Most of Steve Kaplan’s comedy examples are timeless.
Groundhog Day is a couple of decades old, Seinfeld ran for nine years.
What does Steve think is the most innovating – and timeless – comedy on television today?
Steve: In terms of political satire no-one has done it better than John Stewart on The Daily Show.
He’s taken satire and relieved it of its curse of being right. So that the comic angle is rarely ‘look at these bad people doing these bad things,’ the comic angle is always ‘the idiots reporting the news’.
And usually they befuddle John Stewart and that’s where the comedy comes from. They’re saying idiotic things and he’s completely confused by it. Even though they’re talking about affairs of state and big issues like racism, terrorism and freedom and democracy it’s being put on a really human level and we’re allowed to laugh at the people involved in the broadcasting as opposed to having to pick sides and either like or dislike the politics involved.
Satire is what closes on Saturday night.
So I think that’s smart and satire is very hard to do. George. S. Kaufman once famously said ‘satire is what closes on Saturday night’, meaning that a satire isn’t going to be very popular and it’s bound to close after only a few performances.
Karel: Who else has your admiration?
Steve: There are actually two, one is James Brooks and in a strange way one is Judd Apatow. Judd Apatow… you wouldn’t think of him as being the same as James Brooks, who did Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets but what they both do is look at the human condition as honestly and as sharply and as unforgivingly as they can and they do it with great heart and sentiment and that is a very difficult task to carry off well.
There was a long time when sentiment was seemingly passé, but I think the ability to show either, in Judd Appatow’s case raunch really frat boy sex with a big heart and an understanding of how people act.
Drama tells us what we can be but
comedy helps us live with who we are.
James brooks has always struck me because the people in his comedies, they could be in tragedies but they’re not because they’re just being too truthful and honest about how hard and silly it is to be human.
One of the things that we like to say, in talking about the difference between drama and comedy: drama is a great lie. Drama helps us dream about what we can be… but it’s a lie. We’re never going to be James Bond, never going to be as good looking as the people in soaps or as soulful as the people in dramatic pictures so drama tells us what we can be but comedy helps us live with who we are.
Karel: Is there such a thing as a typical Australian type of comedy?
Steve: I’ve been to Australia several times, and when I talk to people in the film industry they all relate to me the feeling that what gets funded is dark dramas about inarticulate sheep farmers who are living in a lighthouse in Tasmania who don’t speak. I got the sense that they don’t feel like there are a lot of Australian comedies that are being supported in the system.
What gets funded is dark dramas
about inarticulate sheep farmers.
I don’t know how you feel about that, you’re based there in Sydney. But I like the few Australian comedies I’ve seen, The Castle, The Dish; they’re tracking the Apollo capsule. I very much like those because they had a careful loving and yet not overly sentimental look at those real people.
Karel: So are there any major cultural differences in comedy?
Steve: I think the basic difference is in translating comedy, for instance there’s a wide difference between the literacy in the States and the literacy in other English speaking countries. I love British comedy because it is like it is written, directed, produced by people who have read something. Always a joy.
There are always differences in accents, various forms of speech. Among my favourite comedies is The Gods Must Be Crazy. Fantastic premise and the main character doesn’t speak English but in series of clicks. You still understood what the guy was going through and you still appreciated his journey.
I think the same thing for the family in The Castle, you don’t have to be born in Australia to understand the striving positive nature of that deluded and how a part of him is a part of you, so the best comedy is saying something true about people. Whether you’re living in Australia or South Africa or the USA or Singapore or Malaysia, people are people.
The best comedy is saying something true about people.
I was in New Zealand this past summer and I saw this wonderful Maori comedy about 4 blokes who were so obnoxious that they were banned from weddings forever… unless they could come to the next wedding with a date. Brilliantly simple premise, wonderfully evocative and funny, it had familiar characters. These are modern Maori but there was the nerd, there was the ladies man, there was the stoner, there was the guy who wasn’t married but it was almost like he was married. How is that not familiar to anything that I’ve grown up with?
Karel: How is it possible for emerging comedy writers to break into the US industry?
Steve: You have to be lucky, and luck is: the right person reads the right thing at the right moment and that’s always tough. If you’re talking about people from outside the US breaking into the US market I think there’re a few ways.
One is to gain a reputation in your own locale. Do something great and people in Hollywood will pay attention. We are looking to see what is successful in the UK and bringing that over and adapting it like The Office. But Hollywood is this voracious monster that wants to swallow talent.
Do something great and people in Hollywood
will pay attention.
So I know that we brought over a lot of reality formats from Sweden and other European nations but I think that if there is something undeniably brilliant, it will get the attention of Hollywood. It’s a little harder to simply say, ‘I’m in Sydney and I want to break into Hollywood’. Then you’re just another person trying to break into a very competitive market.
Another way is that anybody who has got a flip cam, some editing software can do something 3-5 minutes can get it up on the web. Stranger things have happened. There’s a television show that’s just got renewed in the states called Bleep My Father Says and it’s based on a twitter feed.
You start from there and then it’s about who have you met and who do you know. That’s one good reason to enter into contests, to come to L.A. and go to a Screenwriters Expo because you never know who you’re going to meet and you never know when that person is ever going to intersect with you again and how that person could be helpful. You never know that.
But it is true that if you send something in cold it gets read in one way but if someone meets you and talks to you and you get talking to them for 5 minutes, then you contact them and say, ‘could I send you something?’ it gets read in a completely different way. The quality of the writing is the same but it is the perception of the person reading the writing that is totally different.
Karel: Does it help to learn and network online?
Steve: Well, talking about how you can make your way in the wild and wonderful world of Hollywood commercial writing, one way is via Twitter for instance. There are these great groups that are allowing people who live from the UK to Australia to communicate and form relationships and form friendships.
On twitter there’s this hash tag feed called #scriptchat.
On twitter there’s this hash tag feed called #scriptchat, and you can also go to www.scriptchat.com. Scriptchat is a varying group of writers who get together on twitter on Sunday. There’s a UK twitter feed at 8pm Greenwich Time and then there’s a US feed at 8pm Eastern Time. I sometimes go on there at 5pm Pacific Time.
Karel: That’s right and no matter what your level is you’ll always find people that are going through the same journey and that are at your stage and can share experiences with you. So there’s no reason to be intimidated by it, you just take away from it what you want there’s just enough to pick from,
Steve: Don’t you find that the people who are at an advanced level, they’re the opposite of what you would think of in terms of, this person doesn’t answer my calls, doesn’t answer my emails, on twitter I’ve just seen generosity and compassion towards everybody who is in the industry.
Karel: Exactly. It’s a great group and that’s actually where you and I met first, so you see… But obviously the ultimate way to break in is to attend one of Steve Kaplan’s comedy intensives.
Steve: That I would say is the sine qua non of success.
Karel: Speaking of which, 75% of the Story Department readers are from the US–
Steve: Oh! I thought most of them were in Belgium!
Karel: So for those in the US, where can they go in the next few months to see you?
Steve: We’re booked to go to New York on March 26th and 27th and I think I’m going to be in Washington DC on April 2nd which is just a day after April fools day, which is my kind of national holiday. And where to find out about all these events is to go to our website which is www.kaplancomedy.com or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @skcomedy.
Karel: Steve, before we close, for those who are thinking about taking your comedy intensive, what’s the most important thing that the participants of the comedy intensive will walk away with?
Steve: A new way of looking at comedy and the sense that you no longer have to come up with gags.
It’s not about can I write 12 jokes on this page. It’s really about coming up with a great idea, a great premise and then allowing the characters to tell their own story.
One of the people who took our seminar has just won the expo screenwriting contest for half hour comedy and she sent me a note and she said ‘the most useful part for me was how learning interesting character dynamics can set up comedy naturally from those relationships. It feels more organic and less forced than struggling to write joke after joke out of thin air,’ and then she goes on to say – and I didn’t pay her to say this – ‘there are a lot of seminars out there that aren’t worth your time. This one is.’ So thank you Tracey Riley.
Karel: And there you go … that’s coming from someone it worked for. She won the screenwriting expo for half hour.
Steve: Comedy for best half hour, she won for writing Curb Your Enthusiasm and that’s a show that doesn’t even have writers!
Karel: Thank you so much for this Steve, thank you so much for sharing your insights and your time, and I really look forward to learning more when you’re back in Australia.
Steve: Thanks Karel, thanks for having me on and I hope you can edit this to make me sound more intelligent than I really am.
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.