character’s unique personality traits. You’ll need to find your own natural sense of when to deliver jokes, when to pause, when to exaggerate and when to restrain yourself. If you trust in your training and your talent, an organic sense of comedic timing will come.
Script: If you’re not actually doing improvisation, DON’T improvise. Comedic writers are hired for a reason – they’re master wordsmiths who understand every element needed for a successful script. Writers work tirelessly on word choice and punctuation placement. You must study a script’s punctuation very closely – using each symbol as a signal.
Make full stops at periods, pause at commas and don’t change a question mark to a period or vice versa – it completely changes the meaning of the sentence. Don’t add on words to your sentences like, “Well,” “So,” “I mean,” “I’m just, “Like,” “You know” or any other unnecessary words that clutter the language and distract from the comedic cadence. Stay true to the original script and study its every detail. Many times writers will underline or identify words that deserve greater enunciation or a specific beat – pay close attention to these notes and your performance will be a bigger success.
Practice staying in the moment by doing Improv.
As we now know, milking the audience for a laugh is one of the fastest ways a comedic actor can kill audience laughter. Therefore approaching each line as if it were the first time you’d said it is a huge part of “being funny.” It gives the scene authenticity and spontaneity – and one of the best ways to practice this technique is by doing improvisation.
As its name suggests, improv is about coming up with lines on the spot (much like life itself). Here, actors are forced to stay in the moment and deliver dialogue in an organic fashion. Great improv is difficult, thus extremely valuable. It teaches actors to stay on their toes, to try new approaches, to develop an innate sense of timing and to have fun with the audience!
Learn from professionals! There’s no substitute for hands-on experience.
No matter how much you read about comedic acting, watch comedy and practice in front of the mirror, you must get professional training. During comedy acting classes, camps and workshops, you’ll not only learn techniques from the masters, you’ll also have a chance to perform in front of real audiences. This practice is invaluable. There’s no other way to perfect the art of natural timing and physical humor than by performing with other actors in front of large groups of people.
By getting involved in acting camp, like Hollywood’s Young Actors Camp, you’ll get important feedback from professionals and peers, learn what people think really is funny, gain a strong sense of timing and beat, and build a strong foundation of knowledge and confidence – all of which is vital to success as a comedy actor.
But above all, don’t ever give up your dream! Live and breathe comedy day and night. Get professional headshots taken and begin volunteering in local films and plays. Ensure you’re completely prepared for casting calls and auditions, and when the time comes to try out for a comedy, fight for your rightful place in Hollywood’s next big funny movie.
After all, there’s no business like show business!