I grew up in a time when “being funny” meant impersonating first Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura and then Mike Meyers as Austin Powers. Later, Sacha Baron-Cohen as Borat entered the canon. If you could say “alrighty then” or “yeah, baby” or “my wife” with the right intonation and conviction, you could get big laughs. I liked these movies as much as the next guy at the time. But those performances, the first two especially, haven’t worn well.
When most people think about comic acting, these seem like the kinds of characters that probably leap to mind. But I don’t think these figures define anything like “good comic acting.”
Charlie Chaplin (somewhere; I found the quote here) said, “If what you’re doing is funny, you don’t have to be funny doing it.”
Chaplin and Buster Keaton, in an age of overdone dumbshows, did surprisingly little to “act funny.” They did funny things in funny situations, but they never mugged as they did it. Keaton’s nickname was “the Great Stone Face” and if you watch any portion of any of his films you’ll see why. His expression remains impassive and flat even in the most extreme and absurd situations.
Since we’re in an age of comic acting that tends toward smaller moves, this shouldn’t be a surprise. A lot of the best things in the past ten or fifteen years rely on comic naturalism. Think Nicholas Cage in Adaptation, Bill Murray and Michael Cera in everything they do, the entire cast of the BBC version of The Office. A lot of the best “funny” performances in recent years aren’t funny because the actor is doing something funny, clowning. So what is good comic acting?
If we want to define “good comic acting” we need to define what “good acting” is, and then see what’s different between “good acting” and “good comic acting.”
We may be tempted to consider good acting to be verisimilitude, being lifelike, and that’s definitely part of good acting. But to really get a handle on what good acting is, we need to think about what the point of any acting is. This is going to be knowingly reductive, but reduction is helpful for understanding. I’m not dumb—I know that great acting is a mystery. But the following will help create the outlines of how acting works:
Acting is the performance of character within a narrative. Every instance of this kind of performance exists within a narrative and exists to perform a specific function within that narrative. The performance of the character “Hamlet” serves the function of demonstrating to an audience the things that “Hamlet” does and feels and thinks in the play Hamlet. Right? If an actor performing the character “Hamlet” doesn’t help the audience to understand what “Hamlet” does and feels and thinks, then the narrative ceases to be effective. This means that “good acting” occurs when an actor conveys what the audience needs to know or experience or feel in order for the story to function properly.
“Function properly” can mean a number of things. It can mean that a performance conveys an important character motivation, essential for the audience to know what’s happening in the story. If an actor doesn’t freight Hamlet’s speech about “shuffling off this mortal coil” and traveling to “that undiscovered country” with mortal weight, then we’ll fail to understand that Hamlet is considering the pros and cons of suicide, which fundamentally changes our understanding of the dilemma he faces. We won’t understand that he’s at a mortal crossroads. In the same vein, “function properly” might mean that a performance needs to communicate an emotion essential for the narrative to bring across the appropriate emotional impact, and so on. What this means is that a performance aims for clarity. The actor must show us something so that we understand a story mechanic or an emotional moment or whatever it is.
Again, this in no way describes the heights of great acting, which is mysterious and tends to be a weird mixture of stylization and verisimilitude, of clarity and subtlety. But it makes sense for us to at least establish the basic criteria for a successful performance.
“Good acting” is the performance of a character that conveys the information or emotion necessary to make a narrative work, move people, and mean something. “Good comic acting” accomplishes the same things. In a comedy we still need to understand what characters are doing and why they’re doing it. But we also expect that what they’re doing and why they’re doing it will make us laugh.
“Comedic timing” gets a lot of air time as the source of successful comic performance. And there’s no way around the fact that it is essential. But timing is essential to every performance. We focus on comedic timing because there’s an obvious, measurable feedback mechanism built into comedic delivery. Here’s what happens in a joke:
The comedian sets up a normal world, or a normal way of thinking. Groucho Marx sets up with “Time flies like an arrow.” Then he fires the punchline, which upsets that normal world or way of thinking. Grouch punches in “Fruit flies like a banana.” We hear and understand, are surprised by the turn, and laugh. In a good joke, the logic that binds the punchline to the setup is tight, but completely unexpected. If the logic isn’t tight, the punchline feels random and we don’t laugh. On the other hand, if we expect the punchline, there’s no surprise, and we don’t laugh. A maxim that follows these themes claims “Comedy is the truth told faster than we’re used to hearing it.” Comedy is truth, something that we believe or accept as a logically true, told in a way that surprises us.
Ideally, the distance in seconds between the setup and the punchline is as long as it needs to be to let the audience catch up and form the normal world in their minds, and as short as it needs to be to make sure that they don’t make the leap to the punchline before the comedian does. This ideal distance between setup and punchline creates the greatest possible tension, and allows the strongest possible feeling of release when the punchline lands.
Obviously, this is a question of timing. But forming pictures in the audience’s mind and then elaborating, intensifying, or upsetting those pictures is exactly what any dramatic performance is also doing. And timing—faster, slower, ellipsis, pause, and so on—is the primary tool for accomplishing that. All effective performance, not just comedy, is dependent on timing. Again, the difference is that in comedy the audience laughs or they don’t, so we get immediate feedback on how effective a punchline is. In a dramatic performance people don’t laugh when they understand a dramatic performance—they nod, shake their heads, shudder, cry, etc.
My point is that, at least based on what’s going on under the hood, I don’t believe there’s a substantive difference between good acting and good comic acting, aside from the fact that good comic acting is funny. Which isn’t to say that there’s no difference between a good dramatic actor and a good comic actor. But we’ll get to that later.