mplementing Humor

In the article on Comedy Acting we looked at the structure of the gag, and the basic principles, which govern comedy performances. Let’s move on to the tools and skills required implementing the telling of the humorous story.

In the articles on acting styles, we set up several parameters for implementing the style of comedy. To review, we determined that in comedy, reality is at a suspended level of believability, distorted, lacking balance and proportion, yet founded on a real truth and real character values.

The general behavior is exaggerated, usually with high energy and a definite positive attitude. Among characters, a wide contrast of types is prevalent and their behavior is readable, definitive, precise, open, and outward.

Emotions are light, decisive, readable, and usually played on the surface. Intentions, while usually meaningful, are pursued with considerable vigor and enthusiasm. The simplistic objectives, apparent and obvious, are played, for the most part, externally.

Pacing in comedy is quick, energetic, fast, and rapid, to limit exploration of transparent stories where logic and reality are distorted; to maintain focus on lighthearted wit and humor; to replace dissipating information with the new. Pace is also intense to drive up sense of urgency or importance.

Timing is highly calculated, highly responsive, building on audience reactions. Sharp accents are also used to emphasize, control focus, and/or punctuate intended humor.

The dramatic flow is much more informational than emotional. The rhythmic pointalistic flow builds upon a simple singular line of thought. There is almost immediate clarity of wants/opposition-hero/villain polarizations.

The premise or theme of a comedy is moderately worthy in ultra serious pursuit, sometimes seeking ridiculous and irrational goals. But comedy is affirmative in spirit with the protagonist almost always being triumphant. And the point of view of life is from the outside, an external observation on human nature, and at best, displays a distortion of a reality to provide higher insights, a better understanding of ourselves, and the truth within us.

In comedy, the goal of the creative team should be to tell the story in a humorous manner. To surprise the audience and make them laugh. To make them feel that life, with all its frustrations, is still worth living. To stretch the soul toward heights where laughter and understanding triumph over hate and fear. And by observing from the outside, the audience forms a new perspective on human nature.


As you can see from these requirements, comedy requires a range of abilities. Foremost is the agility to make quick and articulate changes in behavior. Comedy is usually written around fast-moving plots, spirited dialogue, and sudden surprises. Therefore, behavior must be immediately readable for there is little time to question or search for underlying meanings.

This agility extends to the tempo, emphasis, rhythm, and enunciation of dialogue. Much of comedy revolves around the meaning and nuances of the words and if they are unclear or the delivery is off, both the story and humor suffer as a result.

Quick articulated changes are what sets up the plausibility for surprises. A character is moving in one direction and ding; something sets him off in another direction. It could be changes in emotion, intention, attitude, movement, and/or behavior resulting from external or internal dramatic forces. It’s a clear distinct transition jumping for one attitude/intention/etc., to another.

It could be the realization of a new emotion, a new attitude. Or it might be feeling the pain of the blow, the fall or drop from dignity. And it’s played as if it were the first time, breaking the balance of life, of nature. It’s instantaneously readable, as if the behavior almost stops, and then, it takes off in a different direction.

Such readable open articulate behavior makes it possible for the entire audience to read the comic presentation and comprehend it in perfect sync. They must understand and appreciate the humor simultaneously; otherwise the contagious effect of the humor is lost. A roll in the routine or scene is unlikely when the audience is not thinking and reacting as one. Therefore, in order for comedy to work properly, humor must be approached with the lowest common denominator for that specific audience.

The agility to quickly change emotions and intentions is also a required skill for comedy players. Comedy is flighty, unpredictable and has the potential and opportunities for sudden changes. Emotions, therefore, are played on the surface, like a water bug skimming across a pond, capable of changing direction at any moment. If it, however, delves too deep into the water, then it can not turn quickly.

Comedy must be played lightly allowing for the quick changes of direction, for the derailment of thought, and the element and plausibility of surprise. Therefore, the intentions are played externally, apparent, and obvious so the audience can follow effortlessly and in sync.

Comedy plays with the possibilities and usually does so with a sense of mischief. Probabilities are not usually served, but destroyed with surprises beyond our expectations. The passion is for a celebration of fun and the agility to make quick changes serves this passion.

Each level of comedy draws us into its own logic, its own reality and creates for us its own sense of truth. Defining and playing this degree of reality is a complex skill; for not only must it be consistent with the story, the characters and situations, it must also be maintained by the entire acting ensemble. Establishing the proper proportion of reality and distortion is something that is usually sorted out in the rehearsal process. But you will find that when the performance becomes too distorted, the reality of the story becomes questionable. Conversely, when it becomes too real, the comedy aspects suffer. Attaining the proper balance between reality and the comic distortions is an ongoing battle. Understanding the principles that move this balance back and forth will be helpful.

In developing a scene, one must first see the truth or reality of a given character or situation before one can distort or upset its balance. In the following example, a normal statement proves to be a contradiction.

When they made her, they broke the mode.

Then they pretended it was an accident.

The truth might be that the person attacked is far from being perfect. A seemingly complementary statement (the setup) which is then turned around with a contradiction (punch line) revealing the truth upsets the balance in a surprisingly funny way. The reality of this seemingly complementary statement is balanced by distorting this setup with a new and different perspective, one that results in credible humor.

While this revelation was done with dialogue, the director and the actors must look for other innovative ways of revealing the truth, ways that go beyond the limitations of the script. I remember directing a scene where the truth of the character was that he’s a manipulative person, almost a con artist. The dialogue kept saying he was caring and concerned about his newly wed wife who sits with him at the restaurant table. But the truth of the matter was that he was trying to gracefully dump her for his latest obsession, another woman. To reveal this contradiction, on his line:

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