Mabel Normand (1892Ė1930) was one of the greatest comic actors of her generation, able to hold her own alongside the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. Collaborating frequently with her longtime lover, Mack Sennett, Normand was an audience favorite, starring in more than 200 films. She also broke ground, directing some of her own films. When she decided to form the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, she produced one of her biggest hits, Mickey (1918), which was marketed heavily ahead of its release; commonly done today, it was unusual for its time. Her career was cut short in 1922 when, during the murder investigation of director William Desmond Taylor, her longtime drug addiction became public knowledge. She died at 37 from tuberculosis. The following article was written by Normand in 1920 when she was still a top star. óMrs. Parker  

 

Mabel Normand, circa 1920. Sarah Baker Collection.

 

How to Be a Comedienne

by Mabel Normand

Comedy Depends on JazzóThe Delicate Art of BurlesqueóThe Serious Business of Being a ComedienneóThe Root of Humor

I am not a highbrow. If I were, I wouldnít be earning my living by being funnyóor trying to be. I know more about jazz than I do about classical music. Not that Iím not fond of a concert now and then, but on the whole I like syncopation better. My heart beats to a jazz tune, I guess. The world goes round to the sound of the international rag, as Irving Berlin said; and I think the rag he meant was that of laughter and pleasure and joy. Itís a good tune! I know it by heart; and my ambition is to be able to play it on the old piano of the world with my eyes shut.

I think that one of the secrets of being a comedienne is in knowing jazz because when you know the syncopated tunes, you know the songs to which the average heart responds and so, in a way you know humanity. To be a comedienne youíve got to be human. Thatís the truth of the matter. Youíve got to be able to appreciate that side of people which is queer, ridiculous, and yet lovable. You canít make people laugh just by being odd. Youíve got to be more than that. Youíve got to be a little bit pathetic.

When people laugh most the tears start from their eyes, because laughter and pain arenít nearly so far a part as they seem to be. Sometimes think they are twins and you canít knock against their cradle without disturbing both of them, although, if youíre lucky, laughter will be louder than his brother. But you never can tell.

And thatís not the half of it, dearie, as the funny-men say in the papers. Try to burlesque somebody. Youíll notice that you probably do it with the sort of a brush that the bill-board posters use while small boys admiringly surround them. but you wonít appear clever to grown-ups as the poster-pasters do to the younger generation. Burlesque is a delicate art, believe me. Iím no highbrow, as I said before, but I know that. And I know too, that when you make fun of people you have to mimic them with just the slightest exaggeration in order to be really funny. If you overdo it, you ruin your performance, and itís pretty hard not to overdo your act. You have to watch every gesture, every action, no matter how small. A careless lifting of eyebrows may spoil a perfectly good hand-gesture. Watch your step all the time, and watch everything else you have about you, too. If you seem to have any idea that youíre playing at something, you wonít get it across.  

Normand in a still from Pinto, 1920 Sarah Baker Collection.

That brings me to the serious side of being funny. To be a comedienne you have to take yourself with the seriousness of a politician receiving the nomination for alderman from the hands of his fellow citizens. Charlie Chaplin, for instance, rarely smiles in his pictures. Thatí one of the reasons heís so funny! And if he does smile, it is pathetically and just enough to balance his tremendous gravity. When he sees a big policeman he takes off his hat to him with an air which implies that i it is the most serious and sincere act in his life. If he throws a brick at the copper he does it with the same air. He takes his victories and defeat in the same melancholy wayóalmost.

To be a comedienne, donít try to teach a lesson. Leave that to Longfellow and the rest of the poets. Just try to be human and serious. Try to remember that peopleís spirits are raised by seeing a man chase a hat down the street.

Thereís something funny in the misfortunes of our neighbors. It isnít a kindly thing, but itís a fact that thereís no getting around.

To be a comedienne, you have to have something about you that is appealing. Itís hard to say just what the thing is, because you canít put your hands on it; it isnít a block of wood or a glass of wine. Itís a way, a quaintness, a pleasant quality thatís natural and not artificial. And here again we come to the root of humor that I mentioned before: being human. Thatís being natural. When I played the part of a poor little hoyden in one my picturesóĒJinxĒóI tried to remember during the entire making of the production that I was a homeless little wretch grateful for kindness from anyone. In another picture I played the part of a little slavey who longed from the kitchen of downstairs to reach the bliss of the grand ball-room upstairs. And when I reached there and played the part of a lady I tried not to forget that I had been a slavey a few moments before. Things puzzled me a little; I wasnít quite sure that what I did was the correct thing, but I was visibly conscious that I was as good as the Ďrest in my heart and proud of my clothes; oh, so very, very proud of my new, fashionable clothes!

Any correspondence course will make a comedienne out of a girl. But neither do I believe that itís all a gift. It requires a facility and a lot of hard work. Practise makes perfect, Iíve heard. Who was it said that creation is ten percent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration? Not a pretty picture, but a true one. Work, work, work. Study every little detail of your personality. Try to find out what little peculiarities you have that can be developed for audiences and the director. Stand before your mirror and make faces at yourself. Twist your features, your arms, your body. Find out if you really have a sense of humor in your funny bone, and if your spine appreciates a joke.

Pay particular attention to your mouth. I canít figure out how many different ways a pair of lips can be funnyóand charming. Men try to figure it out, but even they havenít succeeded in finding the answer, I hear. If you keep your hair in a Grecian knot you may look like a goddess but if you plaster it down over your ears and leave a little loop hanging over your left eye you may look more appealing than the other poseóand genuinely funny, too.

Donít set any standards for yourself. I have discovered that the things which make people roar with laughter in one part of the country will have just the other effect elsewhere. Geography is a peculiar thing. It seems that climate has an effect on peoplesí humor. A southerner will laugh at a houní dawg joke that will bore a northerner. Thatís one of the fifty-seven reasons why itís so hard to find out just what makes everybody laughóbecause there are things that do, and the real comedienne is the one who gets hold of those things and uses them until they finally lose out. And remember this; if you are lucky enough to discover a gesture with a universal appeal, never forget that its get-across qualities are temporary.

Donít work a gesture to death. If you do, youíll find out quickly enough that you have lost out with the trick. Thereís an art in knowing just when to drop the thing. It isnít when itís at the height of its popular appeal and it isnít when itís an eye-sore to the public. My own humble opinion is that itís just after it has reached its climax as an applause-getter. But you have to be ready with something new. Thatís why thereís so much work in being funny. You canít afford to lay your wits aside for a moment. They have to be laboring for you all the time, and not part of the time. And youíll find they wonít labor if you donít.

In my forthcoming Goldwyn picture ďThe Slim PrincessĒ I had to keep my wits working all the time I was making scenes, notwithstanding the fact that a great humorist, George Ade, was responsible for the situations. But even Ade will not aid you ópardon the punóunless you aid yourself. I had to keep at top speed every moment in order to have my action suit the caption and the cut-in and the close-up.

And I guess thatís all.

Counting up what Iíve said I think that i want to emphasize again the ground from which we have to beginóbeing human. Without that touch you might as well quit comedy and go into melodrama, where nobody is human except the villain and even he isn't a perfect thirty-six of his species. Forget all about ďshowing-off;Ē remember that youíre sincere and fresh and kind (I donít like malicious humor). Hum a jazz tune and don't be a snob. If you are, you wonít be a comedienne. But above all, donít neglect the jazz element. The world goes around to the sound of it, to the sound of the jazz of laughter!

 

Normand, circa 1918. Sarah Baker Collection.

Originally published in Dramatic Mirror, June 19, 1920