Friday 13 September 2013

Book review: "The Hidden Tools of Comedy"

For more than a decade, Steve Kaplan has been a sought-after expert on comedy writing. In addition to having taught at UCLA, NYU, Yale, and other top universities, Kaplan created the HBO Workspace, the HBO New Writers Program, and Manhattan Punch Line Theatre.
     He has served as a consultant to such companies as DreamWorks, Disney, Aardman Animation, and HBO. Steve has taught his Comedy Intensive workshops to thousands of students across the globe. Now the guy has written a book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny (Michael Wiese Productions, 2013).
     I have read other books on aspects of comedy—constructing a standup routine, and how to tell a joke, in particular—but this is the first book I've read that uncovers the secrets of making movie or TV comedies work. If you're a funny person, and you've made a comedy short film or webseries, then had no one laugh at the screening, hurry out and buy this book. I think you'll find the solution to your problem in there.

As usual, here are some favorite quotes from the book to give you a taste of his style.

  • What's funny is whatever makes you laugh.
  • Comedy is the art of telling the truth about what it's like to be human.
  • Drama helps us dream about what we could be, but comedy helps us live with who we are.
  • The art of comedy is the art of hope.
  • That's 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.
  • The first tool in comedy is do what you need to do in order to "win."
  • You don't need to invent a conflict in comedy. Comedy is conflict, because people are conflicted. 
  • Story and character first and comedy will follow.
  • Comedy demands that you show a person at, if not his worst, then at his not so good.
  • When your characters give up hope, that's when you have drama. But until they do, they're bumbling around creating comedy.
  • Your characters have to be the master of their own disaster, the cause of everything bad that happens to them. Your characters have to create their own dilemmas.
  • Oftentimes writers try to find the most original turn of phrase, the brilliant bon mot. But comedy is based upon quick recognition and telling the truth about life.
  • Writers, please watch out for your parentheticals. (laughs hysterically) Just write it and trust that if it's well-written, the actors will get to where you need them to be.

In the following video, Connie Martinson talks to Steve Kaplan about writing the book.


Ed Love said...

Thanks, this sounds very appealing.

Unknown said...

There is also Comedy Writing Secrets, by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz, Writers Digest Books 2005, a bit hysterical but at least methodical.

I prefer The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus, Silman-James Press, 1994. Basically it says comedy is truth and pain. Tell a story. It gives tips for strengthening the humour. Written by a successful standup comedian, it rings true in every line.