This article focuses too much on specific examples without explaining their importance to its main subject. (March 2018)
Corpsing is British theatrical slang for unintentionally laughing during a non-humorous performance. In North American TV and film, this is commonly referred to as breaking character or simply "breaking". The origin of the term corpsing itself is unclear, but may come from provoking an actor into laughing while portraying a corpse. There are many examples of corpsing, such as performers portraying sleeping or unconscious characters.
A significant aspect of the phenomenon is the frequently deliberate and usually benign attempts among actors to cause this in cast members. During the "Pete and Dud" sketches in the BBC comedy series Not Only... But Also, Peter Cook would deliberately ad lib in an attempt to make Dudley Moore corpse—and he invariably succeeded.
In the final scene of the Fawlty Towers episode "Gourmet Night," when Basil (John Cleese) delves into the trifle with his hands and pulls it apart, actress Prunella Scales, who plays his wife Sybil, can clearly be seen in the background trying to suppress her laughter.
In the Monty Python film Life of Brian, there is a scene where Michael Palin (as Pontius Pilate) talks about a friend with the name Biggus Dickus, which causes several extras to crack up. In character and in a long, drawn out fashion, he confronts the extras and dares them to laugh while repeating the name. Palin himself nearly corpses, most obviously when he asks the guard if he finds it 'wisible' when he says the name Biggus Dickus. The extras completely lose composure when he mentions Biggus Dickus' wife's name is Incontinentia Buttocks. Ad-libbing like this was intentional to create an authentic reaction from the extras.
One of the most notable American examples of comedy partners trying to "corpse" is between Tim Conway and Harvey Korman (although corpsing wasn't exclusive to them) during The Carol Burnett Show. Similarly, during production of Mork and Mindy, Pam Dawber often found it impossible to maintain the proper composure in character at the sight of co-star Robin Williams's antic comic improvisations during filming, and her amused reaction is visible on aired episodes. Mindy Cohn, of The Facts of Life fame, also had trouble keeping a straight face during scenes and can be seen smiling as if she was quite amused throughout the series's run. In the Friends episode 'The One With Joey's New Brain', the ending has Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) screeching along with a bagpipe with castmate Jennifer Aniston sitting on the couch beside her and clearly trying to keep from laughing. The Saturday Night Live sketches featuring Debbie Downer (Rachel Dratch) are also notable for corpsing. Jimmy Fallon is also known for breaking character by laughing on Saturday Night Live. Perhaps the most famous examples of this are the appearances of Bill Hader as the "City Correspondent" Stefon on SNL's "Weekend Update." The jokes were often rewritten between dress rehearsal and broadcast, so Hader was seeing them for the first time and would invariably lose it, much to the delight of the audience. Chris Farley got both David Spade and Christina Applegate to corpse during the first "Matt Foley" skit (David can be seen covering his face with his left hand to hide his laughter).
In the movie A Christmas Story, there are a couple of scenes where cast members obviously corpse. When the family has Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant a duck is served to the family that still had his head attached. Melinda Dillon reacted and began laughing because she was intentionally given the wrong script, resulting in her losing her composure steadily throughout the scene. She completely loses it when the server lops the head off the duck.. Another scene is the daydream sequence when Ralphie goes blind due to "soap poisoning". When Ralphie tells the family, they overact and moan, then there's a closeup of the father asking how they could do it. He's covering his face but he's obviously trying to hide the fact that's he's having a difficult time keeping from laughing.
The Irish sitcom Mrs. Brown's Boys regularly features Agnes Brown (Brendan O'Carroll) ad libbing lines to make the other cast members corpse. Although no one is immune, his favourite target seems to be Rory. In later seasons and holiday specials, the other cast members seem to have developed the ability to do the same to him. An example of this is when Dermot blew a complicated line and Agnes jokingly commented that he 'must have shit himself when he saw it in the script' and made him repeat it. A moment later, Agnes repeats the line flawlessly to Cathy who then asks her to repeat it, flustering Agnes who noticed a smirk on Cathy's face. Dermot then popped his head in the back door and laughed mockingly while Cathy burst out laughing. These incidents are intentionally left in the episodes for effect.
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- Reiher, Andrea (Mar 15, 2014). "Jimmy Fallon and James Franco laugh about 'more cowbell' sketch from 'SNL' on 'Tonight Show'". Zap2it. Retrieved September 7, 2015.
'You always cracked up!' says Franco.
- Lifton, Dave (June 27, 2012). "Jimmy Fallon Recalls Famous Blue Oyster Cult / 'More Cowbell' Saturday Night Live Skit". ultimateclassicrock.com. Retrieved September 7, 2015.
...Fallon ... often had difficulty keeping a straight face. In a new interview, Fallon recalls why he broke up in the middle of the famous 'More Cowbell' sketch...
- Winter, Jessica (July 25, 2013). "When Is It OK to Crack Up? Some Ground Rules for the Cast of SNL". Slate. Retrieved September 7, 2015.