Interview: Kaplan on Comedy (2)

Last year James Nicholas attended Steve Kaplan’s session at the Screenwriting Expo. Afterwards he wrote here on The Story Department, “Kaplan is to comedy and commedia dell’arte what Vogler is to the Hero’s journey and Campbell.

(Continued from Part 1)

Karel: What is Commedia Dell‘Arte and what can we learn from it?
Steve: The Commedia Dell’Arte was an improvized theater form that was most popular in Italy and Europe starting around the renaissance and for several hundred years after that. You can see a connection between this European theatre form in which a group of characters play improvised scenarios and the development of comedy as we know it.

This finite amount of characters
would be able to play any scenario.

What you would have is recognizable characters, clever tricky servants, lecherous old men, pedantic doctors, braggart soldiers who are really cowards. This finite amount of characters would be able to play any scenario. Can you think of a form where the characters stay the same but situations change, maybe on a weekly basis?

Karel: Like a sitcom?

Steve: You can see a direct connection between the Commedia – which really grew out of Roman comedy – to Chaplin, Keaton, and the greats of the silent films. And you can see there the line that you can draw straight from the Renaissance through to the Marx brothers and Abbot & Costello, Laurel & Hardy and Seinfeld.

If a person wears a mask in Naples, or Paris, or London, the audience reacts to them exactly the same because whether it’s Italy or France or the UK, they all know who that character is. It’s the same exact thing as Kramer coming through the door in Seinfeld. You don’t have to set anything up, ‘oh my god, there’s Kramer,’ and so you already know what to expect.

If a person wears a mask in Naples, or Paris, or London,
the audience reacts to them exactly the same.

Let’s say you have two young lovers on a park bench, what is their physical movement? If they’re 2 slightly dim lovers on a park bench, what physically are they doing?

Karel: It depends; you would expect they’re kissing or something like that.

Steve They’re moving towards each other.

Let’s take away the young man, let’s put in the Pantalone, a lecherous old man; Archie Bunker or WC Fields. Now what is the physical movement? lecherous old man and pretty young girl. What exactly would he be doing?

Karel: He might still be moving towards her

Steve: … but she would be moving away from him. So let’s assume they’re staying on stage, he’s chasing her around the bench. Let’s take away the pretty young girl and put in the Marionetta, the battle axe wife. Now what happens?

Karel: He might be reaching out to her, but he’s going to get something back that he might not like.

Steve: The battle axe wife is going to be chasing him.

Now let’s put in the 3 Zanni, similar to the Marx Brothers. You have your clever tricky servant, you have your Brighella who is a bigger and more aggressive guy, and then you have your Pierrot, your Pedralino, that’s the white face clown, the silent clown. I’ve just described to you the Marx brothers. Let’s say they all want to go in different directions but because they’re idiots they all knock heads and knock each other out.

They will create all the storylines and
the events that you need to so you
don’t have to go around making shit up.

What does the comedia teach us, that character creates movement? Character creates plot, character creates event. If you have the right combination of characters, within the characters they have the right combination of these archetypes. They will create all the storylines and the events that you need to so you don’t have to go around making shit up.

Karel: It strikes me that repetition is a very important element here as well.

Steve: Repetition only in so far as the audience has some expectation of what might happen, and you can delight the audience by fulfilling the expectation or by subverting the expectation.

For instance, one of the things we talk about in the workshop is this concept of a non-hero and I use that terminology because I wanted to get people away from the thought that comedy is about someone doing something silly, an idiot, a kind of funny guy, a comic hero.

One of the things we talk about in the workshop
is this concept of a non-hero.

So we came up with the idea of a non-hero who lacks, if not all, the essential skills. That makes us think about what is a hero. Who’s a hero? I used to use the image of Charles Bronson because I couldn’t think of a tougher less humorous than him. Charles Bronson wins, not because he’s wearing a name tag that says ‘hi I’m the hero drop dead’. He wins because he’s got all the skills. He’s good with guns, he’s courageous, he’s fearless, he’s a good tactician he can withstand pain. He’s got all the skills in order to win.

Put Woody Allen in a room with 12 guys with guns and what happens?

Karel: (laughs)

Steve: An audience immediately starts to laugh like you just did, without writing a word of dialogue, without even a scenario you put a recognizable character in an understandable situation and audiences are already creating the comic spirit in their minds.

Karel: So the trick is to create a character that is recognizable. Do you teach this, to create characters that audiences will automatically respond to?

Steve: I wouldn’t use the word create, I would use the word re-create or to utilize some of these archetypal characters. Christopher Vogler talks about the hero’s journey, the hero with a thousand faces. Comedy is something to the same thing.

You see these combinations appear and reappear and reappear. It’s not that you need to major in Italian renaissance literature it’s just that, if you become a student of comedy the same kind of relationships reappear and when you’re creating your premise you’d be silly not to think about to see Bill comes from a tough background, he’s loved by his mother but he always wanted to play professional soccer but he can’t.

You see these combinations appear
and reappear and reappear.

I show the first episode of Seinfeld when it was called The Seinfeld Chronicles and one of the first things you notice watching that episode is Jerry is playing a schlubby sadsack and George is all high-status and is all a know-it-all. I asked the audience why can’t that work? You still have a differentiation between the two, why can’t Jerry be the schlubby sadsack and George be the know-it-all? Because it’s not called Costanza.

In the first episode in the first Seinfeld chronicles there is no Elaine. The very next episode, which they shot that fall, introduced Elaine as this sexual, but somewhat aggressive New Yorker. It had George as the sad sack down in the mouth loser and then Kramer as this wild eyed crazy dreamer. It just works better.

(Third and last part next week)

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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