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5 Keys to Comedy Acting

Updated: Jan 21

When director George Seaton was visiting his dying friend, actor Edmund Gwenn, Seaton said, “This must be terribly difficult for you.” Gwenn replied, “Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy.”

Those who know comedy know it’s a terribly tricky beast. So, if you are performing one of our comedy Madrigal Dinners or Jazz scripts, it may seem daunting. That is why we’re giving you five tips for making your comedy acting successful.


You Are on a Team.

If someone tells you you were hilarious after a show, but the play itself wasn’t that funny, you’ve got a problem. Your goal as an actor is to work with your fellow actors to create an experience that informs and delights the audience. Once, we had a performance where, just before an outdoor show, the lead actor went down with heatstroke. They asked me to step in since they thought I would know his lines, having written the play and all. I didn’t know the lines. So, I just improvised the entire show. I got a lot of laughs, my fellow actors were in a constant state of terror, and the play lost all meaning. Granted, this was a desperate situation, but it never ends well when the actor goes off script for laughs at the expense of other actors.


Stick to the Script.

Sticking to the script is a way to build comedy momentum as a team.

As playwrights, we are particularly sensitive about this. Maybe you’ve got a great ad-lib that gets you great laughs … for now. But the playwright is building momentum for an arc resulting in a hilarious and satisfying denouement. An off-track gag for laughs can derail that momentum.


Pacing.

One of my favorite movies of all time is His Girl Friday. The pacing is so crisp. The repartee is quick without seeming to be rushed. The shorthand I use in rehearsals is snapping my fingers to get the pace going, which irritates my actors but gets the message across. The actors must have their lines down cold to have this kind of delivery. We did this once with a spoof on Shakespeare in which the actors went back and forth on all the many, many, MANY ways that characters died in Shakespeare. These two actors had to run their lines repeatedly to get a crisp, quick pace. But when they performed it, they brought the house down. So, keeping the pace is important, BUT–


Do Not Step on the Laughter.

Stepping on laughter during a comedy show makes the audience afraid to laugh.

Give the audience permission to laugh. My actors tend to step on the laughter during the first performance because 1) they are anxious to deliver their lines right after their cue, 2) they have a conditioned fear of me snapping my fingers when they slow the pace, even during a performance, and 3) they didn’t have laughter during rehearsal so they don’t expect it. If you plow on to your next line during laughter, the audience will not laugh at the next bit because they fear that they will miss dialogue. You are basically training your audience not to laugh. Don’t be afraid to pause. Even milk the laughter a bit with body language and facial expressions.


The Straight Woman or Man is Important.

It can be a real bummer to be the Straight Man. You are setting up the comic actor, and, bam, they deliver the line or action that gets the laughs. Naturally, all actors want some of the glory. But the Straight Man is the audience’s representative on stage. He is the person the audience identifies with all of the craziness on stage. You cannot have comedy without the Straight Woman or Man.

As actor Edmund Gwenn said on his deathbed, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” It is so hard to do comedy well, but when you do it right, you get instant feedback from the audience. Not only that, but studies in Japan and Norway have concluded that laughter helps people live longer, more stress-free lives. So, perform a public service. Do some comedy acting.

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