An Actor's Guide to Laughing on Stage

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For some actors, crying on cue is easy, but laughing naturally on stage is the big challenge. Since there are so many ways to laugh in real life, there are many different techniques for evoking laughter for a theatrical performance or for the camera.

The Study of Laughter

The sounds of laughter are similar around the world. Most laughter consists of H-sounds: Ha, ho, hee. Other bursts of laughter might contain vowel sounds. In fact, there's an entire field of science dedicated to the study of laughter and its physical effects. It's called gelotology. 

Learning about the mental and physical aspects of laughter can help actors become more adept at producing laughs on cue. Behavioral neurologist Robert Provine conducted a year-long study and discovered some of the following:

  • Females laugh more often than men.
  • Men are more likely to attempt to make others laugh.
  • Speakers (joke tellers) laugh almost 50% more than their audience.
  • Laughter often occurs at the end of a sentence.
  • We laugh more when in the company of others than when we are alone.

If you'd like to know more about the psychological aspects of laughter and humor, check out Provine's article "The Science of Laughter" and this excellent essay Marshall Brain that provides biological information on "How Laughter Works."

What Motivates Your Character's Laughter?

If you can laugh spontaneously and sound believable, you're ready for your audition. If the laugh sounded forced it might be because you have no idea why your character is laughing. The more you empathize with your character, the more you can feel like her and laugh like her.

Psychologists say there are typically three reasons for laughter:

  • Incongruity: We anticipate something but then experience something surprisingly contrary to our expectations. (This often happens when responding to a hilarious comedian.)
  • Superiority: We witness someone making a fool of himself and we feel better because of his idiocy. (This happens a lot with slapstick humor.)
  • Relief: After a tense situation has occurred, we might ease our stress with our laughter. Or, sometimes we might laugh in order to remove tension from a situation. (This is where most nervous laughter originates.)

Practice various types of laughter based on the different motivations. Working by yourself (possibly filming) is a good way to begin. However, you might get better results by practicing with a fellow actor. Try some simple, two-person improv activities in order to place your characters in situations that call for laughter. Afterward, you can touch base with each other, discussing what looked and felt real.

Watch Yourself/Listen to Yourself

Before you worry about imitating others, get to know your own natural laugh. Try to film or record friendly conversations with others. Set aside enough recording time so that you and your friends can overcome your self-consciousness. (Knowing that you are supposed to laugh is often the best way to kill potential laughter.) Once the conversation gets going, the recording device won't seem so intrusive.

After you have some of the laughter recorded, watch and/or listen to yourself carefully. Notice the movements you make. Notice the pitch, volume, and length or your laughter. Also, pay attention to the moments before the laughter. Then practice recreating these same gestures and sounds. (More improv activities might be in order.)

Watch How Others Laugh

As an actor, you are probably a people watcher already. If you haven't taken up the pastime of carefully watching others, it's time to begin. Spend the next five days observing how others laugh. Do they giggle in a high pitched spurt? Do they "phone in" a courtesy laugh just to please others? Are they intoxicated? Maniacal? Childish? Are they laughing sarcastically? Uncontrollably? Are they trying (but failing) to hold it in? Take notes if you can.

Watch movies and television shows, keeping an eye on the characters that laugh. Do the actors make it work? Does it seem forced? Why /why not?

When rehearsing, try out some of these brand new laughs which you have observed. Acting for the stage can be a highly repetitive art form. Once you have mastered a laugh, you must then find ways to keep your reaction fresh. Be in the moment, be in character, and above all, listen to your fellow actors, and your reaction of laughter will be natural night after night.

Laughing for the Camera

If you are acting for the camera, there's good news and bad news. The good news: you can create many different takes and an editor/director can choose the one that works best. The bad news: film crews are expensive, and time equals money. The director will grow impatient if you can't come up with a realistic chortle. Depending on the scene and your fellow actors, the off-camera interaction can often evoke genuine laughter. Also, surprise moments between actors can work wonders -- as long as the director is in on the joke.

A classic example of this is the famous jewelry box scene from Pretty Woman. According to Entertainment Weekly, director Gary Marshall instructed Richard Gere to snap the jewelry box shut as Julia Roberts reached for the necklace. Ms. Roberts did not expect the action, and she bursts into laughter. What started out as a prank became one of the most memorable parts of the film.

There's a clip of this scene currently on YouTube. Check it out, and then begin finding your own techniques; perhaps you'll laugh your way to a successful acting career.