The comedy and tragedy masks follow actors throughout their careers. Whether they’re a tattoo you chose after your MFA or the hokey gifts Aunt Becky gets you every Christmas. While they often seem like opposites, they’re two sides of the same coin. Dramatic actors imbue each gesture, tear, and moment of silence with such emotional weight. Now a comedian may deflect those moments with a pratfall, fart noise, or well-timed punchline, but that doesn’t mean comedians don’t know drama or that even serious dramatic actors can’t learn something from comedy.
Whenever actors, and all artists really, find out I do standup comedy they always say, “I wish I had the courage to do that.” Only, they don’t usually use the word courage. Yet, these are people who can cry on cue. They explore the dark and deep feelings, conflict, and tension I’ll often deflect with a joke. But there’s a reason comedians make such great dramatic actors. Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Mo’Nique, and Eddie Murphy have all done standup and won Oscar noms. Even super slapstick comedians like Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey have won critical acclaim for their dramatic roles. Just because they may opt for laughter and levity doesn’t mean they haven’t had dark experiences or feel deep emotions. Plus, to effectively tell the same stories and anecdotes to audiences all over the country you do have to cultivate a level of self and social awareness that many actors work to bring to each character they play.
Here are a few ways standup comedy can make you a stronger actor.
1. More tools in the toolbox.
Part of the art of standup comedy is talking about the things that make people uncomfortable, sad, or fully ready to punch you in the face. But there’s a nuance to it. A charm and disarm approach that can effectively communicate how you feel and really win people over. What makes standup so powerful is being able to share these unpopular truths in an amusing way. Comedians use energetic, tonal, and emotional turns to keep their audience on their toes. They also cultivate the charisma to do this and not get jumped on the way to their car. Honing these sudden psycho-emotional and social shifts can give actors more diverse choices when delivering lines. They can try choices that might give more insight and charisma to their characters.
2. Stop the stage fright.
Comedians are confronted with the adrenaline of a fresh crowd and the same material they’ve been using and they make magic happen. Actors can learn a little from being on the spot. Even seasoned comedians can be shocked by what parts of themselves pop up to say hello while they’re performing. A standup comedy performance is both rehearsed and improvised. It requires a comedian to use the energy of the audience and whatever nervous energy they have and channel it into their performance. This isn’t exactly new to actors. But a sense of urgency, immediacy, while also being completely present is required. Speaking of being present...
3. Stay present.
Standup comedy is a master class in staying present. If you get too into your head the audience will feel it. You need to be able to be present with yourself to not have a panic attack onstage. You need to be in touch with your audience so that if something happens you can address it. You need to be mentally present to be able to both tell your joke as written but adjust for the energy of the audience. You learn to flex the tiniest of muscles to ensure the audience laughs when you want them to. You are confronted with the prospect of an audience that is either dying for you to make them laugh or secretly wanting you to fail and you need to be able to roll with the punchlines and stay completely present.
4. Balancing vulnerability and aggression.
I teach my students how standup comedy is essentially a tight rope walk of vulnerability and aggression. You have a microphone so you must be the loudest, most engaging, and biggest presence in the room. But you also don’t earn the audience’s respect if you’re just yelling at them. It’s also vital that you open up to the audience. Standup comedy forces you to develop the agility to ride these two lines quickly and with purpose.
5. Develop self-awareness.
A standup comedy audience is the ultimate BS detector. If you’re disingenuous, trying too hard, or a jerk, the audience will tell. They may even yell it at you while you’re performing. Standup forces you to better know yourself. If your jokes aren’t working it may be the angle you’re taking or something you’re attached to is missing self-awareness. I tell my students, “As we edit our jokes we edit our thoughts.” For jokes to work, we have to edit our thoughts to make them clearer to the audience at large. If you’re not self-aware and your audience is smarter than you, they likely will not feel comfortable enough to laugh.
6. Learning more layers.
Comedy is about acknowledging layers. Think of “The Simpsons.” What makes the show one of the longest-running comedy series in history is that at any given time it has five different points of view. A Lisa punchline is not a Marge punchline or a Homer punchline. As comedians workshop their material they must adapt their material for a wider appeal. They also must be able to see something from multiple points of view. Actors can take a page from this book. There’s a way to play a line in multiple ways. There’s a way to play with language and point of view that can add layers to a performance.
7. Dynamism 101
Dynamism is a $10 word for what makes you dynamic. The force of your character. A standup comic must command attention. How often have you heard the adage, “When you walk into an audition, change the energy of the room.” Well, standup comedians must change the energy of the room. Someone may have just bombed or they might be following someone with a ton of TV credits. A standup comic must be able to use their power of personality to make an impression on their audience. This is probably one of the strongest skills an actor can get from standup. There’s a certain amount of deference and diplomacy actors must have when they’re onstage. But the ability to change the energy of your audience whether onstage or on-camera is a skill that actors can spend their careers honing. And who knew you could just do a few hundred open mic nights at the Chuckle Hut and you’d be all set.
Some actors learn more about themselves through the characters they play. Some comedians put on a mask in order to be able to hide their introverted personalities. But standup is definitely an art form of people, connection, and exploring conflict and tension. So it’s kind of a given that some standup comedy under your belt could inform your acting career in untold ways. Well, besides the seven you were just told. Now, this doesn’t mean Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Dame Judi Dench are going on tour as the Real Oscar Winners of Comedy. But be honest...wouldn’t you kill to see that?
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