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September 28, 2007

Where are Cheech & Chong When You Need Them?

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This news story just sort of demands being turned into a "Up In Smoke"-esque movie, doesn't it? Or maybe a "Harold and Kumar" sequel?

BTW, did I ever mention that I think Kal Penn ("Kumar") may be the best younger actor currently working in the cinema? The man is a genius: he is fearless and apparently utterly without inhibition. I would nominate him as the Rip Torn of the current generation. Penn was even great in the very modest vehicle of "National Lampoon's Van Wilder," where he plays Van Wilder's repressed but limitlessly horny assistant, Taj.

Of course, I guess that means I can't ignore the original Rip Torn, who is also clearly a genius, as a million roles have proven. His producer in "The Larry Sanders Show" was a classic; and I will freely admit that I worship Mr. Torn for his role as the coach in "Dodgeball."

Of course, comedic actors never get much recognition. I find that Mr. Torn has won an Emmy, a Cable Ace, an American Comedy Award, and a Bronze Wrangler award given out by Western Heritage. I guess, that is something in the way of recognition, but not exactly proportionate to his vast accomplishments over a very busy 50-year career. So far, it appears that Mr. Penn has had to content himself with a 2007 AZN Asian Excellence Award.

Michael Blowhard has a fair amount to say about acting, but I've noticed that even he doesn't spend much time talking about comic acting. I would love to see a discussion of how comic and dramatic acting are similar and different from anyone who has some real knowledge of the subject.



posted by Friedrich at September 28, 2007


Kal was awfully funny in "Harold and Kumar," and I share your admiration for Rip Torn. The dramatic-acting/comedic-acting thing puzzles me as much as it does you. I wonder if it's a mystery generally.

From my own microscopic experience, I've only got two things to volunteer. One was from someone with a lot of experience who I basically asked your question of. His response: "Some people are just ... born funny." But of course that wouldn't account for performers who can do both drama and comedy.

The other was from my couple of years in acting classes. My little discovery -- and this may only hold for myself -- was that you don't get laughs and make comedy work by "playing funny." No surer way of killing laughs than that. You're actually best off acting the hell out of the material, as if you were doing "Hamlet" or "Macbeth." The more committed and determined you are, the funnier the show becomes (assuming the material's effective to begin with). That means that the "funny" is in the writing, I guess ... Yet still some performers are better at that game (being serious about funny material and thereby making it double funny)than others are. Why?

Here's hoping some of our performer-actor visitors step up to the plate on this one! It's an important question.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 28, 2007 1:54 PM

I know nothing about the topic personally, but I have heard many actors over the years (most recently Michelle Pfeiffer) who, when asked which is harder, answer promptly and emphatically, "Comedy". And for good measure, several insist that comedy is much harder than drama, not just a little bit harder. Apparently, timing is an absolute beehotch in comedy, and drama, for some reason, is more forgiving.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 28, 2007 3:53 PM

My understanding was that Comedy was most similar to music. You need to have both the timing and the "feel".

Actually, a good example of this might have been Harry Conick Jr on "Will and Grace". He was often given very funny lines to deliver, and his timing was not bad, but he never seemed to have the feel for it.

But, in my opinion, many actors who can not pull off comedy, simply arent that good in general. I think back to all of the classically trained British Actors. It seemed like ALL of them could do comedy.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on September 28, 2007 5:04 PM

One of my pet peeves is the number of standup comics who aren't a bit funny. In fact, watching them causes distress in me. I'm talking about the standard frantic fast delivery types. I've come to the conclusion over the years that the key to comedy, successful comedy, is relaxation. The performer has to be at home in his own skin, which relaxes the audience, which in turn permits the kind of atmosphere, a kind of enveloping comforting we're-all-in-this-thing-together mood, without which there can be no genuine laughter.

This ability to relax the audience presupposes great confidence on the part of the standup comic, or comic actor. W.C. Fields had it, supremely. Cary Grant had it in a very different way. Dean Martin made it look so easy that he is underrated to this day. The standup comic Louis Anderson may not be a great standup but he has it.

I wish I could come up with more and better examples but you get the idea. None of these performers may in fact have been at home in their own skins. They were able to project the condition. That's key.

Posted by: ricpic on September 28, 2007 5:09 PM

The most satisfying actors, in my opinion, started in comedy. Bill Murray, Steve Carell, Dennis Leary, Nora Dunn, Lily Tomlin, etc. Good comedians seem to be able to tap into pathos better than dramatic actors. Of course, this doesn't mean all good comedians can be good dramatic actors. Robin Williams is a perfect example. Jim Carey almost has it.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 28, 2007 5:19 PM

'That means that the "funny" is in the writing'

Yeah. I think if the writing and the situation is funny you play it in earnest. Same thing goes for improv -- pay attention and bring ideas back in new guises. If the suggestion is you're a park ranger, be the best park ranger you can be and find out how he behaves in non-stereotyped situations -- like in space or at his newborn's bris. What doesn't work is when people go for the joke by mugging or gagging and forget about the situation that's been set up. Robin Williams and Jim Carrey are exceptions, but, like Patriarch, I think Murray, Carell, Dunn, etc, are more interesting -- and they wear a lot better.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on September 28, 2007 9:41 PM

Let's distinguish between comedy acting and farce acting. Comic acting is more nuanced and requires occasional serious moments as well as complexity and emotional depth.

For examples of what I mean: see Bernie Mac, Archie Bunker, Larry Sanders.

In some cases, they start out as farce characters and then they become more human.

Rip torn as Arthur is great. Realist, hardball player, ultimate cynic.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on September 29, 2007 6:59 AM

Thanks to everyone for their comments. I'm still hoping for some real-life actors to chime in, though.

Speaking as a total outsider to the art of acting, let me throw something else in on the pile. I've been watching a DVD set of the 1960s British TV show "The Avengers", and it dawned on me that Diana Rigg appears to play the role as if she was doing drawing room comedy. A very similar style would be perfectly appropriate for, say, "The Importance of Being Earnest." Acting-wise, this seems to involve very precise movements combined with subtly larger than life gestures and facial expressions. Ms. Rigg has a charming tendency to deliver her not-terribly-believable lines (after all, the show is a spy-science fiction-mystery-parody) with ever so slightly exaggerated diction, tilt her head to one side and widen her eyes into an ingenue's doe-like gaze. With very small vocal and physical shifts she can modulate this from ever-so-slightly parodistic into outright sarcasm. In short, Ms. Rigg approaches comedy as a conoisseur of wise-ass-ism.

So is this "playing the role straight" or "mugging"? Is there really a very clear distinction?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 29, 2007 11:51 AM

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