Make 'Em Laugh: How Top Choreographers Find Their Funny

October 30, 2016

At one performance of David Parker’s Nut/Cracked in 2005, three-quarters of his audience walked out prematurely. But the same moment that caused the offense—a duet between two men with their thumbs in each other’s mouths—earned Parker hearty laughs from the remaining crowd, and eventually an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Humor is subjective, and it can be tough to get right. Though there are many moments of brilliant comedy in dance, there are also so many failed attempts that, well, it’s not even funny. There’s no exact formula for grabbing a laugh. But experimenting with these ingredients can help you tap into your funny.

Stay Honest

Trying to manufacture funny moments is a classic pitfall for choreographers, says Parker, whose troupe is called The Bang Group. Instead, discover ways to connect with the human emotions of the audience. “I started giving my dancers tasks that are nearly impossible, and therefore inevitably clumsy.” Think: trying to tap clearly while falling down. “It awakens empathy, surprise or exasperation in an audience,” he says. These genuine reactions tend to elicit laughter more than forced humor.

In 2014, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago joined forces with The Second City comedy troupe to create a collaborative showcase of theater and dance. “We learned that improv comedy isn’t so different from what we do—both forms have to come from a really honest place, from the heart,” says Robyn Mineko Williams, one of the creators of The Art of Falling, the resulting evening-length production. Taking cues from Second City’s method, Williams says they just played a lot. “I learned the importance of patience and experimenting from Second City, and that their funniest work is actually inspired from honest, mundane and even dark real-life situations.”

Timing Is Everything

Holds, stops or stillness can punctuate humorous moments, according to Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo, the choreographic duo known as Nappytabs. They recall “So You Think You Can Dance” winner Fik-Shun doing this: “He took this funny approach to a hip isolation that reminded you of a girl, and then he just froze and opened his mouth for a beat, like ‘Ha,’ ” says Napoleon. “The audience had time to be like ‘Oh, did he just do that?’ ” Extend a funny moment by creating a definitive break in the action, then play with how long you remain still—does it get funnier the longer you hold it?

Parker sometimes works without music, which he feels can allow for a more intimate connection with the people in the theater. “There’s a more flexible exchange of energy between the dancers and the audience,” he says. “The audience reacts and the dancers can actually adjust their timing to play off that reaction.”

Kill Your Darlings

“As a choreographer, you’re responsible for making the material funny before the dancer gets into it,” says Tabitha. But every choreographer makes missteps. “We’ve realized our work is funnier if it’s super-subtle,” says Napoleon. “We tried to do big humor in a performance where someone’s pants got pulled down. It was just awkward!” Williams thinks the dance world could take inspiration from improv comedy on this score. “In Second City’s process, they’re very used to trying out a scene in a show, and if it doesn’t work, they just take it out. It’s no big deal.” She contrasts that with choreographers, who try to think everything through before a piece goes onstage—a setup that could lead to overworking humor. Workshop your piece with friends, colleagues or informal showing groups. Attempt more and keep less.

Opposites Attract

Nappytabs like to find funny ways of contrasting the vibe or lyrics of a song with a completely opposite tone in the dancer’s movement. Maybe it’s a typical dad dancing down the street to a hardcore song, and he really thinks he’s getting down. Parker likes to mash up things that don’t seem to go together at all—like a man in a suit jacket, bare legs and pointe shoes, trying to master the use of the lower half of his body. “It just takes a subtle shift in perception, or a sudden recognition of incongruity,” he says. “When you take two disparate things and juxtapose them in one phrase, it makes people giddy.”

Stick the Role, Without the Shtick

Not trying to be funny is the first rule of performing humorous work. This is probably where the mystery starts for many dancers. Williams explains: “We built a scene where one dancer was a coat hanger, another was a computer screen and a third was a mirror, and we had to be honest to the task.” It would usually land someplace funnier than the dancer intended.

Though the audience probably knows when to expect a humorous performance, that doesn’t mean you should ham it up. “The trick is actually to play it straight. Remember that the material is funny, and if you do what’s required of you with great material, you’ll get laughs without being campy,” says Clinton Luckett, assistant artistic director and longtime ballet master at American Ballet Theatre.

There’s no substitute for natural comedy instincts, but talented dancers can be coached. “A hammy performance can be scaled back, and a reserved performer can be coaxed to exaggerate and broaden their range,” says Luckett. “Sometimes it’s a matter of pushing past their autoresponse of wanting to be pretty and getting them to be okay with looking silly, slouchy and turned-in. Dancers have a fine awareness of timing and musicality, too, so you can identify places where doing the step quicker or holding something for longer creates a comedic moment.”

In rehearsal, you won’t have a laugh track, but this is the place to experiment. “At times, we deliberately lampoon what we’re doing—daring each other to go too far—as a kind of research,” says Parker. “But if the moment is funny, it can almost certainly be played honestly in rehearsal without an audience. Believe in the essence of what you’re doing, whether funny or not.” And once you have the movement, trust it, says Napoleon. “If you’re killing it, the audience will respond.”