When my daughter Jennifer (now grown and doing an MSc in Social Psychology) was a kid, one of her science fair projects was on humor and jokes. As a voice actor and despite having buddies who are stand-up comics, it was the first time I had ever thought about the process of breaking down humor and exploring why something is or isn’t funny, to better understand it.
Humor is one of the sharpest and most effective tools in an actor’s (voice or otherwise) toolkit. Eons ago in theater school, I learned that comedy is about truth. And commitment. Combine truth with commitment and put players in a funny situation (aka sit-com) and you get comedy.
But a companion tool to successfully delivering humorous copy is the possession of a funny bone – a good sense of humor. The good news is that this tool that allows us to really hone in on what makes us all laugh is something that can be cultivated through watching others.
Study Funny People
As with all acting, the key is the study of people – in this case, funny people (living or animated). Find those who make you laugh and make others laugh and then try on their delivery style – imitate their pacing, their rhythm, how they deliver a punch line or set up a joke.
Look for the funny moments in a sitcom or animated show – what makes them funny? Is it the physicality? Is it the 180? The difference between what we expect and what the character does? Exaggeration? Non verbals? Visuals? If something doesn’t strike you as funny, try making it funny. Often humor comes from conflict – inner or outer – so experiment with flipping situations on their head to find humor.
Take An Improv Class
Also, try out improv. Improv is a great place to discover, to be surprised, and to always go along with the situation (“saying yes, and..”) to explore without boundaries. The group dynamic of improv means improvised scenes don’t always have to be funny but they often are – why? Because at its core, improv is about play. As in childhood, the freeing, anything-is-possible nature of improv play is fun and taps into our collective creativity and sense of exploration. After you understand the basics of improv and its games, the next step is often competitive improv where actors often challenge each other in play with “yes and” where we dig deep into the unexpected and discover the delightful and funny.
Watch (or Perform) Stand Up Comedy
At the other end of the spectrum, stand up is a lone-act (though many comedians started in improv). By watching, or performing stand up, you begin to think about humor in a more technical way. When I took a stand up course at my local comedy club, we were taught to explore things we loved, things we hated and things we wished we could change. We learned what makes an audience laugh – “audiences love humility and openness” – and how to “give them something memorable and fun”. Often stand up comedy is observational in nature – taking common everyday events or things and looking at them differently – like the one liner – “Remains to be seen if glass coffins become popular.” Knowing the technique for crafting and delivering an effective joke is part art, part science.
Learn From Science
Speaking of science, through science, humor has been decoded to a degree. We’ve learned that patterns are important, for example, we know that 3 is the smallest number for something to become a pattern and that the sudden, unexpected breaking of patterns makes humans laugh. So a good joke will set up the expectation of a pattern and then break it. This incongruity theory also relates more broadly to expectations in general. We find fundamentally incompatible concepts or unexpected resolutions funny.
Though there are many other theories as well that suggest feeling superior or relief that no one was hurt in a situation, or that something was bad but ultimately benign all make us laugh, scientists still acknowledge that humor is a very individual trait, informed by life experiences and surroundings. What makes one person laugh will fall flat with another. Understanding the various ways in which humor “lands” is another strong tool in the toolbelt.
Humor In Voice Over Genres
Because the prevalence of humor in voice over genres largely depends on the genre (crime show narration is rarely a funny narration job while animation is rarely serious), it is good to understand how humor is delivered in the projects you’re working on. In animation, finding the funny often involves incorporating a 180 (breaking a pattern, turning expectations on their head), like alternating from laughing into bursting into tears within a line. Additionally, in animation everything is heightened: emotions, reactions, and even heightened non verbals (sounds made when you fall, run, jump, fly – all that cartoon stuff).
A different extreme might be in commercials, which often apply the same techniques mentioned earlier (commitment to the truth in the moment, playing with expectations by incorporating twist/turns) although the approach is usually a much more realistic or subtle than in animation. And because of the time constraints of a commercial, the time to the punchline is quick.
Both of these extremes in humor settings involve timing – the pace of the delivery, the effective use of pauses before punchlines, the casual build up to the big reveal. Really perfecting timing requires making a study of what makes you laugh – and then an exploration of why and whether the setup/pause/punchline structure had anything to do with it. A quote I appreciate from MacMillan’s piece (linked at the beginning of this paragraph) is this – “Jokes depend on surprise – the revelation of an unexpected meaning or idea – which stops the brain in its tracks.” Timing is pretty essential to making this happen.
So tell me, what funny work have you done? Where has humor helped you book a gig or get a call back? I’d love to hear about it!