Humor is subjective. We all know that.
There are very few things that are universally funny. A fart in church, perhaps. But other than that, everyone probably has a different definition for what qualifies as humorous.
I, for one, enjoy dark humor. Take for example this piece of artwork from the Wikipedia page for “Black Comedy”:
Now, there are many people (specfically, my mother) who would not find this funny at all. Sure, I could explain to her that the image is an ironic juxtaposition of a popular children’s game with the morbidity of falling off a building. However, I don’t know if I could necessarily convince her that it’s worth laughing at.
So where does that leave us as actors?
We are raised from an early age to think that theatre is divided into two halves: comedy and tragedy. I blame Shakespeare. Well, not Shakespeare himself, but rather the scholars who decided to classify his and other classical works into specific categories. Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy! Oedipus Rex is a tragedy! And while these labels originally had nothing to do with whether a piece of theatre was funny, these distinctions have become distorted over time.
Today, we assume that a comedy makes us laugh and a tragedy makes us cry. When I’m in a “comedy”, I feel a certain obligation to make people laugh. There is no greater frustration than when a funny line gets no laughs. As an actor, it can make you feel guilty. Inevitably, this desire to get the big laugh can consume your entire performance. The success or failure of each night hinges on whether the audience laughed at the delivery of your witty quip. It’s exhausting.
Maybe we should remind ourselves that plays aren’t naturally comedies or tragedies. Dramas can make you laugh. Comedies can make you cry. In reality, plays are merely stories. How they are received depends less on the actors than the audience. It’s all subjective.
So perhaps, as actors, we should focus less on whether the audience is laughing and instead focus on our main task: to live honestly through imaginary circumstances.
After all, you can’t control what other people find funny.