Consultant Corner: Steve Kaplan on the Comic Hero

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Steve Kaplan is the go-to guy when it comes to comedy in Hollywood. He has taught at UCLA, NYU, and Yale, and he created the HBO Workspace, the HBO New Writers Program and was co-founder and Artistic Director of Manhattan’s Punch Line Theatre. Steve has consulted with Disney, DreamWorks Animation, HBO, and others. He has taught his acclaimed seminar (which we attended last year — here’s our review) in LA, New York, London, Paris, Kiev, Canada, Ireland, Israel, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. In addition to all this, Steve is the author of The Hidden Tools Of Comedy, and he is currently working on a follow up, The Comic Hero’s Journey, which is due out next year.

LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa chatted with Steve to learn more about the comic hero.

Angela Bourassa: What separates the comic hero from the dramatic hero? Don’t they both need to have an active external goal, an internal goal, and a challenge that stands in their way?

Steve Kaplan: There are a couple of differences. For one thing, the dramatic hero has a lot of chops—external skills and internal qualities that he or she is able to call upon to help in tight spots. The dramatic hero may be unaware of those qualities at the beginning of the story, but for the most part, they have greatness within.

The comic hero, on the other hand, does not have greatness within. The comic hero is usually a dweeb or jerk or some other kind of a misbegotten misanthrope. In Big, he’s bullied and not big enough to go on a ride with the girl of his dreams. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors is an egotistical a-hole. Th comic hero’s initial state is defective in some vital way; there’s a hole inside them. Their way of being in the world is deeply, deeply flawed.

At the start of the story, the comic hero’s life does not work, only they don’t know it! To them, it’s the normal state of affairs and they’ve accepted it. Rather than the inchoate unhappiness of a dramatic hero before he finds his quest, the comic hero is not trying to change it—for the most part they’re blithely trying to make the best of what we in the audience can see is a flawed, screwed-up way of living.

So the comic hero’s initial goal is almost always short-sighted, selfish, and regressive (no inner growth for me, please!). As the comic hero transforms, there’s a discovered goal that’s the result of the transformative aspect of the Comic Premise.

Angela Bourassa: Scott Moore and Jon Lucas have said that great comedy script concepts usually aren’t that funny. In fact, you should be able to pitch a comedy script as a drama or thriller, and it should still work. For example, Groundhog Day viewed through a different lens could be a psychological thriller. Do you think that idea rings true for comic heroes? 

Steve Kaplan: I’m not sure I agree with that. A weatherman discovers that every day he wakes up, he’s always in Punxsutawney, and it’s always Groundhog Day—doesn’t sound like much of a thriller to me.  I think comedy script concepts should be comic—the combination of a less-than-capable person (the term I use is Non-Hero) dealing with an impossible or implausible occurrence. Great comic premises conjure up an impossible, risible world and engage the audience in the thought—“OK, it’s impossible. But if it did happen, what would happen then?”

Where I would agree with Moore and Lucas is the formula of putting the least likely character into a usually serious or thrilling situation. International spies saving the world sounds thrilling, until you realize the spies are Melissa McCarthy and an idiotic Jason Statham.

Angela Bourassa: Keith Giglio makes the claim that comedic heroes basically always have an inappropriate goal — a goal like “lose my virginity” or “take down the frat next door.” Would you say that’s a fair assessment?

Steve Kaplan: I agree with Keith, in part. There are many films in which comic heroes try to solve real problems by taking outlandish or inappropriate actions. (I’m looking at you, The House.) But there are many comedies in which the comic hero’s goal is not inappropriate, like trying to find the fortune telling machine to reverse the wish in Big, or trying to juggle a new boyfriend and a new best friend in Enough Said, or marrying the girl of your dreams in 500 Days of Summer. But because our comic heroes are, well. . . comic, while their goals may be appropriate, many of their actions in trying to achieve their goals will be, well. . . inappropriate.

Angela Bourassa: Comedy evolves across time and cultures. Do comic heroes also evolve? Can a screenwriter look to examples of comic heroes from the 80s, 60s, or 20s, or should they keep their focus on the current marketplace?

Steve Kaplan: As Stephen Wright once said, “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.” I do believe strongly in borrowing from the past to improve your present and future, but we owe a debt not only to the 80s, 60s and 20s, but to archetypical characters that have been around in comedies for centuries. Lecherous old men, fast talking tricksters, slightly dim young lovers, cowardly womanizers, fools, naïve innocents—these archetypes and their variations have played leading roles in comedies from ancient Greek times to tomorrow’s sitcom. There’s nothing wrong in understanding and utilizing them, as long as you pair your, uh. . . research. . . with your own unique voice and point-of-view.

Angela Bourassa: When writing a comic hero, what attributes should writers consider? 

Steve Kaplan: Comedy is the art of telling the truth, and specifically, telling the truth about humans. So start with the truth. Tell the truth about yourself (Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) or about a relative (Norman Lear’s father was his model for Archie Bunker in All In The Family) or someone you know (Fawlty Towers was the result of John Cleese’s visit to a bad hotel with an even worse hotelier).

And remember—truth without compassion is one-dimensional. Even Basil Fawlty has moments of grace. Even if you’re writing an animated anthropomorphic chicken. We’re all humans, even the chickens. The genius of comedy is that it loves humanity without forgiving it. So pile on the flaws and foibles. But don’t sneer at your characters, don’t hate them. Remember, they’re only human.

Learn more about Steve, his consulting services, and his seminars at his website, Kaplan Comedy. Steve is a member of EIACE.

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Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

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