Most actors aren’t funny. They would like to be funny. They would like to do comedy. Maybe their friends think they’re funny in real life, but give them comedic material and they couldn’t get a laugh if their Academy Award depended on it. They try, and they try hard. You can see them trying hard as they’re playing the scene. They’ll play the scene as if it’s funny and they’ll deliver their lines as if they’re funny, but they don’t come across that way at all. They come across as an actor trying really hard to be funny. It shows… and it’s not a pretty sight.
There are primarily two reasons this is. The first is because they’re trying very hard to come up with something they think we’ll think is funny, instead of playing what makes them laugh. This is a classic mistake. The second is trickier, and probably the main reason most actors aren’t funny. They’re not funny because they have a very thorough and specific actor’s process that, when applied to comedy, kills any chance the actor will ever get a laugh.
If you struggle with comedy, try this. It’s quick, painless, and if done right, pretty much guarantees you’ll get a laugh.
1. Take a scene and ask yourself what the sentiments are that your character’s words are expressing to the other character. In other words, are your character’s lines expressing anger toward the other character? Are your character’s lines expressing love? Are your lines expressing sorrow? Take just the sentiment your character’s words are expressing…
2. Now take those lines and imagine them in a context where the lines and words wouldn’t fit, wouldn’t make sense, and would be out of place. For instance, if the words of your character’s lines are expressing anger at the other character (with lines like “I hate you” and “How could you?”), you play the lines as if your character’s on a first date. What you end up with is someone shy, sweet, and awkward saying,“I hate you,” and “How dare you?” and it will get a laugh every time. It’s called comic context. Yes, there’s much more to comedy, but create comic context and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a laugh and, no matter what else, everyone will be thinking, ”That actors knows how to create comedy.” And you’ll never again have to worry about how to deliver lines to make them funny.
3. Oh, and just as important, while you’re playing the scene, don’t change along the way—another thing the actor’s process teaches the actor to do, and which they should never do with comedy. With comedy, the more you change, the less we’ll laugh. The less you change, the more we laugh.
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John Swanbeck directed the existential film comedy “The Big Kahuna” starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. He is currently scripting a new comedy with the original writer of Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.” His stage productions have appeared in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. His highly acclaimed e-book for actors “John Swanbeck's: How to Steal the Scene & End Up Playing the Lead” is available now on Amazon and iTunes. His company BlueSwanFilms is producing the animated series “The Daily Life of ‘Pants’ ” set in Los Angeles and the live comedy show The BlueSwanFilms Traveling Comedy Show. For John’s on-camera workshops email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow John on Twitter @CleverActorTips and visit BlueSwanFilms.com.