What Comedy Can Teach You About Acting
Maureen Younger explores the ways in which comedy can help an actor improve their craft
Comics are adept at pretending their act isn’t an act at all, and skilled in giving the impression it’s the first time they’ve said those jokes or supposed ad libs when it may well not be the first time they’ve said them that night. If you think how difficult it can be to sound fresh midway through an extended run of a play, spare a thought for those comics who are guilty of saying the same jokes several times a week for years!
Although not all comics can act by a long shot, there are numerous comics who have made the jump from comedian to film star. Some take their comedy personas with them and play a version of that persona – Richard Pryor, Ricky Gervais, for starters. Others go into more dramatic territory: Norman Wisdom in Going Gently, Peter Sellers in Almost There and Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, just to name a few. So, what is it about some comics that make them such damn fine actors?
Firstly, if comics get the chance to feature in a movie it’s usually because the comic in question is suddenly considered an overnight success. In other words, they have more than likely spent over a decade or so developing and refining their comedy persona to perfection, in front of a live audience, several times a week for years. That’s a lot of rehearsal time!
After all, one of the main advantages comedians have over other performing artists is that it’s a lot easier to get stage time and benefit from perfecting your art – both workshopping your material and developing your comedy persona – in front of a live audience. That’s one hell of a plus.
Secondly, for a comic to stand out from the rest they need to have developed a unique comedy persona: this means the public won’t have seen anything like them before. And this makes them memorable. When I saw Chris Rock in Lethal Weapon 4, I had no idea who he was or that he was a comedian, but his personality shot out from the screen; it was intense, it was funny and most importantly, it was utterly different from what you tend to expect from a supporting character in those kinds of movies.
For those comics taking on more dramatic roles, let’s not forget, they have had a long apprenticeship in saying one thing and meaning another - in being specific and clear on what they feel about everything they say. After all, an essential part of stand up is the comic’s attitude to what they are saying. This training can only be an advantage when it comes to creating a multi-faceted character.
Moreover, comics are adept at pretending their act isn’t an act at all, and skilled in giving the impression it’s the first time they’ve said those jokes or supposed ad libs when it may well not be the first time they’ve said them that night. If you think how difficult it can be to sound fresh midway through an extended run of a play, spare a thought for those comics who are guilty of saying the same jokes several times a week for years!
And needless to say, comedians can always find the funny in both the text or the situation and funny means people stay interested; through humour characters can endear themselves to the audience even if they are supposed to be unlikeable. Having a sense of humour, even if you are plotting the end of the world, somehow makes you more human. It’s not for nothing that most people’s favourite villains are usually the ones who, at the very least, bring a smile to your face, whilst wreaking havoc. Only last year, Steve Carell did an excellent job when it came to portraying self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs in the film Battle of the Sexes.
Besides timing - the mainstay of any decent comedian - comics are also in the business of fine tuning what they say to say one thing while meaning another; to make the most from every word or turn of phrase. In stand up, one word too many or one word too few and the joke ceases to be funny. It is that technical. In other words, comics learn how to manipulate the language and develop an instinctive ear for the best rhythm to say something.
Last but not least, a great part of being a good comedian is human psychology. Watch a good comedian at work. They’ll be able to say things half-way through their set to resounding laughter, which if they had said as they first stepped on stage, would have been met with stony silence. How? An experienced comic will size up a room and instinctively play it so they get the audience on side. Comics learn how to get an audience to like them because they know that once an audience likes you and finds you funny, you can get away with a hell of a lot!
And it’s this skill that comics learn the hard way – from playing supposedly unplayable gigs in supposedly unplayable rooms – which proves so useful when it comes to acting. Comics look at a situation and learn to connect with whatever they find there.
Then of course there is the myth that inside every comic there is a tragic soul bursting to get out. I don’t buy into that myself - otherwise green rooms wouldn’t be much fun. I do agree there is something in most comedians’ make up which compels them to go on stage and ask an audience to like them (which is essentially what stand up comics are doing), and whatever this is - in my experience, often feeling that they are an outsider - is nevertheless a rich mine to exploit when it comes to playing other characters.
So yes, comics spend a lot of time learning skills which they can go on to utilise when developing a multi-faceted character. But there’s one more thing: any comedian worth their salt takes risks. In comedy there is no safe space to try out ideas - there’s no rehearsal room. In comedy, you have to play with ideas and risk being wrong in front of an audience, and it’s this willingness to take risks, to play, which I think is so crucial. As most of us creatives know, some of the best ideas can come from playing around. Yes, you need to put the work in but playing with ideas and having a laugh can lead you in directions you would never have thought of otherwise.
Maureen Younger works as a stand up comedian, writer and actor. A talented linguist, Maureen has also performed stand up in German and French. Gigs range from being the support act for the entire West End run of The Naked Magicians; supporting Shazia Mirza on tour; to performing at the Jamaica vs The World shows at the Shepherds Bush Empire. As an actor, her roles range from playing an angry German housewife in Band of Brothers to workshopping Philoctetes at the National Theatre Studio. Maureen has also written articles for various online magazines including Standard Issue Magazine, Her Edit and Psychologies Life Lab.