Tuesday 29 October 2013

Interview with Steve Kaplan

Steve Kaplan is an expert on comedy writing. He has 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).

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Queens, NY, and grew up in a suburban area of Queens called Fresh Meadows, which was most notable for a distinct absence of meadows of any kind. But the good people of Fresh Meadows, Queens, must have been an optimistic bunch—the street I lived on was very near to Utopia Parkway, a street, I might add, that failed to live up to its name.

What kind of a family did you grow up with?

I grew up in a modestly lower-middle class Jewish family. My mom was a stay-at-home housewife (until she couldn't take it anymore and got a job working as an executive assistant in an office, not for the money, but for the escape) and my dad worked for the IRS. As long as I could remember, he only said one thing to me, over and over and over: get a civil service job. My clearest memory is of him coming to see me in some play that I acted in or directed and saying, as everyone else was leaving the theatre, "So, what about getting a civil service job? I understand the Post Office is hiring."

Where did you go to school?

Grade School: P.S. 173.

Junior High school: George J. Ryan 216 (I have no idea who George Ryan was).  

Stuyvesant H.S. (Stuyvesant was a specialized advanced high school in New York. You had to pass a very rigorous test to get in. When I went, Stuyvesant was an all-boys high school. As a result, our prom (or Spring formal) was very disappointing.)

Hofstra University. (This is where Francis Ford Coppola went to school. Like Coppola, I also directed the student musical at Hofstra my senior year. Unlike him, I have not won four Oscars, or own a vineyard. However, like Coppola, I do like a wine every now and then.)

When did you first take an interest in films/stories?

As early as I can remember, I've been interested in telling stories and making people laugh. As a child in the 60s, I grew up on comic books and television. From comics, I made my way into myth, The Once and Future King and Tolkien. Television introduced me to I Love Lucy, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, and the late night Million Dollar Movie series led me to a wondrous black-and-white world, where there's a broken heart for every light on Broadway, even if the heart belonged to a giant ape hanging on for dear life to the Empire State Building.

What was your first paying job (in any field)?

Aside from the few dollars I made tossing newspapers onto the wrong lawns or going door-to-door selling seeds or greeting cards, my first real job was as the Assistant Stage Manager for a summer stock company in Pennsylvania, where I was famous for having claimed I could drive a heavy equipment front-end loader, and proceeding to crash it into a ditch. Yes, I was fired.

You have a screen shot from Sullivan’s Travels as the header for your Twitter page. What, for you, is special about that movie?

My all-time favorite comedy quote is from Sullivan's Travels (1941), a quote that sums up my feeling about comedy, and its importance: 
"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."
Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea
When I hear the name “Kaplan,” I always think of George Kaplan in North By Northwest.  What do you think of?
"Calling Mr. Kaplan. Calling Mr. Kaplan. Telegram for George Kaplan." 
The first time I watched North by Northwest (1959) I thought, "Hey, wow, Cary Grant is a Kaplan! A Kaplan's gonna win! A Kaplan's gonna get the girl!" 
    And then, of course, Leo G. Carroll informed me that Kaplan was a nobody, and I was right back in the same existential funk that I had started in.
"Calling Mr. Kaplan. Calling Mr. Kaplan. Telegram for George Kaplan."

You did a teaching tour — THE ART OF ROMANTIC COMEDY — with Michael Hauge. How did that come about?

The tour was put together by a couple of organizations: Inscription and Epiphany Artists. I had previously toured Melbourne and Sydney under the aegis of Epiphany presenting my two-day comedy lecture, The Comedy Intensive
    Epiphany wanted me to come back, but not do the same presentation. Epiphany found out the Michael and I had previously co-presented a one-day Romantic Comedy seminar, so they approached us to see if we'd be interested in designing a two day course for Australia.
    It worked out perfectly! Michael did the first part talking about the structure of Romantic Comedy, and then I would come in and talk about how to make the structure funny, and then we would share the stage, debating the finer points of Romcoms.

Do you miss stage work, enough to consider going back to it?

I do miss it—what I don't miss is the insecurity of not knowing how to pay the bills and the poverty sometimes comes along with working in the theatre in the States. However, if you're asking because you want me to direct something... let's talk!

Who was the teacher who had the biggest influence on you?

As I was entering Stuyvesant High School, I had been in a few plays and loved the idea of theatre, but couldn't conceive of actually trying to make a career out of it.
     My high school drama teacher was an exuberant bear of a man, Sterling Jensen, who was so full of positivity and possibilities that he gave me the courage to follow my dream.
    My next most influential mentor was the director of my first professional acting job, Jere Hodgin. We were part of a troupe that had been given a grant to go into prisons and teach improv to inmates. What can I say? It was the 70s. 
    Jere taught me how to take a dream, no matter how preposterous (like teaching Viola Spolin to murderers) and turn it into a reality. By the way, those murderers and robbers—turned out they were great actors and improvisers! 
    The last teacher was Jay Harnick (brother of Sheldon Harnick, who co-wrote Fiddler on the Roof). Jay ran a company that produced original musicals that toured to schools. He had hired me to direct a new musical called Class Clown, about a kid who couldn't read. You try to make illiteracy funny! I was supposed to put together a full run-through after only 5 days of rehearsal, and when Jay walked in the rehearsal studio, I bombarded him with problems: I really needed another assistant stage manager, the recorded score wasn't finished, the sets were incomplete, the prop budget wasn't sufficient to purchase the correct props. And on and on. Jay looked at me sympathetically, and said, "Sure, we could fix all those problems—but then, where would the sport in that be?" And with that, the run-through went on. (Which went brilliantly, I might add.)

What are three things you wish someone had told you about managing actors when you were starting out at Manhattan Punch Line Theater?

1) Give them all your great ideas, but somehow convince them that they're really their own great ides!
2) Don't ever fire someone, especially if that someone goes on to get nominated for an Oscar, because then you're sure to be skipped over in the "thank-you" speech.
3) A wise saying from the old baseball manager Casey Stengel: The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided. And...
4) (and this is not original to me) The love you take is equal to the love you make. 

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book (not your own) to a newbie writer back in Adelaide, which one would it be?

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman, if just for the clarity, brevity and elegance of the opening scenes of Butch Cassidy.
(But then, for all that's holy, go and buy my book!)

What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

I don't think I can limit it to just ten, so I'll just write down the first ten I can think of, and limit them to comedies. 
Groundhog Day (1993)
The Sting (1973)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Annie Hall (1977)
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
A Night at the Opera (1935)
The Producers (1967)
40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

Please don't send me tweets upbraiding me for neglecting Steve Martin in The Jerk (1979), or an email demanding me to include There's Something About Mary (1998). 
    I agree with you. Those should be in there, as well. The problem isn't with me, it's with the number ten. Ten is just so damn well... less than you need. It would be better if the number ten could include about 50 movies—that way, you could include all the movies you should include.
    And don't get me started on cable TV shows!

What’s next for Steve Kaplan?

I'm a Creative Consultant for a new sketch comedy show to be shot in Kiev in Russian and Ukraine. Do I speak Russian and/or Ukrainian? Of course not! Where would the sport in that be!

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Several of my friends went to Melbourne to that workshop.