In PART TWO of Scott Sedita’s Rules of Comedy, I talked about how the rhythm of comedy is formed by WORDS and FUNNY WORDS that can never be changed. In PART THREE, you will discover how vital it is to always FOLLOW THE PUNCTUATION!

Don’t be a Punctuation Offender

Punctuation is your roadmap to a comedy script. It helps you merge into the flow of the dialogue and drive smoothly—avoiding
a traffic jam or, worse, a collision! Punctuation tells you when to halt, when to slow down and when to yield. Punctuation gives you everything you need within the dialogue of a script to keep the rhythm of the piece. That’s important for you writers to understand as well.
In writing your script, you are creating a blueprint for the actors. Your usage of punctuation is vital to showing your exact intentions with every piece of dialogue.

Periods. They are your stop signs; your red lights. So, when you see one, you need to come to a complete stop. A period is not only the end of a sentence, but also the end of a thought or intention. As an actor, when you see a period, stop talking (finish your intention). And then, with a new intention, start the next sentence. Also, in comedy, when using a period, it is usually asking you to inflect down, not up, with your delivery of the line. An inflection down, especially at the end of a joke, can be imperative to making the joke work.

Commas, unlike periods, are in the dialogue to signify a slight pause, or a yield in the middle of a sentence, or an intention, before continuing on with the same intention. It is not a complete stop, like a period, but rather a place where your thought simply takes a little break; a pause. Commas help keep the rhythm, so instead of removing them from your dialogue, use them in your dialogue.

Ellipses…are used to let a thought trail off. Ellipses are used for exiting a thought, or as a sign for one actor to “cut off” another actor and interrupt his or her thought. Many actors will incorrectly use ellipses instead of a period, making their intention in their dialogue weaker and less committed. Ellipses are also used in dialogue to show hesitancy and uncertainty, so be careful not to misuse them. Sometimes you’ll see Ellipses used in forming a joke: That’s so interesting…or not.

Dash – A dash is used to set off words and phrases that interrupt a sentence—either by the character speaking the lines, or by another character. When used for a single character, a dash can be used instead of a period to separate two lines of dialogue while maintaining the
same thought or intention, where a period marks a change in thought
or intention. If a dash is used between two characters, it’s a signal from the writer that one character is supposed to interrupt another character’s line of dialogue at the point where the dash appears.

Questions marks? That’s right, question marks, which are only used to ask a question. So don’t put it at the end of a definitive sentence. Many actors inadvertently replace a period with a question mark at the end of the dialogue, which not only changes the intention of the line, but also makes the actor sound hesitant and unsure, as if they’re “questioning” what they just said. Also, question marks don’t mean that the actor has to put the inflection up on the last word of the sentence (You know what I MEAN?). Question marks are for inquiring and questioning only. Got it?

Exclamation points! These are used in dialogue to show strong emotions like excitement, anxiety, fear, or joy. The writer is simply asking you to exclaim the intention, the word, or the sentence. Writers should be careful of overusing exclamation points or using them too early. Exclamation points should be used to escalate a scene, to give actors a sign that they need to raise their emotions, stakes and intentions. So actors, when you do see an exclamation point, shout it out! Get excited! Punch it! Now, that isn’t a free pass to go “over the top,” but with the right thought and active intention behind it, a good exclamation can be truthful and funny!

Changing or ignoring punctuation can mess up the rhythm as much as adding or dropping words. Even worse, it could destroy the joke. Sometimes changing punctuation can change the entire intention of a scene and that’s disastrous for text comedy.

Rhythm and pace

As you can see, there is A LOT involved in building and maintaining the overall rhythm in situation comedy. It is your job as an actor to identify how each different sitcom has its own pace when it comes to the rhythm.

Pay close attention to the differences in the pace of how the dialogue and jokes are delivered on shows like “The Good Place,” “Black-ish,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Superstore,” “Mom,” and “Modern Family.” They are all unique. As an actor you need to watch situation comedies and really listen to the rhythm and pacing of all these different sitcoms.

One final note on rhythm and pace: you will often hear directors and writers tell you to do comedy “louder, faster and funnier.” And you should. Situation comedies are not written by Anton Chekhov
or directed by Ingmar Bergman. There are no long, restless pauses,
no deep, dark thoughts, no heartsick lover staring longingly out a rain-splattered window, no shots of a deer grazing in a meadow at dusk. Situation comedies are written by COMEDY writers and directed by COMEDY directors—people who understand how to tell a story in 22 minutes with snappy dialogue, funny characters, physical humor, quick cuts and witty, fast-paced jokes.


Scott SeditaWhether you’re auditioning for a co-star or a series regular on a half hour comedy, sitcom guru and acting coach Scott Sedita will teach you The Sedita Method of sitcom acting, which comes with it’s own terminology, coined phrases and unique glossary.

Scott’s internationally best-selling book, “The Eight Characters of Comedy. A Guide to Sitcom Acting & Writing, 2nd Edition” (which has been translated into different languages) has sold over 200,000 copies and has become a “bible” to Hollywood comedy writers, directors, producers, and actors and is used as a textbook in over 100 colleges and universities. Find Scott and his staff of professional actors, teachers and coaches at ScottSeditaActing.com.

 

 

 

 

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