Thursday, June 12, 2014

Always hire the actor

This is sort of a follow-up to an earlier post.

There’s an old expression that goes something like this: The difference between a comic and a comic actor is that the comic says funny things and the comic actor says things funny.

Not to take anything away from comics – stand up is truly an art and if you think it’s easy just telling jokes sign up for an open mic night one time; your next stop will be jumping off a bridge -- but there’s a big difference between delivery and acting.

As a writer and producer I’ve always believed that the best comedy comes from attitude. Put people in awkward or difficult situations and see what they do. How do they handle pressure? How do they protect their pride? How do they overcome adversity? Flaws and weaknesses are exposed and those are the elements that writers use to construct screen comedy.

Comic acting is a gift. I don’t think you can teach it. You can hone it, but the good ones just have a feel, a certain innate timing. You can be a funny person and still not have the skill sets to become a great comic actor. The ability to be real, to truly commit to a character, to breathe life into them, to hit marks on the floor without looking down requires a talent and discipline few really have. I don’t have it. I can fool around in improv workshops and get laughs, but when I direct someone like David Hyde Pierce or Shelley Long I realize I couldn’t hold their make up kits.

The contrast between funny actors and comics is most apparent in the early episodes of SEINFELD. Jerry is clearly the weak link. And I’m sure he’d admit it. I give him credit for allowing himself to be surrounded by comic actors who were spectacular and he learned and grew along the way, but who are we kidding? He’s a kazoo player in Wynton Marsalis’ jazz combo.

When David Isaacs and I are running a show and need to cast a guest role we have a saying, “Always hire the actor.” The role may call for a newscaster. Hire an actor. The newscaster might have to do jokes. Yes, some can. But it’s better to hire an actor. If the part calls for an athlete – hire an actor. Or a fashion model, or five-star chef, or pope. It’s a lot easier for a trained actor to fake being a newscaster than the other way around.

And as I mentioned in the previous article, there’s the fact that most actors are out of work so why give away one of their coveted jobs to a newscaster who will see it as a lark?

A good comic actor will get laughs from reactions, body language, a raised eyebrow, the way he shuffles his feet. The truly great ones can get laughs just by standing in place. A comic says funny things, a comic actor doesn’t even have to say things funny. That’s the guy you want.

38 comments:

Matt said...

But the truth is that you didn't always hire the actor.

In Cheers I remember seeing Admiral Crow, who was the Chairman of the Joint Cheifs of Staff. While I am sure you will say this was stunt casting, but how many people really knew who the CJoS was. An actor could have been hired.

I also remember seeing Kevin McHale and Wade Boggs on the show.

Jeremiah Avery said...

Interesting post, Ken. I agree that some things can be honed but not necessarily taught. I've seen some comedic actors do great work in dramas but rarely have I seen the reverse. There are exceptions, of course, but I think that doing comedy right is a lot harder than some dramatic works.

The statement that good comedic actors don't even have to say anything to be funny is so true when it comes to David Hyde Pierce. So many examples of that but one in particular comes to mind in the "Frasier" episode "Agents in America - Part III" when Bebe (after spending the night with Frasier) opens the door and there's Niles. Without saying a word, he rings the doorbell again and stands there with a slight smirk. It cracks me up every time I watch it.

Regarding "Seinfeld", something I noticed when watching it and also something the other actors commented on and appreciated was that Jerry wasn't afraid to let someone else get the bigger laugh, the better line. Some stars want the lion's share but that show had plenty to go around and I think it was better for it.

benson said...

Okay, the here's one the chew on. Bill Kurtis. He's a HOF newsman from Chicago and CBS. And an integral part of the two Anchorman movies,as the narrator.

Michael said...

Bill Kurtis is an actor. He simply plays a newsman. Yes, he once was a fine journalist, but now he really is an entertainer.

Perfect example of Ken's point: Harry Morgan. A comic? No, but I would say the funniest MASH cast member.

Michael said...

Bill Kurtis is an actor. He simply plays a newsman. Yes, he once was a fine journalist, but now he really is an entertainer.

Perfect example of Ken's point: Harry Morgan. A comic? No, but I would say the funniest MASH cast member.

ScottyB said...

@benson: That's the thing -- Kurtis is a great, unique *voice* (like Tom Bodett's drawly Motel 6 delivery is unique) always has been even when he was a Chicago newscaster. That's why he gets hired for what he does, but it's not exactly acting. Point of reference: Kurtis just did a commercial for Illinois tourism (see http://tinyurl.com/pll5e5n). Now compare it with what William Shatner (an actual actor) does with commercials like that.

JT Anthony said...

Matt--why bother pointing out minutiae? You seem to have missed the point. CJoS and Mchale weren't regulars--they made cameo appearances to add a little fun to the show. It didn't matter that no one knew him; in fact, keeping CJoS in uniform made it work even better for the brief time he was on screen.

Dave said...

Funny you mention newscasters. Almost every time I see an actor trying to play a newscaster, it takes me right out of it. I can't put my finger on specifics, but they can't seem to nail the rhythms/emphasis/inflection/whatever it is, right up to the talented William Hurt and Albert Brooks in the otherwise great "Broadcast News" (I get maybe that Albert/Aaron is supposed to be bad, but an experienced field reporter still would have gotten the inflection fairly close to right even while otherwise bombing in the anchor spot).

Contrast that with the fake anchors in the current season of Louie delivering the hilariously surreal copy. All played by real TV news people, all gutbustingly funny (to my ear anyway). I guess as long as a minimum of actual acting is required, real ones playing fake ones is the way to go. Probably why Bill Kurtis works so well.

ScottyB said...

I don't buy @Matt's assertion. Most of us did indeed know who Adm. Crowe was back in that day, just like everyone knew who Gen. Schwarzkopf was. In cases like McHale and Boggs, you definitely did need cameos from them in those episodes because they were actual living, highly-recognizable sports figures. OTOH, it's pretty easy to install parquet flooring in any gym and pass it off as a section of Boston Garden.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Michael Richards is the classic "comic actor" and reaped the rewards during Seinfeld. His later decline and fall is an example of the star nobody knows what to do with. Recently he was in a cable sitcom about a halfway house or something with Kirstie Alley, Rhea Perlman, two more "comic actors".

ODJennings said...

Let's make the distinction between roles and cameos.

Admiral Crow was a basically a sight gag, and as I recall Kevin McHale and Wade Boggs weren't much more. In their case (again, going from memory) weren't they there to give Sam credibility as a professional athlete?

I will disagree with one thing, the 1960's comedies often had cameos, especially when the cast went on their trips, like I Love Lucy or Andy Griffith visits Hollywood. Most of the time the celebrities they brought in were so wooden, stiff, and unable to deliver a line that it was like watching a train wreck, and they were usually the funniest part of the show.

Curt said...
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Curt said...

I think that "Roseanne" is also an example of this. In the first season, Roseanne was pretty much doing her comedy act by delivering lines and then laughing at them. Casting John Goodman and Laurie Metclaf was what helped elevate the show to a whole new level. Their comedic timing was impeccable and brought an energy to the show that made it special.

Elf said...

Ken,

Thanks for replying to my inquiry yesterday about the reasons Kevin Kilner was axed from Almost Perfect.

Now, regarding your amazement at how shows like The Mindy Project stay on the air with relatively microscopic ratings, check out the table and article in these two links. It turns out that The Mindy Project is the highest indexed show (by some methodology) among the 18-49 group with 4+ years of education. I get the idea that's a demographic that advertisers really want to reach.

http://www-deadline-com.vimg.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/college-eduction__140611211749.png

http://www.deadline.com/2014/06/tv-series-most-watched-rich-educated-viewers/

benson said...

Regarding Bill Kurtis:

Between 40+ years in front of the camera, and also producing all those crime procedural documentaries for A&E, the trick is playing/reading it straight, and talking directly one to one to the viewer.

Also, @Dave. Nicholson was borderline stunt casting in Broadcast News.

skarab said...

Once again I've copy/pasted one of your entries (paragraph 3) into the notes of a script I'm struggling with. thanks Ken!

BigTed said...

I think Jerry Seinfeld got much better as a comic actor as his show went on. Not only did he become more "natural" playing a version of himself, but he eventually became as funny to watch as his costars.

Of course, most shows don't have the time to develop the way "Seinfeld" did. (And he was the one performer who couldn't be fired at the start -- although I guess changing it to "George and Friends" wouldn't have been beyond the realm of possibility.)

mmryan314 said...

Ken- Boy do I know what you're talking about. I am fortunate enough to have known a writer from my Wisconsin hometown who wrote for Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. Her name was Mary McBride. Mary submitted an endless supply of very funny jokes to both stars and was Diller's head writer. On many occasions I heard her speak and she was never as funny at the microphone as she was in her ability to write humorous things.

Tom Quigley said...

Conversely, it's surprising sometimes to find out how many really good actors are afraid of or intimidated by doing comedy. I exchanged Facebook oomments recently with a well-known actress who had appeared in a number of network sitcoms (including FRIENDS) and she surprised me by saying that doing comedy scares her. I assured her she had the chops for it, but I think what Ken said is true that you have to have a feel for it -- the timing, the response, the inflection, the facial expression, etc., whatever it takes to give something a comic spin, or as Danny Simon once said, you have to be able to smell the comedy in a situation. There are definitely actors and writers who can do that with greater inherent ease than others.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Another example of stand up comic surrounded by great comic actors was Everybody Loves RAYMOND. You can tell in the first season or so that Ray Romano was no actor. But playing with the rest of the group, he certainly got better. And each of them, I believe won an emmy for their roles.

VincentS said...

Thanks for standing up for actors, Ken. As an actor myself, I cringe when even seasoned professionals brag about hiring, "real people, not actors." As if actors aren't real people! And whereas non-actors might provide an air of authenticity in whatever it is they are doing, when they start talking and moving the viewer always sees the relative stiffness and self-consciousness in their speech and movements as they make sure they are saying the right line, hitting their mark (as you said), following the direction, etc.

D. McEwan said...

I read an account once of Beatrice Lily (With whom I proudly share my birthday) performing onstage. It said that the curtain would go up and she'd be standing there. She did not move nor speak. Just stood there, looking at the audience, until they began laughing, which generally happened quite quickly, and finally laughing hard. Then she'd begin. But to start them laughing, all she had to do was stand there.

Re: Michael Richards. Do not forget that he was and is a stand-up comic. Back in my days as a Comedy Store doorman, 34 years ago, I knew him a bit (Jerry also), and saw his stage act many, many times. Weirdest damn stand-up act I ever saw. Never really worked for me, but when it worked with an audience (Which was far from all the time. I saw him bomb on several occassions), it worked well. And whatever the hell it was that he was doing (Really, a very odd act), he did it with the full committment of a true actor.

D. McEwan said...

The posted cartoon in this column, "Is there a better actor in the house?", brought immediately to my mind the Frasier episode with Sir Derek Jacobi as the Shakespearean actor that Frasier and Niles had worshipped as kids, who turned out, on adult viewing, to be just hideously awful. When you need a bad actor, hire a great actor.

Tallulah Morehead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tallulah Morehead said...

And I always say: "If you need a great actress, hire me! (And tell Craft Services my preferred brand of vodka.)"

thomas tucker said...

Very interesting comments. There are SO many actors, that it has always made me suspicious that it must not really be very hard to do. Perhpas I have been wrong on that. But then, why are there so many aspiring actors?

Anonymous said...

thomas tucker said...


"Very interesting comments. There are SO many actors, that it has always made me suspicious that it must not really be very hard to do. Perhpas I have been wrong on that. But then, why are there so many aspiring actors?"

Generally, the same reason there's so many people who play Lotto, except the "aspiring actor" craves fame and adulation like crack addicts.

This is why acting attracts so many neurotics and psychopaths: People who want to pretend to be something they're not, or more than they are, and get a large amount of money they don't deserve while doing it.

Not all actors are horrible people. Just too many of them. Some actors are probably the best people you'd ever want to meet. Just not as many as the other kind.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of comedic actors, I've sometimes wondered why some of them have problems with switching genre/formats.

Madeline Khan, who was masterful in many movies, didn't seem nearly as dynamic in the sitcom format.

On the other hand, Terri Garr has been in just about every modern format around, from sitcoms to variety to movies, plus different genres, and she seems to just breeze thru each one, delivering a great performance most times.

I guess casting a comedic actor to their type is also probably a very good idea? I mean, David Hyde Pierce has never been nearly as funny as when he played Niles.

Many many comedic actors tend to be strong to type, and not too flexible, or successful, outside of it.

Alan Alda also seems relatively flexible, while Henry Morgan, as funny as he was in mash... not so much.

-Steve

VP81955 said...

Speaking of comedic actors, I've sometimes wondered why some of them have problems with switching genre/formats.

Madeline Kahn, who was masterful in many movies, didn't seem nearly as dynamic in the sitcom format.

On the other hand, Teri Garr has been in just about every modern format around, from sitcoms to variety to movies, plus different genres, and she seems to just breeze thru each one, delivering a great performance most times.


Alas, because of her MS, Teri doesn't get much work these days aside from occasional animation voicing.

Many many comedic actors tend to be strong to type, and not too flexible, or successful, outside of it.

Alan Alda also seems relatively flexible, while Harry Morgan, as funny as he was in M*A*S*H...not so much.


Are you forgetting Morgan's work on the "Dragnet" revival series? It was nowhere as good as its '50s counterpart, but Harry made a good sidekick to Jack Webb. And back in the '40s, Morgan was solid in a supporting role in one of that decade's better westerns, "The Ox-Bow Incident." (And I changed your reference from "Henry" to "Harry" to avoid confusion with acerbic radio comedian Henry Morgan -- the reason the other Morgan altered his monicker to Harry.

Pamela Atherton said...

Having met and interviewed Bill Kurtis, I can say that he is truly a funny person, and understands comedic timing. And he knew that what would make his narration in Anchorman the funniest would be to read it earnestly.

That's why sometimes, to me, Ben Stiller misses the mark. I feel as though he tries too hard to be funny. If he would just play the part honestly, the humor would come through, and not come across as mugging. IMHO.

thirteen said...

I've worked in broadcast news as a writer and producer; I've also been a closed-circuit anchor, so you've never heard of me. I'm hardly ever happy when I see someone doing the news in a movie, even if they've hired a real (probably L.A.) anchor to do the alien-invasion story or whatever it is. (The anchors are bad. The on-scene reporters are usually even worse.)

If I were casting, I think I might use real anchors and reporters, but from smaller markets. I wouldn't hire from L.A.; I'd go up the coast or to Sacramento. Big-market anchors come off as too showbiz, even when they're doing news; if they're doing fake news, they're even worse.

BTW I worked with Bill Kurtis back when he was co-anchor of the CBS Morning News. A really good guy.

thirteen said...

I've worked in broadcast news as a writer and producer; I've also been a closed-circuit anchor, so you've never heard of me. I'm hardly ever happy when I see someone doing the news in a movie, even if they've hired a real (probably L.A.) anchor to do the alien-invasion story or whatever it is. (The anchors are bad. The on-scene reporters are usually even worse.)

If I were casting, I think I might use real anchors and reporters, but from smaller markets. I wouldn't hire from L.A.; I'd go up the coast or to Sacramento. Big-market anchors come off as too showbiz, even when they're doing news; if they're doing fake news, they're even worse.

BTW I worked with Bill Kurtis back when he was co-anchor of the CBS Morning News. A really good guy.

Klee said...

Some of the great comedy actors are not funny off stage, good examples are MTM, Lucy, Bea Arthur who were pretty much acting based on the funny material and great direction. Betty White on the other hand, she seems really funny in real life and has a great sense of humor.

Anonymous said...


VP81955 said...

"Are you forgetting Morgan's work on the "Dragnet" revival series? It was nowhere as good as its '50s counterpart, but Harry made a good sidekick to Jack Webb. And back in the '40s, Morgan was solid in a supporting role in one of that decade's better westerns, "The Ox-Bow Incident." (And I changed your reference from "Henry" to "Harry" to avoid confusion with acerbic radio comedian Henry Morgan -- the reason the other Morgan altered his monicker to Harry."

I have no problem with Harry Morgan, and he was an excellent choice for his character in MASH. He's still not what I'd call a flexible comedic actor. You hire Harry, you'd know what you're gonna get. He wouldn't be able to play someone boisterous and silly, for example.

Just off the top of my head, I think one of the most underrated comedic actors ever was James Finlayson, one of the support players for Laurel and Hardy, among other things. He could play straight, low-key funny, or off the hook funny. He could be subdued, play it real as a heart attack, or as silly as you want. That was one talented man. He's what I'd call "flexible." For me, he could do it all comedically. Just drop him in, and let him go.

-Steve

Cap'n Bob said...

You might change your mind about Harry Morgan if you saw him play all the parts he's done over the years. From December Bride to Disney movies to The Music Man. Not to mention dramas, where he was everything from a shopkeeper to a cold-blooded killer.

D. McEwan said...

For once I agree with Cap'n Bob, except that I do not recall Harry Morgan being in The Music Man. But then, I've only seen it 20 or 30 times. If Paul Ford was actually Harry Morgan, then he is REALLY "Flexible."

skarab said...
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Anonymous said...

Cap'n Bob said...

"You might change your mind about Harry Morgan if you saw him play all the parts he's done over the years. From December Bride to Disney movies to The Music Man. Not to mention dramas, where he was everything from a shopkeeper to a cold-blooded killer."

I probably wasn't clear. I intended to say that Harry Morgan was not a particularly flexible comedic performer. Certainly nowhere near the capabilities of those I described earlier. I don't think he ever intended to be. He was generally a "support player," he perfected what he could do, did it consistently, and well.
He was perfectly cast in MASH. imo.

-Steve