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Friday, July 02, 2010

Waiting For The Laughs -or training an audience

I read an article in the "Arts Beat" section of the "New York Times" called "The Perils Of Being Too Funny" (which you can read by clicking here.) Essentially the article concerns comedy in the theatre and how the audience is so occupied with laughter they miss everything else.. you know like.. the rest of the dialogue and other stuff like, the plot.

The story ran around my mind and dislodged some old gems of wisdom I picked up by playing comedy on stage. And since I just blogged a bit about comedy and timing, I thought I would share some these nuggets of wisdom since they relate back to comedy and timing.

As you may have noticed, I called this blog "Waiting For The Laughs or training an audience" - and you many have thought, "I understand the first part, the 'waiting' part, but what in the world do you mean by 'training an audience'?
Actually these two concepts go hand in hand - waiting and training. Really, they do.


First: "Wait For It"

A wise older actor once took my aside during a particularly funny play we were in and explained how to "wait" for the laughs.
Now, you have keep in mind that actors rehearse plays for long periods of time.
We rehearse in front of no one but ourselves and because of this fact, we develop a certain timing: I say my line, you say your line, I say my line, ad nauseum.
And if we're rehearsing a comedy, the lines are supposed to be funny.
Sure, when we first read through the play, the lines were funny. Most of us laughed. But by week 2 or 3, it's not that funny anymore and no one is really laughing now. (Well, there may be a few that still laugh. Those are the actors you need to keep an eye on. I'm just saying.)

Anyway, the issue with rehearsing a comedy is that you can forget that it's a comedy. You can forget where the 'laughs' are. You're so programed into the robot timing of I say my line, you say your line.. the laughter of a live audience can throw a wrench into your robot clockworks.


Laughter can completely discombobulate some actors. They forget their next line because their timing is thrown off. Some actors aren't sure how long to wait. Some actors wait too long. Some actors don't wait at all and just plow into their next line, laughter be damned!

Back to that wise older actor I was telling you about - here's what he taught me.

  • Always wait for the laugh. But don't wait too long. If you wait until they've finished laughing completely, you'll throw the timing off and they'll stop laughing.

  • Don't start your line too soon or else you'll cut off the laugh. If you cut off the laugh, the audience may stop laughing at everything. Why? Because, they're afraid they'll miss something the next time. You see, if you start your next line while they're still laughing, you'll cause them to stop because they want to hear what you are saying. By not waiting you're training them to not to laugh as much or as long.

  • If you happen to start speaking your line during a laughter break, just stop and wait for the laugh. You can start your line again when they finish. But again, don't wait too long.

  • When is too soon and how long is too long? - Think of the audience's laughter as a wave. It starts out soft, a few chuckles and then as more join in it becomes a cacophony of noise that rises in volume upward.

    Like a wave it will peak and slowly begin to descend. Ideally, you will wait for the peak and as the wave begins descending; there - about halfway down on the back of the wave, come in with your next line. And come in louder than normal so they can hear you.

  • You will never know where the laughs will come or how long they will last from night to night. One night they may laugh at everything, the next night nothing. Always be ready.

  • The length of time the audience laughs will vary each night. You never know. Old time comedians use to measure the laughs they got by counting out loud. You may have heard a comedian say, "two, three, four.." after he told a joke. He was counting the length of the laughs he got. But this isn't something you can do on the stage. At least not out loud.

  • Whatever you do - don't play for a laugh. If you have a funny line, it's best if you play it straight. Straight is funny. There is a famous old story about this very subject.
    The story goes like this: A couple were in a play on Broadway. During a particular dinner scene each night, the actor would ask "for the sugar" and get a tremendous laugh from the audience. After a few more nights the actor playing this same dinner scene noticed that the audience wasn't laughing when he asked "for the sugar".
    After the show one night the actor mention this to his fellow actor, "I don't know what happened. I used to get laughs on that line."
    The other actor simply said, "I know what happened. Before, you were asking for the sugar and getting laughs. Now, you are asking for the laughs and only getting the sugar."


  • If you are playing comedy on the stage and the audience begins reacting with laughter, how the actors respond at first sets the tone for the rest of the show. You in essence "train" the audience how to respond. They will adapt to the timing you set. These simple rules imparted to me by a wise older actor when I was a noob on the stage really helped me. Now, I guess it's my turn to be the wise older actor and impart this knowledge to others.
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