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.
Mabel Normand, circa 1920. Sarah Baker Collection.
How to Be a Comedienne
Depends on JazzóThe Delicate Art of BurlesqueóThe Serious Business of Being
a ComedienneóThe Root of Humor
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
something funny in the misfortunes of our neighbors. It isnít a kindly thing,
but itís a fact that thereís no getting around.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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
I guess thatís all.
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.
published in Dramatic Mirror, June 19,