Why the Actor’s Process Kills Comedy (and What to Do About It)

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I open my speaking engagements with a knock-knock joke I’ve written for actors. “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Method actor.” “Method actor who?” And then I pause as long as it takes for the actors in the audience to get the joke.

In other words, as wonderful as it is, “the actor’s process” wasn’t designed for comedy. Not only wasn’t it designed for comedy, it’s a pretty safe bet “the actor’s process” will kill any chance the audience will laugh even once during a scene. Why? Because “the actor’s process” is designed to make the audience think that something real is happening and to care about it and feel for it, and so they won’t laugh. Why would they? They’re not monsters.

What does make an audience laugh? “Comic context,” the most important aspect to creating comedy. Comic context is what makes an audience want to laugh all through the scene, even if they only end up laughing once. The actor’s process, on the other hand, creates “dramatic context,” which communicates to an audience that its watching a drama, which makes the audience want to feel. Ironically, by relying on “the actor’s process” to create comedy, actors and directors are telling the audience not to laugh.

How does one create comic context? As obvious as the three words I’m about to write will sound, you’d be surprised how many actors and directors overlook them. Find it funny. The biggest mistake actors and directors make when creating comedy is coming up with ideas that they think will be right for the comedy, or that they think will make the scene funny, or that they think will make an audience laugh. The only idea that’s going to make an audience laugh is one that the actor who is playing it finds so funny, that when he or she is home alone and no one is watching and he or she thinks about it, he or she laughs out loud. Think about it this way. When playing a sad dramatic scene, it’s important that the actor feels really sad so that the audience feels sad watching it. The reverse is true with comedy. Actors have to feel a scene is really funny for the audience to feel it’s funny.

We’ve all heard the saying comedy is hard. The actor’s process is one of the main reasons why. Here are three CleverActorTips to make it easier, and funnier, and a lot less painful.

Here’s one to remember when creating comic characters.
CleverActorTip#29: “Comic characters are based on the idea that adults are just children in grown up bodies.”

Here’s one to remember when playing scenes.
CleverActorTip#48: “The less your character changes from moment to moment, the more we laugh.”

And here’s one for all those scenes in comedies in which everyone is yelling at each other.
CleverActorTip#63: “When it comes to comedy, offended is funnier than angry. Every time.”

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John Swanbeck
John Swanbeck is an author, columnist, speaker, creator, and publisher of CleverActorTips and Chief Creative Officer of BlueSwanFilms. He is a renowned director and teacher of actors, directed the existential comedy “The Big Kahuna” starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, and has packaged his best original techniques into the much-acclaimed book, “How To Steal The Scene & End Up Playing The Lead,” available on Amazon & iTunes.
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