Why Comedy-Trained Actors are Better at Drama Than Non-Comedy-Trained Actors

Gibson, Brendon, Vangsness


While watching Criminal Minds a few seasons back, I noted that Thomas Gibson, whom I first encountered in the delightful Dharma & Greg, is quite good at drama. I then noticed that Gibson's exchanges with Whedon-trained Nicholas Brendon, who guest stars as Penelope's boyfriend on Criminal Minds, are particularly good.

Fillion & Sullivan
Then I thought, You know Nathan Fillion (also Whedon-trained) is good at both drama and comedy. And how about Susan Sullivan, also of Dharma & Greg, who delivers both drama and comedy with aplomb?

I'm not going to be nominating any of these folks for Oscars. At least, not today. But I've formed the conclusion that having a background in comedy can only help an actor's career.

This is naturally true of writers because comedy is harder to write (successfully) than tragedy. Tragedy is extremely easy to write since all the writer has to do is throw in a death. But a decent comedy with decent pay-offs? It's as hard to write as a mystery!

I can't speak to whether comedy is easier to act than tragedy. I would imagine that good comedic acting is far more difficult (mugging to the camera is easy). But then subtle tragedy is also hard. My point in this post is that good comedic acting develops skills that become useful when acting drama.

Theory 1

The connection between comedy training and good drama acting is all about timing and energy. Comedic actors must learn both to the exact degree. When to speak a line. When to hold it. How much pathos or sarcasm to deliver. How much to withhold. The consequence is that Gibson is one of the best quote readers on Criminal Minds (Criminal Minds episodes begin and end with quotes; the writers have even used C.S. Lewis!). His timing is impeccable. Most of the other actors rush the quotes. As mentioned above and shown below, he also knows how to deliver and exchange clipped dialog. He also knows how to hold a scene--speak a long piece without flinching from the cameras. 

These skills remain with comedy actors even after they switch to more serious stuff.

Theory 2

In comedy, words (meaning and context) matter as much as emotion. A classically-trained (in comedy and tragedy) actor like John Gielgud, who reportedly could only act from the neck up, can awe audiences as Richard III and Hamlet on the stage, then turn around and win an Oscar for his ultra-dry performance as Hobson in Arthur.

Dry delivery all depends on knowing why the words are funny. It takes thought and care. An intelligent appreciation of word-play, puns, riddles, irony is utterly transferable--at least most of the time. 

Theory 3

There is of course purely physical comedy but even that comes down, again, to timing and energy. Physical comedy is all about WHEN to react and for how long--like Martin Freeman's incredibly mobile face. Unlike the skills in Theory 2, the physical comedy skill-set isn't intellectual. Think Tiger Woods and golf: the actor instinctively moves to meet the situation. But the more one does it, the better one gets. Comedy teaches this kind of thing like nothing else! And drama actors need it way more than many of them realize.

For Buffy fans, here's what Brendon is up to now:

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