Wednesday, January 31, 2007

How can you tell if an actor's funny?

A reader wondered how in an audition you could tell if an actor’s funny? The simple answer – does he or she make you laugh? The long answer -- there is no long answer.

It’s hard to explain but truly funny people just give off a vibe. Their attitude, the way they walk, their look – they seem to possess an innate sense of rhythm and timing. And you know it. That’s how we felt when Katey Segal first walked into our office. And Robert Pastorelli. And especially Jenna Elfman.

It gets tough when you're casting a network pilot. The people who audition are all at a certain advanced level. They’re thoroughly professional. They know how to cold read. They know how to sell the jokes. Any one of them would be okay.

But you’re looking for special. The actor who doesn’t have to work hard to get the laughs. The one that just projects a natural comic persona, whether it’s goofiness, or pomposity, or frustration, or in the case of Robin Williams, every emotion known to man and three that aren’t.

Example of “good” vs. “special” – Jim Belushi…John Belushi.

And appearance is important. Check out these photos. Would either of these guys even have to read for you to know they’re funny?

Harder to find are good looking actors who also have comedy chops. It's especially tough finding guys. That's why Paul Rudd and Jason Bateman get seven pilot offers a season. CHEERS with William Devane would have lasted thirteen episodes.

Here's what's not funny: making dolphin noises, mugging, wearing Fruit of the Loom costumes, being in on the joke, crossing your eyes, putting corn stalks in your ears, snorting, splitting watermelons with a sledgehammer, referring to all women as ho's, dropping the "n" bomb, imitating Helen Keller, being loud, did I mention making dolphin noises?

At the end of the day, I’ve always gone by the Nat Hiken test. Hiken, a brilliant comedy writer, created and wrote THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW and CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU? He used to say that if an actor auditioned and he wanted to go right home and write twenty minutes of dialogue for him, THAT’S the actor you hire.

66 comments:

James said...

Apparently midgets are always funny.

Anonymous said...

I think the cast of FRIENDS are an amazing bunch, attractive and hilarious. I think Jennifer Aniston is so funny -- and I think people forget sometimes how great she is, amidst all the other tabloid stuff. She is gorgeous and drop-dead funny. (With, of course, the right material -- Matthew Perry is trying his best now, but he's got nothing like what Chandler had.)

Anonymous said...

making dolphin noises

Come on, that's just mean.
I hate the show like everyone else who doesn't believe the world revolves around Aaron Sorkin, but she actually did the Dolphin noise pretty well, and the fake promo where she was the cheerleader was actually pretty funny.

(I grant that any "Dolphin Girl" sketch would be intolerably unfunny)

Anonymous said...

Oddly, I thought the dolphin noise was the funniest thing she's done on that show.

Ken Levine said...

I cringed.

Anonymous said...

I cringed.

I'm not saying I didn't, but it was still the funniest thing she's done on that show.

On the other hand, i don't watch the show for the comedy.

And i notice that there are all these people that hate the show virulently yet watch it religiously. Why is that? They must be getting something out of it?

Massif said...

On the other hand, speaking whale is probably the funniest idea that any comedy writer in the last ten years has had.

Of course gags in films have the advantage that they are only done once.

fridwulfa said...

Makin dolphin noises... LOL.

OK. It wasn't haha funny, but still... it showed some... skills? I for sure can't make dolphin noises.
All this time wondering why they were saying ad nauseam that she was so talented... now we know.

rorybaldwin said...

It was a pretty good dolphin noise though.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Thanks for that, Ken.

The funniest unfunny audition I ever watched, was from an actor who had brought a fake mustage to embody his take on the character. He had to do a short scene and came charging in, repeating every line three times and giving it lots of 'energy'. I started to laugh at how inappropriate it was. And the more I laughed, the more he poured on the comedy... which made me laugh even more. When he left the room, my collegues were afraid I was considering hiring the guy and I had to explain them that I was laughing at him, not with him.

Not very nice of me, but I couldn't help it.

A dolphin said...

I was embarassed. Do you realize what she said?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Thanks for that, Ken.

The funniest unfunny audition I ever watched, was from an actor who had brought a fake mustage to embody his take on the character. He had to do a short scene and came charging in, repeating every line three times and giving it lots of 'energy'. I started to laugh at how inappropriate it was. And the more I laughed, the more he poured on the comedy... which made me laugh even more. When he left the room, my collegues were afraid I was considering hiring the guy and I had to explain them that I was laughing at him, not with him.

Not very nice of me, but I couldn't help it.

Anonymous said...

uh Jenna Elfman is not funny.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Did an interview with Jenna Elfman prior to her Dharma & Greg Show ... sweet girl but nothing there in the funny dept. Same goes for Ray Romano ... completely unfunny. Have no idea why people loved EVERYBODY LOVES RAY.

VP19 said...

Anonymous said...
uh Jenna Elfman is not funny.


I disagree -- I think she's a solid comedic actress -- but will concede that as an attractive tall blonde with good legs, in today's Hollywood industry, she doesn't need to be funny. (Then again, that's been true for several decades, hasn't it?)

Benton Harbor said...

Maurice Gossfield... the best! All he had to do was walk into frame and he cracked me up.

Eric said...

Are you 'avin' a laff? Is he 'avin' a laff?

poor man said...

You lost me on the dolphin reference, but I cannot imagine it being funny at all. I'm not a fan of the show.

Instead of those melodramatic promos NBC runs for Studio 60 (people saying something pithy, walking down halls in slow-motion), why don't they put together a quick promo like SNL does every week?

The "guest host" of the show looks at the camera and delivers a stilted, "Join me as I host Studio 60 this week with special musical guest, The Pogues." Give a "cast member" a zinger...and cut.

I might watch that show.

Good Dog said...

Dolphin noises are funny.

Best part of Hudson Hawk.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone watch HOUSE last night? Did Aaron Sorkin write it? I kept waiting for a plot to develop. Instead, we got House and a rape victim having a debate about the meaning of life. In a way, it was very brave of them for making such a radical departure from the successful medical mystery formula; but this one should have been a essay.

Obviously, the writers wanted to take an episode out to let us know what makes House tick. But I'm still just as lost as he is.

I couldn't understand the motivation of the rape victim's insistence on having House treat her. Are we being set up for a new House romance?

I'm a big fan of HOUSE; but I guess, when I watch a series, I go into it with certain anticipations. While last night was a noble effort, it didn't fit my expectations. It's not you; it's me.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous -- loved your comments on House (*all* of them). The ep was just weird.... (and I've seen Three Stories and ..whatever season 2 ended with, and those were absolutely linear when compared with this!)
Maybe Aaron did write it...

Walt said...

HOUSE was certainly boring, but I can imagine it was a setup show for someone like House's father to show up. You couldn't do that without a painful episode of basically Telling us what made House tick, and this ep was an attempt to Show us. I thought it was drug out, but you can't always get what you want. Like many I like to guess what medical malady will be the culprit -- this week, we got to guess what was the issue that was going to be pulled out of House's psyche. I thought the daddy abuse issue was a bit trite, but the way it was pulled out of House was unique... so props to the writers for trying that.

Re: Dolphin speak
Really surprised they didn't reference "And thanks for all the fish" but apparently we'll get to see more of the sketch in the upcoming parts of this three part St*di* 60 story arc.

No, Elfman isn't funny. Perhaps she needs to do more physical comedy to convince me, but on her sitcom, she had all the comedic appeal of Téa Leoni.

Paulson isn't funny either, but I know why I'm prejudiced, having seen her try and fail to take her own life when she was attacked by Reavers...

Rob said...

As a hypochondriac (that should be hyperchondriac) I don't watch House but I DID watch last night. I loved the (no) meaning of life stuff and House is a complex character so now we know why without too much handwringing. I'm glad they did something different so I could watch it without running to the doctor the next day. (Yeah, I got issues, I know. I know!)

The dialogue here got me thinking that we talk about TV shows as if they have to up the ante and knock it out of the park with a home run every time, and yet do the same thing each time, too so your (precious)expectations aren't jarred. It's how ER reels from pathos to bathos and how I got worn out on Drew Carey and Frasier (sorry Ken)despite the fact that the writing was still great.

We set the bar awfully high is all I'm saying. I watch Studio 60 because it will certainly be gone soon, and it's coasting on West Wing good will most of the time. More to the point, Sorkin writing cliches badly is still better than an awful lot of TV. (For instance, a not-so-good Buffy episode could only be compared to another sharper Buffy episode because there was nothing else like it on TV for a long time.)

As a writer, I jut wanted to say, "Ease up. I'm getting shorter under the pressure."

Mister Hand said...

You know what's funny:

Being trapped on a roof, not being able to get a cell phone signal.

Because it's 1983.

Cheesesteak said...

Re: Dolphin noises

I agree on the Studio 60's bad take on it, but having watched the first disc of Undeclared last night, they were used to great effect there. Made me giggle very hard

Mr. Peel said...

House's father has shown up already (played by R. Lee Ermey, I believe) but it still makes sense this could be leading to something. I liked last night's episode, but sort of understand people's problem with it.

But as for this week's Studio 60...Aarrrgghhhh. The pain.

Anonymous said...

No seriously, Jenna scientologist is not funny, you need facial expressions too, and she has fixed eyes, they just look the same no matter what. You need some expression in the eyes -or better yet, BEHIND the eyes - to be able to get laughs. She was blonde, tall and slim, would take up some of the most stupid poses and positions as "dharma" and that was it. 15 minutes. Why you have her on the top of your column makes me wonder, what did she walk in and DO exactly.

Monty said...

Someone's already made the Hudson Hawk reference, but I just wanted to point out that Andie MacDowell's dolphin noises in that movie were much better than Sarah Paulson's.

Now *that's* stinging criticism!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I mainly take umbrage with the idea that Jenna Elfman is funny. Kooky, yes. But I'm more laughing at her than with her...

Mike Barer said...

Goldie Hahn was the right idea for the right time.

SJ said...

At 8:17 AM, Eric said...

Are you 'avin' a laff? Is he 'avin' a laff?


Now THAT was hilarious. Ricky Gervais = genius.

Anonymous said...

midgets, dogs, monkeys and William Shatner are all funny.

Anonymous said...

midgets, dogs, monkeys and William Shatner are all funny.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I actually thought Greg was funnier than Dharma (just as Greg's parents were funny while Dharma's parents were not). Maybe I'm just allergic to "lovable" kooks.

John Donald Carlucci said...

" A dolphin said...
I was embarassed. Do you realize what she said? "

Fantastic!

I cringed every single time I saw the cheerleader bit commercial. Why would that be considered funny for a promo? That was a highlight that draws me in?

JDC

Claude said...

I don't think Studio 60 could be genuinely funny, ever. And I don't think it needs to be.

Comedy is just the premise on which the show is built. It isn't what the show is actually about. It's a drama, remember?

Many shows have premises and story arcs that aren't believable, the same way that the comedy (of the show within the show) on Studio 60 isn't "believable" as funny.

There are numerous times on any show that we just go along with what's presented in order to understand the plot and the characters. We make a leap of faith that the Friends gang could have afforded those apartments (especially in early seasons), that Michael would not have been fired by now, and that a prison would ever look like Oz.

It would be great if any of the sketches on Studio 60 were funny, but they aren't, and they don't need to be for us to care about the drama the characters are going through.

And that dolphin noise was dubbed.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I'll never know if Elfman is funny or not because I refuse to watch/hear a movie, TV show, record, etc. that features any member of the Scientology Organized Crime Family.

Dhppy said...

I was going to type that Catherine O'Hara did a killer Helen Keller type performance on an SCTV sketch, but now that I think of it, her character could see. She was more of a wild "like a traay in the win" type girl. I remember it being the funniest sketch I'd ever seen from that show.

I'll take your word on Elfman, I couldn't watch her sitcom.

stephen said...

I remember Julia Duffy on "Newhart" being able to wring every laugh out of each line.

And Hugh Laurie had me in convulsions in one episode of "Black Adder" by simply holding a dachshund.

The Jack Sack said...

I can't believe you all missed it--

Betty White is FUNNY. She's all about timing too, so subtle and talented. And a piercing sense of humor. I love that lady.

Anonymous said...

Crossing your eyes was funny in "The Jerk" when Carl Reiner was suing because of the Opti-Grab. That's the only thing I can think of.

I actually thought the dolphin noise was the only seemingly spotaneous thing that's ever happened on that show.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if Jenna Elfman is necessarily funny, but the one thing I noticed in "Keeping the Faith" is that she looks GREAT onscreen. She glows.

Ken Levine said...

Thanks for all the comments, everybody. It's interesting that so many of you dislike Jenna. Wish I could show you the ALMOST PERFECT episode where she played the secretary from hell. But "you had to be there" arguments rarely change anyone's minds.

And the dolphin noise controversy continues.

Thanks again.

Rob said...

Waitadamnminute! I can't believe I missed this but it finally came to me! The shows they put on for Studio 60 aren't funny, but it's obviously based on SNL, so it's exactly right that it's a drama based around a show that isn't funny. (SNL used to be funny, but I was still in short pants then.)

Didn't Sorkin himself say that if you aren't laughing backstage it's just verisimilitude? Just like SNL, we're not laughing at home, either.

Mystery solved.

Herb Popsfarter said...

And i notice that there are all these people that hate the show virulently yet watch it religiously. Why is that?
- anonymous

Good question - I think it's this thing I heard someone on the radio say... He called it "Irritainment"

People just LOVE to hate it - so they keep watching. Personally, I just stopped watching.

I also have a theory about why the "comedy" on S-60 is not that funny.

Their so-called comedy sketches remind me of a scene from Trading Places. The scene where the group of preppy snobs are at the country club chit-chatting, and as you start to make out their conversation, one of the rich girls (All snooty-like) delivers the punchline to some obviously elitist joke,

"...and then she STEPPED on the ball"

And the rest of her twit friends laugh in cruel glee.

You never actually hear the joke -in fact there is no joke. On S-60 they can't really come up with jokes, so they simulate them with partial references.

But I do agree with Claude - I don't think they really need to be funny. Trouble is, I don't find it that compelling as a serious show either.

And Ken, I believe you when you say Jenna Elfman funny in person, but on the screen... I'm not seeing it. In fact, I could swear I've seen her cross her eyes in a scene or two.

Hey, she's probably funnier than me.

cyndi said...

I think people stop looking at you as even vaguely likable or funny when you get spotted yelling after some guy on the street that he's a "baby raper" because you don't like the t-shirt he's wearing

Rumson said...

45 comments and no one's pointed out that Robin Williams is atrocious? Ahhh, here comes the gay voice... and the black stereotype from the 70's... oh he's climbing on the desk... GENIUS! How does he do it? Oh, that's right - poorly.

Diane said...

I don't run out these days to see his movies, but I saw Robin Williams perform at a fundraiser in a comedy club in 1977, and he was side splitting funny

Anonymous said...

I watch the Studio 60 out of respect for Sports Night, I guess, and for those very scarce funny moments of interaction, most episodes between Matthew Perry's character and the girl who plays his assistant.

VP19 said...

No, Elfman isn't funny. Perhaps she needs to do more physical comedy to convince me, but on her sitcom, she had all the comedic appeal of Téa Leoni.

Some would say about comparing Elfman to Leoni, what's so bad about that?

Perhaps people went overboard a decade agp when they began comparing Téa (had to copy and paste that spelling of her name; perhaps my computer can do this, but I'll be damned if I know how!) to Lucille Ball or to the patron saint of romantic comedy, the lady in my avatar (Carole Lombard, for the few of you who don't recognize her). However, the ABC version of "The Naked Truth" was wonderfully done, with comic bite and a real edge.

When the series moved to NBC, it was shoehorned into that network's sitcom cookie-cutter that only "Seinfeld" and "Frasier" were immune from, and lost much of its distinctiveness. For all intents and purposes, it became a clone of "Suddenly Susan." (Which reminds me -- while people put down Brooke Shields' acting, she was quite funny in her turn as Jackie's mother on "That '70s Show," but then that series had a knack for bringing out the best in its guest stars. Heck, even Jessica Simpson was good there.)

And regarding Jenna and Scientology, heck, I'm no fan of it, either, but I don't think all its practitioners are as loathsome as Tom Cruise. Let's value them individually. As for me, I think with the right writing, Jenna can deliver the comedic goods.

ArC said...

Perhaps people went overboard a decade agp when they began comparing Téa (had to copy and paste that spelling of her name; perhaps my computer can do this, but I'll be damned if I know how!) to Lucille Ball or to the patron saint of romantic comedy, the lady in my avatar (Carole Lombard, for the few of you who don't recognize her). However, the ABC version of "The Naked Truth" was wonderfully done, with comic bite and a real edge.

It's far back in my memory now, but I dimly remember Leoni's work on it (I might be confusing it with the NBC version) as being markedly less funny than her work on "Flying Blind".

Anonymous said...

Regarding Téa -
Are the references to that short-lived sitcom that tried to make paparazzi redeeming? She was a newspaper stringer/photographer who had to prove her worth by getting a photo of Anna Nicole Smith pregnancy test to prove she can manage the "hard" stuff, or something along those lines? Oh my god, I still wonder how that got on the air, let alone how did Téa survive that at all. It was one of the worst I recall in a long time. Shudder...

Anonymous said...

It is fair and should be that Scientology is noticed, THEY make it their issue for being noticed to begin with. I think you will find that the actors associated with it are indeed all mini-Cruiseians, and as he has been nominated as their own J.C., Lord Savior now, expect more than less of that. I recall Travolta on Leno explaining he was trying to talk to Pres.Clinton about human rights issues - and it was quickly bypassed by Leno - but what JT meant was poor Scientology wasn't allowed as a full religion in Germany at the time, and so on. It is their one track. So judge them indeed by it.

And I agree Elfman does have dead-eyes, whether botox or scientology, she has no expressive qualities and we wouldn't notice her if she were fat a la Kirstie Alley.

Anonymous said...

Danny Elfman is funnier than Jenna Elfman.

Mef said...

i wonder why ray romano and his show are so often held up us something lame.

i like bsg, british and american office, buffy, scrubs, 24, cheers and the larry sanders show. and i think everyone likes raymond is funny, and i think ray romano is funny on-stage, on tv, in cartoon voices and even in person (the few times i met him years ago)

maybe its backwards annoyance because of partricia heaton or something.

mark

Anonymous said...

//Herb Popsfarter said...

Their so-called comedy sketches remind me of a scene from Trading Places. The scene where the group of preppy snobs are at the country club chit-chatting, and as you start to make out their conversation, one of the rich girls (All snooty-like) delivers the punchline to some obviously elitist joke,

"...and then she STEPPED on the ball"

And the rest of her twit friends laugh in cruel glee. //


Herb not that it matters, but that punch line is originally from Auntie Mame.

David O'Hara said...

What the hell is the snake crap? Who would put real vipers out on an uncontrolled set - or any set at all? Don't they use SAFE SNAKES? Kinda like using real bullets and convincing the actors everything is okay as long as they MISS.

It's like that moronic feature film that Jack Nickholson did for Sean Penn, where the police dept. used a 8-9 year old kid as BAIT the catch a serial-killer pedophile. (oh, nothing could possibly go wrong there). I could almost believe some sick cop might chance that, but a whole police dept? Isn't there a law against child endangerment?

I've been a big fan of HOUSE, but that last episode sucked! I figure they may have run out of stories.

The girl who was raped was so obnoxious, I was wandering how anybody could get it up around her to do it.

Mary Stella said...

Here's what's not funny: making dolphin noises

Unless you're Mel Blanc supplying the voice for Flipper.

Herb Popsfarter said...

Antie Mame, Huh... I didn't know that. I've never seen that movie. Is there an actual joke that precedes it?

Marc said...

I actually laughed at the dolphin gag, and the cheerleader gag, I can't stand her on the show and wish they would write her out of it (isn't it time she went to go do that movie with crying Lenny from Must Love Dogs?)...the worst part is that she is pulling Matthew Perry away from his timing and away from scenes with Bradley Whitford, which is the true location of talent on that show.

Monty said...

The shows they put on for Studio 60 aren't funny, but it's obviously based on SNL, so it's exactly right that it's a drama based around a show that isn't funny.

I'd buy that if they didn't keep telling us the show-within-a-show was incredibly successful with half the cast making movies -- and not "A Night at the Roxbury"-type movies, but serious indie dramas. And the show-within-a-show is critically acclaimed and their ratings are through the roof.

If a scene has the show claiming that Sarah Paulson is "the first woman to ever transcend sketch comedy", then the next time I see her in a sketch, she'd better be funnier than Gilda Radner, you know?

At least on Sports Night, it was a low-rated show-within-a-show, which covered for the occasional unprofessionalism the Danny and Casey showed as anchors. And I'm pretty sure on 30 Rock that the show-within-a-show is supposed to be terrible.

hollywood blond said...

Yes to Julia Duffy and Betty White, and Jennifer Aniston too. All uniquely funny and the best timing.

When Bea Arthur introduced Cousin Maude on All In The Family, I thought that was a scream. Just the funniest stuff. It was funny using a completely different, starchy style. Many of the Maude episodes were excellent too, but that dominating, tough streak needed just the right setup (/script) to cross the finish line. ("That old compromisin', enterprisin', anything but tranquilizing,
Right on Maude."
)

Love Diane Keaton, too!

Max Power said...

On the subject of the "show within a show" being funny, I can't help but laugh at "When the Whistle Blows". And I'm the kind of snob that usually hates anything with a laugh track. I'm pretty sure that could be a top-10 comedy in the states.

That was nice of Chris Martin to compose a special extra crappy falsetto-only song just for the show. Self-parody is always fun.

John Eje Thelin said...

Well, that's the thing: When the Whistle Blows is cheap, hackneyed and obvious, but funny in a way that makes its success somewhat believable.

The problem for Sorkin is that he's set the bar for his show-within-a-show so high that you couldn't write any cheap or obvious laugh lines for it, nor does the (supposedly) high-brow stuff have the ring of material that would elicit laughs from even the most warmed-up, kindly and giggly of semi-inebriated audiences.

As for suspension of disbelief, Friends did set up the apartments with some lines about grandmothers or something, so that was actualy covered. Sorkin has yet to explain why the SSotSS in SSotSS isn't funny at all. Ever.

As for the supposed unfunniness of SNL "these days" (the constant refrain), its current incarnation really is one of the better ones of years, and even the original cast isn't quite as good as people like to remember them as if you watch more than just the highlights.

And is it just me, or does anyone else just want to kick Simon's preachy, and physical harm-threatening holier-than-thou ass?

Irritainment indeed.

Stratman said...

Personally, I hated the dolphin noises. I know it looks like I'm on my knees worshipping Ken, co-author of such gems as ''Room Service'', ''Saturdays Of Thunder'', and ‘’Point Of View’’ but honestly, the fact that I like Studio 60 weighs so heavily on my head I find it hard to stand… myself.

Jenn said...

Your blog was the first hit when I just googled ""...and then she STEPPED on the ball"" because I just watched Auntie Mame and I couldn't figure out where I'd heard that line a million times. I would have gotten to Trading Places eventually...

Now it's even funnier that it's in a whole post about comedic acting.

Jenna Elfman is funny.