STEVE KAPLAN is one of the industry's most sought-after expert on comedy. He is the author of the best-selling THE HIDDEN TOOLS OF COMEDY and THE COMIC HERO'S JOURNEY, both by Michael Wiese Productions. Steve created the HBO Workspace, the HBO New Writers Program he taught at UCLA, NYU, and Yale. He’s taught workshops at Disney, DreamWorks Animation and NBC-Universal’s Writers on the Verge, and has taught his Comedy Intensive workshops and seminars in LA, New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Australia, and currently in your own living room on the Internet. We spoke recently about the need for comedies after 2020, how essential laughs are, and his favorite cinematic moment in a bona fide classic.
Visit Steve's website here, and order his books here.
Dave Watson: Been a while. You and I met four and a half years ago. What's new?
Steve Kaplan: Until recently, I’ve been traveling around the world, Rio, Mumbai, Moscow, Kieve, and then it all stopped. Since we talked last I’ve published another book, The Comic Hero’s Journey, which is basically story structure for comic films, a little bit on TV, but that’s my next book, which I hope to live long enough to write. Right now I’m in the research phase, and I’ll probably be three and done.
This past fall, having been quarantined for five months, I put my comic courses online, and no one’s been more surprised than me how it’s done. I’ve been able to replicate my live workshops and it’s been well attended, so who knew? As they say, “The pandemic been betty betty good to me.”
DW: Many argue we need comedies now more than ever. Especially in light of 2020.
SK: Ya think?
DW: Do you agree our country, or the world, need comedies more than ever?
SK: I think for the most part, even the most serious work is comically tinged with comedy. Even serious work has this patina of the absurd, of an absurd look at the world because of the world we live in. I’m thinking of Fargo, The Crown, unless it’s pure horror. You can’t look around you and not notice it’s kind of crazy. You have to have a sense of humor about it.
I haven’t seen Tenet or Wonder Woman yet, but I just watched Soul which might be the best movie of 2020. It’s what I call existential comedy, that what we’re seeing is an abundance of comedies not focused on who’s going to get the girl, although that’s always important, or will our sad sack loser become the winner. Comedies that are concerned with the biggest questions of all: why are we here? And since we’re here, what are we to do about it? And what are we going to make of it?
If you look up Upload, The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek, and Soul, all of these comedies are concerned with these big questions. Especially as we’re surrounded by the pandemic, and the idiocy that surrounds the pandemic. People who are denying it, who pooh-pooh it. What do you make of the guy who ran in Louisiana on the campaign of we have to open up the economy, forget COVID, and then he just died of COVID! In one sense it’s a tragedy for him and his family, I believe he had two small children. On the other hand, it’s karmically poetic. It’s like the punchline of a Tina Fey show. How do you wrap your brain around that? Over the holidays 1.3 million people went through TSA. People think, “Eh, it’s bad, and I might die from it, but who knows? I’ll keep traveling.
DW: In our country or worldwide?
SK: In our country. All over the world we have political systems imploding. What’s happening in the U.K. with Brexit, in Israel where they’re having their fourth election in six months because their Prime Minister is under indictment, and here where we have this just mind-blowing cult that won’t accept reality, or they have their own reality, and you think, why wasn’t Idiocracy not a successful film? Idiocracy was a film that they so didn’t believe in that they dumped it with no advertising, and if you see it today you say, how prophetic. I think it’s by Mike Judge! The guy who did King of the Hill.
DW: And Beavis and Butthead. That guy’s a little underrated.
SK: Oh he’s rated, great guy.
DW: The incident in Louisiana also touches on irony.
SK: The guy who blew himself up in Nashville. His girlfriend told the police a year ago that he was making bombs in his RV, but because he was Muslim or wasn’t black, Eh? It’s America! (Laughs) And he blew himself up in front of the AT&T building and he was a QAnon and they believe 5G is about tracking Americans and...look, I have a poster of Superman and Batman behind me, but I don’t believe they are real. I’m not expecting to see the bat signal.
DW: So we’re living in a time with different kinds of reality.
SK: Truth doesn’t matter, doesn’t exist, that there’s a large group of people who believe in anything, or anything tethered to reality, and a group of people cynically taking advantage of it. And it’s just, ironic, and crazy. We’re living in a crazy, crazy age, where the only way to make sense of things is to watch late night TV. Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah have replaced Edward R. Morrow and Walter Cronkite.
DW: Sometimes I’ll go to CNN.com to see what everyone else sees, and they might have a tough time keeping up. Do you think people are choosing their own truths and making up their own minds based on what’s out there?
SK: Yes, the media proliferation as influenced this. People select their dinner order on Grubhub: “I’ll take this article from "Column A," this one from "Column C," and I’ll ignore the rest. I’m as addicted to television just as much as everyone else. I’ll start at CNN, switch over to MSNBC, and then to Fox News. Often times I’ll see on CNN, “This terrible thing happened!” Then to MSNBC, “This terrible thing happened!” Fox News: “Will these pandas fondly mate?” If it doesn’t fit their narrative, it’s not there.
People think they’re being brainwashed by the lamestream media, but unfortunately, I think, for the most part the media is fake news except when they report something the other side likes. Even when we’re at war with each other, they didn’t make up their own facts. We’re at war with each other we’re at least operating in the same universe.
DW: One of my favorite comedies is Wag the Dog, which came out twenty-three years ago this week. Do you return to certain kinds of comedies over time? Which kinds and why?
SK: Somebody once said there are only seven types of stories. Another person there are really only two kinds of stories, The Odyssey, which is a road trip, and a murder mystery. We return to the same stories, but I think we find certain attributes in these stories. One of my favorite comedies is Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day is a great existentialist comedy. If you could live forever, what would you do with your life? This year I like Palm Springs as an existentialist comedy, it’s very well done.
If I’m flipping through all fifty-nine channels and I come to Singin’ in the Rain, I have to stop and watch it. There are those life-affirming comedies that I go back to. The two I mentioned and The Sting, comedies that make me glad I’m alive.
I love It’s a Wonderful Life which was astonishingly not successful when it first came out. So was The Wizard of Oz. So in a way, when we gravitate to new comedies, what we’re doing in part we’re finding things that we like in that new comedy that reminds us of our favorite comedies. Some characters, something life-affirming, Something that makes you feel better leaving than coming into that experience.
DW: Groundhog Day came out twenty-eight years ago this spring. I read the book Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Hectic World. It said, when we laugh, we remember.
SK: Yes, I know it.
DW: I remember laughing at Groundhog Day in the theater. Some things like Singin’ and The Wizard of Oz people remember the music, but they’re also great comedies.
SK: I just watched a musical the other day, The Prom, also reminded me of that. Ryan Murphy directed and produced it, and it’s about a real story about a high school in Indiana that cancelled their prom because a lesbian wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom. I don’t remember how it ended up, but that’s the genesis of it.
DW: That’s a great log line, right there. That’s a current, topical issue sweeping or at least progressing across the country.
SK: Which is another reason I love Schitt’s Creek. I have to admit I’m late to the party, and then it won all these Emmy’s, so I went back and watched it and saw how brilliant it is.
They start off with these rich people who are in a way all caricatures, and they become real characters, they evolve. They become better versions of themselves.
DW: That’s what Roger Ebert said about Groundhog Day, that Bill Murray becomes a better Phil, but not a different Phil. Schitt’s Creek grows on you. Other series I’m encouraged to watch I get four or five episodes in and stop. Other people I know are unwilling to take nine hours to get into a series.
SK: We can do that now. Now we do have nine hours, nothing but nine hours.
DW: With Schitt’s Creek the characters are consistent.
SK: I love the way they surprise us. Situations come up and we think he or she will act that way, and they don’t, and they surprise us in a heartwarming way.
DW: Roger Ebert said the hardest kind of movie to make is a very funny comedy. Would you agree? Why is this the case?
SK: The thing is that everything is comedy now. Fargo is comedy, so is The Good Wife, The Good Fight. You have to search for things that are melodramas or dramas.
Black Mirror is shocking, terrifying comedy. I think Roger Ebert said that pure comedies are the hardest kind to make. If you’re only going for laughter, or the laugh quotient, that’s very hard to sustain. People get tired of calories with no nutrition, empty food, that you need to have something meatier there. A film like Airplane! at the time, brilliant, but the parodies that followed were two degrees less effective, some less, some much less, and the reason for that is you gotta give audiences a story. If it’s just about funny, you’re only as good as your last gag.
If you have a great story and put comedy on top of it or through it, then you have something.
DW: I just re-watched Top Secret! by the same filmmakers as Airplane! And we realize they understand dramatic principles in the context of a formula.
In Airplane!, I believe it was Roger Ebert who said we really believed they were up there in that plane.
SK: Absolutely. People are committing suicide right next to Robert Hayes, and we believe it. Take Airplane! next to Scary Movie 4, and we don’t care because we don’t believe it for a second. Monty Python found this out when they did their first movie, which was a collection of sketches. For the first forty minutes people couldn’t stop laughing. Then they stopped. So they re-edited it and showed it to another preview audience.
They realized you can’t give people an empty meal. Eventually they re-packaged it, made it shorter, about seventy-five minutes, and that’s what’s shown in America. They realized if we’re going to show sketches, we have to give people characters and the story has to revolve around characters we care about. That’s where Holy Grail came from, which was good, and Life of Brian came from, which was great.
DW: I would agree with you. As a family we got through only the first half of the Holy Grail. With Take The Money And Run, you believe Woody Allen really is a criminal.
SK: Did you show them Sleeper yet? That’s a great existential comedy.
DW: Not yet, and it gets funnier with age. After seeing it a second time we see it’s a satire on California culture. With Money, he’s the world’s worst criminal but he makes a living at it, he survives, and he has a real relationship with a woman.
SK: You can’t give them cheese puffs. Each cheese puff has to better than the last. There’s nothing there. The laughter part becomes more difficult the longer you go.
DW: That’s why some comedies run out of ideas. Did you see Game Night?
SK: It was okay. Jesse Plemons was good as the needy neighbor and it turned out, spoiler alert, he’s in on the whole thing.
They became more concerned about the mystery thriller part of it, and didn’t explore their relationship or why these people, who were very competitive, were together or who they were. So when the comedy stops developing the story and characters, just to do, well, wouldn’t be funny or interesting to put this in.
With Date Night with Steve Carell and Tina Fey, their relationship grows while they are pursued by killers, and the story stays focused on their relationship.
DW: And both movies had talents, especially Game Night had stacks of talent. Do you think some comedies try too hard or stack the deck in their favor?
SK: Someone said about the new Wonder Woman that we should stop criticizing something with so many points of view. Patty Jenkins had many masters to please. It wasn’t her $500 million independent film.
It’s a mish-mosh of people telling her what to do. She has many people telling her that with merchandising, we have to do that, with marketing we have to do that, and the same thing can happen with comedy. You’re not doing it for a dollar-ninety-eight. It’s also not your money, it’s their money, and sometimes they’ll screen a film and say, “there hasn’t been a laugh in three minutes, we need one.”
They’re talking about an individual, subjective opinion, versus what will make the story. Great comics know that one less joke can make the story that much better.
DW: That sounds like a setup for failure, almost. You sort of touched on this, but what's next?
SK: I’m very slowly working on my next book. I’m starting to work on a book about comedy for television. We did these two courses in the fall, The Hidden Tools and The Comic Hero’s Journey, so if you’re reading this, go to kaplancomedy.com, and these courses start February 2021.
DW: What is your current favorite cinematic moment?
SK: Well, you know as I get older, the short-term memory goes, so the scene I’m thinking of is from Soul. It kinda reminds me of that scene in American Beauty when they watch that plastic bag fly through the air. In soul, that little soul voiced by Tina Fey, doesn’t want to live. Her character is new to the world. She sees this little seed pod float down to the ground, and Jamie Foxx’s character thinks, “I have to be a jazz pianist to be alive. Maybe I should just appreciate a moment of beauty in the world.” It makes him think, is being successful the only reason to be in the world? In a way the movie is saying, well if that’s the metric, then most of us are miserable. Many people think they haven’t achieved their dreams, they want more. If you see every moment as a gift, what’s that 1960’s poster, “Life’s a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”
I always get tissues out for Pixar movies because I know I’m going to cry.
The other moment I would compare with that is a moment in Groundhog Day. It’s when Bill Murray reads to Andie McDowell while she is asleep and he just spills out everything that’s in his heart. It’s a beautiful, unforced moment in comedy. It pauses to take a breath and the comedy doesn’t feel the need to be ridiculous. I focus on the beautiful moments in comedies as well as the funny ones.
DW: Comedies get us to lighten up and open up. We need both those things, to appreciate beauty around us and lighten up.
Clip: Soul trailer
Groundhog Day trailer
Dave Watson is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.