The Hidden Tools of Comedy

#ComedyScribeMonday: Steve Kaplan, January 1, 2018

Welcome to the edited transcript for the first #ComedyScribeMonday event — a weekly Twitter chat where comedy writers gather in a supportive environment to share and expand their craft.

Tweets from the moderator are presented in normal copy. Responses from writers and our guest appear in quote form. Some liberties were taken with the structure and exact wording in order to make this a more readable transcript.


Today, we are SUPER STOKED to be talking with and about Steve Kaplan (@skcomedy) and his book The Hidden Tools of Comedy. A book that changed our writing lives in so many ways.

Anyone looking for his book, you can get it on Amazon. It is amazing.

And be sure to check out his upcoming Comedy Intensive workshops. There’s still room in February!

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Hi, everyone — I’m here. Not totally sober, but here.
Eli McIlveen, @forgeryleague
It’s funnier that way. And thank you!

Okay, as we have a guest and a topic, I’m going to set the stage a bit and then feel free to jump in with questions, ideas or reflections!

“[Comedy is] one of the most ancient of art forms, originating around the same time as that other dramatic art form, tragedy. But right from the very beginning, comedy was the Rodney Dangerfield of art forms — it didn’t get any respect.” — Steve Kaplan, The Hidden Tools of Comedy

Man, but that quote DESTROYED me in SUCH A GOOD WAY!

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
How so?

I definitely knew that comedy didn’t get as much respect as other forms. But your book helped me to realize that I wasn’t giving MYSELF the respect I deserved as someone trying to write comedy.

This is something that @forgeryleague has also struggled with.

I had to realize that I was part of the problem, if that makes any sense.

And we began to suspect we were not alone in feeling this way.

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Comedy is subversive. If you’re watching a drama about some injustice or suffering, it’s “important.”
Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Comedy tackles serious subjects, but many people just take it as “entertainment.”

Boom. This. So much, this.

“Drama helps us dream about what we could be, but comedy helps us live with who we are.” — Steve Kaplan, The Hidden Tools of Comedy

Eli McIlveen, @forgeryleague
It’s so weird. I fall into this mental trap myself — and I’m someone who can’t stand stories *without* humour.
Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
It’s the problem I find with all the DC-Super Hero movies — a lack of humor in the storytelling. It’s why I love Marvel. The characters are super, sure, but they’re still human.
Eli McIlveen, @forgeryleague
YES. I need laughs to buy in to a story, and I think it’s because of the effect you describe early on in the book with that (ridiculous) dialogue from All My Children: these characters are presented as flawless, and therefore fail to come across as human to me.
Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
There’s a great quote by Ron Jenkins, “Clowns are kaleidoscopic emblems of human imperfection and comedy is the chronicle of their struggle to survive.

I can’t even begin to explain what it does to my spirit to read these words. I found it so easy to devalue the comedy I was writing.

David Rheinstrom, @icarusfloats
No way, Sean! Hold in your heart that ending speech from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS: There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.

Truth. Thank you, David!

I’d be curious from anyone watching whether you have felt a stigma around writing comedy? In your sense of worth as a writer or how it is perceived in the industry? Or the value it plays in the world?

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Even Woody Allen felt the stigma. He said, “Comedy is sitting at the kid’s table.”

Not to put you on the spot, Steve, but why are we so easily drawn to defining comedy by what it is “not” versus what it does? With your book being the exception, of course.

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
The simplest subject of farce is the man who falls down and gets up again. It wouldn’t be funny if he didn’t get up. We laugh, even as he lies flat on his face, because something in the clumsy dignity of his demeanor tells us that he will persevere.”
Jasmin Cheng, @min_o
This reminds me of why Jackie Chan movies are comedic — his fight scenes always start with him getting knocked down by someone bigger, and we laugh as he fights his way back up.
Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Yes, and because he continually looks slightly befuddled, even as he’s kicking asses.

The use of Not Knowing! I I forget your exact term as @forgeryleague just stole the book from me. :)

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Yes, the Non-Hero lacks skills. One of the most important skills is simply knowing. Take away ‘knowing’ from a character, and you’re moving into a comic moment.

You have a wonderful quote in your book, “Comedy is the art of telling the truth about what it’s like to be human.”

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Yes, we’ve been led to believe that drama is the truth, and comedy is just silliness and gags.
Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
But drama actually tells a lie. It’s a beautiful lie, but it leaves out the messy parts of being human.

I’m putting this on my wall.

Karim Kronfli, @BullshotUK
From a performers perspective there is nothing so serious as comedy. Nothing so difficult to get right from all aspects. Comedy is also key to providing texture to a piece. All dark becomes very dull

Beautiful put, Karim!

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
For some reason I can’t remember, I’m presently screening a Jerry Lewis film, The Disorderly Orderly. For the most part, it’s unwatchable, precisely because he tries too hard to be “funny.”

I think this might be a good time to segue into another of your tools, Winning. So we can get into some specifics for folks.

You wrote, “Comedy gives you the permission to win, where winning is whatever the character thinks is positive or achieves a goal for him in any given situation, the only limitation being the character’s traits or personality”. Can you elaborate?

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
The tool of Winning is the idea that comedy gives your character the permission to win. The only limitation is the limitations and strengths of the character.
Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Rather than think about, “What would be funny for the character to do?” the question should be “What would this character do, given the permission to win?”
Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
For instance, in Annie Hall, Woody Allen is arguing with some guy in a movie line. The guy says he knows more because he’s a professor. So Woody pulls Marshall McLuhan out from behind a poster to help him win the argument.
Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Comedy gives him the permission to do that, along with breaking the 4th wall and talking directly to the audience, and questioning passerby’s in the street for advice.

This tool has really been insightful for me. I had a breakthrough with Magnus in Alba Salix by just becoming clear on what he will do anything to achieve and then getting out of the way. I could INCREASE the drama (bad choice of words) and it would be funny.

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
If you give an action hero the permission to win, it won’t necessarily be comic, because he has all the skills and KNOWS he has all the skills.
Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
The paradigm is “an ordinary guy or gal, struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the skills and tools required to win, yet never giving up hope.”

I love the Woody Allen and all the other examples from the silver screen in your book. I wanted to find an example of your Winning tool from the modern audio sitcom world. And I just finished listening to @Victoriocity by Chris and Jen Sugden. And I found what I thought was a most wonderful example in episode 1 at 27:00.

Let me set the scene. Clara Entwhistle is travelling to Even Greater London with her High Society Mother when it becomes apparent that she has not been entirely honest. She is coming to the city to take a job as a journalist.

This horrifies her mother, but we fully see Clara’s innocence and resolve in these opening scenes.

We are in the office of the insanely influential August Bell, the editor of the Morning Chronicler. Clara arrives in the new city for her first day and finds out that the position she had pinned her hopes and future upon is not available.

Here’s a PDF of the full three page scene, shared with permission by Jen and Chris.

What I love about this scene is how intently Clara questions how safe this job is. She grows more and more concerned about the specificity of the examples Augusta Bell is raising.

She is being true to how any of us would act; alone in a new city and faced with a job that seems like a short ride to the morgue. @chrssgdn and @jensugden don’t pull any punches. They ramp up Clara’s insecurity and concern.

And then they use Clara’s drive to win. The thing she wants, no needs, more than anything: to be a journalist.

Eli McIlveen, @forgeryleague
“I’ll do it” — to anyone else, a completely irrational decision (and therefore funny). And yet that moment sums up her character so neatly.

Yeah. I love that line. I love the honesty. It totally encapsulates her drive to win.

Jen Sugden, @jensugden
Thanks! @chrssgdn is responsible for that! I’d drafted Augusta listing the dangers, and Clara’s concern, but couldn’t think how to end it with Clara accepting the job and that being believable. Chris had the idea of Augusta appealing to her overriding desire to be a journalist.

Kudos to you both as I laughed out loud at this scene. It was so human and real and funny. She was just trying to get what she wanted, given who she was, at any cost. Brilliant.

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Without knowing anything about it, the one thing I can say is that the more SELF-AWARE the character is, the more dramatic it is. That’s what we mean by “Don’t know.” It’s also how you modulate the balance between comedy and drama.

And that took us to our hard time cap with Steve Kaplan.

Steve Kaplan, @skcomedy
Thanks for the opportunity to share my love of comedy with you, and have a healthy, happy, and productive 2018!

And while learning how to thread and follow a hashtag on Twitter was a bit of a challenge, we truly had a blast and want to thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts!

Be sure to get Steve’s book, sign up for one of his workshops and at the very least, follow him on Twitter! You won’t regret it!


I’ll leave you with these final thoughts.

“The genius of comedy is that it loves humanity without necessarily forgiving it.”, Steve Kaplan, The Hidden Tools of Comedy

If 2017 proved nothing else, the human condition is all we have. And there’s some serious work and loving to be done out there. So let’s all agree to love ourselves, love our craft and give our work the weight and credibility it deserves.

Be sure to join us for our next #ComedyScribeMonday.

They take place just about every week on Monday at 9am PST, noon EST and 1700 hours UTC (London).

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