To some of us, comedy comes naturally. Certain actors have an ear for it, much like some people have perfect pitch. But that doesn’t mean technique can’t be honed and refined, nor does it mean those who lack comedic intuition won’t benefit from study, direction and practice.
If you’re in any kind of comedic production, you may run into “bits.” Bits are basically jokes, but in the context of a play or film, they usually involve a physical element and more than one person. But what makes a bit successful?
Comedy is baking. Learn the recipe.
To make a bit successful, you need to know the rules of comedy in general. A good friend and colleague of mine often compares comedy to baking. It has specific ingredients and a structured recipe for success; there is an order to which it should be executed. If you study the recipes of comedy, you will have a map for your comedic bits.
Don’t ask for the laugh.
If you’ve ever taken a comedy-focused class before, you’re probably familiar with this advice. But what does it mean? Essentially, it’s a mental shift. We as actors know where the jokes go. We know the structure, the setup, the punchline. We know where the laugh should go. It’s easy to play a bit with that knowledge in mind. Unfortunately, nothing will kill a joke faster. Asking for the laugh alienates the audience. We don’t want to see the structure of the joke. We want to see the intention. Fight for what you want within the bit. If you don’t know what your character wants in that moment, it’s a good indication that the bit is weak.
Push the pace.
Comedy is fast. It’s just one of the many rules of comedy (occasionally broken with great effect, but that’s another article). Think of it like you have a ball of energy that you must always keep in the air. If you let it fall to the ground, the pace is dead and so is the bit. Keep it energized and keep it quick.
Keep it clean.
To work, a bit needs airtight structure. Especially in a heightened comedy, like a farce, the physical structure needs to be sharp and clean. Cut extraneous physical movements. Commit fully and physically to each part of the bit. This keeps the storytelling clear.
Rule of 3s.
Three is funny. If you’re building a bit with repetitive elements, make it three. Two will leave the audience wanting, four will be too much (usually — sometimes adding a twist to the structure can allow a fourth repetition as a cherry on top, but it takes nuance and skill to feel it out).
Comedy is about surprise. Audiences know how storytelling works. They are naturally thinking one step ahead, either consciously or subconsciously predicting what will happen next. Good comedy subverts expectations. The surprise brings the joy and the laugh.
Find your niche.
Comedy is not one size fits all. Some actors are suited to clowning. Some are subtle and understated and dry. Some are character actors, some are straight men. Knowing where you excel is invaluable to your comedic career. It’s also a great place to start building confidence if comedy isn’t generally your thing.
If bits still intimidate you, find a strong comedic partner. Get your sea legs under you with someone who loves comedy and knows the ropes. And don’t underestimate the power of repetition. Rehearse over and over until your bit is quick, clean, unassailable, motivated. Of course, then you have to find the joy. Comedy should be fun. Let yourself play.