Steve Kaplan is one of Hollywood’s most respected experts on comedy, and he recently had a conversation with Chris Soth on “Hollywood By Phone.” Steve Kaplan has a rich history in entertainment, and has worked with major studios, taught at universities, and consulted with a long list of successful comedians, writers, actors, and producers. (See his bio at: www.kaplancomedy.com/bio.html). He hosts a two-day intensive workshop on comedy where his knowledge and experience have been boiled down to their essence. During the conversation, he gave an in-depth overview of that workshop.
What’s funny is whatever makes you laugh and, thanks to human nature, that can be pretty much anything. But comedy was best described by John Cleese as watching a person watch someone else being silly. It is often referred to as the straight-man and the funny-man routine, and Steve has a number of tools that he teaches to make that situation get to the funny bits.
Comedians are people who see the world without criticism or condemnation. The world can be a very silly place, and being human can be very messy. We trip while we walk, we drop things we mean to carry, and we spill sticky things on ourselves when it is least convenient. We have hair that grows where it wants to grow in spite of our aspirations of beauty. Comedy helps us live with who we are, and being a comedian means to confess to being human in front of an audience.
Steve explained how, given the above, there are two basic types of comedians: observers and silly people. Observers describe how a silly person interacts with the world, and silly people act out on stage their interactions with the world. For the silly act to work on stage, the comedian must find a way to remind the audience that they are the observer.
Moving into comedic stories, Steve explained that the basis of comedy is to have a regular guy, a “moke”, who struggles against insurmountable odds without the tools or knowledge to succeed and yet never quits. The comedic character must don blinders so as to help him ignore the signals from the real world that things are not going well, signals that would tell a reasonable person to stop what they are doing. The comedic character, marching forth on their quest, needs help from other characters to help reveal the funny bits in their situation, and there are a number of tools that can be applied in those scenes.
The comedic character often needs a foil or sidekick so that their own “straight line” of action can be contrasted with a “wavy line” of reasonableness. This is the observer and the silly person at play. The comedic character must always take positive actions; i.e., they must believe that everything they attempt will assist them in their quest. They must also employ active emotions–they must be plain in what they are feeling, and they must act on those feelings, even if they themselves don’t understand those feelings.
Beneath the surface relationships in a comedic situation is a metaphorical relationship, and employing that metaphor often helps bring out the funny bits. When Jerry Seinfeld tells a joke about socks, the socks are not inherently funny; but the sock as a metaphor for our own human desires for freedom, excitement, and adventure is funny–or maybe you just had to be there.
During Kaplan’s Comedy Intensive, Steve breaks down scenes from movies–those that work and those that don’t– and together with the class he discusses ways in which the tools might have helped the funny bits work in the situation. What he generally believes to be wrong in most romantic comedies is that they portray beautiful people doing foolish things which have little hope of helping their situation. The gags are not designed in any way to help them on their quest, they are just slipping on a banana peel, and you may or may not find that funny. They lack the credibility of “the moke”, and so we may chuckle at the gag, but we don’t laugh at the situation, nor do we care if they succeed.
One way to build that credibility in our comedic characters is to employ an interesting premise, as in Groundhog Day and Big. The best comedic premises are absurd and silly lies that help tell the truth: being condemned to repeat a single day over and over helped Bill Murray’s character explore and correct the very many flaws in his personality, and being thrust into adulthood with only the mind of an adolescent helped Tom Hanks’s character learn how boring and painful life can be, and how necessary it is to learn those lessons at a prescribed pace.
Listening to Steve and Chris on “Hollywood By Phone” was like watching “This Old House” on PBS when two master craftsmen explain their trade: it reveals what is possible, if only you could master those tools. You can listen to the interview at: http://bit.ly/bl8bm5
About HollywoodbyPhone.com: Million Dollar Screenwriter Chris Soth, of www.YourScreenplayMentor.com, interviews producers, development executives, agents, managers, attorneys, writers and directors. Live calls are free when you sign up at http://bit.ly/4BH9pf.
About the author: Mickey Hadick is a novelist, screenwriter, and blogger whose humorous projects can be seen at www.mickeyhadick.com.