One-liners tend to be frowned upon by many, yet they are SO essential to the building blocks of a script that they are often overlooked!
In my own experience, a one-liner not only allowed me to work on my favorite sitcom, Will and Grace, but it also allowed me to work with one of my all time favorite singers; Madonna and my favorite director, Jim Burrows.
Now, one-liners can not only be fun, make you quite a nice chunk of change, but they can also turn your character into a re-curring role for many, many seasons. Think about the sitcom, Friends. Remember when they would all get together at the coffee shop and the barista, Gunther, would wait on them? Or deal with them in some way. Well guess what? He became a part of that show for 185 episodes… all from a one-liner.
So how do you master one-liners?
Environment. Set up your moment before by using what’s going on in the environment. Are you in a club? At a busy restaurant? The school drop-off with kids?
If you’re in a club, what kind of music do you think they are playing? If it says you’re dancing, why not dance to your favorite song playing in your head while you’re talking?
Or let’s say you’re a server in a busy restaurant and your line is, “Can I help you?” How would you go about saying that? What are your thoughts about how busy you are? How are you feeling about being so rushed? A good choice may be that it’s your first day on the job and you’re feeling overwhelmed so you’re using your notepad (sides) to track your orders. This not only gives you something to be involved in, but a reason as to why you’re not looking at every customer flooding into the restaurant.
Story. How does your one-liner fit into the story? Usually your job as a co-star in TV is to move the story along. Since that’s the case, how are you choosing to move it along? Why is what you’re saying important to the story? Remember, you are there to do a job, give information in the way YOU would give it, and make the most specific choices possible for your character. Don’t make a meal out of your one-liner. Go in the room with your choices and say the line. That’s it. No more. No less.
Beginning. Middle. End. Since we now know you are there to move the story along, and your one-liner is part of a story, then what is your beginning, middle and end? There is always some change that occurs AFTER you’ve said your line that you need to react to in some way.
Let’s go back to the waitressing example. If you’re in a busy restaurant and it’s your first day on the job, you’re probably trying to catch up with everyone’s order. So if one more customer sits down, how are you going to feel when you deliver your line “Can I help you?” If the person you’re talking to happens to be the series regular, how are you supposed to make her feel in the “story?” Are you there to add to her bad day? Make her happy? Ease her pain? These are some clues that may be given to you in the stage directions either before or after your one-liner. (Please be sure to take note of this information in when preparing!)
If you’re there to ease her pain, maybe you start off by being in a rush (beginning), not looking at her because you’re involved in your previous orders and then when you say your line, she responds in a desperate or sad way, so you naturally look up with thoughts of empathy or sadness (middle.) Maybe you give her a “chin up” gesture or a little smile that says “it’s gonna be ok” then move on to your next customer or leave to pick up an order (end.)
Whatever the case, you’ve got to create a , and for yourself so that you’re setting up the other characters to move ahead in the story. Don’t forget, the information you give to them changes the way they go about their business for the rest of the episode.
Be Off Book. It is essential that you be off book for your one-liner. If you can’t be prepared with one-line, how are you going to handle more dialogue on set if they decide to give it to you?
My advice is to take the time to read the story, have a strong moment before, a specific thought that supports how you’re feeling and a strong ending. The way you stand out is by being who YOU would be in that moment, not who you think the casting director wants you to be.