Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Comedy Actress Litmus Test

How can you tell if an actress is really funny? When you cast pilots you read upwards of a hundred different women for a single part. And they’re all accomplished. By the time they reach your office they’ve guested or have been regulars in enough sitcoms that they know where the jokes are in a script and can deliver the punch lines proficiently.

So how do you know? How can you tell the professional actress from the true comic actress if they both get the same laugh?

It’s an inexact science to be sure. Some you just know. They have the physicality, the look, the timing, the whatever Carol Burnett has. But those are few and far between. Sorry, Whitney.

For me there’s a way to separate the Lucys from the Lose-ees.

Can they cry funny?

This is a very unique skill. You have to get the audiences’ sympathy while still getting laughs. If you play it too real the audience just feels sad or uncomfortable. If you play it too broad there’s no emotional connection. You have to walk a very fine line between reality and exaggeration. When it works it’s magic. When it doesn’t it’s like catching your grandparents humping.

I’ve mentioned before how Kirstie Alley is fabulous at this. She did a great scene in CHEERS in an episode David Isaacs and I wrote called “Finally Part II”. She’s heartbreaking and hilarious all at the same time. (I had the scene posted but YouTube took it down. You’re going to have to actually watch the show.)

Nancy Travis is great at this. So is Jenna Elfman, Patty Heaton, Lisa Edelstein, Suzanne Pleshette, Shelley Long, Jennifer Aniston, Wendie Malick, and Christina Applegate.

But the all-time champ -- the woman who set the gold standard -- was Mary Tyler Moore. This is a clip from an early DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Feeling the romance has gone out of their marriage, Laura Petrie (MTM) is talked into bleaching her hair. She has second doubts, decides to dye it back. It starts about 7:00 minutes in.  Her explanation monologue to Rob is a comic tour de force.

That makes me laugh and cry every time I see it.

Unfortunately, this Litmus Test does not extend to comic actors. (Except for Stan Laurel.) I really don’t want to see Larry David cry. Ever.

So I’m still looking for that Litmus Test for guys. I just have to watch more film on Herman Cain. But I’ll get back to you when I have something.

39 comments:

LouOCNY said...

How could you forget....WAHHHHH....Lucy? Ok...the WAHHHH gets a bit much sometimes, but usually her comic tears were as good as anyone's.

And the best sitcom crying ever was the REAL tears Lucy AND Desi shed at the end of "Lucy is Enciente". The script had called for Rickey to start yelling and boasting he was going to be a father, but the history of the Arnaz's previous difficult pregnancies caught up with both of them, and the result of which is a scene which STILL has an emotional impact almost 60 years later.

Phillip B said...

First thought on a male litmus test was the spit take. Heck, I remember Allen Ludden doing a pretty good spit take.

But perhaps it is the "comic timing" but never had a precise definition. Is it knowing how to pause, to wait for a joke? Or is it knowing when dialogue has to be presented in a specific rhythm?

Certainly I've had the sense of watching actors do lackluster performances of what seemed to be great written material - and others successfully milk thin jokes.

An said...

I think "That's it, sweet baby..." is my most favorite Rebecca Howe moment ever.

chalmers said...

When I think of a funny comedic actress today, I think of this Amy Poehler montage from “Parks and Recreation.”

After Leslie takes the blame for accidentally shooting Ron Swanson during a hunting trip, she's using every gender stereotype and womanly wile at her disposal to avoid further investigation by the cop:

http://www.nbc.com/parks-and-recreation/video/hunting-trip-im-just-a-girl/1178067

Bill White said...

As I began reading this post, Ken, Whitney immediately popped into my head. Well played sir!

Michael said...

Trivially speaking, Stan Laurel did a great cry (which Dick Van Dyke imitated very well), but Laurel hated that shtick for some reason.

DonBoy said...

And of course MTM crying is the "punchline" of the most famous single episode of her own show.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Technically, she's more movie than TV oriented, but I easily nominate Joan Cusack for that list. She always nails her comedy roles down.

DanTedson said...

I have a hard time suspending disbelief with the crying funny scene. Though if the character's drunk, that helps, like with Rebecca. Maybe the litmus test for men is the ability to play the straight man. Dickie Smothers is hilarious despite the required understatement. Ironically, the litmus test for grandparents is indeed humping.

iain said...

I think one male litmus test might be how a well a character under plays his reactions to the emotional or chaotic situations that swirl around him, which is one of the reasons Buster Keaton is/was the funniest human ever. Although I also love Gleason/Kramden, so I guess I just shot my own argument right to hell.

Phillip B: I think Danny Thomas set the gold standard for spit takes.

vinyl stickers said...

I personally think that Jennifer Anniston is one of the greatest comedy actresses today! I mean she is so damn hilarious! When i read the headline, i thought about her. I think she has truly passed the "comedy actress litmus test".

Anonymous said...

Curious about network show promos. Does the show runner or writer(s) suggest the clip or clips used to promote an upcoming episode? Or is that the judgment call of someone in the promo department? Did you ever have battles over promo content?

jbryant said...

By Ken's litmus test, Community's Donald Glover may be one of our top comic actresses:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTCL6f5YtDQ

Charles H. Bryan said...

For actors, I might think that being humiliated while being funny is the test -- that's where we'd feel badly for a male character but also laugh at the predicament/reaction? Steve Carrell maybe?

L. F. said...

Have you seen Donald Glover cry? That is hilarious. Here's a good place to start: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTCL6f5YtDQ :) Enjoy

Dave Lifton said...

For a male, I'd say the litmus test is how far out they can take their behavior and still get laughs.

Ken said...

If an actor can be funny without having to deliver any lines, just by his movements and behavior, that's a good litmus test. David Hyde Pierce does it brilliantly in this Frasier cold open. http://youtu.be/6mWiPaQ872c

the same chris said...

Katey Sagal on "Married with Children". She had some very funny funny-crying scenes that also made Peggy sympathetic.

Anonymous said...

Donald Glover's not just a great crier, he's great overall on Community. I think maybe he has something in common with MTM as a comic performer.

Community has such a great ensemble - too bad its been put on 'hiatus' by NBC.

Weston said...

Kirstie Alley makes me smile every time I think about her crying on Cheers. She was incredible and I am sure she still is but those were moments you never forget.

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

Maybe the comedy actor litmus test is how they play being kicked in the nuts.

As for the women, I agree re: MTM and the others you mentioned, but, with all due respect to LouOCNY, do you really think Lucy's cry wasn't the very definition of "broad"?

Ralphie said...

Rebecca also fainted better than anybody else, ever.

-Ralphie

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I thought Mayim Bialik was both funny and sad in her crying scene (while playing the harp, no less) a week or two back on BBT.

After you brought this up on Sunday at THE SITCOM ROOM, I spent some time thinking about this. I'm glad you agree about Aniston, because I think she has does a great job on being funny and sweet. Lisa Edelstein is also a long-time favorite actress of mine. And how about Christine Baranski? And Alyson Hannigan can play *anything*.

Isn't this a difference similar to the difference between actors who always play essentially themselves and actors who vanish into their characters?

wg
(And while I'm sure Rose Marie would not break hearts as much as MTM did while crying, for me Rose Marie was FUNNY and MTM as Laura Petri was not. I know I'm out of the loop on this.)

Clay Smith said...

I think the litmus for a male comic is the Mel Brooks one-liner. The heavy-handed word play and schmaltz demands incredible timing and really brings out strong comic personality. Gene Wilder, with his crazy intensity; Mark Blankfield in Robin Hood: Men in Tights with his nonchalance; Marty Feldman just by looking ridiculous, all made it work, while so many big stars failed completely at it.

Paul Duca said...

I didn't think Kirstie Alley did much comedy pre-CHEERS, so her capacity is even more impressive.

And Carl Reiner cast MTM as Laura Petrie because "she said 'Hello' like a real person"

Anonymous said...

LouOCNY, you are so correct! I have seen that Lucy episode at least 100 times and it makes me tear up every time.

Pam aka SisterZip

Paul Duca said...

I have a rare baseball question...it seems MLB won't approve the sale of the Houston Astros unless the new owner allows the team to moved into the American League. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Kirstie Alley is a great comic drunk, too. Belting out "We've got tonight", and the musicale evening at Mr Gaines's house (his first name is MISTER!) is a personal favorite episode of mine.

YEKIMI said...

I don't know if you've seen this video but if this guy showed up at my door, I'd buy whatever he was selling and laugh my ass off all the while.
http://www.break.com/index/worlds-funniest-salesman-2221620

Barry Traylor said...

I also love the look that Rob gives Millie when she asks him in a puzzled tone, "you mean you understand"?

Anonymous said...

Isn't that easy (litmus for men?).
If they can be "mad" but still not seem ACTUALLY mad, but funny?

It's the same dynamic, you can't believe they REALLY are angry, you just but you can't have it too over the top either.

Jim said...

Maybe someone can explain to me why, if I agree with all of this and if I agree with the names that everyone puts forward as great comedic actresses, that I just don't get why almost everyone else believes that Katharine Hepburn in "Who's Bringing Up Baby" gives one of the greatest comedy performances ever. She got better with time, but whenever I watch that film I keep thinking to myself "How would Ginger have done it?", "How would Carole have done it?", or even "How would Miriam Hopkins have done it?"

Marco said...

Not 100% related to this post but maybe a friday question:

Being a huge Magnum,p.i. fan I stumbled over this hilarious post: http://allan-cole.blogspot.com/2011/10/tom-selleck-and-ugliest-dog-in-hawaii.html

Not sure if you already answered this in a previous post - but did you run into a similar situation with your writing partner where you had to come up with _something_ and greatly improvised because the showrunner did not like any of the prepared scripts or story ideas?

Ed Blonski said...

The litmus test for a great comic actor is Tim Conway.

His work on the Carol Burnett show is far-and-away the best from the era, if not ever.

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

I remember reading Carl Reiner saying the crying scene was the moment MTM became more than simply "Rob's wife"...she became a comedian.

media_lush said...

A question for Friday: also Cheers based.

Is there any back story to the brain cells story Cliff gave to Norm.... it's pretty much the only 'meme' style thing I've seen on the internet hand I would have to say is singularly one of the funniest things ever written..... kudos if it's one of yours- here's a screen grab it http://grab.by/cNpQ

media_lush said...

IMO the litmus test for an actor is playing drunk. They nearly all play a slurry stumbling idiot [I bet you're doing a drunk voice in your head.... or you are right now..... we all know how to do it but it sounds so bloody unrealistic].

That might actually be a good question = greatest drunk scene on TV or in a movie.... can anybody top Dudley Moore?

Matt Patton said...

Another great funny crier was Doris Day. I don't really like the film Pillow Talk, but there's a montage of her character crying, supposedly for over 60 miles, and she rang every variation on tears I could think of. Hilarious. That and the moment in THE THRILL OF IT ALL when she announces, on nation-wide television, "My name is Beverly Boyer and I'm a pig."

Brian Phillips said...

Another funny crier, as well as great actor: Peri Gilpin