The Hidden Tools of Comedy (2)

This month, Michael Hauge and Steve Kaplan will be in Australia for two weekends of story classes. Today we continue a special guest contribution by Steve Kaplan, plus we give Melbournians the chance to win a free ticket to the event (worth $445).

(continued from last week)

So what’s comedy?

The paradigm of comedy can almost be stated as an equation:

An ordinary guy or gal – Jackie Gleason used to call him a moke – struggling against insurmountable odds, without many of the required tools with which to win, yet never giving up hope.

Comedy is an ordinary guy or gal
struggling against insurmountable odds
without many of the required tools with which to win,
yet never giving up hope.

From this paradigm or equation, we can draw usable, practical tools, what we call the Hidden Tools of Comedy.

The tools are:

  1. Winning
  2. Non-Hero
  3. Positive (or Selfish) Action
  4. Active Emotion
  5. Metaphorical Relationship
  6. Straight Line/Wavy Line

First there’s the tool of Winning.

Winning is the idea that, in comedy, you are allowed to do whatever you think you need to do in order to win. Comedy gives the character permission to win. In winning, there are no “shoulds.”

Even if it makes you look stupid, you can do what you think you have to do in order to win. You’re not trying to be funny, just trying to get what you want, given who you are.

Comedy gives the character permission to win.

Next is Non-Hero.

Non-hero is the ordinary guy who lacks some, if not all, of the required skills with which to win. Note that we don’t say comic hero, but a non-hero. Not an idiot, not an exaggerated fool, but simply somebody who lacks something. Or many things, but is still determined to win. #

The more skills your character has, the less comic and the more dramatic the character is. This is how you can shape the arc in a romantic comedy: in the romantic moments, the heretofore clumsy or obnoxious hero becomes more sensitive, more mature. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

The more skills your character has, the less comic
and the more dramatic the character is.


Positive Action

Positive Action, or selfish-action, or hopeful action, is the idea that every action your character takes, your character actually thinks is going to work, no matter how stupid, or foolish or naive that might make him or her appear.

It also takes the nasty edge off characters such as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers or Louie DePalma in Taxi.

Every action your character takes,
your character actually thinks is going to work

Active Emotion

Active Emotion is the idea that the emotion that occurs naturally in the course of trying to win. The emotion that is created simply by being in the situation is the exact right emotion to be having.

Metaphorical Relationship is the tool of perception.

It’s the idea that beneath every surface relationship is a true, or essential, metaphorical relationship. Each character perceives others around him, and the world itself, in specific, metaphorical ways.

Think about the couples you know. Some fight like cats and dogs, some coo to each other like babies and some are like business partners: “OK, I can’t have sex with you this Thursday, but if I move some things around, I might be able to squeeze it in Sunday afternoon, barring no further complications.” Even though they’re a married couple, their metaphorical relationship is that of nose-to-the-grindstone business partners. It’s Oscar and Felix, two middle-aged divorced roommates, acting like an old married couple. And it’s Jerry and George, sitting in the back of a police car, acting like kids: “Hey, can I play with the siren?”

And last, but not least, the tool that challenges the conventional view of comedy:

Straight Line/Wavy Line.

John Cleese once said that when they started Monty Python, they thought that comedy was the silly bits: “We used to think that comedy was watching someone do something silly…we came to realize that comedy was watching somebody watch somebody do something silly.”

There is the mistaken belief that in every duo there’s the funny guy and the straight guy. In “Who’s On First?” it’s obvious that Lou Costello, the short, fat, roly-poly bumbler is the funny man of the team, whereas tall, thin, severe Bud Abbott is the straight man. This misconception misses the essential truth about comedy-that it is a team effort, where each member of the team is contributing to the comic moment.

The real dynamic is that of watcher and watched, the one who sees and the one who does not see; the one creating the problem and the one struggling with the problem. Think of Kramer in Seinfeld. The comedy isn’t just watching Kramer behave in his typically outrageous fashion, the comedy requires Jerry or George or Elaine to watch it in bemused amazement.

The tool of Straight Line/Wavy Line recognizes this. It’s the idea that not only do we need someone, some funny person, to do something silly or create a problem, we also need someone who is acting as the audience’s representative to watch that person do something silly or struggle to solve the problem that has been created.

The other character might not be as verbal, might not be doing the funny things, but because the other character is also a Non-Hero, he or she sees the problem, but doesn’t have the skills to solve it.

The Straight Line creates the problem, like he has blinders on, and is actually blind to the problem or is creating the problem themselves.

The Wavy Line struggles, but is unable to, solve the problem. So what the Wavy Line does more than not is simply doing a lot of watching. Watching without knowing what to do about it, so there’s confusion. There’s consternation. Whereas the other characters are doing something – as John Cleese would say – silly. And it’s that combination that creates the comic moment, as opposed to somebody simply getting hit in the face with a pie.

With these six hidden tools, we can begin to unlock the secrets of comedy.

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.

To go in the draw for a free ticket to The Art of Romantic Comedy in Melbourne, 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.

Leave a Comment