The Hidden Tools of Comedy

Summary of:
The Hidden Tools of Comedy (The Serious Business of Being Funny)
by Steven Kaplan

(written without the book in front of me)

I love this book. It has helped me reframe stories, character, and life in general. At its core is Mr Kalpan’s simple rule for what makes comedy work. It is all based on what a comedic hero is. Interestingly it is directly related to an action hero and a tragic hero. So without further ado, I present my paraphrasing of what a comedic hero is:

  1. A comedic hero is a normal person put in an extraordinary situation with no skills required to accomplish his goal, never giving up hope that he can win, and succeeding despite his best efforts.
  2. An action hero is a person put into an extraordinary situation with every skill required to accomplish his goal, never giving up hope that he can win, and succeeding because of his best efforts.
  3. A tragic hero is a person with every skill required to accomplish his goal, never gives up, and fails despite his best effort.

In all fairness, this paraphrasing may be a mix of Ted Elliot’s and Terry Rossio’s definition of heroes as well (as learned from Episode X of their web blog “Word Player“).

In all three definitions, the hero is confronted with an extraordinary situation and all never give up on their goals. The distinguishing factors lay on a few orthogonal axes: On the first is skills required to win. Action and tragic heros have every skill required to win. Comedic heros have no skills. On the second axis is the outcome. Action and comedic heros win because of or despite their best efforts. The word despite seems to be included not to suggest random happenstance allows them to win but merely to explain that the apparent skills they lacked walked into the the situation should have caused their failure, but instead their hopefulness and relentlessness is why they won. The word despite is also used to relate it to the tragic hero definition where the hero fails despite having all skills necessary to win. The third axis is hope. That doesn’t simply mean relentlessness in accomplishing their goal. It actually means belief that their efforts can actually help them win. In action movies you have characters who truly believe that jumping across the chasm will help them win. In comedies, every action they take is a manifestation of a genuine belief that they can win. In tragedies, you may start with optimism but at some point the character may hit a wall of hopelessness and start doing things with no expectation that they can win, like going on a date and being a complete dick to the perfect potential partner.

The thing I love about his definition is the how closely related all three scenarios are to each other. Make one simple change in outcome and you switch from action to tragedy. Take away a character’s hope and you move from comedy to tragedy. Give your comedic hero every skill required to win, and your audience will judge him like an action hero and his blunders may feel more sad.

The author gives really good examples of this. I will NOT attempt to provide one off the top of my head so as not to mess up his definition. Go read the book (or at least the first few chapters). The rest of the book deals with some other tools and ideas that will help move scene toward comedy as opposed to uncomfortable tragedy or uncomfortable action/adventure.

I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get analytical about comedy. And also to anyone who thinks they know comedy because they’ve been the class clown their whole lives or have been successful at their silly YouTube videos. I also think there is a ton of benefit in understanding these ideas for anyone writing action or tragedies because they are all related. And you don’t want your drama to come off as a joke.

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My only problem with this book is his acceptance of characters being assholes in the name of comedy. He argues that as long as the intention of the action is to win and not to be an asshole just because, then the comedic hero can get away with anything. I agree with this idea (Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia do this well) but I also don’t accept it as an excuse to write a hateful dick. It also ties into why I don’t like several movies where someone starts out as despicable and learns/grows into a decent human being (Groundhog Day, Hook, Bridesmaids). I get that there is a larger character arc with these types of characters, but I can’t empathize with those characters if they’re being dicks for minutes or hours before being a decent human. Especially if I know that the fact they are that way is only to give them a larger character arc. Seinfeld and Sunny benefit from being able to define the character’s thought patterns verbally in discussing situations and their plan of attack with their “friends” and playing off of the fact that those characters don’t change. But at least in their twisted ways they’ve discussed it with their friends and it’s clear that their actions stem from one or two quirks. Also, they tend to get their retribution by the end of the story. A lot of comedic films tend to use the character arc to justify how they don’t get their comeuppance. Or the midpoint “downpoint”/moment-of-realization is used as the “payback” for their first act actions, but it’s approached in a way that is less about the audience feeling happy that “bad things happen to bad people” and more in a way that asks the audience to feel pity for that character. I feel there are a millions comedies that have succeeded without painting the main character as an asshole. Usually, they’re an asshole from one or two flaws and those flaws are brought up after you’ve begun to like the character because of the fun you’ve have with them up until then or the joy they bring to those around them (Liar Liar).

I had an argument about this idea (where complete assholes aren’t funny and careful attention should be paid in painting your protagonist as mean so you can have them change) and Galaxy Quest was used as an example where the main character (played by Tim Allen) is an asshole in the beginning and learns to change. Though I can see how walking into a convention late and feeling excited about the day and the applause he’s about to get (without any concern for the anger the rest of his crew has built up due to the delay) can be viewed as a dick move, I believe he did that because his character is mostly an action hero who’s oblivious to the fact that his team hates him. I also don’t see him as a mean spirited dick (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day). The first time we see him, he asks what’s wrong with his co-star. He then tries to lift the spirits of the cast when he shows up late. And when he’s given the opportunity to be a real life space hero, the first thing he does is go back to his co-stars and invite them along. The assholes in my mind were the pessimists who were envious and negative about their lot in life. I never felt like Tim Allen’s character was an asshole because I saw how much he cared about his fans and his co-stars. There are several comedic characters who are lost or broken at the beginning of the movie and have seemingly nothing they care about yet complain incessantly. That’s the danger, in my mind, of using the excuse that comedy allows people to be assholes in the beginning of the film.

Overall, I highly recommend the book. It’s worth the price and provides a ton of new ways to interpret movies and scenes and argue film philosophy.

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