"Corpsing" is British theatrical slang for unintentionally breaking character by laughing. In North American TV and film, this is commonly referred to as breaking, and it is generally categorized as a blooper. The origin of the term "corpsing" itself is unclear, but may come from (provoking an actor into) breaking character by laughing while portraying a corpse.
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.
Corpsing is not exclusive to the theatre. One of the most famous examples of this is on the cricket programme Test Match Special, in the famous "leg-over" incident and another cricket commentary in which it was noted that "...the bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey."
In the Monty Python film Monty Python's Life of Brian, Michael Palin deliberately attempts to make background actors, who were told not to laugh at the risk of being fired, corpse during the scene in which Brian is brought in by the Centurion played by John Cleese and two of his guards. Michael himself nearly corpses in the process.
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.
One of the most famous American examples of comedy partners trying to "corpse" is between Tim Conway and Harvey Korman 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 an episode of Friends that has Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) screeching along with a bagpipe, castmate Jennifer Aniston can be seen clearly breaking into laughter in the background. 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.
The Irish sitcom Mrs. Brown's Boys regularly features Agnes Brown (Brendan O'Carroll) ad libbing lines to make other cast members corpse. These incidents are intentionally left in the episodes for effect.
- arts.guardian.co.uk: "A greasepaint glossary," article on theatrical terms
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- Harry Thompson, Peter Cook: A Biography. Hodder and Stoughton, 1997.
- BBC Sport: Test Match Legends - Brian Johnston
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'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.