What is one of the biggest obstacles that prevents us from discovering the truth about our characters? There are several answers to that question but the one we’re going to focus on for the next two articles is about finding the humor in our roles.
It wasn’t until I studied with Michael Shurtleff that I understood what humor really was and the importance of using it in my work. In life I was funny; I could make people laugh. I knew how to find the jokes in a script, how to set them up and pay them off, but the concept of “humor” was foreign to me.
For the uninitiated, humor isn’t about being funny. It is the attitude toward life without which we all would have thrown ourselves off a bridge long ago. Humor is not jokes. It is the coin of expression between human beings that makes it possible for us to get through the day.
In life, we try to insert humor wherever and whenever possible. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to bear the burdens of our everyday existence. Humor is the first thing human beings inject into a tense or emotionally charged situation. If you’ve ever been to a friend’s funeral, you know what I’m talking about. A dear companion is dead. It’s a solemn occasion. You’re there to pay your respects, but before you know it, you and several friends are telling funny stories about the deceased, reliving fond childhood memories, laughing about the pranks you pulled together. We engage in this behavior to alleviate the seriousness of the situation. That’s what we do in real life.
Most actors, however, do just the opposite. They’ll get a script that has a funeral scene in it and then proceed to suck the life out of the scene. Why? Because they read the circumstances and leap to the cliché. They forget one of the most important aspects of the scene: that their characters, while they may be sad, while they may be in pain, are also human beings. And if their characters don’t find the humor in a scene, even in a scene where they have come to mourn the death of a dear friend, then they’ll be behaving in an unrealistic manner. If you don’t know how to look for and play the humor, your performance will be stilted and unreal.
Humor is not reserved for comedies. The heavier the situation, the more humor we need to endure it. Humor is more important in a drama than in a comedy. Think of Romeo and Juliet or A Streetcar Named Desire. Both of these classics are tragedies, yet the actors performing in them, in order to deliver the full impact of that tragedy, must employ a tremendous amount of humor in their work.
Actors often confuse humor with jokes. The jokes are where the audience laughs. Humor is where the characters laugh at themselves. Rarely will those two things happen at the same time. If the audience is laughing and your character starts to laugh, the audience will stop laughing for fear they’ll miss something.
If you don’t instinctively have the gift of “humor” then you need to develop some tools so you can recognize “it” when you see it. If you’re one of those lucky actors whose sense of humor is firmly in place — Great! However, instinct enhanced with skill will make your work even better.
Regardless of which of these two categories you fall into the information in the next post will either help you develop a “sense” of humor or it will greatly enhance what you already instinctively know.
TO BE CONTINUED
Before I sign off — two HUGE SHOUT OUTS to Donna Grossman (Donna Grossman Casting) and Kimberly Graham (Judy Henderson Casting).
Donna helped launch our new commercial class (see Classes page). Her added expertise made the class a major success. Here’s what a few of the students had to say: “Having Donna there put the finishing touches on the technique John teaches. Invaluable.” “She gave us insight into how the process works from the CD’s prospective. So, so helpful. Thank you, Donna!”
Kimberly Graham was the guest instructor for our free industry workshops. Here’s what a couple of the actors said: “Kim’s workshop was not only a wonderful opportunity to showcase our work but also a way to benefit from invaluable feedback. Thanks for having these workshops.” “The team of Kimberly Graham and John Swain together critiquing your work, nothing could be better. 2 pros honestly helping actors reach their potential.”
Both Donna and Kim rocked the joint!
Up next — David Cady (Donna DeSeta Casting). David will be the guest instructor at our next free industry workshop — 16 July. More details to follow.
 Michael Shurtleff, Audition (Bantam Books)