What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ve ever watched “Friends” or the BBC’s “Coupling,” you will get to see truly masterful work on the part of the actors (and the directors and editors), in capturing the reaction shot. The reaction shot is the look on the actor’s face in response to a line that is said to them. Great sitcoms will get a full half of their laughs (if not more) from the reaction shot. It’s classic. It is a great lesson for comedians to watch and learn from these pros.
A comedian really needs lessons in how to use his own reaction shot. When you say a line, make a statement, or hit a punch line, go ahead and show us how you feel about it by responding to it. It becomes its own tag. It’s a subtle act-out to the joke.
Jay Leno uses the shrug and blows out an exasperated ‘raspberry’ to indicate that he’s being sarcastic. Jackie Gleason, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams use the ‘slow-burn’ and the ‘take.’ Dave Chappelle uses his own version of the take and will sometimes give us a dead-pan. Seth Meyers from Saturday Night Live will also do his version of a dead-pan or a take right into the camera, sometimes daring the the audience to laugh. It’s almost like he’s saying in his head, “C’mon people wait for it, wait for it—(then they laugh) “there it is!”
It’s their reaction to a line and it not only makes the bit come alive, it also gives it a second or third laugh-point from one joke.
We’re taught all our lives that every thing is in the lines. We hear things like “learn your lines,” or “tell me how you feel about it,” or “what do you have to say about it.” We learn that comedians get up to the mic and they talk. While all of that is true, we also need to react. A full ninety percent of communication with human beings is non-verbal and we have to remember to show the audience how we feel about something. Not just tell them.