Julia Louis-Dreyfus' 11 Commandments Of Comedy
If laughs were votes, ''Veep'''s Selina Meyer would win her upcoming election by a landslide; here, Julia Louis-Dreyfus shares the secrets she's learned in a career that spans four decades
Best Politician in Comedy: Selina Meyer
As walking punchline-turned-Oval Office occupant Selina Meyer on Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus now sits in the most powerful seat on earth. Her standing in the comedy world is equally lofty: Between Veep, Seinfeld, and The New Adventures of Old Christine, the 53-year-old actress owns four Emmys (and is up for a fifth), which makes her the ideal person to share her laws of comedy. Although for some reason this request troubles her. ”It’s a lot of pressure,” she deadpans. ”If I had been dead for 25 years, then I’d have 25 years to really let things ruminate. I don’t really know what to tell anyone to do or say. Why the f— are you talking to me?” Because dropping a perfect F-bomb (see: rule No. 9) is just one example of why she’s our reigning comedian-in-chief.
1. Consonants are funny, usually — but not always.
In the video that Vice President Biden and I shot for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, we did this one scene in which we’re in the White House kitchen eating ice cream, and Michelle Obama comes in and she says, ”What’s in your mouth?” and I say, ”Carrots.” Carrots was a good word to use in that moment. Two syllables and consonant-consonant. It just felt funny somehow. It has a crispness to it.
2. I love malapropisms.
I happen to do them in my own life by accident all the time. It’s fun to say things that are wrong with authority. So if you’re having a powerful moment and you misuse a phrase or an expression and you’re unaware of it, it’s the being unaware of the misuse that’s the funny part. On Veep, when Selina is throwing Jonah off the plane and she says, ”I cannot believe you put that out on Tumble” instead of ”Tumblr,” he corrects her and it’s even more infuriating. It has to do with playing confidence when the words fly in the face of it.
3. If the crew is laughing, then you know you’ve got it.
4. You have to incorporate your body into your performance.
I like physical humor. It’s just so basic. But it can also be a very nice support system for what’s already on the page…. There was a scene in the first season of Veep in which I’m railing against Dan, played by fabulous Reid Scott, and he had f—ed something up. I say, ”That’s like trying to use a croissant as a f—ing dildo.” But as I’m flipping out, there are papers on the floor and I tripped on the papers — and that was intentional. A woman who is off her game and in a rage and is slipping on papers is funnier than just a woman in a rage, right?
5. You can create a joke that wasn’t there with editing.
Editing is its own cast member, it really is. The editors on Veep are superheroes because it is so dense on Veep…. When you cut to Matt Walsh looking caught, just wiping his mouth from eating a doughnut, you’re going to get a laugh.
6. I don’t know why, but somebody entering frame, quickly walking across, and exiting frame is funny.
Seeing someone enter and disappear in a short window is an inherently funny thing. I think it’s fundamental. A baby might also think it’s funny.
7. Three is always a better number.
An odd number seems to work for a joke. It’s the rhythm.
8. Somebody falling is funny.
Why is it funny? Because we’re not. And we identify that we might fall or that we have fallen. We’re watching ourselves, right? ”I’ve done that. Thank God it’s not me, hahahaha.” Walking into things unaware is always funny. America’s Funniest Home Videos… What is that based on? It’s based on people running into things and falling. That’s the bulk of all those videos, right? And they’re hilarious.
9. The F-word is a beautiful word.
It has to be used judiciously, believe it or not, even though we use it a lot on Veep. We definitely do ”f—” counts in the show because, honestly, if it’s too much it’s too much. They lose their power and presence, and it just gets annoying. But it’s a great word. It feels like a punch in the gut, doesn’t it? It’s pretty much all consonants. You can take the u out and it’s still the same word. I also think it can be comedically placed, like this past season [on Veep], when Catherine comes in and she’s wearing sort of the same outfit I am and the line is ”What in the wide world of f— do you think you’re wearing?” It’s a nice placement.
10. Somebody who thinks they are owning the day and is very diminutive is a funny thing.
I’m very short, and I tend to milk that. When I have scenes with Tim Simons, who’s 6’5”, I very often will try to get my shoes off so in the shot it’s like that [puts one arm up high and one down low]. If I’m telling him to go f— himself, and I’m telling him to go f— himself like that [looks straight up], that’s funny.
11. Don’t be afraid to look like an a–hole.
Risk everything. I really mean that. Don’t be afraid to look ugly. Don’t be afraid to look a fool. Just risk. It’s why I can’t really watch that Seinfeld dance. I just look like such an a–hole and such a buffoon. But you’ve got to be willing to go there, to look ugly and unattractive, and do that thing to find your way to a true, good place, comedically or dramatically.
Before ending this comedy master class, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has one more thought:
”What if I was talking to you very seriously about these rules and my chair collapsed? That would be so great, right? I mean, it would be a bummer for me because I’d be embarrassed, but ultimately it’d be a very funny thing for the piece. So, if you’re smart, you would just say that the legs gave way.” Your command(ment) is our wish.
Selina Meyer and her staff try to take on the White House in this HBO sitcom.