Anatomy of a Laugh
by Jack Neary
"This is it!"
This line is spoken by the character of Brian as the climactic moment approaches in my play, JERRY FINNEGAN'S SISTER. It has proven to be the biggest laugh-getter in the show. Almost invariably, the audience responds with a huge guffaw, followed immediately by applause. In my mind, it's probably the most effective laugh line I've ever written.
But is it foolproof? Not on your life.
Three little words. One mammoth laugh. But so many elements must come together to make the line work, to elicit the appropriate response. On his deathbed, a famous actor (some say Edmund Gwenn, others say Edmund Kean, nobody really knows) uttered these last words: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." If any director ever tells you otherwise, run and hide. Or find a new director.
"Comedy can't be hard," you say. "My friend Eddie gets laughs all the time just by snorting milk out through his nose in the cafeteria." Oh, yeah? Well, let's see Eddie get a laugh on "This is it!" Here's what it takes.
First, Eddie has to be able to act, which means he has to be able to make the audience believe that he is the character created by the playwright in the context of the situation created in the play. He has to understand what the playwright means to convey to the audience at this moment, and throughout the play, and he has to clearly depict this meaning for the audience. Easier said than done.
He must be aware of everything that's at stake in the play, at that moment. He must believe it, and deliver the line precisely the way the character, Brian, who happens to be a human being, would say it in real life. He must also be aware of the stake the audience has in the character, and in what the character says, at that moment. In and of itself, "This is it!" is not funny. If the actor playing Brian isn't aware of the significance of the line, and how much the audience is depending on him to deliver it properly, then what usually happens is...nothing. The moment is lost. Beyond that, if the director simply tells the young actor that it's an important moment, but the young actor doesn't really understand it, then the actor tends to over-act. He tends to make funny faces. He tends to DO something rather than live in the moment. He imposes significance on the moment. And the moment dies. When an audience member is told, by an unholy grimace, or by an actor dropping his pants (in anything but an all-out farce), that he or she is supposed to laugh, laughing is the last thing that audience member will do. What gets the laugh is the truth of the moment, complemented by the audience's recognition of that truth, not any imposition of truth. There is no such thing.
Still, only three little words we're dealing with. "This is it!"
Okay, so let's say Eddie can act. Let's say Eddie is the next Olivier. What else has to happen to achieve the biggest response to the line?
Conspiracy. No actor gets a laugh all by him or herself. Other conspirators are involved. Let's assume that the playwright has done the job. The line is true and funny. Period. Now we must trust that the director is as aware of all the elements of the comic moment as the actor, and that the staging of the moment isn't sabotaged. This is probably a good time to put "This is it!" into context.
In JERRY FINNEGAN'S SISTER, Brian has spent the entire play trying to get up the nerve to ask Beth, the girl next door, out on a date. Simple premise. The two actors play the characters at various ages, from seven through twenty-three, reliving moments in their lives wherein Brian has constantly made a fool of himself in Beth's presence, never reaching the point where he would ask her out. As the play nears the end, the two characters are on the phone to each other:
BETH: I think this is it, fella.
BRIAN: This is it?
BETH: I think your best friend has set you up, and I think this is your chance and I think you'd better grab it.
BRIAN: You mean Jerry lied to me to...
BETH: To get you to call me, yes.
BRIAN: And he thought that if I was mad enough I'd tell you...
BETH: Finally tell me...
BRIAN: Finally tell you...
BETH: Say it, Brian! Say it!
BRIAN: (instantly panicked; to audience) This is it!
How can a director sabotage a moment when a laugh is supposed to happen? Easy. The director can misdirect the focus. The actor with the punch line may be sitting when it'd be better for him to be on his feet. Or another actor may be directed to cross the stage while the punch line is being delivered. (This is not a hard and fast rule, but it's as close to hard and fast as you'll get: It is best to NOT move, or have anybody else move around you, when you're delivering a laugh line. Audiences are incredibly impressionable. Their eyes will go where the action is, and if there's action, the line will suffer. Sometimes you can get away with moving on a joke line, but it's rare.)
In any case, the moment must be staged to accommodate the joke. Let's assume the director has done this. Who else besides the actual line-deliverer and the director is involved in the conspiracy?
Well, the other actor or actors onstage, of course. In the case of JFS, it's the actress playing Beth. "This is it!" means nothing if Beth doesn't let us know clearly just what the it that is is! So she must be as good an actor, and as deft a comedian, as Eddie. I mean, who sets up the actual joke?
BETH: I think...this is it, fella.
Beth does. And who explains why the moment is so crucial?
BETH: I think your best friend has set you up and I think this is your chance and I think you'd better grab it.
Beth does. Not only that, in this last line, she is responsible for a joke of her own. "...I think you'd better grab it." also gets a good laugh. The actress must deliver the line cleanly, and button the joke. Buttoning a joke means "telling" the audience that the time has come for them to laugh. They are aware of the humor of the moment, they feel it, they want to laugh, but they don't want to miss anything. So it's up to the actor(s) to subtly let the audience know that NOW is the time to laugh. Sometimes stage movement does this. Sitting down sharply at the end of a line, slamming down a phone, closing a door--you get the idea. In this case, though, with the scene ongoing, the button must be much more subtle. The actress must clearly put a period on the line. The inflection in her voice must have a sharp finality to it. It must say to the audience "Now. Laugh." If she does it correctly, they will.
But we're still not there. We're only halfway through the sequence leading to the huge laugh on "This is it!" Now it's Eddie's turn to pick up the ball. And the first thing he has to do after Beth's line is...
Wait. For the laugh. I mean, what's the point of talking onstage if nobody can hear you? If Beth gets the laugh on "grab it," then it's up to Eddie, playing Brian, to hold the moment, sustain his concentration, and wait it out. Then, when the laugh hits its peak, he gears up, and as soon as the laugh begins to die down, as soon as he's sure he can be heard, he delivers the next line:
BRIAN: You mean, Jerry lied to me to...
Which is extraordinarily important. In the context of the play, we MUST hear that Jerry lied to Brian (about Beth getting married) which prompted Brian to make the call. If Eddie delivers this line while the audience is laughing, then the moment is unclear. Sure, it's implied in Beth's line, but at this stage of the game, the audience wants clarity. Brian's line provides this, and it is crucial to the sequence. So Eddie waits, and delivers his line.
Then, something visceral takes over in the bodies of the two actors. They both know the big payoff line is coming, so each line becomes terribly vital to the build. The energy of each line tops the energy of the previous line. The lines don't get louder, they don't get more vocally colorful, they just take on more and more vitality and significance. If this were a movie, there'd be driving music in the background. The actors must sense this music, and they must make the audience feel this music.
They must also be in complete control of their bodies and their voices. Each syllable is crucial. One stumble, one muffed word could jeopardize the upcoming joke. If the playwright is in the audience, he or she is in white-knuckled fear that one of the actors will flub. Everything that's uttered from now through the joke line is of monumental importance. Finally, we reach the top of the mountain.
BETH: Say it, Brian! Say it!
BRIAN: This is it!
I must admit, I cheated as a playwright here. In most cases, it's probably better to not italicize a word in the script. In most cases, it's probably better to let the actor and the director fiddle with the emphasis until they find what's right for their production. But I didn't want to risk this. I know that the emphasis MUST be placed on the "is." Anyplace else--on the "This" or on the "it" and the joke fails. So if Eddie, as Brian, plays the emphasis given him in the script, and if he has achieved all the other necessary elements leading up to the line, then he probably gets the laugh.
So it's over, right?
Not yet. There's one more conspirator involved, and it's the conspirator the actor and the director have the least control over.
It's the audience.
I can't tell you how deflating it is for a playwright to stand in the back of the house, watching a sequence like the one above played to perfection, all the way to the punch line, and then to hear an audience member cough on the line, or on one of the set up lines. Or to hear an audience member open one of those little candy wrappers during the sequence. The moment is so desperately delicate. I wish there was a way to forewarn audience members about laugh lines, so that they'd be sure not to cough or open candy wrappers during the lines, but that, of course, would eliminate the element of surprise from the joke, and that would be deadly. Some theatres provide wrapper-less candies in their lobby for patrons, which is nice. It gently tells the audience that wrapper noise is annoying. But there's no way to tell an audience member he or she can't cough. And--be warned--if an audience member has one cough in him for the night, it's going to happen on the best joke in the play. Guaranteed.
But that's out of our control. What we have in our control is the technique which helps us get the most out of a well-written laugh line in a play. It doesn't come easily. Many actors have to perform in a number of comedies before the technique begins to sink in. Others have it naturally, and these are the comic actors we enjoy watching most.
Because when we watch them, we're not watching comedians acting, we're watching actors doing comedy.