Acting in Comedy vs. Drama

iStock_000020633749_SmallThroughout your career, you’re going to be faced with all sorts of projects to read for—short films, feature films, television, theatre, etc. Of course, under these types of mediums, there are genres that separate projects—and most of the time, the two main genres you will be faced with are comedy and drama. Of course, there are always television shows and films that have a little bit of both (called dramedies – examples include the Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt feature 50/50 and television shows like Parenthood), but more often than not, projects are placed in either category and are cast accordingly. One of the first things you’ll realize as you become more and more of a professional working actor with television and film credits is that there is a distinct difference between being considered a comedy or drama actor and that there are times being firmly set in one genre can close the door on you for the other rather quickly.

Pilot season is upon us—the next few months, right after the talent agencies and studios and productions come back from holiday break, will mean the influx of new television series as networks scramble to figure out their fall line-up. All sorts of scripts will cross the desk of your agents and their assistants, and auditions will begin. You will quickly start noticing a trend in the auditions you get; a lot, perhaps, might be NBC half-hour comedies or CW supernatural dramas. It might be difficult for you to understand why you’re being shoved one way or the other (as, of course, you want to challenge yourself as an actor), but sometimes diverse opportunities don’t come your way. There are dangers to being pigeon-holed and known for one genre or the other– think Jim Carrey or Robin Williams when they ventured outside their comfort zones and tried out dramas for the first time. General audiences were a bit put off and had difficulty following them in more serious roles, which, at times, was reflected by their box office numbers. Conversely, well-known dramatic actors can have difficulty breaking into comedy.

This genre specific discrimination stems a lot from the difficulty of being a comedic actor. Successful comedic actors—Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Jane Lynch, and Jim Parsons to just name very few—are masters at timing, at conveying the material they’re given in exactly the manner it’s intended. Comedy acting is about being physically present as well as having the realization that you’re not necessarily trying to be funny, but trying to embody the character you’re given as much as possible and give them life no matter how ridiculous they are. Being a great comedic actor is a great strength as you enter pilot season, because there are surprisingly few go-to choices for producers and casting directors (which is why, if you look, a lot of the same actors turn up in different comedy series every year). However, it’s not all that easy to be put on that list of said go-to choices, which is why being on a series like SNL is gold for aspiring comedic actors—it breeds success for its alumni in the genre.

But comedy acting isn’t for everyone, and not being a great comedian doesn’t diminish your skills as a dramatic actor. Dramatic acting is just as difficult as comedy, but in a different way: while it’s still important to be aware of your timing and know what sort of actor you are (physical or method for example), the biggest issue that seems to cross dramatic actors’ paths are the want to be considered not only a dramatic actor, but a serious one. Television and film are both saturated with material that need dramatic actors, but a lot of said actors are afraid they’ll get stuck in “less serious” dramatic roles when they read for a guest appearance on a crime procedural or for the first victim in the latest slasher movie. While trepidation is understandable, it is also important to realize that, despite how critically acclaimed a dramatic role may or may not be, it’s all there to exercise your skills in the genre and make you a better actor. Being the lead in the newest teen drama doesn’t mean you won’t have your time to shine in a critically-acclaimed HBO series down the road; you have to give weight and meaning to every character you portray, or you’ll never find the success you’re looking for.

Despite these challenges, it’s not necessarily impossible for a dramatic actor to on the sitcom circuit, or for a comedic actor to make the drama rounds. Be prepared to speak to your agent; a conversation should be in order to discuss the projects you’re going out for and your interest in rounding out your repertoire. Your agent may have suggestions on helping you: for example, they might tell you to sign up for some improvisation or comedy classes, or, on the other side, have you take a scene study class which focuses more on dramatic work. It will be up to them, from that point, to tell casting directors what you’re capable of–how you’re interested in expanding outside of what you might be considered your comfort zone and find those auditions so you can get into the room to prove yourself.

All of that being said, it is imperative to know where your talents lie, and to know what your niche is (for more on that, see our article on “Auditioning Your Personality“). Don’t punish or berate yourself for excelling at one genre over another. Both comedy and drama attract large audiences and are important to the entertainment industry in different ways, and understanding who you are as an actor is the best way to be the most successful you can be. Being known exclusively as a great comedic or dramatic actor isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and if you never get cast in a Chuck Lorre sitcom or an Aaron Sorkin drama, it doesn’t mean you haven’t succeeded as an actor.


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tara McGrath started her career in entertainment mainly because she couldn't see a life where she wasn't surrounded and inspired by actors in some way or another. After graduating from SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film with a degree in Screenwriting, she worked for a year at Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. Interning under their casting department with casting directors Carrie Gardner and Jim Carnahan, she assisted in casting such productions as Spring Awakening, American Idiot and Fox's hit show, Glee. From there she moved 3,000 miles to Los Angeles and for the last year has been working for a well-known boutique talent agency in West Hollywood. She has also worked as a reader and marketing assistant for the Blue Cat Screenwriting Competition and has worked on independent features as both producer's assistant and P.A.

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