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Are you trying to be funny?

on .

A star-studded panel of Equity members give their tips on comedy acting
Phil Lloyd and Amanda Bishop in At Home with Julia
Phil Lloyd & Amanda Bishop in At Home with Julia

Amanda Bishop
Amanda is currently starring in new late-night comedy series Wednesday Night Fever on ABC 1.  She played Prime Minister Julia Gillard in TV comedy At Home With Julia which she co-wrote and regularly performs with The Wharf Revue

Do you have any tips for comedic acting?
I remember rehearsing my first solo show – my cousin was visiting and asked to see some of it. Being in the fearful state I was – facing up to no co-creators for the first time – I hid under the only piece of furniture in my studio flat. She laughed, so I showed her some stuff and she cried – I think it was from laughing. It was really stupid (on purpose of course!) but that was the start of being braver. In summary, invite a cousin over and clear the space under your dining table. If you're lucky enough to live in a multiple-roomed abode, try escaping to another room for laughs, at least you'll amuse yourself.

Who is the funniest actor you have worked with?
If we're talking dressing rooms, Phil Scott is the funniest man I know.  While we're busy putting on make-up or whinging about the day, or politics, or both, Phil's busy with silliness. My description doesn’t do him justice – he has a quick, smart mind and the gift of rampant childishness – I laugh even when he's serious. No joke, I've had awkward moments.

Is being funny a skill you can learn?
With a supportive rehearsal space, I reckon all actors could enjoy their funny bone, yes. In terms of skill – that's an interesting question, I do find it requires musculature and precision to make it flow and be enjoyable to watch. Some performers may say it's “hard”, but audiences often think it's “easy”. Don't be fooled, it takes time, practice and lots of love when it doesn't work the first, or even the 100th, time. Although if it doesn’t work after 100 times, maybe try another angle.

How different is comedic acting on stage and screen?
There used to be rules about this sort of stuff and everyone broke them, which was a good thing. They can be the same and different. I suggest listening to the creators, if you're not one yourself – then inject your craft and let yourself learn. So many exciting new ideas, styles and genres are being explored and produced these days. While camera and stage have their different technical limitations, each project is a delicate cocktail of story, vision and character. New things are being discovered all the time – even if some of them are old things.

Phil Lloyd
Phil co-wrote Review with Myles Barlow in which he starred as Myles. He is also the co-writer, co-creator and co-star of At Home With Julia. In 2012, he wrote and produced A Moody Christmas and, in 2013, he created, was a contributing writer and acted in The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting, a sketch comedy show for ABC TV

Do you have to be funny to take on a comedic role?
No. That’s a bit of a misconception. Sometimes when you say “comedy” people  automatically think: “Oh ok, I have to be both wacky and a bit zany – put my clown on” and that’s often too much. Sometimes you just need to play it straight. The comedy is in the scene already – and you just need to look for it. You don’t always need to be big or over the top.

Are there actors whose comedic skills you particularly admire?
Jason Bateman.  I am in America at the moment and their comedy can be very big, but he is a bit more understated.  Mackenzie Crook who played Gareth in the original Office is a favourite of mine – I think he is a great example of a dramatic actor who has impeccable timing and is really good at playing it straight – and that’s the kind of comedy I really like.  A few of my peers at home who I really admire are Patrick Brammall, Damon Herriman, Josh Lawson … there is whole bunch of them, people who I think are great actors both dramatically and comedically.

Do you have any tips for comedy acting?
I think you have to kick it around a little bit. When you get a scene, have a look at where you think the comedy is and find out what else is there. Often it is what’s not being said that is  funny. Look beyond the page and see what else you can get out of it.

Drew Forsythe
A veteran of stage and screen, Drew is the co-creator, writer and performer in the Sydney Theatre Company’s hugely popular Wharf Revue

What’s the difference between acting for drama and for comedy?
I think comedy and drama acting is much of a muchness.  First and foremost, you’ve got to find some kind of reality. I think people sometimes underestimate comedy; when it comes to awards and things, people tend to vote for drama because it seems impressive – but the same things go into a comedic performance as a dramatic performance. 

Does an actor have to be funny to do comedy or can they just be a good actor that can deliver funny lines?
An awful lot has to do with the writing. I have just finished Mrs Warren’s Profession at the Sydney Theatre Company and my character Reverend Samuel Gardner was a minor character, but had very specific notes and I followed them to the letter. There were instructions such as “bumbling”, “stuttering”,  “full of bombast” … all the directions were there very specifically about how to play him and the lines backed that up – so you  do have to take a lot of awareness from what is actually given in the script. Different writing requires different sorts of perceptions when it comes to approaching a role.

Do you have any tips for comedy acting?
A good comic actor should be a good actor. I believe that any good actor can do comedy. If you have got a good script you will be funny. I would look at films, the Marx Brothers for a start and then people like Harry Langdon, Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton.  And then the more modern performers such as John Cleese, and the humour he gets out of things.  You can learn from watching and getting a feel for something. Just as painters will copy the style of other painters until they find their own style, it’s good for an actor to watch how other people do certain things.

Which comedy actors provide you with inspiration?
 I have learnt from a lot of people. I loved the silent comics when I was younger and I still do – Charlie Chaplin, Keaton, Stan and Langdon. One of the Australian performers I found inspirational was an Australian actress called Gloria Dawn – her ability to do little and yet be so hysterical was amazing. She could just walk on stage and just stand there and have the audience in fits before she even said or did anything.  I worked with her on Threepenny Opera I which she played Mrs Peachum, and I had a scene where I had to stand on stage with her – and it was all I do just not to laugh along with the audience.

How do you approach The Wharf Revue?
The Wharf Revue is political satire – and we approach that in several different ways. One particular way is using irony. I am actually writing a piece for Eddie Obeid at the moment which I am thinking of doing as a Christmas carol about what a wonderful man he was and how generous he was.  So you play it very straight in that case and let the words speak for themselves and let the audience detect the irony. There are other sketches where you try to do an imitation of someone: say Bob Katter or Chris Pyne. You play upon their foibles and their mannerisms and their particular characteristics and eccentricities. The acting required there is basically imitation.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of The Equity Magazine

Tina Bursill

Tina is an Australian performer with extensive stage and screen credits, including Rake, Crownies and Offspring. Most recently she played Maree Moody in the ABC comedy A Moody Christmas.

Is there a difference between acting in a comedy role and any other role?
All acting is how you best serve the written material given to you in telling the story. So if the story has to have a comedic viewpoint, as opposed to a dramatic one, then you work with that, but it’s all about storytelling. Basically, what we are trying to do is represent, as truthfully as possible, the story – and the people involved in the story.

What the challenges of comedy acting for the screen as opposed to the stage?
In TV, you can execute a funny moment with dialogue and text but you are at the mercy of a post-production process and an edit over which you have no control. The edit can interrupt the rhythm and the result can be very different to what you had in mind.

Do you have any tips for comedy acting?
Being able to do comedy is about your predisposition in the world. It’s how you view it. You can be a cynic or you can see hilarity in everything. There is a particular skill in comedy, like learning the steps in dancing. There are certain things you have set up if you want a gag or a laugh at the end of a sentence or sentences.  It can almost be mathematical, like a great piece of music. And a good comedy writer will do that: it may take 10 sentences or it may take a page, but usually you will set it up and you will work up to a point where you make the audience smile or laugh.

Interviews by Lizzie Franks

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