Make ’em laugh


Comedy MaskLaughter in the theatre is almost always a fine thing, a sign that the actors and director are doing their jobs, that the script is up to scratch and the audience are enjoying themselves.  Sometimes, of course, it’s a sign that something has gone hideously and inappropriately wrong, or, if it happens on the other side of the ‘fourth wall’, that a private joke has accidentally wormed its way on to stage and caused a (hopefully) temporary fit of hysteria.

Getting a laugh as a performer is a wonderful thing, but it’s also rather tricky.  It has been my privilege to play two amusing characters over the last 2 years, very different but united in their ability to raise a chuckle from the audience.  Much of the work is done by the script, of course, but it is entirely possible to make a funny line land like a piece of wet lettuce, and also to bring out the humour in a moment that doesn’t absolutely have to be funny (“it’s the way that I tell ’em…”).  I’m certainly no expert, and I have yet to perform in a non-musical comedy (which would require much greater levels of discipline), but that won’t stop me from throwing in my tuppenceworth.

One of the keys, perhaps even the key, to being funny on stage (rather than in stand-up or with your friends in the pub) is not to show a trace of it.  The funniest characters are those that have absolutely no idea how ridiculous they are and take themselves terribly seriously.  The actor therefore has to pretend that they don’t know their lines, actions or facial expressions are remotely amusing, and deliver them with conviction.  A pause may be needed while the laughter subsides, but on no account should a smirk or a wink be allowed to escape during that pause.  The performer doesn’t need to believe that they are the person they’re portraying (I think I’d have to renounce the stage in shame if I were ever to reach that stage of actorly neurosis), but staying in character during the laughs certainly helps the audience maintain that all-important suspension of disbelief.

In my experience as an audience member (and indeed as an onlooker during rehearsals), my engagement in a piece of theatre is immediately lessened by an on-stage acknowledgement of the amusement value of what’s being said or done.  There are some styles of theatre, and some shows, where it can work for various purposes, but it tends to highlight the difficulty of staying in character.  And it is hard.  Sometimes inordinately hard.  And it’s even worse when someone delivers a killer line when you’re on stage, forcing you to react in character (or not react, if your character is similarly oblivious to the amusement value of the moment) without cracking the smallest hint of a smile.  Luckily for me, I have tended to be the one delivering these lines recently, often on my way off the stage, stranding my fellow performers.

I have avoided laughing inappropriately on stage thus far, but rehearsals are another matter.  For a long time, myself and the leading lady would crack up every time I came on in a fury during the final act of A Doll’s House.  I think it was the very idea of me being that angry that got to us, and it certainly frustrated the poor director who was trying to coax a powerful and dramatic scene out of us, only to be faced with gales of laughter.  And in other contexts I have discovered that nothing is more likely to bring on a fit of the giggles than gazing directly into someone else’s eyes for more than a couple of seconds. 

The funniest thing I’ve ever seen in the theatre (what? did you think I was going to tell you about the funniest thing I’ve ever done?) was in a Georges Feydeau farce.  I have no idea which one, I’m afraid.  The funniest moment was also the quietest moment.  The farce had reached that inevitable point where almost all of the dramatis personae are gathered in the same room, for a whole range of reasons, and each of them has no business being there.  They are all desperate to find out what the others are doing there, but equally desperate that their own actions remain unexposed.  Any word could betray them.  And so there they stood, ranged across the set, not saying a thing.  Occasionally, one would look over at another, or be about to say something, but silence reigned as they shifted uncomfortably.  On stage, that is.  In the audience, we were crying with laughter, as the awkward silence became ever more hilarious as it dragged on.  And on.  What was agony for the characters must have been equally so for the actors.  If they’d relaxed their concentration for a second, or caught the wrong person’s eye, the moment would have been lost immediately.  I have no idea how they got out of that moment, or how the typically bizarre clockwork plot resolved itself, but I do know that I literally laughed until it hurt.  Now there’s something to aspire to!

Make ’em laugh, certainly, but avoid laughing yourself as you do it (and don’t get me started on how hard it is to laugh in character…).  It may be true that ‘laugh and the world laughs with you’, but you’ll really have earned it if you can have the world laugh with you while you keep a straight face.

  1. Good to have you back with a blog post Singing Librarian. One of the interesting things about getting laughs is the way that ‘deadpan’ comics can use the ‘mask’ of not showing emotion to heighten the audience’s laughter. I think of people like Buster Keaton or Stan Laurel in film. Then Jack Benny. More recently Jack Dee. And even ventriloquists like Arthur Worsley used the technique. They have to develop a ‘character’ first to sell the technique to the audience (the classic at this was Jack Benny). In musicals, I always think of ‘Adelaide’s lament’ in Guys and Dolls as being in the ‘deadpan’ vein.

  2. Deadpan is fun, as observer and perpetrator. 🙂 For some reason I find it relatively hard in real life and am fairly likely to crack, but can manage deadpan on stage relatively well. In ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ my deadpan opportunity came on the line “Max Factor No. 2”. It was funny in context. Honest…

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