BY DERYN WARREN
Adding laughter is one of the best things an actor can do to take a performance from safe to spectacular. Whether in a comedy or a drama, great actors sprinkle laughter throughout their performances—not necessarily guffaws (although they're wonderful too), but social laughs masking nervousness, laughs to release tension, or laughs that come from an eagerness to please, for instance. Laughter is the social grease of human beings. Watch how often people around you laugh. You will be amazed how seldom we laugh because something is funny. The comedian Bob Newhart said, "Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it, and then move on."
Make Unexpected Choices
I called my book "How to Make Your Audience Fall in Love With You" because every actor needs to make appealing choices. Well, there is nothing more appealing than humor. Whether the laughs arise from a hilarious situation or from bravery in the face of death, whether they are sarcastic laughs or laughs resulting from nerves, never play a role without the release of tension that laughs provide.
As a teacher, I emphasize risking and rising above the crowd. Actors who get starring roles make unexpected choices. Safe actors say the lines—safely. Safe actors are afraid to let laughs escape. They assume that a funeral should be solemn. A risk-taking actor realizes that a memory can trigger a laugh. Paradoxically, you can make an audience cry with a laugh. For example, at that funeral, you ask a mother whose child has just died, "How are you doing?" She gives a slight laugh and says through her tears, "I'm doing okay." That allows you to cry for her and with her at her bravery. George Bernard Shaw said, "Life does not cease to be funny when people die, any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."
In the film "Thelma & Louise," when two women on the run and without hope are just about to drive their car off a cliff, Thelma says with humor, "I guess everything we've got to lose is gone anyway." And Louise answers, "How do you stay so positive?" As satirist Will Durst said, "Comedy is defiance. It's a snort of contempt in the face of fear and anxiety. And it's the laughter that allows hope to creep back on the inhale." In another example of laughter in a time of difficulty, a brilliant woman at the end of her life forgot words and the ends of stories. Instead of being embarrassed, she whooped with laughter. Laughs can show courage.
What if I'm playing a serial killer? Where are the laughs with a character like that? Well, look at Hannibal Lecter. He oozed charm and humor and took pleasure in his own brilliance. Maniacal laughter is an option too!
What if you are playing a waitress whose only line is to apologize for a late order? Your line is "Sorry, folks, the cook is way backed up." You can say the line with exasperation, but a risk-taking actor can see humor in the situation and will have fun with "waaaay backed up!" Which line reading will make the audience remember you?
Game-Playing Can Be Good
Search your script for lines that can be improved with game-playing. For example, if your sister has lost most of her hair to chemotherapy and your line is "Your hair doesn't look that bad," you might dare to play a game by saying in a jokey tone, "Your hair doesn't look that bad!" and making a funny face. Then you can laugh at the disaster together, which makes the moment easier. It also shows the close relationship you have with your sister. And the audience will see courage and fall in love with both of you.
In my class, I teach a technique of laughing and crying, so you won't dry up on the set after numerous takes. Although it's just an exercise and the laughs are not the result of anything funny, when one actor is laughing, the rest of the room is grinning. Laughter is infectious. Laughter is powerful. It can sting when you are the butt of it, and when it is shared you can make a lifelong friend. When your laughter comes from insecurity, it can make people want to put their arms around you.
In my book, I give an example of game-playing: One actor whines, "I'm so tired." The other actor says the same words, but she sinks dramatically into a chair with the back of her hand on her forehead. She's playing a game. They both may be tired, but which one is more appealing to her partner in the scene? Which one would the casting director fall for? Acting is about making choices. Make choices appealing to your partner whenever possible. Risk on even the most banal lines. An actor talking to Larry David on "Entourage" gave a small laugh in between two lines: "Come on. (Laugh.) You don't think I'd do that."
Welcome on All Occasions
For a corny script, use laughter to make it real. We are all corny sometimes. I have a scene from a 1940s script that I once had all my students do. One of the corny lines was "I love you with all my heart and soul." These days hardly anyone mentions souls. The line was laughable instead of moving. The actor who was successful in making the line believable said, "I love you with all my heart…," and then he paused, realizing that his words were not adequate for what he was feeling. So he laughed gently as if to say, "I know this is corny but I'm going to say it anyway." Then he added "and soul," and the line made us tear up.
Laughs can even be a part of sex scenes. Laugh to show intense pleasure. Laugh with admiration at how stunning your partner is. There is no moment so intimate that a laugh would not be appropriate.
There is also no moment so terrifying that a laugh would not be appropriate. What about receiving a dreaded diagnosis or making your first ski jump? A slight laugh of terror could come out. Laughter can show vulnerability or be used as a defense.
It is not always the actor who laughs at unexpected times. On rare occasions, there are unexpected laughs from the audience during dramatic scenes. Those are not laughs at the actors. Those are laughs of universal recognition. The audience members recognize themselves in the situation. Those laughs are the highest compliment an actor can get.
Laugh at your own jokes. If you are telling a joke to another actor (and in real life too), try laughing uproariously at your own joke. It frees the audience to laugh with you and makes any joke twice as funny.
Risk by seeing the funny side. Risk by laughing when you are vulnerable. Laugh heartily at your wins and ruefully at your losses. Risk by allowing laughs to escape during funny moments or emotional moments in every role. Laugh with pleasure. Laugh with sympathy. Laugh when you're scared and when you are at the top of your game.
I'll let Kurt Vonnegut have the last laugh: "Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward."
Deryn Warren's book "How to Make Your Audience Fall in Love With You" has a chapter by Michael Shurtleff, who wrote "Audition." She is an acting teacher and coach in Los Angeles and has directed feature films and theater.