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Phil Willmott: 6 ways to be funnier

Shaun Williamson and Anthony Topham in Phil Willmott's production of Rhinestone Mondays Shaun Williamson and Anthony Topham in Phil Willmott's production of Rhinestone Mondays
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I can’t believe I’m going to attempt to write this. There’s nothing more pretentious or doomed to failure then trying to analyse a joke. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last few days, firstly because I’ve sat through two days of tortuous auditions trying to work out why some auditionees just get it and for others it’s like pulling teeth. Secondly, on Tuesday night I went to a production of Dick Barton, an oft-revived comedy I wrote in my 20s, which usually makes me cringe these days but which some clever young comedy performers and creatives had brought to fresh life.

When I graduated as an actor from Rose Bruford, knowing everything (as you do at 21) I was lucky enough to perform with, and later to direct, some brilliant comedy performers, only just in time to realise I knew nothing before any permanent damage was done.

Here are some things I’ve learnt are important about comedy from some great teachers over the years…

1. Get rhythm

I’ve been fascinated by the rhythm of gags since, as a cub, I was in a farce with Brian Murphy (from TV’s George and Mildred). I had one particularly fine punchline that should have brought the house down but which wasn’t getting a laugh. I asked Murphy, a man who was effortlessly hilarious on stage while apparently doing very little. He suggested I sipped my drink after a certain word. It worked. To this day I’ve no idea why. That lovely humble man couldn’t explain – he said he just knew from instinct. I think it was something to do with allowing the audience a beat to absorb the set up before hitting them with the punch line.

2. Be truthful

My next job was a TV sitcom and another Joan Littlewood veteran, Victor Spinetti , indulged my jabbering on about Stanislavki’s theories on comedy through inner truth. He told me always to remember truth was elastic. He taught me you can stretch a funny set up into all kinds of directions and still be funny at the punchline but only if it’s truthful and the rhythm of delivery is taut.

3. Lighten up

Once, after a particularly dispiriting preview of a Joe Orton comedy I was directing, Sylvester McCoy, who was in the cast, told me to relax and just get the lighting bumped up. It worked and the next night it was funny.

4. Trim the fat

I once enjoyed a fascinating if terrifying morning in Leslie Joseph’s kitchen as she trimmed the excess fat from a comedy script with ruthless, effortless precision. We didn’t laugh once but four weeks later she had the audience in hysterics with that script.

5. If comedy doesn’t come naturally, fall back on technique

Repeat the feed line to yourself several times until you find its rhythm in relation to the punchline. If you’re not sure you’ve found the rhythm ask a more experienced comedian. Deliver the set up clearly without being tempted to embellish with a funny voice or gestures – leave that to the naturally gifted. (Remember if the audience aren’t clear about the context of the joke because your diction’s crap, you’re not lit or something’s distracting them, you’ve no chance.) Then, drawing on what you’ve learnt about the natural rhythm of the joke deliver the punch line equally clearly. Oh, and don’t be tense. Tension kills any comedy stone dead.

6. Watch and learn

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to be cast alongside someone funnier then you be humble enough to observe them prepare their performance. Shaun Williamson is one of the most gifted and unappreciated comedy actors I’ve ever worked with or watched, even with weak material to deliver. Like all comedy there’s no precise formula to what he does, he’s just naturally brilliant. I bet his level of skill, clarity, sense of timing and understanding of truth would nail a tragic role, too.

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