Can Comedic Timing Be Taught, or Is It Innate?

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Ian Forester
Associate artistic director, Needtheater, Los Angeles;
'Fatboy,' 'Sketchbook 6'

Timing is not something to be learned; it's something to be found.

An acting teacher of mine (quoting an acting teacher of his, who was quoting an acting teacher of his, etc., ad infinitum) once said, "Emotion is to the actor what sweat is to the athlete." To borrow his phrase, I'd say, "Timing is to the comic actor what manure is to the farmer." Which is to say it's an enjoyable byproduct of a process unrelated to our enjoyment. If the actor ignores the process, then he or she, like the farmer, just ends up chasing down bullshit.

The most important thing in comedy is the same thing that's most important in any piece of acting: truthful response to imagined circumstances. If that's there, the timing will follow.

Whether you're an actor or an audience member, being part of a good joke on stage is like having really good sex: You know when it's happening, but it's impossible to fully describe. Description, it turns out, profanes the experience, because what's significant is not what happened when, but the unspoken dialogue between everyone involved.

And that's why timing isn't really all that important. Audiences are different every night. Actors are different every night. Moments unfold in new and bizarre ways every night (or every take). One night it might work to jump your cue; the next night it might work to hold three seconds, then move, then look, then speak. So forget timing. What's important is your awareness of the moment and the courage to try something new, even if you've already found a way to make it work. Great comedy is limitless in its potential; we should be fearless in its exploration.

If you want to work on your timing, take a music class, specifically jazz or blues improvisation. Learn to unclench your asshole. Start deejaying. If you're not musical at all, go enter a rap battle. Go to clubs and dance your ass off, even though you'll probably look like an idiot (you have to do this sober or else you're cheating). Buy a surfboard and teach yourself how to use it. Let go of your ego. But at the very least, learn to unclench your asshole. That's most important. An actor's true timing in any joke is individual to that actor, like a signature. As in all art, there is no universal rule that is not in service to the personal experience and authorship of the artist.

Lynn Shelton
Writer-director, Seattle;
'Humpday,' 'My Effortless

I think it's innate, but I think it can be honed. It really helps to have an instinct. I don't think everybody can do it, and I feel like some people really don't have to hone it—it's right there. But I feel like practice makes perfect, as with a lot of stuff, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

By the time actors come to me, I really need them to be pretty good. I can't be helping them develop that skill on set so much. The thing I can do to enhance the comedy—or, for that matter, the drama—of my own films is to encourage the best performances.

"Humpday" is my third feature. I made my first film in a very traditional way, and I couldn't believe how difficult it was on the actors. I could not believe what a traditional film set requires an actor to do and the technical proficiency that an actor is required to have in an extremely artificial environment. I had a full crew and 35mm film and a lot of lights and so on, but we had 16 days to shoot the thing, because we had no money. So all the time was spent getting the lights set up and making everything look beautiful, and then there were 50 people standing around with their arms crossed staring at the poor actors, with a fog machine going and all this shit around them, and they had five minutes to nail it.

So my second and third features, every single thing that I do, I strip the thing down. I get as little equipment and as few bodies on set as possible, so I can make a completely actor-centered set, so I can put those actors in the most organic, natural kind of environment, to put them at ease, so they can relax. Then I let them play out the scene from beginning to end, and they never have to repeat anything, because it's all improvised. And I ask them to come in really early on in the process too, so they can be heavily involved in the development of their own characters.

I'm trying to get the most naturalistic writing and acting possible. I want that in my films. That's how I encourage good performances—both comedy and drama. Be very, very collaborative with the actors and trust them.

Robert Luketic
Director, Los Angeles;
'The Ugly Truth,' 'Legally Blonde'

Yes, one can learn a very rudimentary timing, or pattern of comedy. However, this "taught" method can hardly be compared to that of an
artist who truly has the DNA of a
comedian. This artist will always shine the brightest.

Marc Webb
Director, Los Angeles;
'(500) Days of Summer'

You can direct somebody to be funny; you can direct timing. But it helps if they have that gift already. And I think most comedians are intuitive, which is why they make good actors. You can tell immediately if somebody has that gift.

Additional reporting by Jenelle Riley