Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Report: Steve Kaplan's "The Hidden Tools of Comedy"

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There are a lot of books on comedy out there that try to explain how and why things are funny. Everything from how-to manuals to Freud and Bergson. I've shied away from them, especially the latter, which tend to be dry, over-intellectual and, well, not funny. (I dare you to read "Theories of Humor" on Wikipedia!) But I was eager to read Steve Kaplan's book because I knew Steve back in the 80s when he ran the Manhattan Punchline Theatre. I took a workshop he led at our NYC rehearsal loft and he directed one short piece that had come out of one of my physical comedy classes.

Not only did I like Steve's work then, but some of his ideas passed the test of time, actually sticking with me for three decades. Shortly after that period, Steve moved to L.A., where he has made quite a name for himself as a comedy teacher and script consultant. His former students/clients comprise a who's-who list of the best television and film comedy. His web site of course does not neglect to list these impressive credentials.

I am happy to report that Steve's book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy, is quite an entertaining read, but above all a very useful tool indeed. If I had to summarize Steve's approach in a paragraph, I'd highlight the crucial distinction he makes between being funny and creating comedy. While any joke or physical bit can be "funny" in and of itself, schtick for no reason can prove anti-productive. What he is going after is telling the story of a character stuck in a situation. In his comedy formula, "comedy is about an ordinary guy or gal struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the required skills and tools to win yet never giving up hope." Anything that distracts from that, including jokes for the sake of jokes or slapstick for the sake of slapstick, works against the comedy.

Just as he did in his workshop almost 30 years ago, Steve starts the book by asking which of these is the funniest:

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.

You'll have to buy the book for the (6-page) answer, but it's worth it!

Unlike other art forms, comedy is the only one that requires a specific physiological reaction (e.g., laughter) from a large number of strangers — not once or twice, but eighty, ninety, one hundred times over the course of a couple of hours or it's thought to be a failure. No other art form requires that kind of uniform response. Drama? You wouldn't expect to see a thousand people sitting watching "A Streetcar Named Desire" to all reach into their pocket and pull out a hankie and cry simultaneously at the end of the play. That would be weird. It would be comic, in fact. You wouldn't expect a hundred people walking into the Louvre to se "La Pietà" to all say "Ah!" and have the same astonished look of awe all at the same time. Yet if a hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand people don't share the same physiological response sixty or seventy or eighty times in an evening, then that comedy is said to be a failure. And that requires an immense amount of focus. — SK

While the book's examples are mostly drawn from television and film and deal more with verbal humor, pretty much everything he says relates directly to the physical performer and certainly the clown. Steve's analysis of what he calls the "straight and wavy line" is a more sophisticated version of what is more often described as straightman and comic. His emphasis on finding the true comic moments and focusing in on the character's natural reaction to what's going on, often at the expense of would-be funny business, are absolutely relevant to clown work. His examples of physical business that adds to the comedy and instances where it's extraneous are right on target. Above all he insists that "it takes a pretty a pretty smart cookie to play dumb."

Some actors have a hard time allowing themselves to appear "less than." Even the stupidest actor in the world will say "I don't want to play that, the character's not stupid." Nobody in the world wants to appear an idiot. But actors in comedy have to. In comedy, you've got to love the pie. You want the pie to land on your face; you want to be the clown. You want your characters to accept their own flawed humanity. — SK

The book is a breezy, conversational read — he even throws in four-letter words! — but it's also the career summation of a man who has thought an awful lot about the subject and, like a fine mechanic, is at home under the hood. I don't know if this is the definitive work on comedy, or if such a thing is even possible, but this is one for your bookshelf. The unanimous 5-star rating on Amazon is no accident.

You can buy the book here.
You can learn about Steve's seminars here.

1 comment:

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