Breaking Character: How to Stop Corpsing

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Photo Source: “SNL” Credit: Will Heath/NBC

Whether it’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus letting her iconic cackle fly and breaking character as Elaine, or an interviewee cracking up at Philomena Cunk’s feigned misunderstanding, corpsing presents one of the biggest challenges to even the most seasoned actors. Here’s everything you need to know about corpsing and how to keep a straight face despite all odds (and oddballs).

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What is corpsing?

Fast and Furious 6“Fast and Furious 6” Courtesy Universal Pictures

Corpsing is when an actor breaks out into unscripted laughter. The term comes from the theater: The worst possible time to uncontrollably laugh would be on stage, playing a corpse. 

Corpsing in theater is generally seen as undesirable, particularly in dramatic performances, since it can disrupt the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. However, some film and TV actors purposely try to make their co-stars corpse since the scene can be re-shot or even included for extra comedic effect.

How to stop yourself from laughing

Bridesmaids“Bridesmaids” Courtesy Universal Pictures

Although it can be hard for even the most seasoned actor to stop themselves from laughing at an especially entertaining scene, taking these steps can help.

  • Recognize your triggers: Maybe you always laugh when someone makes a deadpan joke; you might crack up at gallows humor crack; or perhaps dad puns bring you glee. It helps to fully understand your corpsing triggers ahead of time so that you can practice a scene with that knowledge in mind. 
  • Concentrate on an emotion: Once you know the moments that might trigger your unintentional laughter, think about times you feel more dour. Concentrate on the times you feel humorless, and you may be able to block yourself from laughing in the moment. 
  • Identify with your character: If your character isn’t supposed to be laughing, there’s likely a reason. Think through the W questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) for your character, their personality, and motivations to fully inhabit the way they would feel during the scene.

What to do if you break character

Curb Your Enthusiasm

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” Credit:  John P. Johnson/ HBO

If you try to hold in your chuckles but fail, not all hope is lost. Try one of these options the next time you break character:

  • Keep it moving: The audience may not have noticed your laughter—and if they did, they may not realize it’s not meant to be part of the scene. Take a deep breath, try and stifle your giggles, and remember that the show must go on. 
  • Turn it into a sob: Turn that smile upside down by covering your face and acting as though you’re crying. Just keep in mind that this only works for specific scenes and characters. If your character is known for their stoicism, weeping probably isn’t the right choice. 
  • Use the laughter: If you find yourself plagued by a particularly uncontrollable laugh, try leaning into it. Tweak your performance so that your character should be laughing at that moment.

Examples of actors breaking character

Jennifer Aniston, “Friends”

Jared Padalecki, “Supernatural”

Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd, “This Is 40” 

Aubrey Plaza, “Parks and Recreation”