BPS 299: Hidden Tools of Comedy for Screenwriters with Steve Kaplan

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Alex Ferrari 0:06
Enjoy today's episode with guest host, Jason Buff.

Jason Buff 1:35
Today we are talking with Steve Kaplan, author of the book, The Hidden tools of comedy. He's also the creator of the HBO workspace creator of the HBO new writers program. So we'll be talking to Steve in just a second, I really had a great talk with him. And we also add a lot of fun little clips and things in there so that you can really get a feel for the topics we're talking about. Here's my interview with Steve Kaplan. Did you immediately open up a theater company or how that worked?

Steve Kaplan 2:06
Well, I actually came to Los Angeles. First. We in New York we did, we were running this theater called Manhattan punch line. And we used to do a one act festival every year. So a bunch of people wanted to bring a number of one acts out to Los Angeles. And so that's what originally brought me out there they I helped them put up this evening of one acts. And I knew I was going to stay. So I came out I did a little theater, but then I tried to get a real, you know, big boy pants grownup job. And it took me a little bit of time. But eventually, I hooked up with Chris Albrecht at HBO. I pitched him an idea. And he ran with it. And first we did the HBO new Writers Project. And that ran for a couple of years. And then he started the Aspen Comedy Festival. And in support of that, with a couple of other people, we opened up a performance space in Los Angeles called the HBO workspace. It's now being run by Comedy Central. And what we did was we helped facilitate their search for comedians and comics. And at the same time, we were producing shows and showcasing people, both for HBO executives, there for them to take a look at and also just to kind of be an asset and a service to the community. So so that's what originally that's what I originally did in Los Angeles. And then I, I got involved in management, talent management, and I after doing that for a couple of years, I realized hey, I'm no good at this. Because it's just

Jason Buff 4:12
Did you tell your clients that one day you're like, by the way, actually,

Steve Kaplan 4:16
Eventually, the the clients that were left to me I told but it the terrible thing about I wasn't an agent, I was a manager. And the terrible thing about being a manager. Is that your Yeah, especially for me because I took everything very personally. So if somebody you said that this person is not good for this job. Oh, I don't like the script. I felt devastated. It was like it was like getting broken up with by girl every every every week. And when a when a client's leave left me it was really like getting broke up with the girl, especially when they started the conversation. You know, Steve, I like you as a person. So, I, when I was in my dating years, I used to hear that a lot. So I realized that that wasn't, that wasn't my MATIERE it was kind of a zig when I should have zagged. And along the way, I had run into a guy. And, and, and a funny, funny story he was, he was showcasing a show and, and I happened to leave the middle of the show because it was not very good. And amazingly enough, years later, he got in touch with me to take a look at a script. So I looked at the script, and I gave him notes. And again, I, I was more cruel than God. And amazingly enough, a couple of years later, he said to me, and this is when I was really I was, I was about to say this, this whole management thing was moved. And he said, I'm working with Robert McCain. And I think you could do for comedy what Robert McKee does her story. And he said, Have you ever taught comedy to writers and I said, Well, I started out teaching comedy to actors. At my theatre company, I and and I worked on a lot of scripts with a lot of playwrights and I, as I assume I can, this this will translate over to writers. And from there it from that little seed, a mighty oak grew.

Jason Buff 6:41
Now, I mean, it seems such a for for somebody who doesn't understand the concept of breaking up comedy and you know, seeing what's going on and why it's working and why people are, are laughing at something. What what was kind of like that first step into teaching comedy, what were the first kind of like obvious things that that you found that people needed to, to understand about comedy?

Steve Kaplan 7:08
Well, I mean, the way you should understand that the theatre company that I was running, that I started with two other actors. Manhattan punch line was a theater completely devoted to comedy. So that's all we did. We produced comedy plays we we showcased improv groups, Michael Patrick Kane, who later went on to write Sex in the City, and two Broke Girls was was was one of the leaders of this improv group along with dama Rivera, who's now a very well known stand up comic, we produce late night shows with standups, including Rita Rudner, Chang Anderson, who's now a very famous playwright. And so that's all we did. And the first thing I noticed about comedy, is that it's fucking hard. And, and it's, it's elusive, I would, I would be producing a show. And I would be standing in the back of the audience. And the show that was a riotous hit on Thursday, was met with crickets on Sunday. And the actors would come offstage. And they would say, What a terrible audience. But I was standing in the audience, and I wasn't terrible. And I was prepared to enjoy it. I might not laugh out loud as much as people who hadn't seen the show. But I, I started noticing differences. I started noticing that there was a different approach to the material, a slight differentiation in how the actors were meeting the material, night by night. And that's what started me on the, on the exploration that that became a 40 week master class, which then became a weekend workshop, which then became a book, which translated into Chinese because God knows you need some funnier Chinese.

Jason Buff 9:06
Well, you know, you've arrived. Yes.

Steve Kaplan 9:09
And it's going to be translated to French. So so now we can be rude when we're fun. Maybe I shouldn't say I believe

Jason Buff 9:17
Finally the French will have common.

Steve Kaplan 9:19
I'm super Yeah, really. I'm supposed to be supposed to be going to Paris in April. So So hopefully, they will listen to that part of the podcast.

Jason Buff 9:30
When we have a big French, you know, listening Exactly. So.

Steve Kaplan 9:34
So I started to notice that, that there were certain certain things that that were, for the most part, unrecognized, or, or not thought to be important or vital. And these became what I call the hidden tools of calm

Alex Ferrari 10:00
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Steve Kaplan 10:09
I mean, all the actors and the playwrights that I was working with, you know, they'd all gone to college or conservatory. And they all knew who to Hoggin and Stanislavski and great playwriting techniques. But but there were certain things that they, they were not aware of that I started to become aware of only because I was standing in the back. And oftentimes, I was directing a play. And I would start to notice that, that there were things that they did that decrease the comedy, and things that they did that increase the comedy. So, I mean, for instance, one of the things that kills comedies, if, if, you know, the actor knows too much, if the, you know, in acting classes is called anticipating, but what it really is, is the actor is too aware of what's happening, what's going on, too, in fact, too smart. So, so one of the things that, that I started to realize that were there, there were these principles that had not been taught anywhere, or, for the most part had not been taught, and that great comics and comedians either picked up or knew by by instinct, but that could be analyzed and and, and presented and taught to people who hadn't spent their entire childhoods listening to all the George Carlin and, and Richard Pryor albums, for instance. Right. And oh, and you would like to hear one of these?

Jason Buff 12:00
Yeah, that would be that would be helpful. Yes.

Steve Kaplan 12:02
Okay. Well, podcast, okay. So so there's, there's the, there's the dynamic of straight line wavy line, then that's, that's my terminology for it, okay. Which basically means that rather than a straight man and a comic, everybody thinks that, you know, if you see a duo, there's a comic, a funny person doing funny things, and a straight man who's just kind of, or a straight woman who's just kind of setting things up. And I came to realize that that dynamic is false, that it's not about a funny guy doing funny things and other people just kind of setting them up. It's really about somebody who is blind to the problem or creating the problem. And somebody who's struggling with the problem, but unable to solve it because they're, they're flawed, they're, they're just a flawed human being. When when, for instance, when John Cleese started Monty Python, he said that when they started Monty Python he thought that comedy was watching somebody do something funny. What they came to realize is comedy is watching somebody watch somebody do something funny

Actors 13:21
Yes, you know, it's a man's life in England man in screen that I'm gonna stop this sketch down anymore this I'm gonna stop the whole program. I thought it was supposed to be about teeth anyway. Why don't you do something about Jesus go I'm not alone. Not sleeping with that producer again.

Steve Kaplan 13:43
Comedy is the person who is kind of like us, struggling with some idiot. So that if you put Jerry Seinfeld and Kramer in a room, yes, it looks like Kramer is doing all the funny stuff. But without Jerry being a human being kind of perplexed and amused and confused by Kramer there's no comedy

Actors 14:15
Life on the Red Planet I can't eat I can't sleep. All I can see is that giant red sun in the shape of a chicken What did you go down to the Kenny Rogers and complain? They gave me the heave ho. You know I don't think that Kenny Rogers has any idea what's going on down there? What are you doing? That's tomato juice. That look like milk to me. Jerry my rods and cones are off. Alright, that's it. I gotta move in with you carry on. I don't know Kramer My concern is that living together after a while we might start to get on each other's nerves. Listen to me, I got a great idea now you're heavy sleeper right when we just switch apartments or I could sleep in the park. You could knock these walls down make it an EIGHT room luxury suite. Jerry, these are load bearing walls. They're not gonna come down. Yeah, that's no good. I'm gonna have to drive that place out of business. Are you gonna do that? Like we did in the 60s, taking it to the streets

Jason Buff 15:44
That's one of the things that I you know, mentioning that I always remember like Conan O'Brien one of the things that makes his skit so funny is having something completely insane happening. And then you don't really laugh until the camera cuts back to Conan's reaction to it.

Steve Kaplan 15:58
Exactly. So if you start if you watch sitcoms, good sitcoms, you'll notice that that the the comedy really the comedy is the comedy circuit is completed when there's a reaction to the craziness, not just the craziness. So So what seems to be the easy part, the straight man really is essential to comedy and if you watch a good SNL sketch, and there aren't you know, not every SNL sketch is good, but now sketch is the comedy is the human being in the equation. It's the it's the person who's being weirded out by the weird stuff that's happening. And it's only underscored by the idiot who's not paying any attention. Right. So bear with me just the other night on SNL. You know, Adam driver was on Yeah, I guess he didn't get such great reviews. Somebody said, Well, it's not Trump. SNL bad. But but there was a there was a there was a great Aladdin sketch, in which he's flying on the magic carpet. And, and the girl I can't remember, I think it's Cecily Strong, I think that's who it was. Is is on the magic carpet. And first a bird flies into her, and then a bomb drops in her because they're over Syria. And she keeps on getting weirded out. And then she keeps on trying to get back into the romantic moment. And that is so human. And meanwhile, Jeff, you know, Aladdin, as played by Adam Driver is completely oblivious. So that's the perfect example of straight line wavy line, somebody who's on a straight track, like, has blinders on, blind to the problem, or creating the problem and somebody else who's struggling with the problem, but because they're, they're what we call a non hero, unable to solve the problem and a non heroes another is another thing that that or principle that that we talk about, in which it's not about being a ridiculous person, a clown, you know, a silly clown. It's really just about somebody who lacks some, if not all the essential tools and skills with which to win. So sometimes the most basic skill with which to win is simply knowing so so one of the best directions you can ever give in comedy is don't know so much. Don't know. And what that means is that if something happens, don't, because you've read the script, and you know what's happening on this page, and what's going to happen on the next page, don't react like you've got it, I understand it, be confused. Let there be doubt. Doubt is, is the friend of comedy of being being unsure is the friend of comedy. And being sure, being certain about things is dramatic, and it just become being self reflective is a dramatic moment. And what we found out is that these principles aren't just here's how you be funny. It's really about here's how you can modulate the levels of comedy or drama in a scene. You want a character to be more dramatic, make them give them more skills, make them more empathetic, more sensitive, more kind, more knowing, make them make them less comic, take away those skills, create a comedy create a strong straight line wavy line relationship, create a dramatic moment have everybody make you know make eye contact and be empathetic with each other and and have them have them share the scene

Alex Ferrari 19:59
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Steve Kaplan 20:08
So those those kinds of things don't apply just to comedy. But you can actually modulate the amount of comedy and drama in a scene by increasing or decreasing these principles.

Jason Buff 20:20
When you talking about, you know, you would see one show, and then you'd see the same show and it wasn't funny. For whatever reason, were those improv shows? Or were they literally saying the same things

Steve Kaplan 20:30
In that in that case, what's what's happening is, the actors will suddenly begin to adjust their performance, so they look less ridiculous, because nobody in the world wants to look like an idiot. And so in a comedy, sometimes the characters are doing idiotic things. But the actors will suddenly, suddenly just make an adjustment so that it's a little bit more understandable, appropriate, logical and rational. And so sometimes, that's why a script is sometimes the funniest the first time the actors get around the table to read it. Because the actors aren't aware of, of how stupid they're going to sound when they say this line. Once they understand how stupid they sound, they either make it sound stupid, or, again, to put on a mask to protect themselves, or they make it sound just slightly less stupid. Here's an example. It's hard to it's hard to think of a film or TV show where you can see somebody anticipating, although they, they used to talk about how they would have to trick the Three Stooges, into not knowing when the pie is coming. They knew when the pie was coming, it wouldn't be funny. So what they would say is that, okay, we're gonna hit you on 312. And they would hit him on two, they could, and these guys were hit with 1000s of pies. So they would go to great lengths to try to fool them when the pie was coming. Because if they knew when the pie was coming, it wouldn't just be that they would flinch. They would suddenly react that, oh, I'm gonna get hit. But a better example is, is like, bad comedy. Like, I'm not a fan of late Jerry Lewis. I love early Jerry Lewis. If you watch early Jerry Lewis, like at home in the army, I think the first movie he made with Dean Martin, he is so innocent, so sweet, so unknowing, but later when when, you know, the French have told him he's a genius. He's, he just twists himself into a pretzel, as though as though to say, if you just looked at me, you wouldn't see an idiot, so I'm gonna have to pretend I'm an idiot. Alright. So you know, just think of any bad comedy, you know, something bad with Rob Schneider. Grown ups to in which people are acting are pretending to be idiots. And my point of view, what I always tell writers and actors is that you don't have to pretend we are idiots. I mean, we That's who we are. We're human beings. We're, you know, these stupid doofuses who are bumbling around this, this planet, you know, hurtling through space, you know, making up all sorts of reasons why? And we don't know, we just don't know. So. So the art of comedy is actually the art of telling the truth about what it's like to be human.

Jason Buff 23:41
It seems like the moment somebody is trying to intentionally be funny, or you see something like, you know, you can kind of see that. Oh, look, they're trying to be funny right now. Right? Is the moment that it just, it's not funny at all, you know, and you seem to see that in a lot of these comedies that they're just like, especially let's say whatever Kevin James movie, you know, it's like, Okay, we're gonna have this wacky thing and then let's do all these situations where Oh, he's gonna be put into this situation in that situation. And it's just like, There's nothing funny about it. Maybe for like a five year old, but it just doesn't doesn't work.

Steve Kaplan 24:15
Well, I haven't seen Paul Blart Mall Cop two. I

Jason Buff 24:21
I have seen it.

Steve Kaplan 24:23
You have seen it? Yeah. Was it great?

Jason Buff 24:26
It was so good. No, I mean, it's like I love I love watching bad movies as well as good movies because you get to kind of like put it together and you know, I mean, it just it has a couple of moments but I

Steve Kaplan 24:40
Have not seen it. I've seen hitch

Jason Buff 24:44
I've seen hitch yes with

Steve Kaplan 24:46
What's the difference in Kevin James between hitch and Paul Blart Mall Cop two.

Jason Buff 24:53
He's got a slight accent and fake teeth. I think is the only difference.

Steve Kaplan 24:59
That's the Only difference?

Jason Buff 25:01
Well, I don't really remember hitch that. Well, he wasn't I mean,

Steve Kaplan 25:04
He plays this sweaty guy who wants to marry who wants to get with a supermodel? Right? I can't What I remember about hitch, okay, is that he was recognizable. He was like, one of us. Okay. And he was a little clumsy. But he but he wasn't such an exaggerated clown that he was no longer recognizable as human. Right? Whereas, I'm guessing in Mall Cop two, he does things that no, no sentient human being would do. Somebody thought, Wouldn't it be funny if,

Jason Buff 25:48
Right! Yeah, well, you know, most of the movies that, you know, and a lot of things all these situations happen that aren't that really aren't, you know, believable. So I think you're kind of watching it like, oh, that's kind of funny or whatever. But you don't, you're not brought into the story. You don't actually believe any of these characters are real. Right? You know,

Steve Kaplan 26:07
So if you look at a movie like the other guys with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. There's a moment in which in which they're walking away from a store and the store explodes. And they're on the ground and willpower is going it hurts them. And that's the essence of comedies noticing what's around you, and being and being aware of the inconsistencies, the absurdities what Dorothy Parker called having a sharp eye and a wild mind

Actors 26:44
Was closed at 11am on a Tuesday Oh, is a shithole. Love bombs walkaway movies without footsy when it explodes behind them, there's no word are called Fulshear when they flew the Millennium Falcon outside of the Deathstar, that was followed by the explosion. That was bullshit. Don't you know Star Wars that was? There's no way I don't have soft tissue. I just want to go somewhere and breastfeed right now.

Steve Kaplan 27:34
So so when a comment comes out in a club and says, and says, Hey, you in the front row and start to make a comment. That's the essence of comedy, which is noticing what's around you and not taking it for granted. And seeing the absurdity in it, and share and being confused by it. Not necessarily knowing all about it and being a dick about it. But but just kind of commenting on it in a way that both expresses what you feel and also questions it and doesn't, doesn't quite know what the answer is. Which is why I comic is what about that? What's the deal with? It's a question. It's not a statement. Once you're making statements. You're, you're you're a politician. A question is, as a comedian, I so yeah,

Jason Buff 28:26
I mean, what what do you think is? I mean, do you feel like, for example, when I'm writing I, you know, I'm also a writer.

Steve Kaplan 28:35
A lot of things great, by the way thing, I love it golden

Jason Buff 28:39
The comedy for me, like I grew up, always seeing things as being comic, you know, and when I was in as early as I can remember, I would be in just situations and just start laughing. And people would even get mad at me because I would talk into somebody and just all their little quirks and things would just like something would come out of that. And I'd start laughing and they'd be like, Well, what's so funny, you know, and medication get mad at me. Yeah, well, thank God. And when I when I write, it's like, it's impossible, even if I mean, the stuff that I write is more kind of character driven stuff. But it's the humor just comes out of it. It's like, I'm not even trying. And then once you have once you really feel a character on the page, living and breathing, just the humor just comes out of it without even trying to do anything, just their actions. And I've never looked into it deeper to try and dissect why it's funny, but it just seems like that. It's like, I don't even know why it's funny. But it's funny, the when you have like a real character, and they do something that you're just like, oh, that's, you know, that's that character. You know, that's how they do stuff.

Steve Kaplan 29:37
Well, in the course, what I say is that the the value of the course is is not to take what you do and change it entirely. It's not it's not a methodology. It's not. Here's how you make the sausage but it's it's a toolbox and you use tools when something is broken. So if you're writing and everything's working, great.

Alex Ferrari 29:57
We'll be right back after a word from our spot. answer. And now back to the show.

Steve Kaplan 30:06
Don't look at it don't say, Well, what is Blake Snyder? And, and and Robert McKee and Steve Kaplan, no, just keep going. But when there's a scene that doesn't work, that's when you can use a tool. That's when you can try to figure out what we teach is what comedy is, how it works, why it works, what's going on, when it's not working, and what can you do about it? So, when you if you haven't, and it's not working, then you have some tools to try to figure out. Any you want the scene to be comic. That's when you can figure out well, what could I do here? Can I can I use a metaphorical relationship? Can I is should there be a straight line wavy line relationship?

Jason Buff 30:45
Now when you look at somebody like Judd Apatow and I just recently watched again, this is 40. It just seems like so much of that we're always kind of riding this line between what's kind of going too far what's going to be something too and you know, with a lot of the comedy podcasts to the comedy is not coming out of people trying to be funny. It's coming out of really difficult situations and people you know, fighting about things and whatever. What how do you look at that kind of comedy versus all these kind of stupid slapstick kind of, you know, silly call.

Steve Kaplan 31:18
I mean, my favorite comedies are the comedies that tell the truth about about people now it could You could tell the truth in a fantastical situation. like Groundhog Day, one of my favorite comedies, but one of my other favorite comedies his 40 Year Old Virgin, and one of the reasons I love 40 Year Old Virgin is because they don't make him a ridiculous character. You know, after the poker game, and yeah, he's kind of ridiculous. He's he's riding a bike. He's never he's, he's, he's, you know, he's frozen in this adolescence. But after the poker game, he's humiliated.

Actors 31:52
Answer this question. Are you a virgin? Are you a virgin? Yeah, not since I was 10. It all makes sense. You're a virgin. I am. Shut up. How's that happened? He's a fucking noob it that makes so much sense. Man. You guys are hilarious. To my Don't be mean. I'm not being mean. I'm not I'm trying to say I want to get you laid. Dude, I understand what's going on guys. So up your asses Come on, man. You can do better than that it's gonna be fine. They don't even remember. Those guys are cool.

Steve Kaplan 32:56
And you feel for him? It's not like I it's not like some I don't know, Rob Schneider. I assume he's a very talented guy. I'm just using. Rob, if you're listening to this, I'm just using you as kind of an icon of not good comedy. Without

Jason Buff 33:10
Rob. This is I don't know. For me, Rob. So Steve.

Steve Kaplan 33:15
So I mean, they're not just making him some idiot there humanizing him. And he goes, he he writes home. He's he has this primal scream. And it's so in touch with true emotions, what we would all be going through. And then he goes back into work. And he thinks maybe I'll just maybe they won't remember it. They say hi, how you doing? And all of a sudden everybody's ragging on him. And, yo, let's get the Birkin laid. And he score. And the thing that made me love the movie was was Paul Rudd running after him trying to help them. Right. Human sweet. Not ridiculous. So they never, you know, yes, there are some outlandish, very, very broad things in that movie. But for the most part, it's grounded in in a human condition in the in, in what would happen to us. Chris Rock was talking about the his evolution as as a filmmaker, and he was talking about that, that he's learned a lot from Louis C. K. And then now whereas in the past, he would go for any job possible. But now, especially with his I can't remember the name of the movie five things are, yeah, top five. That he basically said put somebody in a situation and say what would they do now? To me, that's the best way to develop a comic premise is you come up with a with a fantastic premise, something that's impossible or implausible and then put in you know, are typical comic comedy characters and then see what would they do now? What would happen now? And develop it? Like you say, through character as opposed to plot?

Jason Buff 35:12
Yeah, it's interesting. You know, going back to the 40 year 40 Year Old Virgin, one of the things that people forget about that is if you go later in the film, once his relationship with Catherine Keener develops, it actually becomes very, like, you know, it's still comic and everything, but it's more like, it's a real heartwarming story, you know, and he's, you know, showing the dealing with the daughter and all that stuff. You know what I mean? I love I love that scene where he's like, you know, I speak sarcasm too. And he's got, you know, he does a magic trick. And she's like, you walk around with an ear. You know, I mean, I love those scenes, but they're not like, you know, they're more of like a drama. You know, it's like a real story.

Steve Kaplan 35:51
It's, and, and because they because they don't feel the need to do a joke, or a bit every 10 seconds. The A favorite scene of mine is when he takes the daughter to the Planned Parenthood, the the, the clinic.

Actors 36:10
Now you're all here because you're interested in obtaining birth control. Any questions? Here's a cute story. I came home the other day, and he is with his girlfriend in my marital bed, doing things that are illegal in Alabama sex acts, right? Things that my wife won't do. Okay. Did you have a question? How do I get my wife to do that? Does anybody else have a question? My daughter is, for lack of a better word, dumb. How do I stop her menstrual cycle? Do you want her to stop having a menstrual cycle? I want to stop it maybe just for a few years? Yeah, I don't think that's a good idea. Does anybody else have a question? I have? I have a question. I think some of the people here might be sexually inexperienced. Is it true that if you don't use it, you lose it? Is that a serious question? No, it wasn't. Now, there are a lot of activities that you can engage in without having sex that are both fun and safe. What sort of activities I think everybody wants to know about the activities. Well, instead of having intercourse, you could have outer course. Outer course. Oh, what's that? Yeah. What is that? Well, outer course is anything that isn't vaginal intercourse. Prefer vaginal intercourse. You really does. Now there are ways of having sex without intercourse. Let's see there are things like body rubbing or dry humping. You could try home. There's masturbation. Masturbation, play with yourself. mutual masturbation play with a friend deep kissing. There's erotic massage. Oh, that sounds like it would be nice oral sex play. Sounds like my Friday night. Shut up. Set. We went to temple. Okay. Are there any virgins here who are thinking about having sex for the first time? So you're a virgin. I tap that. Oh, yeah, you tap that set? What do you think you're cool with your little jew fro? We don't say tap that. What? Are you talking about? Set? You know what I'm a virgin to were virgins to ya know, you know, and it's, it's it's a personal choice and Okay, um, I can't listen to any more of this because it's making me sick. So by you can get this information on your website. Oh, yes. Thanks. Nice meeting everybody. Any other questions? Give me extra large condoms. Set you got a tiny penis.

Steve Kaplan 38:45
And he's asking more questions than anybody else. But then he's sitting around all these people all these all the you know, the the kid who thinks he's hot stuff. And and the guy who just wants his daughter to be here, can we? Can we make sure that she doesn't have any sex till she's 35. And then on the drive home? The daughter just turns to him and says you're a virgin. Right? And he's and rather than pretending. Which which some, some script teachers will teach will tell you that the key to comedy is deception. And, you know, that's such a i Yeah, sometimes but, but if you take that to its logical, illogical, you know, to its logical conclusion. You never tell anybody the truth. And that's exhausting. It's exhausting. And what I love about the scene is he just says, Yeah, but don't tell your mom. Okay. Well, what are you going to do it while I'm getting around to it? It's so I keep on going back to that word. It's human. It's tells the truth about the human condition.

Alex Ferrari 39:59
We'll be right back. back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Steve Kaplan 40:08
Drama helps us dream about what we could be. But comedy helps us live with who we are. Comedy is the truth. Drama is the exaggeration. Drama is the idea of idealization of life wood that we were as tortured and as sensitive and as poetic and as intellectual as Hamlet. Right? We're watching Hamlet. Oh, what he's going through. Have you ever seen a production of Hamlet?

Jason Buff 40:34
I've seen the movies.

Steve Kaplan 40:38
Have you ever seen in the movie? Did Hamlet fart?

Jason Buff 40:41
Not in the ones I saw? I know.

Steve Kaplan 40:43
So what would you what do you think would happen if Hamlet's going to be or not to be?

Jason Buff 40:49
I probably would enjoy it a lot more.

Steve Kaplan 40:51
And but yet people do fart, right? Yeah. So so. But by making him more human, you make it immediately more complex. So I hate comedies that pretend. Or let me let me put it this way. I hate comedies, where every 10 seconds they're going, Wouldn't it be funny if this happened? Wouldn't it be funny if that happened? Because I'm more interested in what would happen if this really happened to these characters? What would they do? What would all these different characters do, because you don't have to invent shit, you don't have to make shit up, put three people in a room, they're gonna go in three different directions, half the time, they're gonna run into each other, because that's who human beings are. So just let them let them deal with the situation in their own way. If you if you haven't duplicated characters, you're going to create your conflict and your obstacles just because of the characters you have on screen or on stage. In that situation, I do a, an experiment. In my workshops, we call it the classic, the classic problem of the three lawyers, I have three people come up, I make sure that they're not actors or improvisers, I asked for writers who have never performed. And I tell them, they're all three lawyers, and that the most important case of their careers began in a courthouse, four blocks away five minutes ago. And I say that, through that door, whatever room that we're in whatever meeting room or banquet room we're in, I say through that door is is the cord has four blocks away, you're five minutes late, and then I then I have two of them leave. And I tell each one separately, that for some crazy reason, they have to be the second person out the door. I'll do that for everyone. I'll say, Listen, this is gonna be I'm going to give everybody something different. But for you, I just want you to know that for some crazy reason, you have to be the second person out the door. And then I'll bring all three of them back and I'll say start. And what will happen is, most times that they'll run to the door, and they'll stop. And the audience of course knows what's happening. And there there will be this great dance of trying to figure out how to get how to be the second person out the door if they're all trying to leave. And then I'll usually say to shout out you have you have the permission to win. In which case, I usually put two big guys and a small girl in the group. You see you're anticipating, right? Yeah, I'll say you I give you the permission to win. And usually one of the big guys will pick up the small girl throw her out, and then he'll be the second guy to go. And it's usually a very funny scene in a when I did this at DreamWorks once with three animators who have never performed. The one animator was this tall, skinny guy. And the two guys tried to throw him out of the room. And he put one foot on one side of the door and one foot on the other side of the door. And he was like, completely horizontal. It was it was amazing. I've never seen that before. And my point is that like a kid you don't need you don't need clever dialogue. You don't even need you don't need directors, you don't even need writers you just need characters humans in a situation with a with something unusual or not easy and see what happens and use and half the times more than half the time comedy work will occur.

Jason Buff 44:27
Now you raised an important important topic about characters and having two characters interacting. Do you feel like you need to have for example, one guy who's going to be the straight man, one guy who's going to be the, the, you know, the comic partner, whatever you want to say. I mean, when you're when you're creating comic moments, do you have to have that sort of conflict between your characters?

Steve Kaplan 44:49
When when you're talking about characters you don't it's not so much the conflict it's it's you want our typical character. If you think about any committee of truth, you would have the letters Holdeman and Wiley, tricky, clever servant, the young, innocent the fool. And you, you just make sure that you have those are typical types in in your story. I mean, who is the think of just in terms of Winnie the Pooh, who's your Tigger who's your er, you know who who's your who's your poo? Who's the tin man who, you know, this is Chris south who you know who talks about, you know, the Wizard of Oz method of character development. And who's the tin man who's the Scarecrow? Who's the who's the lion, the child, the the animal? The the thinker, so yeah, you're not no one is a straight man, Paul Rudd, is not a straight man in 40 Year Old Virgin, although he's more the voice of reason than anybody else. But he's got his own thing. Because he's pining for Mindy Kaling and he's this he's this romantic, who's who's all fucked up in his head. So So I don't think that the whole idea that there's a straight man is, again, is is a misnomer. And I think I think a false dynamic. If you take a look at the other guys, at any one moment, one of them is insane. And the other one is sane, but not quite knowing what to do in this situation. When Will Ferrell brings Mark Wahlberg home? He's married to some hottie, and all Mark Wahlberg can say Is she really your wife?

Actors 46:37
Hi. Hi. It must be Terry. I'm sorry. I've been hiding honey, but this dinner was tricky. For you. I'm Dr. Sheila gamble his wife wants seriously who is that? His old lady sweetie. It's a workstation. Got it? You come in here. Dress like a hobo. This distract? I know you're working. I'm so sorry. Come on. Seriously, come on. What? Who is that? See all the COBOL Jane. Get over here. No, no, no. Okay. Look, they're not all first round picks. Okay, come on. Are you gonna tell me who that is? You really are and why? I know. People are shocked because he's Episcopalian and I'm Catholic, but somehow it works. Are you going to change? I already did. It's no big deal. You look really really nice. Terry. You don't to be polite. Okay. She looks kind of shitty on speak to her like that. Alan. Look, if I put that in my Cosmo fashion app, you probably get a d minus Alan and his apps. He loves him. Yeah, he's designed three of his own. One of them. Can you tell one of them? You can take a picture of anybody's face. And I'll tell you what the back of his head looks like. Face back face back. Got some horrible reviews coming out of the gate. It's gonna hit it's gonna catch. Why are you with Alan? I mean, that's not what I meant. I meant. How did you guys meet? It's a really typical how we met story, Terry, you're gonna be bored by it. I was a dancer for the next while finishing my residency at Columbia hospital. Alan came into the ER with poison ivy on his rectum. Needless to say, I fell for him immediately. It's funny. It's like It's like a scene from that one movie. I always forget the name of it. With Meg Ryan. I don't remember a movie when Meg Ryan me to go with poison ivy. I think of it. So what about you, Terry? Do you have a girl? I did? Yeah. I suppose to get married. But she back down. It's complicated. Terry shot Derek Jeter Shut up. Ellen. This is before that's okay. Ah, she's got mail. That's the name of the honey. Tom Hanks. And Meg Ryan. He's gonna poison ivy with us. Yeah, yeah, way up there. Well, Terry, can't thank you enough for coming by what a what a wonderful, lovely evening. Thank you. So so nice meeting you, too. My pleasure. Thank you. Remember, all I ask of you is you don't let him get hurt Terry. She tells me that every day before I leave, I do. I come downstairs and I make him his fresh cut strawberries. And I say Listen, my little sugar balls. Whatever you do today, you just don't get hurt. Every morning, and then I show on my breast and I say these. These are waiting for you when you get back home. You know, Terry they're not the biggest breasts he's ever seen. But man are not by a longshot perky. And they are firm and they're yours. They're a nice lady. Thank you for coming. Detectives voice and gamble. Detectives why to gamble over. Founder red press right trying to vote for Ralph Nader. Hey, sugar boss. This is gonna be fingerprints in that car. And tomorrow. We're going to run those fingerprints through the system. If we get hit key is going to heat up faster than a junky spoon. You do one thing when you wake up tomorrow. Bring it bring it in. I goodnight. Thank you, Sheila. By Terry i Sheila. I'll never forget tonight by Terry. All right now Whatever go aside by Sheila sanitary I, Sheila.

Alex Ferrari 50:07
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Steve Kaplan 50:19
And it's hysterical because one of them at any moment is aware of what's happening around them without having the complete answer of what to do about it.

Jason Buff 50:31
One of the things I wanted to talk about too, is going back through the history and talking about somebody like Buster Keaton. So for him, he's always been kind of an example for me, of somebody for whom like, for example, you know, what happened with the silent films is he was hugely popular up there with Chaplin and everything. And the moment he was asked to speak, it changed the dynamic of his comedy.

Steve Kaplan 50:54
Well, that'd be the Great Stone Face and speak at the same time.

Jason Buff 50:58
Right! So I was curious about if you, you know, went into any sort of thing like that, that people have to be in the right kind of comedy for their kind of personality or whatever.

Steve Kaplan 51:08
Oh, well, we do talk about the history of comedy, just in terms just in terms of the development of western comedy that comes from these are typical characters, then that, you know, was kind of codified in the committee, but really goes back all the way to the Greeks, where the the, the new Greek comedy was all about our typical characters. Cowardly braggart soldiers, lecherous old man or miserly old men. And you see, you see these characters in Shakespeare? You see them in more gear, you see them on sitcoms, Who's the idiot who's the the wisecracker? Who's the, the, the space cadet? I mean, that's, I've just described friends. So, so what you what you want it what you what you want to know, Is that is that these are typical characters appear and reappear and reappear in dozens of movies. And they, they're there for a reason. Because of those. They embody certain aspects of the human condition, personified. And it's a good idea to have a good mix of them. Do you need all of the all of the different character types? No. But when I read scripts, sometimes I'll say you have three, three best friends, you really need three best friends, and they're all exactly the same. Maybe, maybe one should be different. Or maybe they should, maybe they should be different. For instance, here's, here's a, we do a comic premise exercise, where, where we have, we break people up into groups, and they, they work on common premises. So let me give you a premise. It's not a great movie. But this is something that actually that a group actually came up with. So here's the premise of this comedy movie. A college football team discovers that the only time that they can win is when they get the nerd laid. Now that's already a good start for premise because it made you giggle. So tell me who's in this movie?

Jason Buff 53:26
Well, you've got the jock, you've got the best friend.

Steve Kaplan 53:29
Excuse me. What position is the jock? Quarterback? I guess quarterback? Who are his friends on the team?

Jason Buff 53:34
You got the big, fat guy.

Steve Kaplan 53:38
Okay, well, I mean, who else?

Jason Buff 53:40
See, but I don't know anything about football.

Steve Kaplan 53:43
You're already there. Okay, you have the linemen and who else should be there? Is a big fat guy who's who's the other friend.

Jason Buff 53:50
Gotta have the skinny guy.

Steve Kaplan 53:51
That's okay. This week. Okay, who? So you don't know anything about football, but, but the. The team can only win when they get the nerd late. So who else needs to be there?

Jason Buff 54:02
Well, you got to have your nerd. You're the nerd. Okay. You got to have the most attractive girl in the school.

Steve Kaplan 54:07
What position what what does she do? cheerleader of course cheerleader and then who's the who's the then there's a coach. Right? Okay. Sure. Okay. And how is the cheerleader connected to the coach? Daughter, daughter. Okay. Because one of the things that mo year teaches us is that comedies a closed universe because the old guy who's wandering around, enact one always turns out to be the uncle of the two orphans in Act five. So you have the quarterback, the linebacker, the wide receiver, that's the skinny guy, the nerd the cheerleader, the coach. Okay, nerd Steve Carell. Quarterback Paul Rudd. Line, big lineman Seth Rogen skinny guys, Romany? Malco cheerleader a young Catherine Keener Coach James, just give me the cast, a 40 year old virgin there's a reason Why these, these? These are typical characters appear and reappear and reappear because they tell stories. You can tell any story you want. If you have all the right characters there.

Jason Buff 55:13
That was pretty mind blowing. I like that was our TED Talk moment for the conversation.

Steve Kaplan 55:18
Well, top head tilted, I applied. They haven't gotten. I thought that would be a great TED Talk.

Jason Buff 55:24
Well, they listen to this. So you know, just just wait. It'll happen. So Ted listens, as well as the French. Yes. And Rob Schneider, and Rob Shire. Rob.

Steve Kaplan 55:34
I love that you copy guy that was the best thing on SNL.

Jason Buff 55:42
So I want to talk for a second also about Ben Stiller. Because you mentioned Ben Stiller in your book. And one of the things that I have skimmed the book, unfortunately, my, my credit card got had some problems at Amazon. So I had to go back and change some things and then buy it again. And then I was cut the clock was against me. So I'm gonna, yes. But I do a lot of my stuff is from other podcasts and from, you know, YouTube. So luckily, there's a wealth of knowledge out there. Okay. So if any of my questions sound exactly the same as some other people?

Steve Kaplan 56:20
Oh, no, no, I don't. I don't think I ever insulted as many people on other podcasts as I have on yours.

Jason Buff 56:27
I am honored. Thank you. Well, I wanted to talk about Ben Stiller for a second because, you know, you talk about him. And one of the things that I remember when Ben was, you know, my buddy Ben, first kind of was getting popularity was that the kind of comedy that he was doing? was so like, not obvious, I guess you could say it was just he was so much the character and so uncomfortable. And so kind of, you know, different than what I had seen before. And there probably been other people who have done that kind of comedy, you know, like, There's Something About Mary and stuff like that. But I just for some reason that just stayed in my mind is that being, you know, Why is that funny? Why is what he's doing funny. And you know, why is just his nervousness or his like being in that situation, making me laugh, and I had never really felt like that with anybody else. You know what I mean?

Steve Kaplan 57:24
Well, I think because one of the things that he does well, now he's a smart guy, right? I mean, he had his own sketch show on Fox, when he was in his 20s. He's a smart guy, but he lets himself be seen as less than smart. Very well. In There's Something About Mary. He's about to go on a date with Mary and Chris Elliott's telling him, have you pulled pulled the pot? Have you spank the monkey? Have you flogged the dolphin? And rather than Ben Stiller going, What are you talking about? He goes, ha, ha, and what are great comedy lines, because they see something they're just not quite sure what they're seeing. And he lets himself be tucked into, you know, masturbating just just before the date. And, and it's, it's ridiculous. It's, you know, it's it's gross out humor, but there's something very vulnerable. And, and, and, and not in charge. That that I think appeals to all of us because that's how we feel we feel that we're not completely in charge that we're that we're less than, and he embodies less than in a very unforced way. He doesn't pretend to be less than he just is. There's one of my favorite moments in There's Something About Mary is when they do the flashback, and he's about to ask, take Mary out to the prom, and it's got these great braces on and he's wearing this taupe tuxedo goes to the door. And David Keith, who I believe is playing with dad comes out David Keith is an African American. Mary, of course is Cameron Diaz who's not African American. So he you know, Ben Stiller, looks at David Keith looks up at the door number am I in the right place? Usually that gets a laugh just by not being sure. And then David Keith says she's already gone to the gun to the prom with Woogie goes we'll get ya Woogie. And then, and you can't really see this over a podcast but I'm kind of grinning. Sadly again, okay. And I usually when I do my workshops, by the way, I have a workshop coming up at the end of January, which we'll talk about hopefully at the end of the podcast. I usually freeze frame on that

Alex Ferrari 1:00:00
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Steve Kaplan 1:00:09
And I say, if the movie ended there hasn't has any broken your heart. That's the essence of comedy, is the essence of comedy is not to pretend that there's no pain. It's all silliness. The essence of comedy is we're always in pain in life is a painful, painful deal. How are we going to deal with it? What are we going to do? The comedian is the courageous person who gets up in front of a group of strangers and admits to being human and, and basically says, you know, gives us shrug and says, you'll live. It's tough, you get kicked, but you'll live. And that's a very life affirming way of looking at the world.

Jason Buff 1:00:50
So that was written as a drama, and not a comedy.

Steve Kaplan 1:00:54
Well, if it was written as a drama, he wouldn't be an idiot, he would know more. He would be good looking, he wouldn't be wearing braces. Like I said, if it was a drama, he would be something that we would aspire to. As opposed to something who we can recognize as us.

Jason Buff 1:01:12
Looking at movie that I always saw

Steve Kaplan 1:01:15
Maze Runner or Virgin. Those kids are gorgeous. You know, in the Apocalypse, are we all gonna look that good? I mean, of course, am I gonna have tap teeth? You know, in a dystopian future I wish that would be great. Survive.

Jason Buff 1:01:38
One of my favorite Ben Stiller performances is in Tropic Thunder. Oh, my fit one of my favorite movies when he is you know, captured and they make him reenact his character. Simple track. I'll check that, to me is like the pinnacle of his his career.

Steve Kaplan 1:01:55
But, but the moment that I love is when he and Robert Downey had the conversation about why he didn't get the Oscar.

Actors 1:02:02
Yeah, exactly. You know, there were times when I was doing jack that I actually felt retarded like really retarded. I mean, I brush my teeth retarded. I robust retarded in a weird way. I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb to be more. Yeah, to be more radical. Exactly. To be more an imbecile. Not the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived. When I was playing the character when he was secure, and I mean as Jack, Jack, stupid ass Jack, trying to come back from that. In a weird way. It was almost like I had to sort of fool my mind into believing that it wasn't retarded. And by the end of the whole thing, I was like, wait a minute, you know, I flush so much out how am I going to jumpstart it? I think it was just like, yeah, right. He was fighting and bathtubs laughing Yeah, so. Yeah. But simple. Jack thought he was smart. But rather than thinking was retarded, so you can't afford to play retarded. being smarter. Playing a guy who ain't smart but thinks he is. That's tricky. Tricky. Is that working mercury? is high science men's art form. Yeah, you notice that's what we do right? Yeah, yeah. Hats off of going. Especially no not academies about issue about what this series you don't know. Everybody knows you never go full retard. What do you mean? Check it out. Dustin Hoffman. Rayman Looper turned appetite is not returning. Cat to picture you caught autistic show. Now. Tom Hanks Forrest Gump. Hello. Yes, we thought it may be braces on today. But he charmed the pants off next to them. They want to ping pong competition that ever taught him. He was goddamn war hero. You know when he retired war heroes. You went full return. Never go full retard. You don't but yeah, Sean Penn 2001 Is the memo word for retired, went home.

Steve Kaplan 1:04:12
And that's such a beautiful moment because it's the first moment in the film where they're really just relating to each other and they're connecting and they're not. They've left their their rivalries go and and Robert Downey goes You don't know. Todd, you went full time. So halftime, you can't go pull Todd. Great. Great. I mean, those those human simple human moments where people share what makes them vulnerable, what makes them silly, what makes them lost? What makes them human? And that's that's why in terms of straight line, wavy line. You You know Mark is funny, but you can't have Mark without Mindy. You guys Have a human being in the equation at every moment. So even your ciliates character can have a moment where they're human. And they're having a human experience while everybody else is acting crazy around them. And that's why the division a funny guy, and straight man is incorrect because everybody gets to has a chance to be funny. Everybody has a chance to be, you know, the same one.

Jason Buff 1:05:29
Well, tell me if you had the same feeling as I did, but watching that if you've got Robert Downey Jr. You've got Ben Stiller, and then you've got Jack Black and Jack Black to me. Like, most of the stuff that he did in the film kind of fell flat though. I don't know how you you kind of perceive that but just seemed like one more person there that like didn't necessarily, like add to it. I don't know.

Steve Kaplan 1:05:50
Well, I mean, I can see that point of view. I'm not going to argue that he's the best thing in the film, but he's there because you needed a primal character. Okay, again, we go we go back to, to our typical characters, the archetypes that come Madea, you have your clever, tricky servant. That's Robert Downey Jr. You have your nerdy guy, that's Jay bearish owl, you have your idiot, that's your full yet that's That's Ben Stiller, then you have your primal character, you know, and he's got he's got primal needs, I need I need my drugs. And, and added that next comes comes the comes this disjointed, dysfunctional family that all comedy aspires to all comedy, especially teller comedy, aspires to create dysfunction, large dysfunctional families that that we can relate to, and in some way, enjoy being with because they remind us of our dysfunctional families only we don't have to be with them that much. So So yeah, so is. You know, is that Oscar? Oscar nominated performance? I'm not sure. But I see that I see the use for him. Because you need that unbridled energy. Now, is that unbridled energy the best it could be? I don't know. I wasn't crazy about the bat, the blonde buzzcut. But, you know, I mean, I was just wondering if there was something we were not available? Right. I mean, that would, that would be John Belushi or John Candy or Chris Farley. That would be their role. That's what they would be there for. And maybe they would have brought a little bit more what I call the shrimp factor, you know, so shrimp was the stooge that made you care. So that's what John Candy and Chris Farley would do, they would make you care. And Jack Black, I guess just make you care that much, because Jack Black, if I'm going to analyze it, from your point of view, Jack Black, gave was too much of performance that he was outside of, as opposed to owning it. He wasn't sharing his addiction, he was making this character's addiction, the focus, and when you distance yourself from your character, and you distance yourself from the audience, there's there's that distancing factor that doesn't work for some people. In 500 BC, the first comedy written, the actor comes out and talks to the audience directly in a different way than they did in Greek tragedy. There's a connection that comics make with their audience. It's an actor centric art. And it's about telling the truth about what's happening right in front of all of us. I'm an actor, I'm on stage. You're watching me, let's go. And so there's truth there. And so you might be, you might be reacting to the fact that he wasn't as connected and as truthful as the other actors. That's my guess. But it didn't bother me as much. But I can see from your point of taking a look, from your perspective, I can see what you're talking about. Yeah,

Jason Buff 1:09:10
I mean, it just kind of fell flat. Sometimes I'm going to

Steve Kaplan 1:09:13
He just was he fucking sucks.

Jason Buff 1:09:17
I mean, it's kind of like late Jerry Lewis. Like you're saying, it just felt like a performance, you know, anyway, right. I'll get off that. All right. We're at about an hour. I wanted to make sure that you discuss the things that are coming up with you and how people can get in touch and sign up for your classes. You want to talk about that a little bit. Yeah,

Steve Kaplan 1:09:37
I'm Libra. I'm lonely. I like long walk it with one walk on the beach. No, no, no, no, I'm happily married. But you can you can tweet me at at SK comedy. That's s k comedy. Comedy with a C because I'm not a hack. I don't do that comedy K thing.

Alex Ferrari 1:10:00
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Steve Kaplan 1:10:10
My website is Kaplancomedy.com one word.com. And you can email me at Steve at Kaplancomedy.com. And right now, in January 30 and 31st in Los Angeles, we're having a workshop at the Marriott Burbank, and you can register for it online. And if you're in Ireland, we're going to be in Ireland in early June, London the week later, I think we're going to be in Paris in April. And we're going to be in Denver in October. And you should read my book, The Hidden tools of comedy. We it's translated into Russian, Chinese and French but for you for the indie film Academy podcast, listeners, we have it for you in English. And it's available. It's available on on Kindle, you can download it but make sure that your credit card doesn't get screwed up like Jason's and and it's also available through Amazon. And you can also buy it on our website for an autographed copy.

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