What Actors Can Learn About Comedy From Sigmund Freud

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I studied Shakespeare in college. I don’t regret it. I did scenes from “Julius Caesar.” I played Brutus. I was terrible. I am sure it made me a better person in some way. I studied Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. About the only thing I remember from this period of theater study was the joke, “Euripides pants—you pay for them.” I loved Ibsen and Strindberg and Chekhov. I couldn’t wait until I had a chance to play Oswald in “Ghosts.”

Then I came to Hollywood. Why didn’t anyone warn me? Professional acting is about comedy. Not all of it—but most of it. And it’s not just the sitcoms. How about the dry wit of Lenny on “Law and Order”? Or “The Sopranos,” where two of the leading characters are dismembering a body in a bathtub and having a serious conversation about the challenges of fatherhood? Funny stuff.

Actors are always in search of a simple key to playing comedy. The best I have come across is from that laugh machine, Sigmund Freud. In 1905, he delivered a series of lectures in Munich that became the book, “Jokes, and Their Relation to the Unconscious.” Freud states that the essence of comedy “…is making the meaningful, meaningless,” or, correspondingly, making the meaningless, meaningful.

Making the meaningful meaningless is slipping on the banana peel. Walking becomes falling. Purpose becomes non-purpose. Conversely, making the meaningless meaningful is Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

The beauty of Sigmund Freud’s formula is that he underscores the central element needed in any comedy: meaning. This is why comedy centers around things we value as a society—from money to manners. There is no reason to laugh unless there is something at stake.

Freud felt that when we play with meaning, we create tension. When the tension is released, we laugh. Freud wrote that this is why a crisp, quick delivery seems to help comedy—the faster the pace, the more tension is built up.

Freud talked about dirty jokes. He said the danger of telling jokes that involve sex, race, politics, or profanity is that the listener becomes an accomplice to a point of view they may not embrace. This creates tension. You may get laughs. You can also lose your audience.

Actors are often faced with the challenge to “make something funny.” The tendency is to jump to “crazy.” The better tactic is to find the meaning in the scene. Determine if you are responsible for carrying the meaning or if you are the guy or girl who turns it on its head and makes it meaningless. Remember, just because you carry the meaning doesn’t mean you don’t get laughs. The audience always identifies with the straight man. That’s half the battle.

The next thing I look for in a script is what is the comedic form. I have come up with three basic types of comedic writing. This is generalized and oversimplified, but it works for the sake of discussion. The three types of comedy I come across the most are farce, satire, and slapstick.

I identify farce as “comedy of priorities.” Just about every sitcom is written in this form. Things that should be important aren’t. Things that are important shouldn’t be. You can hear the echo of meaningful and meaningless throughout one of these scripts. Meaning in farce has to be carried by truthful playing by the actors. It doesn’t have to be overplayed. Simple is better.

Satire is comedy of form. Weekend Update on SNL is a good example. It is the form of the newscast that provides the meaning. The content of the newscast provides the meaninglessness. The newscasters must play it straight. The goofier they try to be, the less chance the scene has of working. Making the meaningless more meaningless isn’t funny. It’s like having to watch a video of the last time you went to traffic school.

I identify slapstick as a central figure caught in the middle of a whirlwind. The storm can be physical, like in a Buster Keaton comedy. It can also be emotional, like the men surrounding our heroines in Sex in the City. The central character carries the meaning. Slapstick works best when the central character plays it straight. Look at Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. No matter how much chaos surrounds him, he maintains the appearance of being in control.

Freud felt comedy was the vehicle we use to express the truths we are afraid to talk about. Perhaps. It’s hard to believe we are afraid of talking about anything anymore. If you are looking for the comedy in a scene, don’t worry about hidden fears, look for the meaning, and go from there. Sometimes the best way to find the funny is when your Freudian slip is showing.