The Lite Side of Drama
by Clare Sera & Alice Bass
You take a breath.
You deliver the line.
You bask in the uproarious laughter.
Then, you repeat the sketch in the next service.
You take a breath.
You deliver the line.
You hear crickets chirping in the silence.
So, how do you re-create a comic moment? There was a time when comedy in church would have been frowned upon, but today we use laughter to soften hearts. And it works great! Except for the times that it doesn’t work. Comedy improviser Clare Sera and character actress Alice Bass join forces here to examine the lite side of drama.
Comedy Isn’t Funny
Treating comedy seriously means investing, in your character and the script and letting the laughs flow on their own.
Sydney Pollack said of directing the comedy Tootsie, that he and Dustin Hoffman treated the script as a drama. “[Dustin Hoffman’s] character was a man who hadn’t worked in eight years. It wasn’t funny; it was tragic.” Because the characters in Tootsie considered themselves to be in real situations, those situations were more comedic to the audience.
We laugh at characters because we relate to them and their weaknesses. Every character has an internal dialogue that differs from his actual dialogue. That subtext, and seeming contradiction, are what make the character complex and interesting.
Comedic characters are simply more open vocally and physically with their internal dialogue.
The characters’ wants (their needs, desires, objectives) drive a script and tell you what kind of pace the scene needs.
What does each character want? What are their goals in the scene? For example, in Options in Altercation by John C. Havens, the wants are the keys that will unlock the comedy. The actors know that engaging in fight tactics is not a good way for a couple to promote communication, but the characters don’t know that. Try creating a couple who want to grow more in love with each other and who believe that learning to manipulate each other is a good thing. Not only will that be ridiculous to an audience, it will make the scene fly at a furious pace.
Comedy Doesn’t Just Happen
While the congregation is laughing, your actors won’t be resting on their laurels — they will be hard at work. These three time-honored tools bring out the moments in between the lines.
It’s funny to see a character look, turn away and look back. This action is called a take, and is funny whether it’s done slowly or quickly. An audience will accept a take if the character is absolutely incredulous at what she’s seeing. It doesn’t matter how fast your neck snaps or how many takes you can fit into three seconds, it’s all in the commitment and believability of the moment.
The Rule of Three
Funny comes in threes. Look at Game Day by Timothy Bass. Jerry and Ben do three different bits that grow in intensity: high-five, double-five on the side, belly slap. So much funnier than if the belly slap was the first and only bit. We don’t know why this works — it’s a great mystery. But it’s a comedy rule: Things are funnier in threes.
A beat is a pause in the dialogue or action — or both — that heightens the tension of the joke. It is the “breath” right before the punch line that sets up the laughs. The factors that go into determining how long to hold the beat include...
a) the pace of the scene (faster pace means quicker beats)
b) the response of the audience to the setup
c) how funny the joke is (the funnier the joke, the longer you can hold the beat)
As always, keep the beats grounded in the reality of your character or the audience will know you’re just setting up a joke and it will die.
Since we’re so smart, how come in our opening example we got laughs in the first service but not in the second? Every audience responds to moments differently. Keep one ear on audience responses and make slight adjustments accordingly. If they’re laughing hard, wait for laughs to subside before giving your next line. If they’re not laughing, pick up the pace between lines.
When you’re not getting laughs, it’s tempting to get louder and “crazier.” That doesn’t work. Remember that comedy is serious business, so stay committed to your character, and let the fun begin!