I was walking home from a dinner with Friend Alison the other night when she started recounting stories of various klutzy moments in her life. In particular, she mentioned a time that she was walking down the street and walked directly into a wall so hard and unexpectedly that she 1) fell right on her butt with 2) legs splayed and 3) skirt up over her head. I, of course, thought this was classically hilarious, and suggested we should get her a camera crew and a YouTube channel, just in case it happens again. She balked at this notion, and we moved on to stories of when we have tripped and fallen UP stairs . . . but I think I can bring her around.
Alison (and I) fall, unexpectedy and dramatically. I own a cat who humps himself to sleep at night. Wife Megan's occasional, inadvertent experiments with grammar. The Internet. These are all funny things--comedy--and all happen without any prompting or effort. In life, comedy is easy and plentiful. In acting, we can make it very difficult for ourselves.
It's a kind of magic trick, a well-executed comic bit, requiring a certain sense of dramatic flare and sleight-of-hand (or foot, or butt, etc.). Except in this trick, the performer is fooled almost as much as the audience. When I teach pratfalls, I regurgitate a good bit of advice that is so timeless, I can't begin to remember who first told me of it. The best way to execute a convincing trip, is to actually trip. You simply trail your back foot over your front heel as it's taking a step forward, so you then have to catch yourself on the other side of that step. That's not the trick, however: anybody can do that. No, the trick is in believing that there is no possible way you will trip, even as you set yourself up for it. That's what makes it spontaneous, and that's what allows everyone to believe the real payoff: your reaction to just having tripped.
Way back in the day, now (we're talking 2001, people), I played a broadly comic character in a little original production called
The Center of Gravity.
Moe Franko was the owner of a gas station, a sort of arrogantly naive fellow who was pretty crass 'cuz he just didn't learn any better. (I grew a mustache for the role; me + mustache = comedy.) At any rate, my hands-down best laugh of the show was one in which a strikingly attractive young woman visits the gas station and is introduced to my character. It's already been established that I'm freshly returned from using the facilities, and when we shake hands, she makes a face, to which I reply, "Oh don't worry, it's just water. It's not urine or anything." Their handshake disengaged, Moe turns away, and his face registers every little realization of how awful the thing he's just said is and, by extension, how awful he probably is. It got a laugh, every single time.
Which can totally and utterly ruin a joke. Anticipation is one of the worst sabotage factors of a good gag, and it applies both to the performer and the audience member. I have botched a perfectly good gag innumerable times through this very error. So why didn't it ever take down the water/urine gag? Well, I was quite young and the woman playing the interloper
exotically attractive, and I had a mustache (no, you don't get a photo). So that covered a lot of the sincerity bases in terms of the given circumstances -- I really did feel a little excited, and awful, and embarrassed. Perhaps more importantly, the line felt like something I might say, minus the Texan twang, of course.
I'm thinking about this because I just signed on to act in
. The role is probably going to require me to stretch my comic imagination, by the prospect of which I'm both excited, and slightly intimidated. It's good to remember that, ultimately, being real is what makes things really funny. I like this about comedy, that it is served best by truth and belief. Sure: It's all very rehearsed, and calculated, like any bit of good theatre. But all of that is for naught if we can't believe in it in the moment. The impact isn't what's funny; it's the way we deal with it afterward. Not the action, but the reaction, and the best reactions come from that very moment, and no other place.