Monday, October 24, 2016

Comedy acting advice... not that anyone asked me

The best comic actors know they have to trust the material and not push it. I can always see an actor working, winding up to deliver a punch line. As opposed to actors who are just naturally funny. They know the rhythm but most importantly, they know to play the reality of the moment.

There’s a great example of this from theater royalty. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne performed together on Broadway from the ‘20s to the ‘70s. They were your classic “thee-a-tuh” actors.

Way back in the ‘20s or ‘30s (believe it or not I was not around for that), they were trying out a show in Boston. Lunt got a big laugh on a line where he asked for a cup of tea. But during the New York run the laughs on that line dissipated  until finally there was nothing but crickets. Lunt was perplexed.  Why was the line no longer working?  Fontanne had the answer. “Ask for a cup of tea, not a laugh.”

Good directors understand this.

When Mike Nichols was directing Neil Simon’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley he purposely did not want the actors to go for laughs during rehearsals. Just play the attitudes and emotions and let the circumstances introduce the comedy.

The actors were surprised when they first performed in front of an audience that suddenly there were a ton of laughs. Think about it – Robert Redford getting guffaws? He’s not exactly Mr. Funnypants. But he was hilarious. And why?

He asked for tea.


The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I am always perplexed when I see a comedian, in a scripted show, not get laughs.
Here are naturally funny people who can't find a snicker.
I'm thinking that they were either cast wrong, or the writers don't know how to write for them, or bad direction, or that they are trying too hard.

We can all think of examples.

Unknown said...

Ken this is comedy brilliance... in a tea cup. Brief but overflowing.

Scott Hoenig said...

I can't be the only one to notice that Lynn Fontanne in that image bears a striking resemblance to Bebe Neuwirth, the brilliant actress who, among other things, played the incomparable Lilith Sternin in "Cheers" and "Frasier", can I?

Craig Gustafson said...


When I directed "The Odd Couple," Felix (John) said to Oscar (Rene), "She doesn't want to talk to me? Why did she call?" Rene snapped out with dead-on comic timing, "She wants to know when you're coming over for your clothes. She wants to have the room repainted." And I made him change it. "You've just spent a half hour talking this guy out of jumping out the window, and this could send him right back up there."

When we got in front of the audience, it went like this:
FELIX: "She doesn't want to talk to me? Why did she call?"
OSCAR: (PERFECTLY TIMED PAUSE AS HE TRIED TO FIGURE OUT SOME NICE WAY TO SAY IT) "She wants to know when you're coming over for your clothes. She wants to have the room repainted."
Huge laugh, and at the look on Felix's face, the women in the audience moaned sympathetically. Every time.

It can't just be two guys spitting out one liners all night. You have to believe that they're really friends.

Pete Grossman said...

Truer words have not been said.

MikeN said...

Good example, the original stellar cast of The Dukes of Hazzard compared to the remakes.

Covarr said...

[warning: minor THE LITTLE MERMAID spoilers in this comment, but nothing important that wasn't also in the movie]

I like to experiment a bit with line delivery before a show. Sometimes I'll find a way to say a line, or to time it, that completely changes it. Here's an example from the show I'm in now:

King Triton: Where’s she hiding?
Sebastian: If I only knew--
King Triton: She keeps secrets from me, Sebastian; not from you. I'll wager you know where she is. Now, take me to her.

At first, I was delivering my line, "If I only knew--", completely straight. I'd seen it as a service line, one to advance the plot and move us onto the next scene, where Triton shows up in Ariel's grotto and destroys everything. But then, only a few days before we actually opened, I thought, "hold on... I think this might have the potential be a comedy line."

I added a brief pause, inflected my voice up, and broke eye contact with King Triton. This served one purpose, and one purpose alone: to make it obvious that I knew I was lying, King Triton knew I was lying, and it wasn't a particularly good or believable lie. This also gave King Triton more to respond to; because I was being more obvious about the lie, he delivered his reply more angrily, and threatened me with his trident. After opening weekend, I received some totally unsolicited feedback from my sister (who had seen our second performance) saying that she thought that was my funniest line in the show, and asking if it was scripted like that.

I think what made it work was that I found the comedy in the moment—not simply that it was funny, but WHY it was funny—and played up to that. And that's what any acting, comic or serious, is all about: playing every moment to its in-universe purpose. This worked precisely because the line was naturally hammy; if I'd tried to exaggerate any other line like that, it would've fallen totally flat, because that's not the purpose they serve to the characters or story.

I reject the notion that a line should never be played for comedy. Most of Jim Carrey's early success was based on doing precisely that, and even though I never cared for ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE or THE MASK, the movies did pretty well and in general audiences seemed to love them. I think the reason it worked is because that's what the movies called for; even inside the confines of the movie's world, his characters were ridiculous, and contrasted heavily with everyone else. That was the point.

It's only when a more grounded character tries it that playing for laughs falls apart. To maintain suspension of disbelief, it's vital that the characters don't know they're being funny unless they're explicitly supposed to. If they don't appear to believe the lines coming out of their mouth, why would we?

Rich said...

Charlie Chaplin kept a sign on his desk: "When you're doing something funny, you don't have to be funny doing it." The paradox of comedy is that the more serious you take yourself (John Cleese in Fawlty Towers), the funnier it will be. The worst mistake a 'serious' actor can make doing comedy is trying to "be funny."

Donald said...

Hey; Aaron Sorkin stole that anecdote for "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." In his version, it wasn't tea, but the advice Matthew Perry gave to Sarah Paulson was the same.

flurb said...

We can't really see the brilliance of the Lunts, because they hated making movies, and only made one talkie. And while there some classics in their shared resume, their work was hardly snooty "thee-a-tah"... A lot of their plays were sex comedies, like "The Guardsman" and Noel Coward's "Design for Living" - both of them still funny even on the page. In fact, they detested pretension, and made their bones playing hicks (Alfred was from a tiny town in Wisconsin). And they pioneered a lot of what we 21st-century people like to think we thought of - for example, working like bandits to overlap their lines in the way people in life override each other, without losing either the sense or the brilliance of the dialogue. They avoided seeming presentational - Alfred was famous for acting with his back. Audiences came away with the feeling that they had deliciously eavesdropped on the people in the play. And, as you illustrated, they committed to their characters' moment-to-moment intentions in the same ways that big-name acting gurus like Larry Moss teach right now. Where is that time machine we were promised by now?

Elf said...

@Rich, your advice about serious actors trying to be funny is spot on. Can someone please see that Robert DeNiro and Patrick Stewart get the memo?

DBenson said...

A comedy lesson from the community theater front: What kills in rehearsal often does so because everybody knows the scene and a surprise packs a wallop (or it's very inside, which is another story). You have to remember that the gags you've been living with for weeks are going to hit the audience as brand new; the actors' challenge is to present it as brand new to themselves. A favorite "Guys and Dolls" bit:

ADELAIDE: "People get married in Rhode Island!"
NATHAN: "Then why is it such a small state?"

Nathan is not cracking wise. He's grasping at straws to refute Adelaide's matrimonial argument, as Mr. Gustafson's Oscar was clumsily trying to protect Felix.

DBenson said...

And a profound anecdote from a book by Walter Kerr:

Bert Lahr, a notoriously nervous performer, tries out a new comedy bit in rehearsal. Actors and crew start laughing. He explodes.

"Go ahead and laugh! But I tell you it's funny!"

Elf said...

Side note: In 1993, when I was but a wee lad of 27, I fell in love with the cartoon series "Animaniacs." One of the recurring bits was a dog and cat team, Rita and Runt, with the voices of Bernadette Peters and Frank Welker, which seemed as good an excuse as any to get Bernadette Peters to sing for you.

The theme song included the lines "Like Laurel and Hardy/Like Fontaine and Lunt/They're perfectly mismatched/They're Rita and Runt." Having no idea who Fontaine and Lunt were, I made my first trip to a library after college just to look it up and I remembered being impressed at how obscure a reference they'd use just to make a rhyme, especially considering their target audience was 7 to 12 year olds and a handful of weirdos like me.

Darth Weasel said...

I always thought that was one reason the Jack Benny movies did not match up to the radio bits. On radio he still might be the finest comedian who ever lived in my estimation but his movies just fall flat for me...and a lot of it seems to be because he is TRYING to be funny in the movies whereas the radio shows he allowed to breathe, the other people were as (if not more) funny than he was and it just worked better.

Even his tv shows were fantastic. He was relaxed, letting it happen...but the movies for reasons, possibly those above, have never really made me laugh. Which is a hard thing to say about my favorite comedian.

Ben K. said...

Young Robert Redford asked for tea, and the women in the audience asked for young Robert Redford in a T-shirt. Everyone was happy.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. So many fascinating anecdotes. Thanks to everyone for sharing them. This might be my favourite collection of comments ever!

Anonymous said...

I always say it's the writer's job to be funny, it's the actor's job to be REAL.

Craig Gustafson said...

"Anonymous Anonymous said...
I always say it's the writer's job to be funny, it's the actor's job to be REAL."

Which reminds me of a "Your Show of Shows" anecdote. The set designer decided to Help the Comedy by building a funny set. The writers (and I'm assuming Mel Brooks was in the lead on this) cornered him in a room, sat on him and said, "We'll handle the comedy. Make the sets real!"

Pat Reeder said...

To Craig Gustafson:

Moss Hart's "Act One" contains a famous example of that. An early draft of the Kaufman-Hart play "Once in a Lifetime" had a scene set in a nightclub called "The Pigeon's Egg." The set and costume designers went wild with bird/egg-themed booths and cocktail waitresses covered in feathers. The first night, the audience exploded with laughter when the curtain opened, but then the scene just sat there and laid an egg. They finally figured out that nobody was paying attention to the dialogue because they were too distracted staring at the deliberately "FUNNY" set. After all that trouble and expense, the elaborate set ended up out in the alley for the trash collectors to haul away.

VP81955 said...

Darth, Jack's lone exception in films was "To Be Or Not To Be," the swan song for the lady in my avatar. Of course, working with Ernst Lubitsch (my all-time favorite director) surely helped.

bryon said...

This was part of the genius of Airplane. All those dramatic actors -- Nielsen, Stack, Graves, Bridges -- doing their lines as though they were still playing heavy, serious roles. No winking at the audience, no mugging. They played it straight and the comedy shone through.