How to Create Characters that Live

Live that Character

stand up comedy classes


One of the major differences between fledgling comedians and seasoned pros is the quality of the characters. When I say “characters” I mean the ones that appear in their act outs or scene work.

Acting out fully developed characters is one of the most neglected areas for beginner stand-up comedians. Too many comedians just act out the characters and say the lines with their own voice. Even less effective, the comedian doesn’t act out the character, but rather tells the audience what the character said. These are missed opportunities.

To really improve the entertainment value of jokes and bits, take the time to identify the characters and then act them out in the show. The trick is to make the characters real people, not caricatures.

When teaching, I repeatedly ask, “Who is that person?” The students too often answer, “It’s just some guy,” or some similar nebulous description. This means they haven’t bothered to identified or even think about who this character really is. So the character is more like an imaginary mannequin with the comic’s voice.

Act outs can add jokes to a bit. Remember, jokes at their foundation are two interpretations of one thing. Since the audience has gotten to know comedian’s point of view, it’s easy to include developed characters in your jokes or bit. Now these two different POVs can create the two different interpretations of the same thing. And another bonus is that jokes structured on a shift from one POV to another POV are invisible to those who don’t understand this technique.

Students have also asked, “How do I learn to become characters?” Here’s my answer in a story. I heard this story back in the late 70’s and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it serves my purpose for this lesson.

A comedian, Terry, I’d known from San Francisco and later worked with at the Comedy Store had a dual career in LA and SF. He made frequent trips between the two cities. On one trip, Terry noticed a bearded hitchhiker in LA going to SF. Terry decided to take a chance and give they guy a ride so he’d have someone to pass the time with.

As they talked, Terry learned he was from Scotland and spoke with a thick Scottish brogue. The guy talked about his life as a boy in the Highlands and having gone to college in Edinburgh.

The ride went quickly and Terry dropped off the guy in downtown SF figuring to never see him again. But to his amazement, several years later he saw this same guy playing Mork on the sit-com Mork and Mindy. That’s right the Scotsman was Robin Williams.

Learning to play characters is not magic, it just takes hours of work. Even if the character only speaks a line, a well developed one can convey his world view. How do you learn to play characters? By becoming them and imagining their past and learning how they perceive the world differently than you do.

Here are a few suggestions for finding the nature of a character: Know their age, religion, sexual preference, ethnicity, national origin, politics, flaws, idiosyncrasies, etc. Do your dishes as a character. Drive your car in the character’s mind set. Go grocery shopping and be a character. But don’t go clothes shopping as you might end up with some really crappy outfit.

Take the challenge and create the characters that are already in your jokes and bits. Spend some time being each one, until you can behave and speak for them in an authentic manner. I guarantee this will improve the quality of your shows as well as add jokes.