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A How-To Guide for Teaching Comedy

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Teaching Artists share their craft with hundreds of students through STC’s classes. Here, they talk to Audience Enrichment Manager Hannah J. Hessel about how to help others make people laugh.

Sabrina Mandell and the Winter 2012 Physical Comedy Master Acting Class. Photo by Nicole Geldart.

Know What’s Funny.

Sabrina Mandell, who teaches clowning and physical comedy, likes starting with showing examples of things she finds funny. The video clips and demonstrations help students realize what they already know: “I think that we all essentially understand comedy, we just haven’t ever really thought about it. It’s important to get people realizing what’s funny and why, so they can discover how to recreate that.” She is clear that it’s not about teaching how to recreate the pros: “I don’t believe there’s a right way to do something. When it works, everyone will acknowledge that it works. There’s a consensus about what’s funny. People have different takes but generally, if people laugh, it works.”

Floyd King disagrees—when teaching he stays away from pointing out what he thinks is funny. “If it’s not funny to you,” he says, “It doesn’t mean it’s not funny.” Instead he tries to help the individual student to understand what makes them laugh and how to clarify that for audiences.

Teaching Artist Wyckham Avery is always nervous about the first day: “My biggest fear teaching comedy is that I won’t be funny myself—totally ruins the credibility.”

And speaking of fear…

Have No Fear.

One of the most important tools a comedian can have is the ability to push beyond societal norms. Mark Jaster, who teaches mime and physical comedy alongside Sabrina, notes that in order to do comedy, “One has to be willing to go there first…and some people just have a talent for it.”

In order to feel comfortable moving beyond boundaries, different teachers follow different practices. Sabrina likes pushing her students to open up emotionally: “The realization is that laughter and crying live right next door to each other—when you open yourself emotionally, you can suddenly start to access all of them.”

Another option is to push the students to experience fear in order to move beyond it. Wyckham’s clown teacher taught using fear: “We were being yelled at and dodging tennis balls being hurled at us onstage.”

Be Precise.

All the teachers agree that, as Resident Teaching Artist Jim Gagne states, “In drama there is room to play loose. In comedy you have to be precise.”

For Wyckham teaching comedy is all about precision: she tells her students the key to comedy is “making things crisp and clean and well timed.” Teaching timing however, is not easy. “Some students have a talent for timing,” shares School Programs Manager Vanessa Hope. “It’s hard to cultivate…you need lots of time for them to learn and practice.”

Sabrina thinks it is possible to teach comedic timing. “It’s a slow process,” she says. “You can develop it as a muscle by becoming aware and then by playing and seeing what works. With rigor!” She talked about an exercise that Mark learned in high school. The assignment was to enter a room in a comedic way. It was all about the timing. People just worked and worked and eventually they figured out what would get the laugh.

Encourage Playing.

“Comedy itself cannot be taught, but it can be encouraged,” shares Floyd.

Sabrina made clear that “personally I don’t set out to teach comedy, I set out to remind people how to play.” Mark talks about creating a lab “in which to explore the mysteries, a lab in which I share and continue my own discoveries and exploration.” For him it’s a balance between the play and the analysis. He wants to create a space where comedy can be constructed and deconstructed. “The more one inhabits comedy, by seeing people do it, by doing it in front of others, by exploring its mysteries, the better one can become, both in its execution and in the delight of perceiving it in the world.”

Never Expect a Laugh.

A room full of students wants so badly to make each other laugh. Teachers have to remind their students that playing comedy is still about telling a story. “The stakes,” Vanessa notes, “need to remain as high for a comedic character as they do for drama but the consequences are different.” Jim agrees, adding a favorite quote from a teacher friend of his: “In drama you throw the dishes down, in comedy you throw them up.”

Using precise timing and being open will help—but to be a comedic actor, you must play the scene with authenticity, not thinking about what will or won’t get the laugh. “The final step,” Jim says, “is getting a laugh.”

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