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Playing it Straight

When Your Humble Blogger mentioned to an Equity Actor that the next show was to be a comedy, the Equity Actor (who is, by the way, terrific) gave the well-known advice to play the comic characters straight, that is, that the characters don’t know that they are funny. Like all the worst advice, it is completely true.

Well, not completely—there are a handful of comic characters who know that they are funny, with Pseudolus the first that comes to mind. Characters, like people, do crack jokes on occasion. Richard III. Falstaff. The Fool. The Porter. But on the whole, yes, comedy comes from the character being oblivious to what is funny about the situation, or about the other characters, or even about himself. In the current show, I think Sandor Turai (whom Your Humble Blogger plays) has about three lines that he himself finds witty, and even with those, his reaction is more pleased self-regard than laughter. So, yes, I play the comic character straight.

And yet—it’s terrible, terrible advice. So you play the character straight. So what? Why is that funny? You could play King Lear straight and it wouldn’t be funny. If you played the Tyrones straight, it wouldn’t be funny. Why would it be funny to play Sandor Turai straight?

The first thing that comes to my mind is the script. If you have a good script, then the character played straight may be funny simply because of the situation. Take, for instance, the People’s Front of Judea:

Nobody is doing anything funny. Nobody is using a silly voice, or a silly walk, or even wearing a particularly humorous costume, given the setting. The lines are funny, and the situation is funny, and the people are funny. They play it completely straight—in fact, John Cleese is almost deadpan here.

Contrast, though, with this other scene from the same film:

Silly voice! Silly costume! Silly wig! Such silliness! And, of course, they are playing it straight. Well, playing it straight with some extra eyebrow waggling and general goofiness.

Now, what about this?

Margaret Dumont is playing it straight, but is Groucho? I mean, if you can claim that Groucho Marx, with greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, silly voice and all, is playing it straight in this scene, does playing it straight have any meaning whatsoever? And yet… that’s the way to play this scene and have it be funny.

Here’s the thing: if you are doing something that’s funny and playing it straight, it’s going to make the funny thing funnier (probably). If what you are doing isn’t funny and playing it straight, then playing it straight is not going to make it funny, and in fact might make it less funny than doing the unfunny thing while wearing a funny nose and glasses. So the advice, as far as I’m concerned, is start with something funny, and then play it straight.

Alas, I have no way of knowing whether a thing is funny or it isn’t. Not until someone laughs. During the last dress rehearsal, I spent the bulk of the second act with the part of me that watches observing me playing the temper tantrum as straight as I could possibly do it, and saying This isn’t funny at all! This guy’s just an asshole! What’s funny about that? Too late to change anything, of course, and I had to trust that my director had good judgement. Until we had an audience, at which point the laughter confirmed that it was, at any rate, funny enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


What's an example of someone *not* playing it straight? Like, Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld, where he often seems like he's sort of laughing at his own jokes? I feel like this is such elementary advice that I'm having a hard time thinking of an example that doesn't seem obviously amateurish.

I tend to think about the issue of "playing it straight" vs. "hamming it up" as being about the difference between "acting" and "clowning" or "fooling." If you are an actor playing in a comedy, then of course it should be played straight, because otherwise it isn't acting, it's clowning, and if the part was written for an actor and not for a clown, clowning in it won't work as well as playing it straight. To do clowning, the performer needs to be recognizable in some measure as a clown or a fool (or, to use less Shakespeare-centric terminology, a stand-up comic)--as a performer who is by nature or training skilled in silliness. The Marx Brothers were clowns and comics, and it's important to the humor of the scene that the audience knows that this is Groucho Marx, because we're watching the scene to see what Groucho will do with it, not because the situation is otherwise of interest. Monty Python is a liminal case. "Monty Python," as a comedy troupe, has a collective identity as a group of clowns and comics, but as the personas of the individual members weren't fixed like those of the Marx Brothers, the individual members could also be actors, and Monty Python moves back and forth between situational comedy and clowning. The two certainly can be blended. Whenever a comic actor becomes well known as a comic actor, with certain mannerisms or routines that are known as funny, that are recognizable as the actor's "schtick," that actor's performance takes on an element of clowning. Whenever a recognized clown plays it straight long enough for the audience to accept that the scene or really is being played straight, the clown's performance becomes acting.

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