Welcome! As always, this column is a benefit for The Actors Fund Covid 19 relief effort and I urged viewers to donate if it is feasible.
Today’s column will discuss “acting for TV sitcoms” and I invited my long-time friend, one of the top sitcom directors in TV history, Steve Zuckerman to discuss this subject in two columns with today being part 1 of 2. He is so interesting, you will definitely need to watch the video even if you usually just read the written summary.
After a brief bio on Steve, which included his Broadway and off-Broadway director credits in New York, including the Broadway show NUTS which was nominated for a Tony. He then moved to LA, where he directed over 400 episodes of network television. His sitcoms included Friends, Golden Girls, Everybody Loves Raymond, Anger Management, 2 Broke Girls just to name a few.
Steve has currently taken leave from TV directing to teach Acting for Sitcoms at USC and Dodge College of Film & TV at Chapman University.
Upon being introduced, Steve let us know that he is born and raised in Croton on Hudson, NY and is a “NY guy” prior to his move to LA in 1987 due to work on TV. He is now bi-coastal with homes in both NY and LA, but is currently in Los Angeles.
I asked Steve to give advice on sitcom acting (Note: sitcom is short for situation comedy) and to explain the term ‘excellent comedy timing’ as used by casting directors looking for good comedic actors.
The course I am teaching at USC focuses very heavily on comedy.
The acting in situation comedy is basically the same with objectives and the requirements to be a good actor and the only thing that distinguishes acting for sitcoms is comedy. Thus a knowledge of comedy itself is very, very helpful.
As part of my course, I teach the history of comedy and go back to Greek comedy of Aristophenes to Roman comedy to commedia dell’ arte which is very important because sitcom draws its influence from 14th and 15th century comedy.
In the course I teach, I have them do jokes. There are many different types of jokes:
– shaggy dog stories, one- liners, ethnic jokes, blonde jokes, etc.
To understand the setup and the payoff of a joke is crucial.
For anyone who wants to work in sitcoms, they must understand comedy and be able to look at a script and understand that this is a written joke. It could be an immediate joke but it could also be a setup for a joke in another scene where it will payoff.
As many of the situation comedies were on film, such as Leave it to Beaver, Mr. Ed, Green Acres, etc. there is also a cinematic joke where the setup is in one scene and the payoff is not a line but a visual.
As an example of a cinematic joke, my favorite is in the film National Lampoon Vacation where they are driving in the desert and see a sign ‘road out.’ Chevy Chase says not to worry and in the next scene, you see the car flying through the air. It received huge laughs.
In sitcoms, the verbal joke is the most common and the setup and payoff are usually close together.
Actors also have to understand that in the history of comedy, there is usually more than one person.
There are not many long comic monologues, so there are usually two actors, one serving as the setup person called the ‘straight man’ and the other as the ‘comic’ who does the payoff and gets the laughs.
Many of the first sitcom stars were graduates of vaudeville such as Burns and Allen, Milton Berle, Abbott and Costello.
Setup actors received 60% of the pay and the comic actors received 40% .
In sitcoms, series regulars almost always get the laughs (payoffs) and the guest stars are the straight men. Rarely does a guest star get to deliver the line that gets the laugh.
We then discussed some famous actors in sitcoms and how they did things and who was straight man and who was comic.
Bob stopped the conversation in the middle and said that Part 2 in the next column will continue the discussion.
Steve Zuckerman’ website https://directorstevezuckerman.com
Steve Zuckerman’ IMDB https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0958449/
Bob Blume’s company site is www.StepForwardEntertainment.com
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