How To Be Funny

Play It Big — Play It Small

Some speaking, comedy, and drama coaches insist that humor plays best when it’s played big.  At the same time other coaches insist that small is the key, Less-Is-More.  Sometimes the truth lies in the middle, combining elements of exaggeration with elements of minimalism it’s possible to create magic.  And yet, it’s possible that the power doesn’t lie in the middle, but exists at both ends of the spectrum…at the same time.

I create my humor on the platform at the small end of the scale.  For me, less is more.  Playing something over-the-top would come across as untruthful…for me.  And what is big for me, if I experiment with playing big on the improv stage, is nowhere near the definition of big for most players.  But my style works for me.  And even on the improv stage, my performance characteristics are strengths for the troupe as a whole.  I can do more by doing less than most other players in our troupe.

By contrast, there is the style of my good friend, and Musical Director of our improv troupe, S Frank Stringham.  He’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.  He’s bigger than life in his physical movement, vocal variety, and facial expression.  We stand at totally opposite ends of the performance-style spectrum. 

Sometimes a person’s performance style is best described by comparing it with the styles of well-known performers.  I asked S which performers’ styles were inspirations to him.  His response included the names of playing-it-big performers:

“Steve Martin is, and has always been, my influence for playing-it-big,” says S.  “When Martin was doing straight stand-up comedy, not only was he wild-and-crazy, he was unique and original.  Add to that the fact that he used his other talents as a musician (banjo/singer), magician and balloon artist to enhance his act.  He hasn’t used BIG humor, as much, in the movies he has made, except for his first movie, The Jerk, and cameo appearances in movies and TV shows like the Muppet Movie, Little Shop of Horrors, and Saturday Night Live.  What amazes me most about Steve Martin is how smart he is.  His parody of Cyrano De Bergerac into Roxanne was genius.”
Another influence on S was Dick Van Dyke.  “He used playing-it-big as a family medium, entertaining the adults as well as the children with his incredible rubbery style of dancing (Mary Poppins with the penguins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s ‘The Ol’ Bamboo’ and ‘Truly Scrumptious’), his pratfalls on The Dick Van Dyke Show or his early days of great facial expressions as a story teller on television.”
S continues, “Finally, kudos have to go to Jim Carrey…even before he was discovered in movies such as The Mask or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, he was my main reason for watching the television show In Living Color.  This man knows how to play-it-big and he does it with style, aptitude, and panache.  One of the things that I admire most about Jim Carrey is that he never seems to repeat a gag.  I’ve often thought to myself how disappointed I would be if he started doing what some comedians do, and that is to try and fall back on, and reuse, some of their earlier material that worked.  Jim Carrey has NOT done that, which I find very refreshing and admirable.”

In contrast to the experience S described, I can’t say that I’ve had a role model for developing my humor style.  But I can certainly identify funny people that I’ve liked and who may have sub-consciously influenced my humor development.  Some performers I’ve admired and consider somewhat similar in performing style to my own are:  Jack Benny, Steven Wright, Bob Newhart and Johnny Carson.  The deliberate delivery of Will Rogers also resonates with me.  Their styles are closer to the understated style that works for me.  They mastered the use of the pause, which is usually a strength of a person who plays it small

Jack Benny is famous (as is Johnny Carson) for his reacting to a punchline with a slow turn of the head.  He was one of the best at playing the long, tension-building pause to add power to his comedy.  His classic robbery skit, first played on his radio show in 1948, showcased the power of a strong character combined with the pause.  Benny was returning home when he was confronted by a mugger.  After asking for a match to light a cigarette, the mugger said:  “Don’t make a move.  This is a stickup.  Your money or your life.”  Benny paused and, well aware of his tightwad character, the audience laughed.  The mugger came back with, “I said your money or your life!”  Benny’s response:  “I’m thinking it over!”  A huge laugh.  George Burns had said that Jack Benny was funnier when he wasn’t saying anything.  The power of less-is-more.

Bob Newhart’s one-sided telephone conversations were great examples of the pause being used to magnify the laughter.   He would pause while the audience was left to imagine what the person on the other end of the phone was saying.  And Johnny Carson had a slow take style similar to Jack Benny, squeezing every bit of laughter out of a punchline.

The style S uses is true to his character and personality.  My style is true to me.  If either of us were to try to copy the style of the other, it would be funny…because it would be so unfunny. 

However that’s not to say that the two of us could not learn from each other.  An occasional stretch into the territory of bigness would add variety and power to what I do.  Patricia Fripp often quotes Ron Arden:  “The enemy of the speaker is sameness.”  Predictability can equal boring.  So it is, too, for the over-the-top performer who uses an occasional minimalist technique.  He or she may find that the diversion from one’s strength might be a high point of one’s performance.


We often settle into a comfortable performance style by experimenting to see what works.  Because of our own character traits and personality style, either the big style or the small style is often a better fit for us.  In time, our track record of success helps us to develop a style that becomes ingrained.  Our natural style evolves and becomes second nature, like riding a bicycle.  S can’t help but be big.  It’s a habit.  Likewise, being small is automatic behavior for me.

S adds, “Personally, I think that I like playing it big, because I don’t trust my audience to ‘get’ my jokes if I play-it-small.  I’ve done enough gigs where I tried playing-it-small.  When I do that, I bomb.  I’m sure there are two reasons, at least, for that:
    1)  I think deeper, or maybe the word is more esoterically, than most people.  It takes a certain kind of mind to understand where I am coming from, and I find few audiences that can relate to me.
    2) I’ve always relied on pratfalls and gesticulations to get my point across…and I think that people understand that about me, so when I say something funny that isn’t accompanied by a gesture or a facial expression, people don’t know that they’re supposed to laugh…even if they think that what I said is funny.  So over-the-top is the way for me…playing-it-big!  When done right, a person can get big laughs without even saying anything.”

Like S, I’ve developed my personal style through trial and error.  Some funny people have the reputation for being the class clown while growing up.  When I was a kid, I wasn’t particularly funny.  I really didn’t start to study and learn humor skills until I was 29.  I was a magician and wanted to add humor to my magic shows.  Bigger-than-life was just not me.  I was a quiet, laid-back, North Dakota Norwegian kid who started applying humor techniques on top of a less-is-more personality.  I evolved into a dry, low-key style by accident more than by intentional design.  I stayed true to my personality and the style developed out of that.


S observes, “It seems to me that the intelligent comedians usually do the playing-it-small gig, but Steve Martin (who is smart), and I (I consider myself smart, too) play bigger.  For me, I may just play it big because I am big, but no…I played it big from the time I was a little tyke.”

I agree, neither big nor small players own the market on intelligence.  Because of the very nature of humor (being analytical and making fresh connections), humor people, regardless of performance style, are smart people.  And there is certainly no disconnect with being big or physical and being smart.  Most people I know who are gifted physically and athletically are also gifted intellectually.  The assumption that jocks are dummies is a myth.  The masters of the physical just approach the creative process from a different angle than their more cerebral friends.  Both are intelligent.


Know who you are.  Play from where you are.  Experiment to confirm what works best for you.  Master your foundation of either big or small style.  Then learn from people who are different from you.  Not only should you study artists who have your style but look for opportunities borrow from performers who are different from you to add a dash of seasoning, to sprinkle just a bit of variety into your performance.  Have the courage to step outside yourself occasionally. 

Your strength may come from big.  It may come from small.  Or it may come from a combination of both.  But the most important thing is that it comes from truth.  You can only be you.  That’s what will make your style uniquely you and give you power on the platform.