What Every Actor Needs to Know About Performing Comedy

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You’ve heard it said that “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” And if you have ever actually tried your hand at comedic acting, you know this to be true. While performing drama may be taxing in other ways, nailing comedy may as well be its own art form entirely—but you shouldn’t let that scare you away. Here, industry and Backstage Experts share their must-know advice for finding the funny.

Comedic acting follows the universal rules of all acting.
“First and foremost, truth. Truthful commitment to comedic circumstances is funny. Some actors think playing comedy means forgoing their basic acting homework. Not so. Knowing and inhabiting your character’s objectives, stakes, obstacles, state of mind, philosophy, relationships, and circumstances is crucial. You must also understand the story’s time period and location, and the attendant customs. Truly funny comedy requires making all these things real.

“Then, there are certain recurring elements in comedy. Figure out what particular devices are being employed in—or might suit—the material, and you’ll know better how to play your role.” —Michael Kostroff, working actor and audition coach

You should probably stick to the script exactly.
“But what if you’re auditioning for a comedy? Almost all television is writer-driven and if you’re auditioning for shows like ‘Blackish’ or ‘Superior Doughnuts,’ it’s best you stick to the script unless you’re instructed otherwise. Single-camera comedies have a little room for ad-libbing, and only if you’re a better writer than the person who booked that staff-writing job.” —Rob Adler, actor, director, teacher, and Backstage Expert

You don’t have to prove that you’re funny.
“Good acting should be invisible in any genre. The point I’m reinforcing is that actors shouldn’t push the comedy in any way or prioritze showing off their comedy chops or training. It can be tempting, but I promise you, should be avoided.

“I’ve seen a lot of talented actors make this mistake at every level of their careers. Mostly it’s a lack of experience and training for the camera that drives an actor to ensure they’re perceived as funny. That could be because an actor is new or they’ve only performed on the stage, but I’ve also seen seasoned actors who’ve done mostly drama fall into the comedy trap.

“Comedy has pressure points that don’t have a parallel in drama. Humor is quite personal and generally comes front-loaded with immediate feedback; make a joke and you either get a laugh or you don’t. When it comes to dramatic tenets like grief, betrayal, and loss, we don’t expect a collective reaction.” —Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher, acting coach, writer, director, producer, and Backstage Expert

But you do have to believe it’s funny.
“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.” —John Swanbeck, author, speaker, columnist, and Backstage Expert

Up your energy.
“I always make people run around the room before I put them on tape for comedy. We have an old saying for theater: ‘Always hit the stage running!’ Comedy has an energy to it. Even if you’re doing very laid-back humor, there’s a buzz to it. Plus, you have to be having fun to do good comedy, so you need to get your ‘juices’ flowing. You can’t do comedy tired or dragging. And you don’t want to have fake energy. It will make you feel and look forced and unfunny. So really jump around and get the blood pumping in your body and your brain. Everything will happen faster and more easily.” —Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt & Soul Acting Studio and Backstage Expert

Comedy is about meaning, so find it.
“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.” —Stephen Tobolowsky, Backstage Expert

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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