How to laugh on cue. The secret? Don’t wait for a cue.
Apr 29 2016
How do you laugh? There are all kinds of laughs, and each of them varies, because there are all kinds of people. Some people laugh loudly. Some stifle every laugh with a glottal stop, barely letting it get out fully. What’s more, there are super-subtleties. Did you know that people the world over can discern whether laughter they hear is among friends or strangers? One thing, though, is for sure. All cultures laugh. When a script calls for one, how should you? Laugh, that is.
The best way to sound real when you laugh is – to laugh for real. But, although people in all cultures laugh, that doesn’t mean all people do. Nor that everyone laughs the same. So the first thing is to note how you laugh (or don’t), and when, and remember those moments.
Caveat: However you laugh, don’t lose it! Don’t be embarrassed. It’s uniquely yours, so not only is it professionally valuable, it’s part of your personality. Embrace happiness in yourself and others. Our point here is just to expand your natural range, at least when you’re at the mic.
Not only do people laugh different ways, but we also laugh at different things. In fact, we laugh different ways at different things! So when a script calls for laughter, in rehearsal think about what your character is laughing at. Is it outright surprise? It is embarrassment? Is it frustration? Is it in sympathy with someone else? What?
As you watch funny videos or TV cartoons, record yourself laughing. Really laughing, we mean … not just laughing because you’ve been told to. To quote that wry master of slapstick, Bugs Bunny, “unlax.”
As you wend your way through life, notice what things make you laugh.
Even write them down in a journal. You’ll remember them better that way. And there’s a side benefit, maybe even more helpful – if ever something in your life isn’t going well, you can look at your journal, remember the joyful moments, count your blessings, and cheer up. Joy will come again.
Seek out humor. Watch a funny video. Here’s a great one to start: it’s the original Late Show host Steve Allen, who couldn’t stop laughing every time he saw himself avec wig on the studio monitor. Mel Brooks’ movies are also a good bet for many people. Try Young Frankenstein. (Ah, sweet mystery of laugh, at last, I’ve found you!)
Go to humorous shows. Improv, stand-up, comedic plays, whatever. But don’t just watch the show. Watch the audience. (And watch your spelling. We originally misspelled the start of this paragraph as “Go to humorous shoes.” Okay, if it will help, get yourself some clown shoes.)
Join an improv group or fun-oriented social club or class. You might find a “laughter yoga” group, professionally led. (Hey, don’t laugh – yoga’s healthy, and the act of laughter itself can have health benefits.) There’s even a group called the “Laughter Club.” It’s for patients, family and staff of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and is led by the organization’s national director of Mind-Body Medicine. According to The Huffington Post, they focus on the physical act of laughing – belly laughs – and they do it with “let’s pretend” exercises, not jokes and funny stories. They’ll sing with laughter-like nonsense words, or fake a snowball fight. (Shades of the tennis match scene in the movie Blow-Up — let go of your hang-ups, your distractions and inhibitions, and go with the flow.)
Recognize and remember the various ways of laughing. There’s the belly laugh. But there’s also the nasal twitter. Various giggles. The muffled chuckle. The exhaled or inhaled snort (although either may be a bit obnoxious for VO work). And many others.
Here are some practice tips.
- Make a smile your standard “at rest” face. Some people default to a blank expression, or even a scowl. (Just be careful around any Joe Pesci “Goodfellas” characters.)
- Smile at strangers, proactively. And if someone smiles at you, smile back – rather than instinctively averting your gaze or being embarrassed. (But be aware that this might not be so accepted in some cultures or situations as in others.)
- Start by raising your eyebrows. It’s a typical precursor, as you sense a laugh is coming.
- The “belly laugh” is from the diaphragm. Place your hand on your tummy, and you can feel it. (Can’t feel it? Practice breathing while lying down on your back. Now laugh in that position.) This would account for genuine laughter being more breathy than the typical faked guffaw.
- Don’t laugh at your own jokes, especially if forced or excessive. Not only should it not be necessary (unless you long to use Phyllis Diller’s schtick), laughing maniacally for no apparent reason could make people shy away from you.
- Study timing. We’ll get into this at a future date. (See our 2018 series on Comedy Timing.) Meanwhile, in various situations note when peoples’ laughter begins, how long they laugh and what happens as they stop.
- Be in character. Ask not what makes you laugh. Ask yourself what in the script makes your character laugh. Your character is laughing at something, maybe even something in the backstory. If you don’t personally find it funny, no matter — your character could think it’s hilarious.
- What joke or comical situation always makes you laugh? Be able to call it to mind. Maybe it’s a Jim Carrey or Robin Williams moment, or a personal memory, or a very old movie. (We know a guy who says he’s never clearly seen Danny Kaye demonstrate this little red sports car because he’s always laughing himself to tears by the end. Your mileage might vary.)
Don’t force it. Often smiling as you speak will sound more genuine than a fake laugh. Fake laughter isn’t infectious. Smiling is. And when the moment is right, a genuine laugh will likely emerge.