The Secrets of Comedy: Steve Kaplan on the Hardest Genre

Steve-Kaplan-headshot

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

[Editor’s Note: Steve Kaplan has a Comedy Intensive coming up at the end of January in Los Angeles. Learn more and sign up here!]

A scientific study once found that 96% of people think they have an above average or average sense of humor. I think we can all agree that a significant number of people aren’t as funny as they think they are. So, how can you demonstrate your humor chops in your writing? Should there be a certain number of jokes per page? How do you create humor that will appeal to the widest possible audience? What makes good comedy writing?

Steve Kaplan has made a career out of being a trusted source for such questions. His clients have won ten Emmys, two WGA Awards, and an Oscar. They’ve worked on shows ranging from Everybody Loves Raymond to Saturday Night Live. It’s fair to say Steve understands comedy and knows how to help others do the same.

Steve and I recently discussed the biggest comedy mistakes new writers make, current trends in the genre, and why comedy is so damn hard to write. An edit transcript of our conversation follows:

John Bucher (JB): Why do you think it’s said that comedy is the hardest genre to write?

Steve Kaplan (SK): I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand it. I think it’s hard to write because everybody thinks they have a sense of humor, everybody thinks they know what’s funny. But “funny” is very subjective — what’s funny to you might not be funny to me. If you create a character and you make people identify with the character and that character dies, you’re going to create sympathy and tragedy. You kill Jon Snow and everybody’s going to freak out. You can’t kill Jon Snow! I love Jon Snow! If you try to make a joke about Sam (from Games of Thrones) being fat, you might enjoy it, somebody else might go, “Oh, that’s weak.”

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I think what makes it hard is that people try to be funny as opposed to trying to write comedy, which is the art of telling the truth about human beings. To me, comedy is not about mechanics, it’s not about timing… Although timing is important. But comedy is no more about timing than jazz is about timing. If you can count, can you be Count Basie? Probably not.

There’s a rhythm and a music to comedy, but mostly comedy tells the truth and specifically it tells the truth about human beings, so if you can stick to that and at least make yourself and your friends laugh, that’s a start.

JB: What is the most common mistake newcomers make?

SK: Trying to be funny. The idea that you need a certain number of jokes per page, or you can’t go a certain number of pages without a joke, which is very different than something funny or humorous happening. If you take a look at the first scene of the Seinfeld episode called The Contest, the one in which they’re trying to be master of their own domain. In that first scene, they’re just sitting around in the diner, and they’re talking about if you’re captured by terrorists, if you’re a hostage, would they do the laundry?

And Kramer imitates a terrorist and he says, “You, you, you, take your clothes off! We’re doing the laundry.” That’s a joke, but everything else that happens in the scene is not a joke, it’s characters speaking from their own truth, trying to get what they want and it comes out as a joke. It comes out as something funny and, certainly, in crafting it and writing it, there’s the haiku of comedy: just cutting out everything that’s not essential and getting to the reveal that gives us enough information for us to laugh, but not so much information that it kills the laugh.

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Another mistake young writers make is to try to put clever witticisms in everybody’s mouth.  If you watch a lot of comedy, you realize that if there’s one character’s doing a lot of talking, that character is usually an idiot. There is another character who’s kind of trying to keep up, and that character is usually our protagonist.

So if you look at a scene from There’s Something About Mary, you have Chris Elliot schooling Ben Stiller in how to go on a date. And Chris Elliot’s going on and on, “You don’t spank the monkey? You gotta, that’s what you gotta do for a date.” And Ben Stiller says, “I’m tired,” and Chris Elliot hits him on the back of the head and says, “No! You’re feeling like a girl, and girls love that!”

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So the comedy really isn’t one character being funny and another character simply offering set up lines, it’s usually about a character struggling to make sense of a senseless world, and not doing that great a job.

Another mistake is adding complication onto complication onto complication. Thinking that because one thing hits another and it causes a strange third thing to happen, which causes a strange fourth thing to happen, that’s comedy. But the best comedy comes from one big event or lie and then following honestly and organically what comes out of that.

Everything else in that movie flows from character and theme, honestly and organically. A kid wishes he were bigger on a fortune telling machine, he wakes up the next morning, he’s Tom Hanks. Everything else flows honestly and organically. But if you look at a bad movie, one impossible or implausible thing follows another, which follows another, which follows another, as though the accumulation of all those impossible events create more comedy, but all they do is undercut our belief in the reality.

JB: Who are some comedians and writers who are staying consistent on a long-term basis?

SK: I would say, in television Louis C.K. — his show is brilliant. David Crane, who did Friends and now is doing Episodes, which I think is one of the funniest shows. Mike Judge, who did Office Space and now he’s doing Silicon Valley. Judd Apatow, even though Judd Apatow doesn’t write all his stuff. I think you could look at the whole Judd Apatow movement from 40 Year Old Virgin to Funny People — they all have great moments in them.

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Steve Martin’s body of work is amazing, also. From The Jerk through Bowfinger, Roxanne, and LA Story. Then you have writers like Woody Allen who, on purpose, turned away from writing comedy. Woody Allen famously said that comedy is sitting at the kid’s table, but he wanted to sit at the adult’s table. But every now and then you still have a very enjoyable film like Midnight in Paris.

Then you have newcomers like Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber who wrote (500) Days of Summer, and you have all those people working at Pixar… Some of those films are not just great animated films, just great films, they’re great comedies. So I think that you have a lot of people working in the form and doing consistently interesting, adventurous stuff all along the way — a lot more in television than there used to be, too.

[Read Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling]

JB: What is the story structure for comedy? Is it easy to transition into comedy from another genre?

SK: I think you can use some of the hero’s journey for comedy. I’m actually working on a new book called The Comic Hero’s Journey that shows where it’s similar and where it’s different. But the thing about comedy is, the comedy comes from how the characters interact with other characters in the environment as they’re going through the narrative.

I worked with a guy who came from drama and was trying to write a commercial comedy, but he came at it from the same structure that he did all his work. He did an outline, he did a beat sheet, and he knew where everything ended, and I kept encouraging him to let go of some of that A then B then C then D, because part of what makes something funny is how the character interacts with everything in the environment. And that was a very different way for him to work, but if you look at great comedies, great comedies always have moments that are unexpected.

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At the end of Groundhog Day, they’re all at the dance and everybody who Bill Murray has helped that day is coming up and thanking him, including the young couple that got married, and Bill Murray pulls out tickets to WrestleMania. To a lesser writer, that would have been the joke, making fun of the rubes.

But then, to thank Bill Murray, the little girl stands on her tiptoes and gives him a kiss on the mouth. And the big, tall, lanky groom thinks, well okay, and very chastely kisses Andie McDowell on the cheek, at which point the little blonde spitfire turns all green with jealousy and grabs him and walks away. Now, that’s a comic moment that you miss if you outline your piece in a way that you don’t take time to walk in the shoes of the characters that you’re writing, because it’s a minor character.

As you look at comedies, you’ll notice that the comedian is the person who’s noticing what’s going around them and is unable to deal with it. If you put blinders on them and have them go in straight lines, you miss a lot of comedy, and that’s why people put in slipping on a banana peel, having a pie in the face, something witty, because that’s where they think the comedy is. But the comedy is really what’s happening between the lines with the characters.

JB: How do you feel comedy has changed over the past few years?

SK: It’s a lot faster. If you look at any comedy from the 50s or 60s, it goes so slowly. The pace has picked up, and not just the performance pace. It’s the editing. I’m screening Silver Streak right now, and it’s so slow.

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Certainly language is another thing.  You weren’t able to say certain words, as George Carlin famously pointed out. Now you can say anything you want.  I used to be able to create a lot of humor through suggestion, and now I can just say anything. Where’s the art and the artifice in that?

I think we also have to talk about the old myth that women aren’t funny. You have to put that to rest. Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, Garfunkel and Oates…

JB: How do you feel technology has affected comedy? Is writing comedy for film different from writing for TV or the web?

SK: In film, you’re creating a problem that you’re planning on solving in 90 minutes to two hours. In television, you’re creating a dilemma that is unsolvable — you don’t want it to be solved, it’s an ongoing tension. And you’re creating a substitute family to live in that dilemma. So all television shows are about families, whether it’s CSI or it’s Everybody Loves Raymond, it’s all about a family. You’re creating this alternate family that you begin to care about.  There’s the mom and there’s the dad and there’s the crazy brother and there’s the weird uncle… Whereas in film, you’re creating a problem that people struggle with, and hopefully solve in a couple of hours.

For the web… I think the roots of the web are sketch comedy, which has been with us for 100, 150 years. And sketch comedy has been married to serial storytelling.

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New technology has made it possible for anybody to make a show. How much money could the guys on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia spend? The tale is $8,000. $8,000 and they made a television show. So that’s the basic difference with new technology: if you have an idea, if you have talent, if you have writing, you can do a show and you can upload it and it can be seen. Whether it becomes famous, whether you make money, that’s another conversation.

That means your ability to create story and disseminate it is no longer at the behest of corporations. Look at the guy who did the tweets Shit My Dad Says. That became a television show. It got ruined as a television show, but it became a television show.

JB: What would be your advice to comedy writers who are trying to stay relevant?

SK: They have to write about things that matter to them, and do it in ways that challenge them, as opposed to ‘this is the easiest way for me to do this.’ I’m not sure how important a question that is in a world in which Two and a Half Men can run nine, ten years and Happyish might not get a second season. Relevant is in the eye of the shareholder, I guess.

JB: What are some of your favorite screenplays of all time?

SK: Groundhog Day, Annie Hall and Manhattan, The Sting, just as an exercise in brilliant storytelling. And I think last would be Monty Python and the Life of Brian. I mean, it’s got the world’s best closing song.

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More information about Steve Kaplan, his work, his seminars, and his book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy, is available at his web site, kaplancomedy.com. Follow him on Twitter @skcomedy.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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