Interview: Kaplan on Comedy (1)

Soon after speaking with Steve Kaplan, first on Twitter and later here in Sydney, I became a fan.
Although comedy is still very much a mystery to me, Steve has lifted the veil, only an inch but just enough to give me a smidgen of hope.

Karel: Steve Kaplan welcome to The Story Department, I am so glad you could make some time for us and talk comedy.

Steve: Delighted to be here.

Karel: I did your rom-com seminar here in Sydney and it gave me the feeling that – even though I am Belgian – if I work really really hard, I might be able to learn how to make people laugh.

Steve: I thought Belgians were naturally funny.

Karel: I have my doubts about that. Can comedy really be learned or am I deluding myself?

Steve: Let me put it to you this way, there’s the thought that you can teach almost anybody with a smidgen of talent almost anything: you can teach somebody how to paint, teach somebody how to compose music, can teach them harmony, teach them composition.

You can teach somebody how to play Shakespeare but there’s this myth that says that you cannot teach comedy, as though a baby being born, is slapped on the butt, turns to the doctor and says, ‘y’know a funny thing happened to me on the way down the fallopian tubes’. It’s just not true.

Many of my friends started out as stand-up comics. What they would do as they were learning the craft of stand-up comedy is they would tape every one of their shows. Not just one or two, but they would tape, obsessively, every performance they ever did and then they would go off at some ungodly hour, like 3 o’clock in the morning, to an open diner, and they would pour over their jokes, syllable by syllable. As if they were ancient scholars looking through holy writ.

There’s nothing like natural instant comedy.
There’s a lot of trial and error.

And they would remove one syllable from one place to another place; they would take out a comma. So there’s nothing like natural instant comedy. There’s a lot of trial and error, and people teach themselves and so it is something that can be taught.

What we try to do is talk about overarching principles that can be applied as if you’re performing stand-up, an improve show or a television sit com or writing a screenplay.

Karel: Have there been any of your students that you’ve taken from an aspiring level to a professional level?

Steve: They say that success has many fathers but failures are orphans. I always shy away from saying “Well I took Steve Skroban when he didn’t even have clothes, he was standing there in socks and a tunic and then I turned him into executive producer of everybody loves Raymond.”

What I can tell you is that a lot of the people that I worked with when they were unknown and starving, are no longer unknown and starving. I gave them an idea of how to approach writing and performing comedy and they then took it upon themselves to develop that, and develop their own talent.

Steve Skroban, who later became the executive producer of everybody loves Raymond, Harry Korder, who is now one of the executive producers of Boardwalk Empire, certainly not a funny show but that deals in irony and black humour.

Oliver Platt recently gave the theatre I set up in New York the credit for starting his career. Oliver’s a great character actor who’s now playing the husband opposite Laura Linney on The Big C.

Karel: You’ve also consulted to the Hollywood studios. I wonder… how does this work? Does Spielberg call you up and say, ‘Shrek 12 is not funny, Steve can you come and fix it?’

Steve: No, it’s more like somebody who works for Spielberg, has never met Spielberg – and I’ve never met Spielberg – will say come into DreamWorks animation because we’ve got a whole new crop of story artists and animators and they’re wonderful artists and they’re wonderful with computers but they don’t know story, and they don’t know comedy as well as they need to.

I’ve done a lot for animation companies, DreamWorks Animation, Disney Animation, Aardman Animation. When I first came to Los Angeles I was doing talent development and we started a couple of programmes for HBO, some of them went on to discover people like Jack Black and Kyle Gass in Tenacious D.

We helped discover him and we helped present them to HBO, who gave them a few episodes on T.V. and it propelled Jack into superstardom. It didn’t quite prepare Tenacious D into superstardom but it propelled them airborne, they were close to superstardom. They did a movie.

Karel: Airborne’s good.

Steve: One of the people we discovered for HBO was Will Schaeffer, who later started as executive producer in big love for HBO. So it was useful for HBO.

(to be continued)

For almost 20 years, Steve Kaplan has been the industry’s most respected and sought-after expert on comedy. In addition to being a regular consultant and script doctor to such companies as Disney, Dreamworks, HBO, Paramount, and others, Steve has taught at UCLA, NYU, Yale, and other top universities, and created the HBO Workspace and the HBO New Writers Program teaching and mentoring some of the biggest writers, producers and directors in comedy today.

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