What does it take to be funny on stage? Is humor universal? Does the audience matter? William Irwin—a University of Michigan-Flint associate professor of theatre and chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance—has been drawn to comedy since childhood. He tackles the art of humor in his classes and as a director of productions such as Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which has its opening night Friday, March 27 at the UM-Flint Theatre. In this interview with University Relations writer Robert Gold, Irwin explains why "the ability to make someone laugh is truly a noble skill."
What originally sparked your interest in comedy?
When I couldn't sleep as a kid (or refused to), my father would let me watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson with him. If it wasn't Johnny Carson, it could be a rerun of The Honeymooners, The Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, or Charlie Chaplin. These shows made my father laugh and I was determined to do the same. Also, comedy was a big part of my entire family. Any time my family got together, there would be a constant one-upmanship on telling the best story or joke. So, I wanted to grow up and be a contender at the holiday parties. But, mostly I just wanted to make my dad laugh like Johnny Carson did.
When did you start studying/researching comedic technique and how do you incorporate it into your classes?
As noted above, I have been absorbing comedy since I was little. My formal studies of comedy began at the University of Florida during my graduate training in professional acting and directing. One day, after a performance of a comedic scene, our professor asked, "So, why was that funny?" and I was baffled by how much of a struggle it was for everyone in the room to answer that question. We all knew it was funny. We all laughed heartily, but none of us could specifically convey why. I was then encouraged by my acting mentor Dr. David Shelton to research it and write about it—which I did. I studied Sigmund Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Aristotle's Theory of Comedy in the Poetics, and many other theories of humor constructed by major philosophers. I was then afforded an opportunity to study comedy at the Dell'Arte School of Mime and Comedy under the direction of Daniel Stein. It was there where I trained in the performance elements of comedy. All of this studying and training culminated in my dissertation at the University of Florida where I identified the recurring ingredients that are found in all comedies. To this day, I continue to build upon that research as an actor, director, and teacher. Now, at UM-Flint I teach comedy in our upper-level contemporary acting class (THE 339: Actors' Studio) and in our styles course (THE 345: Classical Styles.) We explore what comedy is, its roots, its forms, how to create it, and how to assess it via several performance based experiences. I also take every opportunity to direct comedies as part of the UM-Flint Department of Theatre and Dance production season. The next production being Laughter of the 23rd Floor by Neil Simon (opening March 27th.) Neil Simon is heralded as being America's most prolific and successful comedic playwright, so we are naturally thrilled to prepare this play and share it with our audiences.
Do you think someone is born funny or is it something that can be learned?
I think some are wired for comedy from birth or born into a funny family, but we can also learn comedy as infants. If you look at a baby and you say "ooooooooooh—BOO!" The baby, laughs! It's uncanny "ooooooooh—BOO!" You've probably seen it a hundred times. It's because the person doing the "performance" is creating an expectation with "ooooooooh." In the baby's young mind, "ooooooooh" is going to go on and on. Once you've set-up the expectation and reinforced it, then you shatter that expectation with a quick "BOO!" It's the surprise that gets the laugh. It's a pretty simple concept that plays on our brain's pattern recognition and it doesn't change when we get older either. Distorting a pattern or distorting what we've learned to predict or expect is still the number one element that triggers human laughter. So, you can learn to be funny. You've been learning it from day one. It's as simple as sharpening your awareness of the opportunity to distort (and sometimes shatter) the expectations and create a surprise.
Does the medium matter much when it comes to comedic delivery or technique? How are things different, if say, one is performing on film, versus in a theatrical production, or as a stand-up comic?
The foundation of comedy remains the same no matter what the medium is. The size of the performance certainly shifts to accommodate the space and sometimes the tone shifts depending on the audience. On film, the frame is the actor's stage and the actor is only performing for an audience of one—the camera—thereby allowing for more subtlety and nuance. In the theatre, the performance has to reach hundreds of people that are all fixed in their seats—thereby making the performance a bit larger or louder. For the stand-up comic, it's less about the size of the performance and more about the craft of the joke and partnering with the audience.
What well-known actors impress you with their comedic skills? Is there a gold standard in your opinion?
Of course it's awfully subjective, but if you are to look at range, Jim Carrey is up there as a gold standard. Most people know him from the outlandish roles he's played in Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, or Ace Ventura, but he's given some incredibly subtle comedic performances as well. Kristen Wiig and Steve Carrell are also good examples of gold standard contemporary comedic actors who have a significant range. Of course, there are many others!
Different people find different things funny. How does an actor tackle that challenge when they are giving a performance?
What one person finds funny, another person might cringe at. You have to know your audience. If you don't, the performer will be fighting an uphill battle or they may even upset some people. Understanding your audience helps the performer shape the material and craft a performance that will illicit the best response from a majority of the crowd. The continual hope is that if an audience has come to see a comedy, then everyone has agreed to relax their inhibitions, their intolerances, and enjoy a welcomed distortion of the social laws and norms. Nevertheless, audiences are different every night and actors are required to adjust on-the-spot and remain resilient.
What are common mistakes or misperceptions people have about trying to bring humor to a role?
The ability to make someone laugh is truly a noble skill. Some dismiss comedy as an inferior and trivial art form. I contend that comedy is a serious craft and laughter is as close as you are going to get to someone's authentic self—even if it is for an instant. Getting an audience to laugh means that you've united a group of strangers and provided a tonic for their troubles. You've decreased an audience's stress hormones and triggered the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals. You've instigated an overall sense of well-being that can even temporarily relieve pain. Comedy is, in fact, nourishing. The work that we do has the capacity to disarm, to unite, to relieve, or to help people cope in world that seems to be getting more and more complicated.
I also emphasize for actors that comedy takes time, heart, intellect, patience, and an awful lot of playful trial and error. Beyond that, it's important to note that comedy doesn't always have to be aggressive, offensive, or inane. Sometimes the most impactful comedy comes from a place of dignity, grace, and truth.