I often think of comedy like baking and tragedy like cooking. Tragedy is intuitive, fluid, and you can season to your preference and rework the recipe to suit. Comedy has rules, formulas–it takes skill and inventiveness to achieve good results, but stray from certain recipes and your comedy cake is doomed.
While some actors certainly have a natural talent for comedy, there is a technique to be learned, worked, and refined. If you’ve never felt yourself to be a comedian, don’t give up just yet. Explore the exhilarating world of comedy. Maybe you just haven’t stepped into the right pair of clown shoes yet.
- Dive in. As long as humanity has been around, so has the desire to make each other laugh. Cultures around the world have been inventing and reinventing traditions of humor for ages. Start consuming comedy, and I mean all comedy. Comedy from decades and centuries past, from around the world, in all different mediums, comedy that doesn’t appeal to you and that brings you to your knees. Arm yourself with knowledge. Find what speaks to you and you’ll find what speaks to your audience.
- Don’t Play the Joke. Whether you’re on camera or live, audiences always will sense the actor that is trying too hard. It is the quickest way to kill the laugh. It may feel counterintuitive. Actors familiar with comedy intellectually know exactly where the joke is and how it should play. But part of the magic is not playing it. Find the honesty in the circumstance. No matter how absurd the world of your comedy is, nine times out of ten, the right choice is not to comment on it, but to believe in it and accept it wholeheartedly. Play the objective. Fight for what your character needs. The comedy with come from the failures or successes to achieve your goals.
- Timing. Even those actors brand new to comedy likely know that timing is everything. The difference between bad, good and great comedy can be broken down to seconds, fractions of seconds. Timing can be developed over, well, time. Practice. Work at fine-tuning your sense for it. Watch great comedic performances and figure out what about their timing shines. Performing consistently in front of a live audience will do wonders. The instant feedback can feel brutal on bad days but it will help you learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t
- Pacing. Personally, I’m a big believer in the old rule that good comedy is fast, great comedy is faster. Pacing is the comedic sister of timing. Drive it. Obviously there will be moments to stretch and revel in, but be judicious. Think of any comedic performance as keeping a ball in the air. The second you let that ball drop, you lose momentum, and you’ve broken the spell for the audience. Pacing will keep that ball flying.
- Find Your Style. If you ever felt like maybe you just aren’t funny, examine the comedy you have consumed. Often as children, we are introduced to content our parents find funny. Maybe Monty Python isn’t your bag. There are styles of comedy and styles of comedians. Explore different roles and different styles. Even versatile comedians can have a type that can serve as a comedic home base. Find what feels right to you. Are you the straight man or the clown. Do you cleave to physical or verbal comedy? Notice the differences between what you appreciate and what you execute well.
Even if comedy just isn’t your strength, working knowledge of it is important for any actor. Even the darkest of roles has moments of lightness. To be a well-rounded performer, seek a comedic education. And have some laughs along the way.