A comedian’s weapon in the battle for laughter is motion. Whether it’s firing synapses creating new ideas, or wild hand gestures attempting to convey them, professional funny people have little use for stillness. Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to capture their essence in portraiture.
One photographer, however, has made it his mission to bare the souls of comedians in pictures—often hilariously—and he’s devoted the last seven and a half years of his life to doing so.
When Seth Olenick was photo editor of Heeb Magazine, he would always assign himself the task of shooting any comedians the publication profiled. His love of comedy stems from an early appreciation of The Ben Stiller Show, a program those in the know will assure you turned out to be Ground Zero for the most influential names in comedy over the past 20 years. When Olenick decided to start a long-term photo project, he naturally gravitated toward comedians, which is how his new book came to take shape. Funny Business features 200 portraits of the rising stars and supernovas of the comedy universe, and it presents them in ways that are both funny and revealing. It was a chance for Olenick to not only meet some of his heroes, like Weird Al Yankovic and Judd Apatow, but to work with them as well.
“The intention behind the project was that it would be a collaboration,” he says. “Some of these people, I’d have an idea ahead of time of what we might do, and others, I’d go to their homes, look around for ten minutes and come up with the idea. And I would say ‘Why don’t we do this?’ and they’d say, ‘Okay, but why don’t we do it this way?’ and I’d say ‘Okay.’ And that’s kind of how most of it went.”
In order to get his subjects comfortable, one of the first things Olenick would tell them was that if they ever absolutely hated an idea he pitched, to let him know. This policy led to an atmosphere of improvisation, with the subject and photographer bouncing ideas off each other. Once they arrived at an idea, there was a lot of trial and error, and through shooting more and more, they’d arrive at the actual shot.
“When I’m laughing and the other person’s laughing, you know you’ve hit on something,” Olenick says. “That’s the point when I just say, ‘Let’s not keep pushing. We got it.’ If you keep pushing, it becomes something it’s not.”
Of course, getting to the point of actual laughter, either for the participants or the eventual audience, is not something that always happens when photographing comedians. Deprived of their words or any sense of motion, comics tend not to fall back on just making funny faces and hoping for the best. Instead, it’s the photographer’s responsibility to coax the humor out in a natural way.
“I try not to force the comedy. A lot of times it just happens organically,” Olenick says. “A lot of people who’ve tried photographing comedians say to me, ‘That must have been really hard, I tried to get them to be funny the whole time and it just didn’t work.’ And I say, ‘That’s the problem. You’re not supposed to try to get them to be funny. You’re supposed to just set them up in a situation where funny can happen.’
Have a look through more of the images, and read about the stories behind them, in the slides above.