There are four elements to finding the humor in a scene. The first is absurdity. What does your character find absurd, despite the seriousness of the moment, either about himself or the other character(s) or the situation? What makes him think, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” or, “I can’t believe she just said that,” or, “I can’t believe this is happening?” Once you’ve identified what’s absurd, then your ability to laugh at it, regardless of how serious or sacred it may be, becomes easier.
The second thing to look for is escalating tension. Tension is a good thing and in our work oftentimes we want to escalate it to the max. There are other times, however, when there’s a need to ease the tension. When things start to get too intense in our real lives, most of us have an automatic release valve, like a pressure gauge, that allows us to blow off steam. We may laugh, often in an inappropriate place, or do any number of other things all designed to discharge some of the mounting pressure. If we do that in real life, then it is only logical our characters would do it, too.
The third way our characters can exhibit a sense of humor is in their desire to express irony. We respond to another character with a glib or sarcastic remark. We repeat what another character says under our breath or twist the verbiage to emphasize our character’s point of view. It’s important to point out that expressing a sense of humor isn’t merely just about laughing at what’s going on around us. Sometimes your character can’t laugh—he may not even be able to speak—but it doesn’t stop him from expressing his sense of humor. A raised eyebrow can speak volumes.
The fourth way our characters express a sense of humor is through self-deprecation. We mock ourselves in order to divert attention away from ourselves, or we point out to the world for whatever reason, real or imagined, we think we’re less than what we really are.
All of these examples are the things we do in our real lives. Actors, however, for some reason, have trouble incorporating these truths in their work. If the scene is a tragedy then we want to wring every bit of tragedy out of it possible. The problem,when we do this, is we end up beating the audience over the head with the message. The screenwriter has already written a tragic scene, i.e., your friend is dead. If you play it tragically, heaping calamity upon calamity, then the audience, in order to protect itself, will start tuning out; it becomes too damaging to their psyche to stay engaged. If you won’t do anything to relieve the mounting pressure, they will—they’ll check out.
When I first moved to New York City I had the opportunity to study with Herbert Berghof, the founder of HB Studios. For my second scene I played Creon in Antigone. When I finished, he said to me (in his very thick Hungarian accent), “John, what is it? When you’re sitting out here”—he pointed to the classroom—“you are so interesting. But, when you get up on stage, what happens to you?”
What happened was I wasn’t incorporating a sense of humor in my work. In wanting to deliver the essence of the scene, I left out my character’s humanity; I failed to find his sense of humor. What I ended up with was a stiff, unrealistic character who was boring the hell out of everyone.
If you want your work to be real you need to learn how to develop a sense of humor for your character(s). You have to train yourself to find the humor and insert it into the scene. Often times the writer is smart enough to write the scene in such a way that the character’s sense of humor is obvious. But if he hasn’t, then you need to make sure you create a sense of humor. If not, you’re setting yourself up for an unpleasant ride. A character without a sense of humor is tedious and uninteresting to watch. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to spend an evening with someone who takes life so seriously that he can’t laugh at himself.
David Cady from Donna DeSeta’s Casting will be the guest instructor at our next free industry workshop. This workshop will be held on the 16th of July. More details soon.
At least five actors who attended the workshop with Summer Crockett Moore have been called in on various projects. Yahoo! That’s why we’re doing these workshops.