Watching the endless but ever-changing procession of waves at the ocean today, I realized that I was seeing a lesson on how to deliver comedy. I love the muscular foamy wham-bam of a breaking wave almost as much as a good belly-laugh, so I watch closely as they develop. Sometimes the ones that look promising as they come in peter out with a small snort, and others develop last-minute burly shoulders and rock the cliff walls.
I think good comedy, whether it’s solo stand-up or Mike Nichols directing Neil Simon, has a constant undercurrent of unlimited energy. The ocean is doling itself out to you wave by wave, but what’s out there is immense, unlimited, and unpredictable. I’ve done a lot of classic and tragic roles—Lady Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, Medea, Inanna—but probably in terms of percentage of stage hours most of my work has been comedy, much of it our own creation.
Building a satisfying belly-laugh for an audience is not unlike surfing. For starters, it’s a helluva lot of fun. It takes a keen sense of tempo and balance, and if you fall off, you don’t feel so hot. It starts way back in what feels like relatively calm waters, but you can feel the molecules itching and you try to sense their path. You work moment by moment with what you feel from the audience and how you can nurture and shape that. In my experience a lot comes from building a sense that the performer is intensely alive to the audience in small ways and responds to everything. It could be as silly and simple as mirroring an audience sneeze by scratching your ear, in time and on the beat.
Let’s say you’re watching a promising swell coming in. There are two small rocks in its path and then a big one. If it lets its peak get sharp the moment before it starts to curl, out at the first small rock, it will break to foam at that point and by the time it gets to the big rock it’s lost its oomph. The swell that resists the little rock’s giggle and keeps barreling on will crest just as it hits the big time, and it’s boffo.
And then there’s the follow-through. One big swell will hit the big rock, fire off a huge spray, and then deflate. Another one that might look just the same hits the big rock, goes boom, and seems to inspire the rest of the swell that continues to the south to keep a crest of foam unfurling all along the line in a long white ruffle. No two of them do the same thing, because they’re all reacting to a dynamic that never repeats.
It’s ticklish doing this on stage. You bring your own energy, you tease out the tendrils of what the audience has brought to the moment, and you know you’re building a swell. You’ve got a laugh line, but it’s not the major one. If your timing allows the immediate laugh to get big, you’re going to have to start the next laugh from scratch. But if you respond to the first audience snorts by speeding up a little and riding over them, teasing with more of your own energy, you get more snorts. It’s up to you how long to do that—too long, and it all falls flat. Catch the exact right moment, and you release three surges at the same time, and there’s not a dry seat in the house.
I know this in my bones from all my years on stage. It’s a grand feeling seeing how well the ocean does it.