There are a number of reasons why a person would want to get into stand-up comedy. I’m sure even you have a couple of different reasons for wanting to make a career as a comedian.
Maybe you’ve always had a knack for making people laugh. Or, maybe, you just love the rush of standing up in front of a live audience at open mic nights.
Either way, something drew you to that one comedy club and got you hooked. But maybe you’re looking to transition your skills into a different arena like comedy acting?
There’s no shame in saying so! In fact, several comedians have taken that same leap.
Robin Williams, Stephen Fry, Billy Crystal, just to name a few classics. Even Amy Schumer, Ed Helms, and Steve Carell to name some contemporaries too.
The road between stand-up comedy and acting is a well-traveled one. So you already know that despite it feeling like a leap, it’s still a lucrative career path.
You can still raise your hand when somebody asks who’s to hire as a comedian. But at least comedy acting would give you some more job options too.
Interested in learning some tips on how to make that transition all the more successful? Then read on, jester. Read on.
The differences between comedy vs. acting
You would think that a stand-up comedian and an actor would have a lot in common. And they do.
But there are still some differences that are important to address. You might think, “performing is performing,” right?
Doesn’t matter if the job is making jokes at a corporate event. Or getting some stage time at a community theater.
But take it from us. It’s best to test the waters first before diving in headfirst.
Holding for laughs
During a stand-up set, there’s a typical target for how many laughs per minute you receive. 18 seconds of laughter per minute, in fact.
But comedy acting doesn’t use that same criterion. And it especially differs between acting on stage or acting on film.
On stage, a director might ask you to hold for laughs. Just like you do in standup, remember?
But unless there’s a laugh track in the movie you’ve booked, holding for laughs doesn’t necessarily apply. Most comedic movies will actually drive right through a joke.
And this is what makes the writing of a film so different from writing for the stage. Depending on what kind of acting job you land, holding for laughs will be a practice that remains up in the air.
So it’s always best to assume nothing. Just ask and adapt in the moment.
Dialogue vs. monologue
You might have experience performing stand-up comedy as a duo. But odds are, you’re likely performing solo.
Well, comedy actors are constantly relying on one another for material and direction. So the difference between dialogue and monologue cannot go unaddressed.
Jokes in both stand-up comedy and movies have to create a rapport. But that rapport changes between the audience and the other characters in question.
For example, at an open mic, you’re talking directly to the audience. So the audience is the partner that you’re playing off of during a funny bit.
But in movies, you have to play off of a single actor. Pretty different from an entire room of folks already prepared to laugh their evening away.
This is why casting is particularly crucial for acting gigs. You might perform in a style that’s funny on its own.
But when with another actor on stage, it just doesn’t read. So if you want to act but don’t love working with a scene partner, maybe consider working on that in an acting class… or two.
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The similarities between comedy vs. acting
Okay, yes, there are some differences between the worlds of stand-up comedy and acting. But the business of each also holds quite a few similarities too!
Stand-up comedy can feel like jumping off a cliff blindfolded. But that’s not to say that the jokes in the set weren’t pre-rehearsed.
In fact, the preparation skills that stand-up comedy requires easily translates to acting. Whether on the stage or on film.
The only difference lies in the focus of that preparation. Standup preparation looks like being the writer of the jokes.
Then rewriting the jokes. Then, rewriting some more.
It also looks like memorization and coming up with different material and stories to tell. Maybe even some friends to help you test out the written material before a live set.
Preparation for acting is incredibly similar. But the focus is slightly more on the character and the script.
The words are already in front of you. So preparing as an actor means bringing those words to life.
Delivery and timing
Any stand-up comedian knows the power of a joke. But what is that power made of, you ask?
Delivery and timing. You could have the best ideas in the world as a stand-up comedian.
But if you don’t hone your persona and delivery, what’s the point? Comedy acting is the exact same way.
Watch any of the comedy greats and start to pick apart their sense of timing and delivery. You’ll find that those factors are often what makes them so funny in the first place.
The craft of it remains the same whether you’re on stage or on film. It’s just the medium that’s different.
A comedic actor in film production has to be able to translate what’s funny through a screen. Pretty different from telling a joke on stage, right?
But the same idea is there. It’s just a matter of finding the best way to deliver the material based on the medium through which you’re performing.
Tips for breaking into comedy acting
Alright. The differences and similarities between stand-up comedy and comedic acting have been deconstructed enough.
Now, it’s time to take that leap. And take these tips with you!
#1. Find what makes you funny
Comedians all have a different sense of humor. Even a different writer in them, if you will.
Your stand-up routine might be based solely on dry humor. Or, maybe improv is your cup of tea.
You might even have what it takes to be an entertainer for corporate events. You know the type – funny but without being crude?
Either way, it’s important to pinpoint what you have to offer. Any actor has to know their strengths before they walk into an audition room.
So consider what makes you funny and why. You might have to do a little digging around in your life to discover the answer.
Maybe you dealt with depression in your childhood. So self-deprecating jokes have always been a running theme throughout your life.
The point is this: find your funny. Discover your character from within.
Then, apply it to gigs that you know you can break into. Sure, actors are meant to be chameleons who adapt.
But it never hurts to know your strengths. And to hone them in.
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#2. Identify your ideal character
Now that you’ve discovered your comedic strengths, it’s time to identify your character. I’m not talking about your moral code or how you would approach a hypothetical quandary.
I’m talking about the kinds of comedic characters we see on stage and in movies. There’s the frumpy sidekick who can’t even pull up his pants without ripping them.
Then, there’s the logical tech nerd whose dry sense of humor lands with every line. Ask yourself which character you relate to more.
And more importantly, which character can you perform better? This is all about playing into your strengths as an actor.
Besides, if you try to be something you’re not, casting directors will probably notice. So, find the comedic character that brings out the comedian in you.
And let casting witness what you have to offer. You always want to put your best foot forward.
Unless your character is a bumbling idiot who can’t walk straight. In that case, feel free to faceplant or anything that gets you the job.
#3. Take up acting classes
There is absolutely no shame in taking up some acting classes here and there. In fact, it’s probably one of the smartest things you can do!
Not only can you gain a bunch of new skills in an acting class. You can also make new connections to the characters you’re playing as well as the actors you’re playing with.
Remember one of the biggest differences between stand-up comedy and acting? Dialogue vs. monologue?
Well, if you’ve never done a scene with someone, then acting classes are definitely the way to go. There’s no way to avoid scene work if you want to get into acting.
Unless you have a weird contract that states only monologues for you. But that’s a weird way to try and break into the acting world, don’t you think?
Anyway, use acting classes as your play space. You may even grow as a comedian.
Besides, any actors you meet might give you word on how to boost your portfolio as a character actor or comedy actor. Or better yet, they might get you hooked up with an agent too! You never know.
#4. For the most part, stick to the script
If you’re a comedian, you most likely write your own material. And that’s an incredible skill to have.
But sometimes, you find yourself wanting to re-write what’s right in front of you. That’s fine if your intention is to break into the comedy writing scene.
But for an acting gig, it’s probably best to leave that urge behind. For the most part, it’s best to stick with what’s written in the script. And I mean word for word.
No additional “but’s” “and’s” or “like’s.” After all, you know just as well as anyone how important rhythm is for comedy to thrive.
There may be a scene here or there where the director allows you to have fun and do a little improv. But don’t assume that’s something you can do without consulting the people you’re working with first.
Just remember that the script is there for a reason. Punctuation and all.
So don’t gloss over a comma, a question mark, or any other form of punctuation that could be a sign to the character’s inner dialogue. There’s a lot more to be read in between the lines when it comes to acting.
#5. Break down the comedic bits
A script might have a lot more potential for comedy in it than at first glance. And as a comedian, you’ll likely spot those moments more easily than your fellow non-comedy actors.
If this is the case, work with your scene partner on these moments specifically to solidify a rhythm. Develop a rapport with them so that your character and their character line up perfectly in sync.
Look for the two things that dictate comedy in a story: desperation and the unpredictable. These themes can be found anywhere in a story from lines to characters to jokes.
The business of acting is all about connecting with who else is on set or on the stage. So make sure that these moments are crystal clear between you and your scene partner.
You’d be surprised at how much your comedic act can elevate a scene. Just remember to take your scene partner and the audience along with you!
Make that leap
Going from the world of stand-up comedy to acting can feel a little daunting at first. But don’t get discouraged if one night you’re in the comedy club, and the next you’re not in a Hollywood Blockbuster.
That’s not how this business works. Comedians know better than anyone that these things take time.
Luckily, that’s where the fun is to be had. Comedians from Los Angeles to New York have all traveled along this same path.
So as you get going, just know you’re not alone. Hopefully, these tips can help you boost your act whether on stage or in film production.
But most importantly, just remember to have fun with anything and everything. What’s the thing they always say about comedy?
Comedians are the most fun to watch when they themselves are having fun. If that’s not an existing adage in the comedy world, then consider it a new one that all comedians should follow.
Besides, life is short. If you’re not having fun, what’s the point anyways?
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Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC, and the founder of Clean Comedians®. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a popular corporate entertainer, magician, and virtual speaker.