by Angela Bourassa
Several weeks ago I had the chance to attend Steve Kaplan’s Comedy Intensive in LA. For those of you who don’t know, Steve is considered the guru of comedy. He has studied comedy for decades, and along the way he has taught at UCLA, NYU, and Yale while also consulting for such companies as DreamWorks, Disney, HBO, and Paramount. His book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy, is tantamount to a bible for comedy screenwriters.
In other words, he knows his stuff.
Steve’s Comedy Intensive is an intimate two-day training session. Steve takes the time to answer participant question, encourage discussion, and otherwise make the lecture series interactive. His style is more or less the exact opposite of McKee.
In the crowd with me were a number of other screenwriters ranging from weathered pros to people thinking about starting their very first first draft. There were also a number of actors and directors, as well one woman who was planning to open her own comedy theater in LA. The group was lively, as you might expect at a comedy workshop, and the room always had a lively energy.
I didn’t agree with everything Steve said during the weekend, but I did walk away with a clearer understanding of what comedy is and when/how/why it works best. Here are three lessons that I took away from the weekend.
1. A comic premise is the lie that tells the truth.
Truth is at the heart of all great comedy. Fart jokes can be fun, but truly great comedy reveals something about our humanity or the world around us. In the vast majority of comedies, there’s an element of the absurd. Things happen in comedies that would simply never happen in the real world, but these exaggerated realities (or lies, if you will) that we create in comedy reveal a deeper truth about the way that life actually is.
Zombies probably aren’t going to overtake England any time soon, but Shaun of the Dead uses literal zombies to snap Shaun out of sleepwalking through his own life. Tom Hanks would never actually age fifteen years overnight, but that lie in Big epitomizes the feeling that many of us have when we wonder when the hell we got so grown up. Very few of us have exes who are TV stars with new famous boyfriends, but we know exactly what Jason Segel is going through in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
2. Comedy flows from character.
Comedies tend to go off the rails when writers think, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”
There’s this very human tendency to try to manipulate funny situations and drop our characters into them. This, according to Steve, is the wrong approach. Once you have established your comic premise, your characters should serve the needs of that premise.
So if you’re writing a movie about someone aging fifteen years overnight, it only makes sense that your character will start at an age where that time span will make the biggest difference. And once you have your character, they should determine the events of your script, not the other way around. Put your character in the world of your premise and ask what they would do next. If your characters are well-developed and honest, humor will emerge naturally.
Go back and watch an episode of Seinfeld or Parks and Rec or The Office. Listen for characters delivering jokes to each other. You’ll be amazed at how rarely it happens. Instead, these beautifully written characters just do what they would do in any given situation, and the results are hysterical. The same goes for film – The Big Lebowski, Groundhog Day, When Harry Met Sally…
3. Comedy gives you the permission to win.
This simple observation succinctly explains why things can get so ridiculous in comedies without losing the audience. Regardless of whether it’s a light rom-com, a satire, or a dark comedy, your main character (and all of his/her surrounding characters) have the permission to do whatever it takes to win any given situation.
If your hero is trying to get the girl back, he’ll always start by doing the minimal thing that he thinks will work. When that fails, he takes it a step further and tries again. The glory of comedy is, he can go as far as it takes to get the job done. That’s not to say that your hero will always succeed in the end, but they will always give it their absolute all, no matter how ridiculous that may seem in real life. The only rule is that the action should be true to that character (as established in lesson 2).
In The Hangover, winning means tracking down their friend, no matter what. In 50 First Dates, winning for Adam Sandler means finding any way possible to trick Drew Barrymore into spending time with him – later in the movie, it means figuring out how to get her to remember him. In Election, the win for Matthew Broderick is keeping Reese Witherspoon from becoming class president at all costs.
For those of you in Europe, Steve has Comedy Intensive’s coming up in Paris, Galway, and London. For those of you everywhere else in the world, make the much cheaper investment in Steve’s book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy. He also offers script analysis and coaching services. Check out kaplancomedy.com to learn more.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.