For years I’ve tried to put a finger on a solid definition of comedy, of what makes people laugh. I’ve heard explanations like, “Comedy is when you set up an expectation, and then break it.” I can see that. It’s sometimes called the “Rule of Threes”. Two items to establish a pattern, and the third one breaks it to comedic effect. My cousin, when he was three, was really into making jokes. One I still remember is “How do you count to three in Spanish? Uno, dos, taco taco taco!” And we laughed. Why? It wasn’t that funny. But even the three-year-old knew that if you set up an expectation or pattern and then break it, the gut reaction is laughter. There’s something more to it, though. I can say “One, two, BANANAS!” and no one will laugh. But Rodney Dangerfield’s line–“As a kid I got no respect. The time I was kidnapped, and the kidnappers sent my parents a note they said, ‘We want five thousand dollars or you’ll see your kid again.’”–that’s a pretty good one. My “joke” and his both break expectation, but the results are incomparable. What am I missing?
There is a mantra among comedians, “There is no comedy. There is only truth.” Though that may sound like advice from a green, pointy-eared mentor on a swamp planet, it is foundational in our pursuit of trying to get people laughing. It means that comedy is not the goal. You know that ridiculous guy who tries to be funny? He’s not that funny. And here’s why:
Comedy is a gap between what the audience considers ridiculous and what the character considers logical:
Logical to the audience + Logical to the character
= logical — “I would do that, too.”
This can provide great content to a play, but comedy is not found here, obviously. And the opposite…?
Ridiculous to the audience + Ridiculous to the character
= silly — “Why is he doing that?”
This might get a laugh out of shock or discomfort, but it’s not comedy. But check this out:
Logical to the character + Ridiculous to the audience
= hilarious! — “He would do that, but I can’t believe he’s doing it!”
The more ridiculous an action or line seems to the audience, while maintaining that the action or line seems very logical to the character—that is where we find comedy. It becomes crucial, then, in your performance, to continually feed the audience insights into how you think. Help them understand who you are, what matters to you, what you like and don’t like. Then they can better see the situation though your eyes, and see that your actions (however ridiculous to them) actually make sense to you.
Lucille Ball understood this, and flung open the gap between “logical to me” and “ridiculous to you” in her iconic chocolate factory scene. Her character was told to box up the chocolates that came down the conveyor belt. “Don’t let any fall off the end of the line.” So when the belt sped up and more and more chocolates were nearing their demise, she had to pursue her objective “Don’t let any fall” with more and more desperation. She began stuffing chocolates in her pockets, down her front, in her mouth; it was ridiculous! But it was not ridiculous to her, and we knew that! And we laughed. Hard.
So how do we widen the gap between reasonable and unreasonable in our own performance?
- Study your script for every clue about your character’s personality. Read not only what your character says, but what the other characters say about your character.
- Ask “If that’s true, what else is true?” to further flesh out the quirks and personality of your character.
- Explore stage business, or doings, for your character to engage in. You can communicate much about your character through your gestures and habits, the props you handle, and how you handle them.
- Try to not say a line or perform an action the same way twice. Trust that you know your character well enough to act on impulses. If you try something, and it doesn’t feel right, tweak it and try again, or drop it altogether.
- Take the desperation up one notch at a time. You need to keep pursuing your objective. Up the stakes in your mind, and do whatever you can to avoid failing. Desperate people do desperate things. Lucille Ball understood this truth, and exploited it to its greatest comedic potential. You can, too.
What is the funniest piece of comedy you’ve seen? What do you suppose made it so funny?