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It’s Called a Headshot, Not a Mug Shot: Comedy Headshots

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photo1What do managers and casting directors want to see in a comedian’s headshot? How can a comedian avoid shooting a clichéd headshot that people will just simply roll their eyes at and then toss in the trash?

BRUCE SMITH is the president of Omnipop Talent Group and is head of the west coast office. Omnipop manages many comedians such as Maria Bamford, Doug Benson, Andy Kindler and many more.

CAROLINE LIEM is a casting director that has worked on over 50 feature films, television shows and pilots. She also served as Head of Casting for the award winning late night show Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Both Caroline and Bruce have seen thousands and thousands of comedian’s headshots. And even more importantly, they both seem to have a genuine appreciation for and an understanding of actors and comedians. But I’m not going to bore you with editorial… Here are some snippets from our conversations that I thought would be the most helpful for you specifically regarding comedian headshots.

Trying too hard?

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Bruce Smith. Photo Credit: Susan Maljan

BRUCE: There’s an aspect of “trying too hard” that I think all comics and actors should avoid, but I think that it’s comics who fall into this trap most often because their motives are different. When an actor takes a comedy shot, they are aiming it at a casting director.  But when a comic takes a comedy shot, they are aiming it at an advertising design that might be used for promotions for clubs or theatres. So I think the comic tends to go more extreme.  Years ago, I remember seeing an Andy Kindler photo with an arrow through his head and a Jimmy Dore photo of him talking to his shoe.   I’m sure they look back and think… “Oh my God what was I thinking? How did I possibly think that was a good idea?”  But I’m sure it came out of their sort of youthful exuberance to not just be funny guys but to also say: “hey look at me doing something funny”. It’s a second cousin to what people used to make fun of…Zed cards. Zed cards were the postcards that commercial actors used to put together…in one picture the actor is dressed up as a doctor with a stethoscope, in another picture he’s holding a baby and in still another he’s wearing a hardhat and holding a hammer.  It’s the silliest kind of thing when you kind of step back from it. It hasn’t just fallen out of favor. It no longer exists. Even commercial agents and commercial casting directors will now pull back from an exaggerated photo. So you have to be very, very careful not to go too far with these things. And I think it’s particularly a temptation for comics…to go too far.

Caroline Liem. Photo Credit: Matt Stasi

Caroline Liem. Photo Credit: Matt Stasi

CAROLINE: Avoid anything too posed. Have a story behind your eyes.  It’s no different than a theatrical shot, except heightened for your audience, aka casting… I’ve seen terrific shots with marsupials, birthday hats…but there’s still something engaging behind the eyes, not reliant on the prop or other species to catch our eye.  When I see women comedians, their headshots convey confident, open, with the younger talent conveying a more quirkier presence.  I think women comedians are fierce and they communicate that through their work, and should make sure that the same care taken for their set, sketch,…is communicated through their headshot.

There’s always a place for playfulness.

BRUCE: There is a place. For example, when someone is producing a comedy album, you go beyond a headshot…you go into a concept. On Maria’s [Bamford] current CD her concept was sort of a Tony Robbins type of motivational speaker. She had a headset and was dressed very professionally.  She did poses that I would never use for a headshot, but they were appropriate to the theme of her concept. There’s its place.

CAROLINE: We’re looking for “real” people all the time, but at the end of the day it’s a job and we cast people who can do the work and have a confidence in who they are. Part of that is brand.  Women need to be more pulled together with their wardrobe, hair, makeup. Knowing your brand, and proper age range will help focus where your best casting is. What kind of comedy do you do? Is your comedy really blue? Is it funny and cheeky? Or is it family oriented? Does your brand of humor and visual look lend itself to ‘Modern Family’ or ‘Veep’ or ‘Weeds’, ‘Nurse Jackie’…  They are all different types of comedy with a specific look/brand. Where do you fit and focus your headshots to that.

Your essence

BRUCE: In regards to what an agent or manager will respond to in a headshot…”the essence” etc…there is a subjectivity involved. My style of comedy involves somebody kind of easing off the gas pedal a little bit. In the sense that it’s not about how fast you talk, but how you say what you say. Maria’s kind of soft-spoken and she whispers and it makes you kind of “pull into” or “lean in” to hear what she is saying. Everyone has their own style, but I want them to ease off the gas pedal in the sense that I want them to really feel like a person talking to me. That’s my personal taste. I don’t want to feel like someone is performing at me. I’m looking for something a little more truthful, a little more real.

That twinkle in the eyes

BRUCE: It’s funny. You know, we say we want to see a certain star quality. A twinkle in the eyes. People have been saying things like that for years. And when it comes to comedy, I think I’ve defined what that twinkle in the eyes is — it’s MADNESS! I have a lot of Groundling clients, and you see the ones that move up to the main company, it’s always the comics with the craziest energy.  I think people want their performers wired differently. You want them to be able to capture elements of the human experience that are recognizable and play them back to you — but at the same time you don’t want to believe that your stars are no more interesting than you are.

CAROLINE: I love that. I don’t know if I would call it “madness”. But it’s definitely confidence.  From a technical point of view, the way it’s shot, the focus should be on the eyes. I don’t care if the shot is straight on, or if your chin angles out a bit…I don’t care about any of that. I just want to be engaged and interested and know that you’ll be fine on our set.

When you show up in the room you should look like your headshot.  We forgive temporary hair color changes, and beards/mustaches on men can be shaved.  But the vibe I get from your picture should approximate the same vibe I get when you walk in the room. I’ve seen so many photos where I think I’m going to meet a very confident person who will command the audition room, and then the person shows up and it’s the opposite…  There was a lack of energy, focus and joy I connected to in their headshots.

Working with the photographer

CAROLINE:  Take a meeting with your photographer before your session. The most important thing is making sure you have a good working relationship with your photographer. As the talent, in a headshot session, you are the producer of that session. Your photographer is your director. They’re the ones to make sure that you look beautiful, thoughtful, fierce, engaging, reveal the best you. They’re the ones to make sure that YOUR conception or ideas are fulfilled.

BRUCE: I want to see personality. But I don’t want the photo to be working overtime to convince me. If the photographer knows what they’re doing and the comic trusts the photographer (which sometimes is where the problem is located…whether there’s a trust bond between those two) – but if you have those two things in place you should be able to reveal something about the comic without having to stretch to unrealistic, over-the-top lengths.

Any photographers you would recommend for comedy headshots?

CAROLINE: It all depends on the relationship. It’s just like choosing an acting teacher. You don’t know if you’re going to vibe with that person. That’s why you have a meeting, see their portfolios, go through all of these steps…to insure that the end product is right.

BRUCE: I’ve gone through different phases throughout the years. These days I send a lot of people to Joanna Brooks.  While lots of actors are very comfortable being shot by moving picture cameras, I found that going to get still pictures done was like a trip to the dentist.  Whether they had a zit or were in a bad mood or they had just heard that a family member had cancer… Whatever happened that day they still had to go and take pictures that were going to last them for the next two or three years.  And when you are sending someone to a photographer, you are most often sending them to a stranger.  That’s why I recommend Joanna. She cuts to a friendlier place with the talent.  I just find that people are looser with Joanna… and quicker. When I’m looking at pictures one through one hundred I’m not seeing throwaways. How comfortable can a photographer make you feel before you get down to business? That’s its own kind of gift.

Any last words?

CAROLINE:  It’s all about having a story behind your eyes. Whatever that story is, you need to have a story. Just like when you’re acting, something needs to be going on…

BRUCE: I think in comedy the problem is not so much the comic, but the level of the photographer. If you look at someone like Annie Leibovitz. She’s done amazing work with comics. Sometimes it’s a very big expression…but you’re in the hands of a professional. She knows how to couch that big-ness into something that is revealing about the character, not just something that is corny. Most lower level photographers are just asking you to mug. And the mugging is going to look bad.

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About Marilyn Anne Michaels

Actress/Waitress/Writer/Comedienne - Marilyn Anne Michaels is a member of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA. She trained at the Second City Chicago Conservatory Training Center and did tons of theatre before moving to Los Angeles in 2006. Marilyn co-created and starred in the award winning web series The Best Friend. Marilyn does not like writing bios.