Updated: Jan 6, 2021
In my last post, I explained how to cry on cue. Laughing on cue is also commonly very difficult for actors. You may have already observed that laughing and crying are actually very similar physiologically. So my tips for laughing are actually somewhat similar to my tips for crying. The key difference is in the flow of energy. I'll explain all of that in more detail later.
Here's my step-by-step guide for laughing on cue:
1. Stretch and warm up the body.
This is always Step 1 for me when it comes to performing an emotionally charged scene. Stretching and energizing the body, finding a connection to your center, and letting go of any tension are essential for acting with presence and sensitivity. You want to ready yourself for the free flow of energy and emotion.
Not sure how to go about warming up for a performance? I recommended a few videos in my post here.
2. Relax the belly and stretch the ribcage.
The breath is very important for acting and emotional expression. To allow for a deeper breath, we want to relax and open up the belly and open up the ribcage. The laugh is going start in the belly, so we need to let go of any blockage or tension there. Rub your belly in soothing circles. Take some deep, relaxing breaths.
Here is a good video for stretching the side body and opening up those ribs:
3. Breathe and sigh into the belly.
Now you're going to practice breathing and sighing with delight. As you inhale, feel a buoyant lift, and when you sigh out the breath, feel a wonderful sense of joy and relief. Get your whole body involved. On the inhale, brighten your face and lift your eyebrows. Smile as you sigh. You can even voice the sigh with a little, "Ahh..."
Add a surprised gasp as you inhale. Let that breath lift and brighten your face. You might even lift your heels off the floor to get an even bigger sense of that buoyancy. Then feel your ribs contract as you sigh the joy into your belly.
4. Inhale then contract the belly as you voice, "Ha!"
The next step is to dip our toe into actual laughing. So you're going to inhale again like before. Feel that surprise and delight, then on the exhale, quickly contract the belly in as you say "Ha!" Imagine it as though you've been punched in the stomach.
Notice how the contraction pushes the energy up and out. Keep directing the energy in your body upward. (This is the main difference between laughing and crying. Crying draws your energy in and down. Laughing brings your energy up and out.)
5. Find the funny triggers.
Go to your scene and find the funny triggers. What is your character laughing at? Is it a line someone says? Or something that happens? Something they're thinking about? Flesh it out fully. Add more ridiculousness to the trigger in your mind if you need to.
Funny things usually have some element of surprise. Use that surprise to trigger and propel you. Remember, it's brand new every time.
6. Convulse the belly in a laugh.
Everything has prepared you for this final step. You're going to put everything together here. See or think of the funny trigger as you inhale. Feel that buoyant lift and surprise on the inhale; allow your face to open. Then convulse the belly in a laugh. (Feel rapid contractions.) Allow the convulsion to push the laugh and the energy up and out.
Interestingly enough, this focus on belly contractions is the method Allison Janney uses to get herself laughing in a performance. Watch the below video to see her explanation:
Still having trouble contracting your belly? Try the below breathing exercise as practice for isolating those muscles:
In time, you may be able to laugh as wildly as Linda Cardellini in the below scene from Freaks and Geeks:
Keep practicing, and happy laughing!