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Corpsing is British theatrical slang for unintentionally laughing during a non-humorous performance or when a role in a humorous performance is intended to be played "straight". In North American TV and film, this is considered a variation of 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 visible examples of corpsing, for example in performers who are 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 ad lib in an attempt to make Dudley Moore corpse, and often succeeded.
Johnny Carson frequently corpsed during sketches on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. For example, during a Carnac the Magnificent sketch, Carson read the punchline "Three Dog Night", but started laughing when delivering the question ("What's a bad night for a tree?"). Also, in one Art Fern sketch, Carson's fake mustache fell off, drawing howls of laughter from the audience. Carson and Matinee Lady Teresa Ganzel's comical attempts to reattach the mustache eventually caused them to openly burst out laughing as well.
Corpsing is not exclusive to the theatre. A widely reproduced example occurred on the cricket programme Test Match Special in 1991, when Jonathan Agnew commented that a batsman "didn't quite get his leg over", causing Brian Johnston to break into helpless laughter.
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 actors playing Roman soldiers to crack up. In character and in a long, drawn out fashion, he confronts the soldiers 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' (word is risible, but the character has a speech impediment) when he says the name Biggus Dickus. The men 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 actors.
The "Church Police" sketch in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl contains a considerable amount of corpsing, particularly from Eric Idle and Terry Jones. Also, at the point where the eponymous Church Police arrive, Jones loses his wig, prompting more corpsing (and the other actors attempting to cover for Jones so he can recover the wig).
An American example of comedy partners trying to "corpse" is between Tim Conway and Harvey Korman during The Carol Burnett Show. Instances include Conway as an inept dentist who accidentally injects himself with Novocaine causing Korman to steadily lose composure while trapped in a dentist chair, Vicki Lawrence ad libbing during a Family sketch and making Carol Burnett lose focus during both tapings, and Conway ad libbing a story about a circus elephant during a family sketch and making the entire cast break down in tears laughing. This breaking character was generally acknowledged by the cast members as an important part of the show due to its popularity with both studio and home audiences.
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. This is because they allowed specific gaps in the script in order to allow Williams to run freely with his improvisation because he often came up with things that were considered superior to what the writers would come up with. 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. 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 frequently corpse, 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. This is done to get an authentic reaction from her, which is what the filmmakers were going for.
The Red Green Show episode "The Beef Project" contains a "game show" scene where many of the contestants corpse. The scene is a Jeopardy-like sketch where the contestants answer questions about cars; each is given a different noise-making device to use while "buzzing in". Ben Franklin's (Dave Thomas) car horn continuously malfunctions, causing Ben's brother Dougie (Ian Thomas, Dave's real life brother) to burst out 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. An example of this is when a cast member stumbled on a complicated line and Agnes commented that he 'must have shit himself when he saw it in the script' and made him repeat it. These incidents are intentionally left in the episodes for effect.
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'You always cracked up!' says Franco.
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...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...
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