Comedy teacher extraordinaire Steve Kaplan came to town, Saturday and Sunday the first weekend in March, to educate the AuthorU community about humor—the tools, the rules—underlying a 3000-year history of a subject that remains as an important mainstay of our entertainment industry as any today. The stars—the practitioners— of comedy are as familiar to all of us practically as are members of our own family: Billy Crystal, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, The Marx Brothers, Seinfeld, Carlin, Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, Abbot and Costello, Woody Allen, and many others, all of whom have literally been part of our lives from childhood to adulthood.
Kaplan defined for us Drama and Comedy, two major elements of our human condition and lives, characterizing almost universally, our character-based entertainment. Where drama helps us think about what our lives often are and could be, comedy tells us the truth in general about people. He challenged us with the enigmatic statement he calls the comic premise, “It tells lies that tell the truth!” Don’t you love this line?
After a brief account of the 3000-year history of comedy, starting with the Greeks, and followed by a form of acting that started on the steps of the Church, and ending with the currently popular, humorous shows and movies like Seinfeld, … Raymond, and Something About Mary, he related to us the elements of the “Comedy Equation,” the hidden “tools” beginning with an ordinary guy and/or gal who struggle as non-hero(s) against all odds, lacking many, even all, of the skills that are needed to “win” in life. He emphasized that winning is a centrally important element in the development of a humorous situation, one that involves positive action, the presence of easily recognized archetypes, and often the use of metaphor.
A number of TV and movie clips were used to illustrate these elements as well as the presence of well-known actors such as the Seinfeld characters, Cary Grant (in Arsenic and Old Lace) and Bill Murray in (Groundhog Day). The beauty here was that he dissected line by line/scene by scene. What worked. What didn’t?
There were several writing assignments: asking to examine in writing who you really are, give and account of a fight you experienced where you were right or wrong, invent a comic situation propelling the character(s) into a situation of your imagination, and, with a partner; write an outline a humorous screenplay, which he then critiqued. There were often, throughout, sprinklings of “wise words” to help in our writing, such as unashamedly “stealing” from what is out there in the literature and screen without feeling illegal or immoral or a thief, and not to try to be “clever” in the writing, but letting the situation and the character(s) guide your development. Let what you come up with be “the Truth.”
He emphasized, again and again, the dialog characterization he labeled “Straight-Line—Wavy Line.” It could be the most important single idea of the workshop in illustration. The clearest example among many examples of that idea was the famous Abbot and Costello comedy routine, “Who’s On First?” Abbot is the “Straight Line” character; Costello, the “Wavy Line” character. Abbot is trying to explain baseball to Costello, but is blind to the reason for Costello’s confusion, who is trying again and again to understand, and failing again and again, because of Abbot’s continuing blindness to the real reason for Costello’s confusion.
Steve Kaplan finished the second full day, Sunday, by answering “burning questions” from us, written on cards, reminding us often as he did so, that we as a culture have a character-centered comic tradition. The mantra, “Follow the Character,” meaning trust your character(s) to guide you in your development, was his final message to any and all of us intending/attempting to write humor.
It was a sensational, not to be missed weekend. Get Kaplan’s book via Amazon, And … to let all know, Saturday was videoed and available to purchase on the AuthorU.org website. It’s a bargain.
John Maling is an Editor and Indexer. He’s also a Poet and Author of the multi-awarding winning book, Have You Ever Held a Mountain?
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