We’ve all been there. You’re handed a script, or thrown into an improv scene where you’re asked to play a “character” and told to be “funny”. And…GO! No pressure! Creating a character that is at once identifiable, the kind of person you just “know” and yet completely unique and to top it off, funny, is an overwhelming challenge. It can send you groping around in the darkness or regurgitating some cliche stock character you’ve seen before in a Love Boat episode or British Farce. You feel self conscious, and “wooden”. No one’s laughing. All of the oxygen just got sucked out of the room and the voices in your head start, “You’re not funny! You’re a dramatic actor. You can’t do this!” But, actually, you can. You can play an hilarious, totally original character. You just have to find your way “in”.
Character creation is less about creating, more about listening. In a script, what do the other characters say about you? What “labels” do they put on you? Play right into their expectations. What is your name? In ancient times someone’s name determined their destiny and great care was given to the naming of a person. So it is with writers. If you’re playing “Olivia Baxter” your status is high, your manner refined and perhaps you’re a headstrong socialite. If you’re playing “Deloris Clustermeyer” perhaps you’re cranky and plain. The same goes for improv. What does your partner “label” you as? “You’re not my real Dad, your a deadbeat.” Immediately you play a “deadbeat” light up a cigarette, throw back a cold one, and sneer “Just cause I made your diapers out of newspaper.” Ir maybe your suggestion for an open scene is “ice-cream parlor” What kind of people go to ice-cream parlors? A squeaky clean “momma’s boy” or a hokey old lady. You can even be informed by actual ice cream. You ask yourself, “what is ice cream like?” and choose to play someone cold, slumped over and drippy.
What does your character look like? How old are they? What are they wearing? What shoes are they wearing? Good character work begins with the shoes. The shoes affect the way the character moves, how grounded they are, how they feel. When rehearsing without costume, always make sure you are wearing the actual costume shoes. Do they have an overbite? Play with your face. It may sound cliche but starting with a strong facial quirk can be a great way into a character. Think of Zoolander’s signature pout or Amy Poehler’s naive grin as Leslie Knope on Parks and Rec.
3. SPEAK UP!
A strange or unique sounding voice can be a great jumping off point for a character. Think of Ellen Green as “Audrey” in Little Shop of Horrors. Her simpering sweet voice and low rent lisp is impossible to separate from this character icon. Your character’s voice says everything(pun intended). Perhaps you have low self esteem and are afraid to be heard so you speak in the back of your throat. An insincere salesman is used to talking for a living, so he’ll speak quickly with polished diction and soothing tones. Momma Rose from Gypsy is driven and determined to see her daughters successful. Maybe she believes the whole world is on her shoulders so her voice is heavy, intense, powerful and guttural. Don’t worry about being cliche. If your character voice is informed by these internal qualities you will always be original. In improv, you can start from the outside in. A woman with a low, curt voice might be a tollbooth operator with a poet’s soul which is why her speech is clipped, because her emotions are so deep.
This may seem counter intuitive based on everything you’ve learned in acting class but comedy is different. Funny characters are deeply flawed people who against all odds think they can win. That’s why we love them. But they are flawed and you must lovingly “make fun” of them. For an exercise, do an impression of one of your parents. What is it in their personality drives you crazy? Danny Coleman has a delicious time playing the sleazy, egomaniacal twit Franklin Hart Jr. in “9 to 5” because he doesn’t search for integrity or try and find redeeming qualities. You can actually be two dimensional in comedy. Isn’t that fun for a change?!
5. AMP IT UP!
Take those character flaws and times them by 10 or even 100. Don’t just be a little dumb be DUM, Duuuumb! Case and point, Jeff Daniels and Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber. If you’re supposed to be be whiney let everything you do and say be on the verge of tears. It is so much fun to watch an actor push that character’s flaw over the top. Similarly, whatever qualities are given in the description, take beyond the natural. If you are supposed to be sexy, doing and saying everything so sexy that you are in essence making fun of sexiness, makes it funny. Don’t be afraid of taking things too far. In comedy, you go big or go home!