Steve Kaplan, June 2010

In August, Inscription sent me along to Steve Kaplan’s Comedy Intensive, in order to write this article. I’m not a comedy writer per se, but was intrigued by the implicit offer of the workshop: Do the intensive, and you’ll come out funnier – or at least, your scripts will.

Steve Kaplan is a Los Angeles-based comedy expert. He is responsible for creating the HBO Workspace, the HBO New Writers Program, and was co-founder and Artistic Director of Manhattan’s Punch Line Theatre. The star-studded credits of his former students include ‘Ugly Betty’, ‘Hairspray’, ‘Friends’, ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’. He teaches this Intensive on a regular basis, around the US and internationally.

It’s naïve to think that comedy just ‘happens’, that it’s all about inspiration or native wit – as simplistic as overlooking the craft involved in any art-form. But I wasn’t prepared for the almost scientific approach to the creation of successful comic writing – the vivisection of The Joke; the chemical reactions caused by combinations of character types. Nothing can replace inspired comedy, of course, which defies and transcends rules. Tools are only to be used when something’s broken, and you certainly don’t set out to use every one of them when writing a scene. But the information with which Kaplan furnished us enables any writer to work out why a character might not be working, where a premise is flawed, how to sharpen a scene, and indeed, how to generate ideas.

Kaplan emphatically stated that one should always begin writing by trusting one’s instincts. He is not in favour of formulae and rules, though believes in the usefulness of knowing what they are. What follows is not a how-to manual, but a map for when one gets lost, a set of practical applications that have been proven to work.

A sharp eye and a wild mind.

Over the course of the intensive, a great deal of information was relayed, a lot of clips were screened, a number of examples of what not to do were given. But Kaplan returned over and over again to two basic truths. The first is the assertion that TRUTH and CHARACTER are ranked above all else – great jokes, sparkling dialogue, bizarre plot-twists, and everything else is secondary to these. The second one we are about to explore, under the heading, The Comedy Equation…

Nearly all comic narratives can be reduced to a basic statement, that which Kaplan calls THE COMEDY EQUATION:

“An ordinary moke, struggling against insurmountable odds, without many, if not all, of the required skills with which to win – yet never giving up hope.”

The films he screened over the weekend supported this idea, some examples being ‘Annie Hall’, ‘Liar, Liar’, ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘There’s Something About Mary’, ‘The Producers’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’. The number of the ‘moke’s skills can be increased or decreased, depending on the desired result (as we’ll see later). What’s essential to comedy is hope. Without hope, there is no forward movement, no struggle. Terrible things can happen to the characters, people can die, but as long as there’s hope in the struggle it can still be comic.

The opposite of comedy is soap opera (despite the fact that soaps have, inadvertently, produced some of the most comic lines – Kaplan’s first clip featured a thigh-slapper from ‘The Bold And The Beautiful’). This is because soaps put forth an ideal: the women’s beauty; the men’s chiselled jaws; the opulence of the houses; the heroism of the characters. These people may be struggling against the odds, but they have plenty of skills.

Comedy, on the other hand, tells the truth about people, and thereby helps us live with who we are. The story may be fanciful, the characters outrageous, but there is an essential truth in their lack of perfection which allows us, the audience, to identify with them. Comedy needs what Dorothy Porter called “a sharp eye and a wild mind”: to see the details of what’s in front of us and take it to its most extreme conclusion.

How does comedy tell the truth about people? How does the ‘comic equation’ apply to us? And most importantly, how can we take a philosophical generalisation and turn it into a practical tool with which to write? We need to look first at what it is that all human beings share. What separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is the knowledge of our own mortality. Armed, or saddled, with this knowledge, it follows that every choice we make is with the intention of improving our lives a little. Even the altruistic act is ultimately self-rewarding, because it makes us feel good. However, these choices do not solve the problem of our inevitable demise. We know this, but we continue working, in hope and good faith, toward a tomorrow that may never come – and one day, it won’t. This is the human condition.

Now we see ourselves in the comedy equation: the struggle to win, against all odds, with few if any of the necessary tools. Comedy isn’t gags or funny business, but what happens to characters going through the narrative, doing whatever they must in order to win. This applies in equal measure to the writing, directing and performing of comedy.

The next step is to understand comedy’s various components, so that we can translate this knowledge into a practical approach to writing comedy that works. Kaplan has identified six ‘hidden tools’.

The Six Hidden Tools Of Comedy.

1. Winning:
In comedy, you take whatever action you think you need to in order to win.

Comedy gives a character the permission to do whatever they need to do in order to win. There’s no virtue here in witticisms, or even in speaking – Buster Keaton and Harpo are perfect examples of the flawed character who badly wants to win. Nor are writers and directors necessary for this element of comedy: it’s a performer’s arena. As for taking whatever actions they must in in order to win, this even extends to breaking dramatic rules. In ‘Annie Hall’, Woody Allen is infuriated by a pretentious jerk holding forth in the cinema queue, and he breaks the fourth wall by bringing out Marshall Macluen to prove his point and win his argument.

2. Non-Hero:
Someone who lacks some, if not all the skills and tools required to win.

The essential comedy element, the character without some, if not all, of the necessary skills. One of the most basic tools of the non-hero is their lack of knowledge. A director should constantly be reminding their actors, “Don’t know so much.” If a character is behaving as if they have all the knowledge, it usually turns out that they’re insane. Similarly, if a character does something malicious, it’s only funny if in doing so they’re drawing a portrait of themselves – demonstrating their own ignorance or paranoia.

To demonstrate this “don’t know” idea, two workshop participants were brought up to play ‘Experts’. Kaplan explained that this was a talk show, and the man, an expert on a subject of his choice, was being interviewed by the woman. She was given the secret instruction (though with the audience’s complicity) to slap him on the head every time he used a word containing a ‘k’ sound. So when he announced that the subject of his expertise was computers, the audience tittered in anticipation. She proceeded to ask him serious questions, which he answered sincerely. But on every ‘k’ utterance, she slapped his head. He went from being shocked, to wary, to on edge as he tried to discover the trigger. The comedy lay not in her hitting him, but in watching his attempts to anticipate the slaps: he lacked the necessary skills to win, but struggled nonetheless. When this exercise isn’t funny is when the ‘expert’ ignores the slaps. Without struggle, there’s no comedy. Similarly, if he avoids the slaps – if he has too many skills – it doesn’t work.

The truth of the human condition is that we live our lives in hope and guess. This exercise reinforces the idea that it’s not jokes or sight-gags that create comedy, but watching the character struggle. What’s funny is seeing the situation through their eyes, armed with knowledge that they don’t have.

In farce, you don’t give a character enough time to accomplish what they must. Buster Keaton said, “Act fast, think slow”. It’s a point at which Kaplan diverts from Robert McKee’s assertion that comedy happens between the narrative – that you stop the story for a comic moment, then pick it up again. Kaplan contends that comedy is in fact an essential part of the narrative, and should be seamlessly interwoven with character and action.

By increasing the non-hero’s skills, you change a comic moment to a serious, or romantic, or dramatic moment. If you want comedy, you decrease their skills. You make the struggle harder, or easier, for them depending on the intended outcome of the scene. When things go from bad to worse, you must let your protagonist be at fault. Otherwise they become the victim, and a victim is simply the flipside of the hero. The non-hero is responsible for what’s befallen them, and must be hoisted by their own petard. And still, the character continues their struggle to win, without the skills to do so.

Far more important than coming up with comic lines is knowing what your characters want. Comedy tells the truth, and when writers strain to be funny, they walk away from truthfulness.

3. Metaphorical Relationship:

The essential relationship beneath the surface relationship; a unique way of seeing the world.

More important than what the actual relationships are in comedy is how the characters perceive these relationships. As a writer or director, the power of this lies in the fact that you don’t have to invent anything, you just have to recollect it. The format can be familiar, and even the lines need not be original: the comedy arises from the inappropriateness of the relationship, given the circumstances. George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld are in the backseat of a police car, asking the cops to use the siren, or flash their lights: the relationship is parents and kids. In Mel Brooks’ ‘The Producers’, there’s a sequence in which Max is trying to persuade Leo to come in on a deal. It’s essentially a seduction scene, and the montage shows them as father and child buying a balloon; as lovers rowing on the lake; as Faust and Mephistopheles. Here, the metaphorical relationship even gives the director the shot, with the Devil peering over Faust’s shoulder, pouring promised glory into his ear.

A unique world-view…

People often make the mistake of writing characters in a static state of being, such as nervous, or gullible. But this is limiting, and leads to clichéd actions and reactions because they miss moments of truth. It’s far better to give the character a particular world-view, because then they have active responses, they can try to do something to remedy their situation.

A character sees the world as a dangerous place. So she comes home, locks the door, checks the windows, turns on lights – she does things to make herself feel better. (Every choice we make is with the object of improving our lives.) Then as the writer, we simply follow the character the way she sees the world. Another character may believe the world is a friendly place. He asks a stranger to mind his suitcase while he goes to the bathroom, and when he comes back both stranger and suitcase are gone. His first reaction won’t be anger, because that would mean he knows too much. So he doesn’t first assume that he’s been robbed, but that perhaps something’s happened to the man: his first reaction is concern for the stranger’s well-being. A third character might go straight to validation: she knew people were untrustworthy, and this proves it! She might have lost her bag, but she enjoys being right. (Given the choice between being happy and right, people prefer to be right.)

A character’s world-view can change, but essentially the character remains the same. While a tiger can’t change its stripes, it can transform from a frightened to a brave tiger. Nonetheless, it’s still a tiger.

4. Positive (Selfish) Action:
Every action the non-hero takes is done with the hope or expectation that it will work, or at least make a bad situation better.

The character takes action because he believes it’s going to help. He doesn’t know it’s going to help, but he hopes it will. We have touched on a number of truths that apply to drama as well as comedy – the need to know what a character wants; the need for that character to struggle in hope; the importance of truth above all else. But they differ in that dramatic writers are able to stop the action while characters express an emotional state, whereas in comedy we can’t stop – we must keep moving forward.

Positive action helps to make unpleasant characters funny: they’re being nasty not in order to hurt someone else, but to help themselves. Basil Fawlty beats up one of his guests, not because he hates the guest, but because it makes him feel better. This overlaps with the character’s world-view: when Basil gets beaten up in return, his response isn’t anger – he simply hopes that submitting to the beating will solve his problem.

5. Active Emotion:

The emotion that naturally occurs in the course of trying to win.

This is less a writing tool than a directing and performing tool. It’s the idea that what’s happening onstage is in fact being experienced by the character, and so the actor reacts to that emotional reality. If you are brought onto the stage by a stranger who insults your intelligence, you’re fully aware that what’s being said isn’t true – how can the stranger know? – but you nevertheless experience feelings of anger, or shame: you don’t have to act a reaction. If something bothers you, the level to which you’re upset in real life is the same as that for your character in the given moment. The same is true for all emotional states. Comics have an obligation to express externally what’s happening internally, and it’s impossible to do this unless the performer is living the moments, rather than inventing them. “In comedy, we protect ourselves with a screen door”, Kaplan says – we let everything in, everything registers, we have no defences against it.

6. Straight Line / Wavy Line.
The true fundamental dynamic of comedy: The one who sees and the one who does not see; the one struggling with the problem and the one who is blind to the problem.

The notion of a comedy duo comprising a straight man and a funny man is wrong (and the ‘straight line’ does not refer in any way to the ‘straight man’). Comedy isn’t about the setting-up of jokes. It’s arises from one person being blind in regard to their own actions, and the other seeing, but having no idea what to do with that knowledge. One is struggling to understand, while the other is blithely ignorant. ‘Who’s On First’ shows wavy-line Costello struggling to make sense of the information, while straight-line Abbott forges blindly onwards. The wavy line is the audience’s stand-in. If he does speak, he says the evident thing, asks the obvious question. The wavy line always has emotional focus: he’s responding, in the moment, with honest reactions; he’s the one with whom the audience identifies. Whereas the straight line achieves his expectations, whether or not he’s right.

Kaplan screened an example from the TV show ‘Mr. Show’. A man takes his girlfriend to a fancy restaurant. They have an attentive waiter, and all is going well. Then the man discreetly asks for the bathroom. The waiter reveals a special chamber underneath his chair, and he’s expected to void his bowels then and there, with a gloved assistant kneeling behind him poised to catch whatever he produces. “You want me to shit in a box?” The wavy-line asks the obvious. The straight-line waiter, reinforced by all the others, expects exactly that.

Comedy requires an intense amount of focus to create the physiological unified response of laughter. Watching a drama on stage, nothing is lost by us focusing on a number of characters at the same time: we can simultaneously watch Lady MacDuff and the murderers, or all of Chekhov’s three sisters plunged deep in their dilemma. But in comedy, only one character at a time can have emotional focus. If we’re watching ‘The Odd Couple’ and the audience’s attention is divided between the two characters, half the audience will laugh at Felix, and the rest will miss it. So you get little pockets of laughter, but not the unified physiological response that’s so crucial for comedy to succeed. Comedy depends on teamwork: who’s taking focus, and who’s giving focus. Being funny isn’t enough. This is true not just in theatre, by the way, but also in film and television – focus isn’t dictated by the camera’s point-of-view.

Another point about focus: a character physically looking around will pull focus. It’s a fact, and should be used consciously. The mere shift of focus creates a wavy line – we identify with the character trying to make sense of the situation.

Neither character needs to remain straight or wavy – they can switch roles as many times as they like, within a scene and even within an exchange. It’s not a mechanical decision, but depends on story-telling. However, there must always be a wavy and a straight line: two wavy lines, with both characters confused, becomes chaotic; two straight lines, where neither character has a problem, is boring.

Writing comedy is not about writing jokes, nor about ping-pong dialogue or witty banter. The fact is that most people talk not to each other, but past each other, and the straight-line/wavy-line dynamic exploits this. The wavy line need say very little for a scene to be hilarious.

A joke is an explosion in the brain.

A joke should perform a number of functions. It should:

  • Define character;
  • Further the action;
  • Express the character’s unique view of the world;
  • Be compressed (communicate an idea with as few syllables as possible).

A joke exists in the space between what we hear, and what is left unsaid. It is the connection we forge between those two things: we create a new neural pathway.

Knowing how much information to give in a joke is an art. It’s a fine line: an over-explained joke isn’t funny because the work’s already been done for us, robbing us of the opportunity to make our own connection. But give too little information, and we are confused. One could apply this same idea to all art-forms, perhaps: the pleasure and satisfaction comes from making a personal connection between what’s given and what’s received.

In writing sitcoms, the jokes should always come last. The most important element of a sitcom is character, and in the writing of the script, it’s the character beats that make it work. A film’s success depends not on jokes but on premise and character: these sell the script, and ultimately win an audience over. It’s preferable to have no joke than a bad joke. Bad jokes destroy the audience’s faith in the story. If you’re not absolutely certain that a joke is working, it’s better to drop it. Most writers make the mistake of keeping the bad joke, and then blaming the actor when it tanks. If it’s not working around the table, if it requires any explanation or elicits any groans, let it go. Similarly, you don’t cut a character-based line if it doesn’t get a laugh: as long as it’s forwarding the narrative, it has earned its place.

If you worry that a scene isn’t interesting enough, or funny enough, you bypass the true for the fake. Kaplan screened a scene from the short-lived TV sitcom ‘Soul Man': if a character is so exhausted that he must lie down, he doesn’t climb awkwardly over the back of the couch to do so (sacrificing ‘true’ for ‘funny’) – he takes the most direct route. And then the comedy arises from his dilemma between wanting to sleep and going to comfort his weeping friend, rather than the kooky way he got onto the couch.

Along the same lines, you need to know when a great joke is not right for your character. If he or she simply wouldn’t say that, or react that way, then no matter how funny the line is, it will undermine your script’s credibility, and should go.

In ‘Groundhog Day’, the writers don’t stop the story in order to tell jokes – in fact, they’ve taken jokes out. Kaplan gave us an earlier draft of the script, and then we watched the final product. The shooting script eliminated most of the funny lines, and stayed focused on the characters and the story-telling. The former had a lot more gags, but was not as effective – nor as credible – as the shooting script, and thus not made funnier by the jokes. If you only go for laughs, and ignore the hearts of the characters, you have no movie. Phil has to fall in love with Rita before the credits (though he’s too self-centred to realise it) – because this is what the rest of the film revolves around. With this dynamic as the focus, it’s still possible to convey important information, but it should be said by characters who matter, not secondary ones – or better, shown through behaviour and action.

More important than jokes is seeing what the character sees, their revelations and realisations. Comedy arises from letting the character take the lead. While you don’t have to worry about funny lines, you do need to ensure from the start that your character wants something. Give them a life of their own, and remember that they know more about their own thoughts and responses than you do. When you write a first draft, open the tap. Write everything, whatever comes up. But rewrite not from a writer’s point of view, not from the outside, but from inside the character’s point of view. Don’t put words in their mouths.

There are three simple things you can do to make a script better:

  • Take out the bad jokes;
  • Let the character do what he or she needs to do;
  • Take out the laugh track.
The Comic Premise.

A comic premise does three things:

1. Focuses on the point of comedy;
2. Identifies the main character;
3. Identifies the problem.

A good premise should explode story possibilities in your head. When the writing momentum slows, and you wonder what happens now, the question should not be, “What funny stuff can I make up” but “What do my characters do next?” You don’t want to find yourself in Act Two struggling to invent material, which is what happens when you have a one-joke premise. The more detailed and truthful a character, the richer the story possibilities. A character that provides fertile story potential will be flawed but redeemable, and must have the ability to change.

There are two approaches to finding a comedy premise. There’s creating a mundane situation and peopling it with a commedia troupe (see below): a likely scenario with an unlikely cast of characters. Or, there’s The Lie That Tells The Truth.

The first is a classic sitcom structure – ‘Seinfeld’, ‘Cheers’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’ are all built on this foundation, though it’s also popular in film, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ being an example.

The second is generally reserved for feature films. You tell one big lie, but after that you have to tell the story truthfully. ‘Big’ asks us to believe that a little boy turns into a man overnight, but from that point onward, the narrative proceeds truthfully, with no more lies being told. The premise of ‘Groundhog Day’ is that a day repeats itself over and over again: we are asked to accept this, but after that, everything else is credible. The premise is the one time you can lie; after that you have to develop the story organically, through the characters.

Another approach to generating a comic premise is to take something ordinary and making it mythic, or something mythic and make it ordinary (‘The Life of Brian’).

The Lie That Tells The Truth is a premise that works far better in feature films than in television writing. TV is the ideal medium for the commedia troupe of the dysfunctional family. With the right combination, there’s a huge range of relationship and story possibilities, and anything they do will be funny.

The Dysfunctional Family / Commedia Troupe:

In a potted history of comedy through the ages, from the Greeks to the present day, Kaplan identified a number of archetypal characters, crystallised in 16th- and 17th-century Italy as the Commedia Dell’Arte troupe. There’s Arlecchino, or Harlequin, the crafty servant, lazy and unscrupulous. There’s Brighella, Arlecchino’s smarter and more vindictive older brother. Pierrot is the least intelligent, but the sweetest and most innocent – and often mute. Colombine is the sassy serving maid; there are the young lovers, sincere and somewhat dim. To name just a few… Their descendents can be found in just about every successful comic character, duo, and troupe. Arlecchino is reincarnated by Ben Stiller, Steve Martin and Groucho. Colombine reappears as Lucie Arnez, and more recently, Grace. Brighella is Chico. And of course the mute Pierrot is reborn as Harpo.

Comedy Structure And Development.

There are three golden rules to writing comedy structure:

1. Given a strong comic premise, characters are brought on through NEED and THEME.
2. The Premise is the engine; the Theme is the rudder.
3. Character determines Structure; Structure should not dictate Character.

Once you have the premise, you introduce characters based on need and theme. If you have a couple dining in a restaurant, then you’re going to need a waiter. Theme is not a ‘message’, but a question, which the writer then explores and attempts to answer. The premise of ‘Groundhog Day’ is, ‘A man has to live the same day for ten years’. The theme is, ‘How can you be a good person in the world?’ And the film proceeds to explore this question through the character and the narrative.

It’s not the story that the writer must resolve, but the theme, which can only find resolution once the characters are complete. In ‘Groundhog Day’, Phil isn’t pursuing Rita at first, he just wants to get out of the town as quickly as possible. The writer takes nineteen minutes (not Syd Field’s three minutes, ten seconds) to set up the world, because it’s important. We need to know it in order to care about it. And once it starts repeating, the structure of the film moves through the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Negotiation (in which he doesn’t accept the situation, but he does use it to his advantage, unleashing his id), Depression and finally Acceptance. And only then is he released, and the theme resolved because his character’s resolved: he’s learnt how to be a mensch.

Whether or not the character achieves their goal is irrelevant: you need an ending that makes sense both for the characters and the theme. The premise provides the energy and forward momentum, the theme provides direction. The pleasure and engagement for the writer lies in the exploration of this question, or idea. If you know the answer to the theme’s question from the outset, it’s going to make for a very dull writing process.

The truth of character must be paramount: you must be willing to abandon the good idea you began with, as well as your plans for those characters, if they refuse to be led. Kaplan screened a scene from the feature film ‘Alex and Emma’, where the truth of the characters was constantly being sacrificed in the pursuit of laughs. There was a sense, in fact, that the writer didn’t know who these characters were. In one brief sequence, Emma goes from being uptight and conservative, to behaving outrageously (with no self-consciousness about it), before reverting to prudery. It had little to do with her as a character, and much to do with straining for comedy, which didn’t arise because it wasn’t truthful or logical. That sequence lasted a mere one minute, twenty-seven seconds, but it was enough to kill a film.

‘Head of State’ is another example of a film that sacrifices truth for laughs, and ultimately loses out on both fronts. It drops the ball when the protagonist takes time out for a big dance sequence, when we’ve just been told that the only thing he wants is the girl. She’s run off: why doesn’t he follow her? Why instead does he indulge in a lengthy full-cast dance number? Characters should not expend energy on extraneous events: they must always be in pursuit of their goals. If they start behaving untruthfully, or meaninglessly, it pushes us away from the narrative. We stop believing in it; we don’t know what universe we’re in any more; we retreat.

Kaplan’s final words of advice for aspiring comedy writers: The best thing you can do is join an improvisation class. Watch great comedies in order to learn the music of comedies: Chaplin, Sturges, Cary Grant, Billy Wilder… Then try to make yourself laugh before testing it out on others. There’s no such thing as a terrible audience. They can’t be wrong, only you can.

Comedy tells the truth about people, and therefore allows us to live with ourselves. It’s a way of dealing with that which we fear – and what’s more frightening than the fact of our mortality? It’s whistling as we walk past the graveyard. And it’s either that, says Kaplan, or sitting at home weeping softly and writing haiku.

Steve Kaplan’s book on comedy-writing is expected to be published in 2008. For more information, see his website:

Comments are closed.