Steve Kaplan screenwriting class

What Is Comedy?
With Steve Kaplan

Who Is Steve Kaplan?

Steve Kaplan's is Hollywood's #1 comedy screenwriting instructor and story consultant. For almost 20 years, Kaplan has been at the forefront of comedy writing - whether it was co-founding New York's famed Punchline Theatre, creating HBO's New Writer's Program and Comedy Workspace, or touring the world giving his famed 2-day "Comedy Intensive" class to almost 20,000 writers around the world. Steve also regularly serves as a script and story consultant to such studios as DreamWorks, Paramount,NBC, ABC and Disney, as well as top networks and production companies in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and more.
Kaplan's former students have earned 43 Emmy nominations (10 wins), 2 Oscar nominations (1 win), and 6 Writer's Guild of America Award nominations (2 wins), and include the likes Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City), David Crane (Friends), Jack Black, Kathy Griffin, Nathan Lane and Peter Tolan (Analyze This, Rescue Me).
Kaplan brings his Comedy Intensive class to the U.K. for the first time in many years the weekend of 25/26 June, and was kind enough to sit down for a lengthy interview about the serious business of writing comedy.

What exactly is comedy?

Steve Kaplan: Comedy is the art that tells the truth about people, which is also the art of hopebecause most comedies are about some kind of ordinary guy or girl struggling against insurmountable odds, without many of the necessary skills with which to win, and yet never giving up hope. In our daily lives we have moments when we despair, but for the most part we're (metaphorically) standing on a corner in the pouring rain, lifting our hand and desperately wishing that a cab would come by. When it doesn't, an intelligent person would give up and say it isn't going to happen. In a comedy, we stay and get drenched and then try to make the best out of the bad situation.
Many people think that it's drama that tells the important, significant stories of our lives. Because drama helps us dream about what we can be.  Drama helps us dream about what we could be:  Wouldn't it be great to be as resilient as Rocky, or as daring as James Bond, or as courageous as Jack Bauer? To be as sensitive-or as sexy or as gorgeous-as the docs on Grey's Anatomy?
Drama helps us dream about what we could be but comedy helps us live with who we are. Comedy tells the truth.

Question: You've consulted on over 500 scripts for film and TV. What are the typical weaknesses you find in scripts?

Steve Kaplan: The most typical weakness in scripts center around "funny." A comedy's only as good as it's funny, right? So there is the tendency to do things for "funny's" sake. Funny characters, funny lines, funny situations, funny disasters, funny spills, trips and spits. And if it's not working, add more 'funny' and stir. The only problem with that is that 'funny' is subjective. What's funny to me might not be funny to you. I have a four-year old niece. If I take my keys out and shake them, she'll laugh. To her, that's funny. I often use that in my seminar, and my empirical proof is: screenwriters laugh at shaking keys as well. Again, to her - and to screenwriters - jangling, dangling keys are funny.
But is it comedy? Would you pay $125 to see it on Broadway, or invest millions of dollars to make it into a feature? Would you put that into development as a January pick-up? What we try to do is get beyond funny to explore what's comic.
Like I said, funny is subjective; what's funny to you might be off-putting to me. So rather than try to teach what's funny, (subjective) we focus on universal principles of comedy (objective). And in doing so, we focus on what comedy is, how it works, why it works, and more importantly, what's going on when it's not working, and how to fix it.

Question: What defines comedy as a genre? What are its conventions?

Steve Kaplan: As a genre, comedy deals with ordinary, or less than ordinary, characters faced with an extraordinary situation or struggling against insurmountable odds. And we are all familiar with the typical conventions of the form: there has to be a happy ending. All comedies end with a feast or marriage. No one dies (at least, no one we like). Silly people having silly problems, so we can feel superior to them.
Well, that's one theory. It's not mine, however.
Comedy has the capability of telling heart-rending, harrowing stories, or entertaining with feather-light fluff. But whether you're Mel Brooks or James Brooks, all comedies share a heritage of comic characters.
I go back to the Commedia, which was an Italian theater form in which a set cast would improvise an entire scenario. In the Commedia, you had every archetype you would ever need in a comedy. There were clever tricky servants and zanies and dumb young lovers and lecherous old men and battleaxe wives, courtesans with a heart of gold. It was an actor's theater, where the needs, wants and fears of the archetypical characters propelled the action.
Imagine this simple scene: a park bench.  On it sit the two young lovers.  What's their physical movement?  Since comedy allows characters the permission to act on their desires, they probably move toward each other.  Substitute Pantalone, the old man, for the young boy; now the movement is circular, as the lecherous old man chases the young girl around the bench.  Substitute La Ruffiana, the battle-axe wife, for the young girl, and now she chases Pantalone round the bench the opposite way.  Replace them all with three Zannis, who in rushing towards opposite sides of the stage, crack heads together and knock each other out.  Once the scenario starts, the characters, and their needs and fears, create the event, plot, and the choreography of the story.
Commedia companies would improvise scenarios, and have the ability to tell any story with the characters in their troupe. Scenarios would change, but the characters were unchanging. These are characters that have been around for thousands of years. And they're still here today.  For instance, can you think of an art form today in which the characters stay the same but the situation changes? I don't know, say, week after week? Right, the television sitcom.
So when I talk about Commedia, I'm not trying to be academic and obtuse and irrelevant. I'm talking about something that you see right in front of you every day. And the more that you watch comedy, the more that you see these characters and, more importantly, their relationships.
In developing a premise, you want to bring on characters in terms of a unified troupe, so that characters have functions within their relationships as well as within the story. A unified troupe that is brought on through need and theme. If you have a café scene, you might need to have a waiter take your main characters orders. Or you introduce a character because the character helps develop the theme of the movie.
A good example of that is the movie GROUNDHOG DAY. The theme of GROUNDHOG DAY could be stated as, "How can you be a mench, a good person in the world?" The main character in the movie is Phil, a conceited jerk of a weatherman. Rita, the producer, will be his love interest, and also the focus of his eventual redemption. There's another character, Larry, who's played by Chris Elliot. Why is Larry in the screenplay? Because he's the cameraman, and someone has to hold the camera on the remote shoot. Larry is brought on through need. But what about Stephanie, Phil's ex-girlfriend? If you don't remember Stephanie, it's because the character was cut out of the movie. Stephanie was in the script originally because the studio thought that the audience needed to know just how Phil got caught in his own special time warp. So Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin came up with Stephanie, a Ouija-board-playing jealous ex-girlfriend who dabbled in black magic and curses. But if Stephanie is in the movie, it changes the theme. It makes GROUNDHOG DAY ask the question, "How can you be a better boyfriend?" Putting Stephanie in the movie diminishes the film.
One of the things that I work on with writers when I do one-on-one consultations is oftentimes people put in characters who are not necessary. The problem in writing a screenplay is there are - how many people in the world now? Six billion people in the world. You could put six billion characters in your movie if you had enough hard drive space. So what comedy teaches us is that comedy is usually a closed universe. If I read a comedy in which there's 40 speaking parts, that's a huge problem. People are just throwing characters in just for a joke and then you never see them again. Most great comedies are closed universes. In Moliere, a guy would enter during the first act, just wandering around the streets, and he'd turn out to be the father of the two orphans in the fifth act, so everything connected. Everything was connected through relationship and character.
So the first step is you come up with this great lie, the lie that tells the truth. The second step is to make sure that you have a usable Commedia troupe of characters, called on through need or theme, without extraneous characters that aren't necessary or because they don't reflect the theme. And then once you do that, then you need to follow these characters and allow them to pursue their own goals and their own needs through the movie.

Question: How important is story structure in comedy?

Steve Kaplan: Structure is very important, but to blindly follow a generic structure makes as much sense as building every building with the same blueprints. And while it would be silly to build up to the climax on page 40, and have the characters sitting around chatting pleasantly for 60 pages as it would be for you to stress that YOUR PIVOT POINT NEEDS TO HAPPEN AT THE 75% MARK, AND YOU'RE ALREADY UP TO 77%!
Chill. And watch some great movies with asymmetrical structures, such as GROUNDHOG DAY, which takes it own good time before it puts the character into peril (twenty-minutes) and then proceeds to tell its story in a 5-act structure--Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Negotiation, Depression and Acceptance. Or 500 DAYS OF SUMMER'S wonderfully loopy fairy-tale structure, which sticks Aristotle's Poetics where the sun don't shine.
For sure, you should know structure. Just don't feel like it'll write your screenplay for you.

Question: When writing a comedy screenplay, how believable does the story have to be?

Steve Kaplan: Well the set-up doesn't have to believable. I mean, a guy falling in love with a mermaid? A kid waking up to find that he's a 30-year old man? A character onscreen in a movie falling in love with a woman in the audience, and stepping out of the screen to be with her in the real world? Preposterous, right? But all of these are set-ups to great comic films.
This is what we call the Comic Premise. The comic premise is the Lie That Tells the Truth. Something that could never happen, but if it did happen, what would happen then? What sets great comedies apart is that after the initial unbelievable situation, this big whopping lie, everything in the movie develops organically and honestly from characters dealing with the fallout of this initial absurd event.
I think LIAR, LIAR with Jim Carrey is a good example of that. The lie is that a lawyer cannot lie for 24 hours. Now that could never happen. But if it did happen, what would happen then? And one of the ways that they developed the movie honestly was that that was the only "lie," the only unreal circumstance that he was struggling with. One of my favorite movies is GROUNDHOG DAY - a man has to live the same day over and over again. So could that ever happen? The answer is no. But if it did happen, what would happen then? And again, in GROUNDHOG DAY the story is developed honestly and organically. Everything that Bill Murray does in the movie is believable, if you buy that initial unbelievable situation.
After you tell the first lie, you cannot lie again, or you should not lie again. If you take a look at comedies that failed, a lot of what happens in those comedies is that having set up an improbable or impossible world, they keep on adding to the improbability, the impossibility, which doesn't actually make for more hilarity. What it actually does is it undercuts our kind of fragile belief in the characters and the circumstance. So that as more pies get thrown in faces, as more people trip and fall into wedding cakes, rather than thinking how hilarious that is, we're actually taken away from the reality of the situation.

Question: What is the difference between writing comedy for movies versus writing comedy for TV?

Steve Kaplan: Many comic movies feature what I like to call the "Comic Premise": an impossibility or implausibility that could never happen but does, which sends our ordinary characters into extraordinary situations. In BIG with Tom Hanks, a boy he wishes he were bigger, and wakes up the next morning is a 30-year-old man. As opposed to features, half-hour comedies rely less on the premise, the "high-concept," and more on creating a kind of charming dysfunctional family, such as Everybody Loves Raymond or Seinfeld or Modern Family-kind of like your own family, in that everyone (except you, of course) seems to be crazy, but better than your own family, in that you don't have to live with them, you just have to visit them for a half-hour every week.
Another difference is that in features, you establish and complete character arcs over a two-hour period, whereas in sitcoms, characters still change, but in very tiny increments, over long periods of time. Ongoing relationships ebb and flow, but character and character dynamics remain the same for much of the life of the sitcom. Just like in life, people rarely change and when they do, not by much.

Question: You often hear about the Hero in screenwriting, but in comedy you talk about the Non-Hero? Could you explain the non-hero?

Steve Kaplan: The Italian novelist Umberto Eco once put it this way: "The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else."
What is the common perception of a hero? He's a guy who, despite some flaws, always gets it done, whatever "it" is. He's Charles Bronson facing off in a small room against 12 guys with guns. Who wins? Why, Bronson, of course, because he's courageous, a skilled fighter, a great shot, tough, able to withstand pain, able to leap tall buildings . . .
A Non-Hero is the ordinary guy who lacks some, if not all, of the required skills with which to win.  Note that we don't say comic hero, but a non-hero.  Not an idiot, not an exaggerated fool, but simply somebody who lacks something. Or many things, but is still determined to win. Put Woody Allen (or whoever your favorite comic is) is a room with twelve guys with guns. He or she's not courageous, not a skilled fighter, not all that bright, not any of those things. But as long as the character is still trying to win, you'll have comedy, like in DATE NIGHT when Steve Carrell and Tina Fey try to get away from the gunmen who are after them.
And trying to win doesn't necessarily mean that the character will win. More to the point, even if a character in a comedy does manage to achieve something, he's still a non-hero-lacks many skills; faces insurmountable odds-he's figured out some way to overcome-it may not be the best way, it may not even worked, but he's given it his best try. Characters often inadvertently solve problems, despite the lack of tools.
The more skills your character has, the less comic and the more dramatic the character is. This is how you can shape the arc in a romantic comedy: in the romantic moments, the heretofore clumsy or obnoxious hero becomes more sensitive, more mature.
As Robert Torrance writes, "The invincible underdog for whom a sharp wit, a clever tongue, or, in lieu of these, a loud mouth can serve as a weapon (when no other is at hand) against a social order that would deny his individuality by confining him to a permanently inferior or even inhuman status....the comic hero is no less subject to humiliation and defeat than any other mortal, even though his willingness to risk---and indeed to invite---that defeat may prove to be his most enduring and irrevocable triumph."

Question: Television seems to be in a golden age now - the best writing is on TV. But why have sitcoms suffered over the last 10 years? Do you think they'll make a comeback?

Steve Kaplan: While network sitcoms may have suffered, comedy writing hasn't. Comedy depends, in part, on surprise and fresh perspectives, but the constricting form of the traditional sitcom sometimes runs counter to that. We've simply become too smart for much of the form, and when you can anticipate a joke, it's no longer a good joke. And to reach a mass audience, television comedy has often been asked to neuter comedy's inherent subversive nature-c.f. Two and a Half Men. But there are still outlets where sharp dialogue, absurdity and characterization flourishes, such as 30 Rock, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Modern Family. And much of the comedy writing you're going to find on TV has found other forms to flourish in. Featuring fresh, ironic comic voices, Monk, Dexter, Glee and Hung are certainly not your father's sitcom, but they all combine great comic writing within their particular genre. So I don't think that sitcoms will make a comeback, because I'm not sure that they ever left.

Question: And finally, how important is the process of rewriting in comedy and why?

Steve Kaplan: The oft-repeated phrase, "Writing is rewriting" is true for all forms of writing, but with comedy, you have to include another co-writer: the audience. As far back as the ancient Greeks, comedians have broken the fourth wall-first the Greeks had to invent the wall just so they could break it-and directly interacted with the audience. In no small way, comedy doesn't exist until it's performed before an audience, and the best comics and writers have always known this.
Prior to filming A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, the Marx Brothers toured the comic set pieces of the film, including the famous stateroom scene, up and down the West Coast in vaudeville houses and theatre, so that when they finally filmed the scenes, the comedy had been honed in front of live audiences. Filmmakers such as Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers have improved portions of their films based upon audience reactions during a preview screening. In DUMB AND DUMBER, there was a snowball fight between Lauren Holly, Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey. In one shot Holly was knocked down with a big chunk of ice, and when she popped back up into frame, there was a small trickle of blood on her lip. The audience went cold and didn't come back for the next twenty minutes. The Farrellys realized that the audience didn't want to see Holly being hurt, so they eventually reshot the scene so that when Holly popped back up, it was minus the blood. They kept the audience with them, and the laughter continued.
Whatever you've written has to interact at some point with an audience, whether it's at a preview in Hollywood or the West End, in front of an audience in a theatre, or just in an informal reading in your local writer's group. The other important point about rewriting in comedy is that you don't sacrifice character for jokes. There always can be other jokes. But you always have to protect the audience's belief and empathy for your character's. If you sacrifice either for a quick laugh, you'll often end up with neither.
For details about Steve Kaplan's Comedy Intensive workshop in London, please see below and click for details.

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Casting Your Film

Learn about the casting process and the best ways to get the right actors for your production.

Tutors: Rory O'Donnell Venue: Raindance Film Centre
10 Craven Street, WC2N 5PE
Date: April 9 Duration: Single Eveninng
Time: 6:30pm - 9:30pm Price: £48

For Raindance Premium Members Discounts log into the Members Area

About This Class

I. Premise
    • Introduction and Overview
    • Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard
    • Comedy Perception Test - Are you seeing 20/20?
    • Funny vs. Comic - The difference
    • The Comedy Equation
II. Set-up
    • Winning
    • Non-Hero
    • Metaphorical Relationships
    • Positive (and Negative) Actions
    • Active Emotion
    • Straight Line/Wavy Line
Learn how to use these essential tools in your work.

III. Development   
    • Entire History of 15 minutes.
    • The Commedia Intensive
    • Comedy Structure & Development
    • Comic Premise---The Lie That Tells the Truth
    • Comic Premise Exercises & Analysis
    • The Comedy Paradigm
    • Comedy Writing in Film and Television
    • Jokes and Other Weapons of Mass Distraction
    • Developing Unique Comic Character POVs and Personalities

IV. Payoff

    • Script Analysis (TV and Film)
    • Clips from classic and current comedy TV shows and films demonstrating the principles and tools of Comedy
    • Exercises and demonstrations of comedy principles
    • Final Q&A

About Steve Kaplan

For almost 15 years, Steve Kaplan has been the industry's most sought-after expert on comedy writing and production. In addition to having taught at UCLA, NYU, Yale and other top universities, Steve Kaplan created the HBO Workspace, the HBO New Writers Program and was co-founder and Artistic Director of Manhattan's Punch Line Theatre.

Steve's former students have Written or Co-written:

Ugly Betty
Big Love
Everybody Loves Raymond
with John Travolta
The Heartbreak Kid with Ben Stiller
Rescue Me, The Class
Tenacious D, Mean Girls 2
Friends, Sex and the City
Mr. Show, SNL
The Daily Show w/Jon Stewart
Will & Grace, Joey
Late Night with Conan O'Brien
Kathy Griffin:
"Strong Black Woman" special
Many Others!

From the industry's top stars to first time comedy screen and TV writers, producers, directors and performers, Kaplan has worked with and coached the best. His Comedy Intensive seminar and workshop offers proven and practical methods and principles that help you reveal and understand comedy from the inside out: Why is something funny? How do you write funny? How do you make your characters funny? How do you structure a comedy story? How do you think funny so it translates from idea to page to screen? In addition to teaching his class, Kaplan has served as a consultant to such companies as Dreamworks, Disney, HBO and others.

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Weekend Class: Comedy Intensive with Steve Kaplan

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What is Comedy with Steve Kaplan?