The Hidden Tools Of Comedy by Steve Kaplan (book review).

For those of you who read my short stories at SFC will be aware, I tend to add a touch of brevity into their content so am always interested in the mechanics of humour. From the start, author Steve Kaplan points out that comedy elements shows people that characters are less than perfect. The fact that we see something at odds in a serious scene that are a little funny is something we do in real life. Although he uses an example from an American soap opera that tends to be totally serious, I do wonder what he would make of some British soap operas that allow a bit of comedy to be regularly used.


‘The Hidden Tools Of Comedy’ is the paper version of Steve Kaplan’s lectures for classes of directors, writers and actors and exploring the mechanics of how to make people laugh. Saying that, I’m not sure if ‘make’ is the right word and I doubt if he would neither. I do have this rather weird image of all his students, his checklist of who he’s helped is rather interesting by the way, with grim expressions which they break when he puts in a gag. I suspect if I attended, I’d be chucked out for heckling a little. What made me want to read this book is because it might give me a bit more insight into American comedy or why we can get theirs and they often have problems with some of our more British subtle comedy.

Something Kaplan emphasises is that these are tools NOT rules so should treat them as part of your comedy equipment. He also points out that comedy shows flaws in people and is also a means of showing the truth about people. American drama he postulates whitewashes the flaws or what I would call idealising the way people expect life should be like.

There are some lessons that are useful to remember as prose writers in not to always make characters as smart or as aware as yourself when writing them. Likewise, remember spontaneous reaction as to how people react. I would draw comment against his comments that the commando team in ‘Predator’ were prepared for combat. If you look at it in a black-humoured way there and, indeed, with ‘Aliens’, as Newt said, being prepared wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the opposition.

As I was also looking at things that differentiates between American and English humour, the former as Kaplan points out, likes winners whereas my lot tend to feel for the losers, even if we might laugh at their antics. We also interpret differently as well. Kaplan describes different types of people falling over a banana skin but doesn’t see the reason why we would laugh at someone in a top hat falling as being the yellow fruit doesn’t choose favourites of any class. Looking at the cover, I couldn’t help wondering if the top of that banana didn’t look like the head of a bird crooning into the sky.

Kaplan likes to use ‘Seinfeld’ a lot although also admires ‘Fawlty Towers’ as well. As he also points out, that comedy is in the eye of the beholder and I wouldn’t have chosen several of his films, mostly from different culture issues.

Did I learn anything from this book? A few things. Probably less than some of you might but understanding how to control the funny and not to over-do things is something that is useful for anyone. At the back of the book, Kaplan gives a few lessons in how to break into the American TV industry although I did have this wry moment where there are more social gatherings than people writing.

Humour is only serious business for those who write it. Making sure other people get the gag can only be done by testing. So if they don’t laugh, then it not funny. Don’t forget your slapstick.

GF Willmetts

March 2015

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 257 page enlarged paperback. Price: $26.95 (US), £17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-140-8)

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