HOW TO WRITE AND PERFORM YOUR OWN CHARACTERS, FROM BROADWAY'S MICHAEL HARTNEY
Michael made his Broadway debut this week in School of Rock and we couldn't be more happy for him! He's directed a billion or so shows at UCB, performed on Maude and Harold Night (our sketch and improv house teams), and is the co-creator & host of Characters Welcome, a monthly show & web series. Here's his Sketchy Advice about creating solo comedy:
- 1.Don’t throw in the kitchen sinkI love doing characters based on close friends or family members. But sometimes we get so caught up in nailing the impression that we forget what’s important to the comedy. An audience doesn’t know your Uncle Joe, so they’re not going to care that you’ve changed details to make the piece work. Frequently I’ll see a character piece based on someone that has more than one unusual thing going on in an effort to be accurate. Pick one.
- 2.There’s more than one way to develop a characterSome of my characters are based on people I know. Some are based on people I don’t know, but have seen in life. Some are based on famous people, others are based on aspects of myself, while others simply come from thinking “Wouldn’t it be funny if ______?” Don’t limit yourself to one process for developing characters. Starting from a different place each time prevents stagnation. Using a variety of techniques will lead to a greater variety of characters. And that’s what we’re after.
- 3.Take out your damn earbuds for a damn minuteIf you blast music from the second you leave your house to the second you arrive at work/rehearsal/whatever, YOU ARE MISSING WAY TOO MUCH STUFF. The couple arguing on the subway. The guy selling knockoffs on the way to work. The moron behind you in line for coffee. Inspiration for characters are everywhere, all the time. But you have to be paying attention.
- 4.Be A Renaissance…er, PersonIf you are writing characters for yourself, your hilarious beats and jokes are only part of the puzzle. You have to be interesting and dynamic onstage, because a listless recitation of your hilarious beats and jokes ain’t gonna cut it. There are a lot of wonderful performers out there who need to take writing classes and incredible writers who need acting training. So remember to do all the work, not just half of it. The ones who succeed can do it all. And are hair-pullingly lucky.
- 5.Specificity Wins Every TimeGod is in the details. The way a character speaks, moves, and feels should be as specific as possible. “Pete gets angry” has nothing on “Pete’s face turns beet red and his knuckles turn white as his entire body shudders in teeth-clenching rage.” That's where the fun is. After you're done belly-aching about structure and fretting about clarity, if you’re doing your job, that structure and clarity will be invisible to the audience. It's the specifics they'll remember.