The Hidden Tools of Comedy (1)

Let’s start off with a test. A Comedy Perception Test, to see if we’re perceiving comedy with 20-20 vision.¬†Below are 7 sentences, seven word-pictures. They don’t mean anything other than what they are. There’s no back story. Read carefully.

  • A. Man slipping on a banana peel.
  • B. Man wearing a top hat slipping on a banana peel.
  • C. Man slipping on a banana peel after kicking a dog.
  • D. Man slipping on a banana peel after losing his job.
  • E. Blind man slipping on a banana peel.
  • F. Blind man’s dog slipping on a banana peel.
  • G. Man slipping on a banana peel, and dying.

So, you have these seven sentences, word-pictures that contain no hidden meanings or narratives. Now answer these four questions:

Which of these statements is the funniest? The least funny? The most comic?

And which one is the least comic?

Now, one of you might be thinking to yourself, “Comic and funny – isn’t that the same thing?”

Excellent question, thanks for asking. But just for now, let’s stick to selecting which one you think is the funniest, the least funniest, the most comic and the least comic.

Let’s start with the funniest. Which one did you pick? A.) Man slipping on a banana peel? How about C.) Man kicking a dog or D.) Man losing his job? (OK, that one only a boss could find funny.) Was your choice E.) Blind Man? (And if it was, shame on you! You’re sick, you know that?)

So, which did you decide was the funniest? The answer to which is funniest is, of course . . . you’re right, no matter which one you picked! Don’t you feel affirmed?

Cause of Derailment Conclusively DeterminedThe difference between
what’s funny and what’s comic
is that funny is subjective.

You were right because the difference between what’s funny and what’s comic is that funny is subjective. If you’re laughing at it, to you, that’s funny. End of story. End debate. Period. If you’re laughing at it, it’s funny to you. And by the same token, if you’re not laughing at it, no matter how learned a review in The New Yorker, to you, it’s not funny. I have a three-year-old nephew. And if I took my keys and started shaking my keys, I can make him laugh. So to him, that’s funny. But would you give me $600,000 against a million option to buy those set of keys?

One of the biggest mistakes that writers make is they’re worried whether the script is funny or not funny. But funny, as we’ve said, is subjective. What comedians will tell you is that you can’t live or die by whether this person or that person laughs. You have to do your material and just trust that it’s creating a comic picture, a comic portrait, and that comedy is not predicated on how many jokes there are on the page. The worst sitcom you can think of, the worst comic movie, the worst RomCom, is chock full of moments that they’re trying to make funny.

One of the biggest mistakes that writers make
is they’re worried whether the script
is funny or not funny.

So what’s comedy? In my seminar, we watch a lot of comedy clips, but one of the most important clips we watch is from a daytime soap opera. When I show it, occasionally people laugh. Taken out of context, it’s pretty funny. OK, it’s very funny. But why would we want to watch a soap to learn about comedy?

Here’s the thing: Everybody involved in this – as writers, directors, actors, designers and craftsmen – is usually dedicated to not making you laugh. So I think it’s instructive to pay attention to what they are doing and the choices they’re making. Take a look at almost any soap scene.

The first thing you have to notice about people in soaps is that they’re more than just good-looking, they’re almost supernaturally attractive. People like this just do not exist in nature. And the combination of writing, directing and performance is designed to communicate a specific set of qualities. Even when the behavior is extreme, i.e. adultery, murder and deceit, the staples of daytime drama, the actors rarely act in an inappropriate manner, such as that would tend to mock the characters.

The actors playing the characters are subtly saying to us: Look at me, look how sensitive I am, how much I’m suffering, how deeply I feel, how intelligent I am. And I’ll turn to the women in the audience, and I’ll say, “Ladies, is this what your significant other is like?” There’s often a big laugh because obviously, they’re not.

The point is that drama helps us dream about what we can be, but comedy helps us live with who we are. Comedy helps us live with who we are because while drama idealizes man’s perfection and the tragedy of his falling short, comedy operates secure in the knowledge of man’s imperfection: insecure, awkward, fumbling unsure – all the core attributes of comedy. Doesn’t this really describe us all? While drama might depict one of us going through a dark night of the soul, comedy sees the dark night, but also notices that, during that dark night, we’re still wearing the same robe we’ve had on for a few days and eating chunky peanut butter out of the jar while sitting and watching Judge Judy. It’s still a dark night, but one that comedy makes more bearable by helping us keep things – like our life – in perspective.

Drama helps us dream about what we can be,
but comedy helps us live with who we are.

Comedy tells the truth, and specifically, it tells the truth about being human. A comedian is simply the courageous person who gets up in front of a group of strangers and admits, confesses to being human. In that if you have the courage to tell the truth, and mostly the truth about yourself, and the truth about the crazy things that you do, and the crazy way that you see the world, then you have a good head start in creating comedy.

-Steve Kaplan

(Next week: The 6 Tools)

For almost 20 years, Steve Kaplan has been the industry’s #1 expert on comedy. He’s a regular consultant and script doctor to Disney, Dreamworks, HBO, Paramount and others. He 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 talents in comedy today.

Steve Kaplan will be in Australia this month for The Art of Romantic Comedy. To go in the draw for a free ticket to the Melbourne event, you need to 1) sign up to the newsletter, 2) be willing to write a report for this blog and 3) send us an email telling us why you would like to attend.

photo credit banana peel: Orin Zebest
photo credit cats: ColKorn1982

3 thoughts on “The Hidden Tools of Comedy (1)”

  1. Thanks for posting this! A simply written article with important points about writing comedy. I’ve now enrolled in his and Michael Hauge’s RomCom workshop and am really looking forward to it. This has made my day at the office so much more bearable! Cheers.

  2. HBO is the WORST company to work for, the staff is out of touch and the pay is the Worst I’ve seen of any network. Anyone looking to work there would de best by staying away!

    • Thank you for your comment, Dave. Do you have this first hand? Have you worked for them? Can you tell us more without getting in trouble?

      What do you mean by ‘out of touch’? Their shows seem to be working?

      It’s useful for writers who are aspiring to work for these ‘dream houses’ to know what to expect behind the scenes.


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