Playing for laughs
October 22, 2013
Comedy can be difficult for many, many reasons. For one thing, you're performing to an audience who are giving you instantaneous feedback at every turn. If you play a Greek tragedy to pin-drop silence, then that's no real problem; it may very well be that the house are so engrossed and moved by the piece that they are unable to catch their breath.
But if you play a raucous farce to that kind of response, then there's probably something very wrong.
Thankfully, that has never happened with A Mad World My Masters. We've had terrific audiences, for whom we're very thankful. But that doesn't stop this anxiety about a joke 'bombing' being felt by the individual actor on a personal level.
Why comedy is a bit like football
During rehearsals, it's a joy to discover that your character can elicit a laugh. Like a team of football players, we all want a touch of the ball. And if we can find a line in this particular script with a similar potential for innuendo, then so much the better.
But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. As well as benefiting from the laugh, you are also the custodian of it. It's your job to deliver the line in such a way that it gets the laugh that it's meant to.
Every audience, however, is different. You can't be absolutely certain how they'll react to anything, let alone something as mercurial as a joke. You can have a reasonable expectation, but if you find one night that your favourite gag in the show is met with stony silence, then that's fair enough, really. They're not obliged to laugh, and you can't be churlish about it.
But sometimes it's a disheartening feeling, and if it happens on more than one occasion, it can lead you to doubt the very instincts that told you that the thing was funny in the first place.
This happens very easily when you're an actor, because you tend to subject yourself to quite a high level of scrutiny. You're acutely sensitive to all of the aspects of your characterisation or delivery that could miss the mark, or worse, irritate. I know I am. Of course I am - I've been to drama school, for heaven's sake, where you learn nothing if not to hate yourself.
Being funny can be scary
All this means that you can easily lose confidence in a line that you once thought was comedy gold. And if you're not careful, you'll start to under-sell, or soft-peddle it. On some level, perhaps, you feel that it's better not to go for the laugh at all than to risk looking a fool by not getting it.
This had happened to me with a fairly incidental, but still potentially pleasing little beat at the beginning of the second half of Mad World. I almost hadn't noticed how wary I'd become in the playing of it. But during a performance last week, emboldened by how much fun Rich, Harry and I were having at the time, I threw caution to the wind, and dived into the moment with renewed enthusiasm.
The response I got made it very clear to me, in an instant, that the problem over the previous few shows had not been them, but me. I'd gotten shy about the beat, and wasn't being as bold as I should have been. No wonder the laugh had dwindled.
Ultimately, the exciting and scary thing about comedy is that you can't protect yourself. If you try to, you'll end up short-changing the audience. Because the truth is that it's not your job to feel safe. It's your job to entertain.
Photographs by Manuel Harlen
by Ben Deery
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