Acting for the Comedy Genre

Comedy is Hard Work

Acting in a comedy is harder than it may seem. One of the key elements of comedic acting is not to "milk the audience" for a laugh. You may have a brilliantly funny script to work from, but if you play the scenes as though a laugh is going to come at any moment, you will certainly kill the spontaneity of the world you have created.

In order to avoid giving the joke(s) away too soon, actors need to stay focused on each moment as it unfolds. Trust that the playwright has orchestrated his/her scenes so that the humor will be seen (and heard) in them.

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Don't Be Funny

How do you deliver a funny line? Don't be funny.

We've all seen actors trying too hard to squeeze very last bit of humor out of one line just to be sure s/he gets the laugh. Or worse, an actor delivers a line then waits for the laugh s/he is positive will follow. (You can almost hear the crickets chirping in the silence.) You can avoid this by staying true to the world of the scene at hand.

Rule of Comedy: If you believe it, the laughs will come.

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How to Laugh

For some actors laughing on cue can be just as daunting a task as crying on cue. Here are a few tips on how to laugh effectively:

First and foremost, keep your attention on the scene and on your partner. If you are truly engrossed in the moment of the scene, the laugh will come organically.

Think of the kind of laugh required for the moment. What size or type of laugh is an appropriate reaction to the situation? Sometimes a little chuckle is far more effective than a belly laugh. Although a seemingly inappropriate laugh may work as well, particularly if you are acting in a comedy.

Be aware of the what the mood of the scene is and decide how your character would honestly react. After that, forget about it. Let the moment carry you through.

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Improv Comedy

Improvisational comedy is often a misnomer. When acting in Improv comedy, actors don't set out to come up with the wittiest line or out-joke his/her scene partners. In both short- and long-form Improvs, the basic idea is to take a subject or scenario (often given by an audience member) and create a scene based on the reality of the moments that unfold once the scene has begun.

Much like real life, actors do not approach the scenes with the desire to make everyone around them laugh, but if the scene is played organically, humorous moments do arise more often than not. The goal is to play the scene with honesty.

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Physical Humor

One of the oldest comedic traditions is physical comedy. Here, not only language is used to make audiences laugh, but the body is used in ways that evoke humor. Sadly, this often involves some unfortunate event for the comedian such as falling down or sustaining some other bodily mishap.

Vaudeville comedians were masters of this type of humor. Film comedians of note like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd were masters of physical comedy. Today, physical comedians are not as prominent, but actors like Jim Carrey have carried on the tradition.

If you choose to study physical comedy, be aware that learning the skill effectively is as complex as learning stage combat. Looking like you've been hurt (or blinded by a cream pie) without actually being that way is a fine art that takes years of training and practice.

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The Muse of Comedy

Everyone loves to laugh. It's no wonder then that in the line-up of the original Nine Muses of the arts and sciences was Thaleia (or Thalia), the Muse of Comedy. That's how important comedy is!

Thaleia and her sisters were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (the Titan goddess of memory and language). Thaleia herself appears with the comic mask, a shepherd's staff, or a wreath of ivy. The Muses are said to be inspiring nymphs; writers and performers called upon them to give them strength and inspiration to create their art.

Today, the Muses are still worshipped, if only in general invocation! Still, if you're a comedian, Thaleia may appreciate some special attention. She's a fan of offerings of water, milk, and honey. Put some out before your next Neil Simon production.

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Types of Comedy

The word “comedy” comes from the Greek word komos which means celebration or merrymaking. It may or may not imply that a situation is funny. Mostly, it focuses on a conflict that escalates, but which in the end has a happy ending. When you study comedy, there are several subdivisions you may encounter. Here are a few:

Farce: A high-energy dramatic-comedic piece with improbable situations, exaggeration, and oftentimes playful roughhousing.

Imbroglio: A comedy that grows out of a character's attempt to solve a specific problem. Typically, the journey toward the solution becomes a comedy of errors that leads the hero into deeper entanglements, but the conclusion ends up happily.

Black comedy: Comedy (usually a social commentary) that tests good taste and moral tolerability by juxtaposing dark elements of human nature with comical ones.

Pantomime: Mainly designed for children, this musical drama dance, mime, puppetry, slapstick, and melodrama are combined to produce an entertaining and comic theatrical experience. In Europe and the UK, these “pantos” are performed around the holidays.

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