How to Laugh on Cue

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Whether it’s the maniacal cackle of a Disney villain or the self-conscious chuckle of a bumbling British rom-com protagonist, the stage laugh is built into many roles and productions. Laughing on command is a matter of harnessing the power of your organic laugh and applying it to your performance.

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Why is laughing on cue important for actors?

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In real life, people laugh for all sorts of reasons: 

  • As a social function: Laughter connects people by demonstrating a shared contextual understanding. When two people find the same situation amusing, it indicates a sense of cooperation and community.
  • To relieve stress: Laughter releases endorphins, making it a perfect tool to cut tension.
  • Because something is funny: Of course, the go-to reason why people laugh is in response to being amused by everyday existence. 

Since acting involves finding real-life truths in imaginary situations, laughter has long been a significant part of theatrical and cinematic performance. While it most obviously plays a crucial role in comedies, the stage laugh has also historically been included even in tragedies to indicate a sense of frivolity or moral corruption. For example, in Act 3, Scene 2 of “Hamlet,” the titular Prince of Denmark says that “there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.” Hamlet deems this kind of laughter “villainous.” 

In the silent film era, laughter was usually performed with grand theatrical gestures and facial expressions. Today, film and TV actors are usually asked to perform their fake laugh as realistically as possible. This means that the ability to laugh on command in a true-to-life way is a valuable skill that can make you stand above your competition at auditions—even as you’re bent in two at a knee-slapper.

How to make yourself laugh

Joaquin Phoenix Joker “Joker” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Laughter is often an involuntary response to social and emotional triggers, meaning that it can be difficult to create a realistic-sounding laugh on command. Laughing on command is a matter of recognizing what makes you laugh, focusing on that, fully embodying your character, and then taking on the physical process of creating laughter.

Recognize what makes you laugh

You might be the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral (to quote the Barenaked Ladies). Or perhaps your sense of humor leans more refined, like the polite social comedy of the characters of “Bridgerton.” Explore the experiences that make you laugh to discover their source.

Use your own experiences

If you’re trying to manufacture a laugh for a scene that you don’t personally find amusing, remember the techniques of teachers such as Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen, who encouraged actors to relate their own memories and experiences to their characters. Try conjuring up and recreating the feelings of a time that you really did break out in laughter. Consider how you would feel if that situation were taking place right now and see if you can summon a laugh organically.

Get physical

Emmy and Oscar winner Allison Janney once reflected on a stage production that required her to “laugh hysterically onstage every night.” The advice she used to laugh on cue was to “just start moving your stomach, going ‘huh huh,’ ” Janney said. “[Start the physical motions] of laughing and then it gets real.”

And to prove the effectiveness of step number one (“recognize what makes you laugh”), Janney’s conversation partner Sam Rockwell—also an Oscar winner—responded: “I used a fart app to laugh on camera… Not everybody thinks farts are funny, but you gotta do what it takes sometimes.”

Embody your character

Do rigorous script analysis to figure out your character’s motivations and why they’re laughing. Go over the W questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) to fully identify with their life and experiences. Although the idea of causing destruction and chaos throughout the streets of Gotham may not make you laugh, it’s the catalyst for Arthur Fleck to finally release his first genuine laugh in “Joker.” Joaquin Phoenix had to make himself identify with Fleck to create a laugh he called both one of “authentic joy” and “almost painful.”

Start small

When it’s time to give your best guffaw, take a deep breath, relax your body, and start out with a small chuckle.

Let loose

Let your laugh build in volume and scope as appropriate—and don’t forget to match the laugh to the character and scene.

Practice. Like any part of acting, the more you practice your fake laugh, the better you’ll be. Take a few minutes a day to make yourself burst into laughter, and you’ll be prepared when asked to do it for a role.

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