How to Get a Laugh

Here’s is a really simple way to get a laugh in almost any scenario… on stage, film or animation.

I am going to call this technique a “transition”.

So how does it work? There are 3 simple stages.

Part 1: Be Emotional!

Reacting to something with a clear emotion will really help a gag work.

Watch how Friends actors Courtney Cox and Matthew Perry get big laughs from their intense panic.

For TV, Cox and Perry clearly emphasise the emotion with their faces.

For stage work, use your whole body to physicalise the emotion.

eg.   being embarrassed could mean looking at the floor with your feet turned inwards

being terrified might mean hopping from foot to foot very fast

be revolted might mean trying not to wretch!

Part 2: The Transition or “Change of Emotion”

“Transition” is the term I use for a physical and emotional change.

It works by having a completely different emotion before your emotional reaction at the laugh point.

The trick is to anticipate the emotion you’re going to use for your reaction – and then setting yourself up for a really strong change by having a very different emotion before the reaction.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t!

About 10 secs into this clip, David Schwimmer does a wonderful change from resigned to angry :

Using the examples above…

you could be confident before you become embarrassed when you drop something

you might be enchanted before you become terrified when you see a cuddly toy

you could be excited before you become revolted when you look inside a box

For stage work you should again have a completely different physicality before your physical reaction at the laugh point. The more different your body shape before the reaction, the easier it is for the audience to see the change. Emotions with different speeds are perfect (eg enchanted is slow, terrified is fast).

Look at the wonderful Cirque du Soleil actor in yellow physicalise his transitions perfectly. (Thanks To Jonathan Lyons at for this link.)

So, to conclude, using the examples above again…

– You start slow and confident, with hands on hips, chin up, chest out.

You drop something.

You suddenly become embarrassed and look at the floor, with your feet turned in.

– You start enchanted, floating around dreamily.

You see a cuddly toy.

You suddenly become terrified hopping from foot to foot very fast.

– You start excited, quickly rubbing you hands together, grinning wildly.

You look inside a box.

You suddenly freeze in revulsion and slowly try to hold back a wretch.

Part 3: Sharpness

The sharper and more defined the transition, the better the gag.


The key to nailing a transition is clear, strong emotion, contrast, and sharpness.
That’s it! Try it and have fun!
We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:


Performer Analysis: Larry Griswold

Thanks to Tim Eagle, aka Skinny Bean for this clip.

This isn’t just a presentation of great acrobatic skill, it is also a perfect example of how repetition in front of a live audience generates wonderful comic detail.

Larry Griswold’s sharp fumbles and pacey pratfalls are the result of years of adding new ideas and wittling away unnecessary flab – making this one of the sharpest routines I have ever seen.

From start to finish, you can see years of slight adjustments of timing and equipment to allow the act to be executed safely and at pace.

So what specifically is he is doing?


Right from the start, Griswold’s quick chatter creates instant excitement.

His declaration that he is a stand-in causes expectant laughter, and a brief mention of drunkenness makes us cheerfully alarmed.

Without waiting for any audience reaction, he sets off – and has whipped us into horror within seconds.

This type of attack on the senses early in a routine can be very useful for a performer. It’s a form of hypnosis – the striking pace and rhythm causes a clear physical reaction – even a hysteria. This makes his audience far more receptive to the rest of the routine. Performers can do this in many ways. In our childrens’ show, we have a very staccato introduction, giving abrupt instructions, and provoking quick short responses. It sets the tone for the children to react appropriately to the show. So from then on, we get strong, sharp bursts of laughter, but we don’t have to worry about it getting out of hand.

After his first fall, Griswold maintains the pace, quickly re-inforcing his likeable drunk character by confronting Sinatra, and before the laughs have subsided, he is at the top of the ladder again.


His first fall appears to be enormous. His body rotates through a small area, but he lets his feet travel a large distance in an arc, exaggerating the size of the movement.


He immaculately executes gag after gag, not even using a one-two-three style set up.

The character is always directly trying to get diving – hindered by sharp, sudden interruptions of genuine incidents.


I don’t think I have ever seen such a perfect example of performer looking like they are in trouble!

When he hits his face on the board, his silence afterwards is a great professional touch – giving us a real sense that maybe something has gone wrong.

This is one of the greatest skills that a slapstick performer can have. A bit of doubt in the viewer’s mind is a wonderful thing to achieve. The laughs and gasps are so much better when it looks like it’s really gone wrong.

It is no surprise then, that all this fast, detailed work ends up in a routine of just 4 minutes.

But what a perfect 4 minutes!


Being in trouble and danger makes for great comedy

Practice and repetition allows the impression of chaos

Vocal noise can give rhythm to a visual performance

Using an appropriate character adds to the fun

Keep character’s overall intention sharp

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here: