Today’s Guest Star has been the industry’s most respected and sought-after expert on comedy for over 15 years. He teaches comedy workshops, has created the HBO Workspace, the HBO New Writers Program and was co-founder and Artistic Director of Manhattan Punch Line Theatre, developing writers like Peter Tolan (Analyze This, Finding Amanda), writer/ producer David Crane (Friends, Joey, The Class), writer/producer Tracy Poust (Ugly Betty, Will & Grace), Michael Patrick King (The Comeback, Sex and The City, Will & Grace), Will Scheffer (Big Love), Steve Skrovan (Everybody Loves Raymond) etcetera, etcetera.
Exactly!! I know what you’re thinking and I’m WAY ahead of you. If this guy thinks he can monkey around in this interview he has another thing coming. I’m a serious interviewer, so he’d better Bee-have.
Especially since we’re meeting at the legendary Jerry’s Deli on Ventura Blvd., that’s LA, CA, aka Hollywood, Baby — I have to look cool!
HDYGT: (applies 10th coat of tangerine lip gloss, adjusts enormous rhinestone sunglasses, flings open door of crowded deli)
Steve Kaplan: (waves from red booth) Hello, over here!
HDYGT: (slides into booth) Mr. Kaplan, I presume?
Steve Kaplan: (smiling) Really nice to meet you. I hope you didn’t run into bad traffic?
HDYGT: So this is how we’re going to play it, huh? Question Avoidance! You’re avoiding my questions by asking your own.
Steve Kaplan: (baffled) What? What do you mean?
HDYGT: I know the game and it’s not gonna work. (slams table, sloshing water glasses) Are you or are you not Steve Kaplan?
Steve Kaplan: (steadies water glasses) No, no, not at all!
HDYGT: (jumps up bumping table, water drenches Steve) You’re not Steve Kaplan? Then who the hell are you?!
Steve Kaplan: (fumbling for napkins) No, no – I mean, I’m not avoiding your question. I was just starting to get worried. I’ve been here for over an hour and thought something might have happened to you.
HDYGT: (sits back down) Oh. I get it.
Steve Kaplan: (smiles, wipes up spilled water) Glad we got that settled.
HDYGT: Deflection. Classic counter move.
Steve Kaplan: Huh?
HDYGT: Trying to pin it all on me. (scribbles in notebook) Hostile Guest Star.
Steve Kaplan: (reads upside down) Wait – did you just write Hostile?
HDYGT: (slams fuzzy pink pencil down on notepad) How can I conduct an interview if you won’t stop fooling around and answer the question!
Steve Kaplan: (starts to sweat) Wha- what question? You haven’t asked me one.
HDYGT (rolls eyes) Yea, right. I’ll just call you Mr. X.
Steve Kaplan: (confused) Look, I’m really not trying to be difficult, but you were the one who contacted ME, so I assumed–
HDYGT: (to gawking Elderly Couple at next table) I’m deeply sorry, is my companion bothering you? Imagine how I feel! (to Steve Kaplan) Since you refuse to tell me your name, how about telling me what you do for a living?
Elderly Husband: Yea, just do what she says. The date goes a lot better that way.
Elderly Wife: (bats husband’s arm) Harold!
Steve Kaplan: (laughs awkwardly at mounting on-lookers) No, no, ha! This is an INTERVIEW – definitely NOT a date – I’m married! She invited me here to INTERVIEW me.
Elderly Husband: We’ll be the judge of that. Tell the lady what you do.
Steve Kaplan: (raises voice for all to hear) I’d like the readers of HowDidYouGetThere to know that I teach comedy writing and performance, as well as conduct workshops, seminars and consult on scripts.
HDYGT: (points pencil at Steve) Ah-HA! Just like Steve Kaplan does.
Steve Kaplan: Um…yes.
HDYGT: How long have you worked in comedy, Mr. X?
Steve Kaplan: If you don’t mind, just call me–
HDYGT: Again with the question avoidance? You’re an artful dodger, Mr. X, but you underestimate my amazing counter moves, developed from years of tether ball. (HDYGT demonstrates ducking and air-hitting manoeuvres)
Elderly Husband: (winks at HDYGT) Nice moves. If it doesn’t work out with this guy–
Elderly Wife: Shut up and order, Harold!
Elderly Husband: (to waitress) I’ll have what she’s having.
Steve Kaplan: (wishes they’d met at McDonald’s like HDYGT had suggested)
HDYGT: (sits, winded) So you see, you’ve met your match. I repeat: How long have you worked in comedy?
Steve Kaplan: OK, ok! I started a theatre company in New York completely devoted to comedy in 1979. Would your readers believe that I started the theatre at the age of 10?
HDYGT: (beams with pride) My readers will believe anything.
Steve Kaplan: I can imagine.
HDYGT: What do you like most about working in comedy?
Steve Kaplan: I get to hang around a lot of people who are laughing.
HDYGT: I can imagine. People in here are sure laughing at you.
Steve Kaplan: (blank stare)
HDYGT: What do you think makes you suited to teaching comedy?
Steve Kaplan: Let me quote from Dorothy Parker’s prescription for writing comedy: “Have a sharp eye, and a wild mind.” I guess I have both.
HDYGT: Have you always been sharp and wild or did you start off dull and docile, and grow into it?
Steve Kaplan: I guess it all started when I was a kid. I was the kind of kid who would get picked on and beat up after school. I’m really not sure why.
HDYGT: (scribbles in notebook) Dull and docile child…
Steve Kaplan: (reads upside down) Hey – I wasn’t dull or docile! As a matter of fact, because of the threat of being pummeled, I learned to do two things really well—
HDYGT: (continues writing) …could only do two things well…
Steve Kaplan: I learned to run fast and make people laugh. Most kids couldn’t catch me; those who could, I disarmed with trenchant wit, with more than a soupçon of self-deprecating humor thrown in.
HDYGT: (still writing) …kids laughed at the way he ran. But he made excellent soup.
Steve Kaplan: OK, I still got beat up, but I also grew to love comedy.
HDYGT: Fascinating how soup-making leads to comedy. Who were your favorite comedians?
Steve Kaplan: While my peers were settling for the slapstick fun of Soupy Sales, my tastes were developing a more discerning palette.
HDYGT: Good choice. I was getting tired of soup.
Steve Kaplan: My heroes were the anarchic Marx Bros. and the 40s era hipster-quipster Bob Hope. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Bing seemed to get all the girls in the Road movies just by singing. I remember, to my eternal humiliation, going up to a band at a dance (I was 12) and asking them to play a request: Bob Hope’s theme song, Thanks for the Memories.
HDYGT: Oh – I love the Marx Brothers and have a special spot in my heart for the Road movies of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Who else?
Steve Kaplan: I loved Laurel and Hardy and W.C. Fields and Danny Kaye (“The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!”) and the Dick Van Dyke Show, and through the subversive humor of Get Smart I became a fan of Mel Brooks, who I later discovered was also the 2,000-Year Old Man.
HDYGT: You should watch that science program, Get Smart, a little more closely if you think Mel Brooks is 2,000 years old. I happen to know that the oldest person is only 1,029, because he was abducted by aliens. True story.
Steve Kaplan: Right.
HDYGT: So you had a love of the classics even in your early years?
Steve Kaplan: I have to admit I wasn’t yet a fan of the great silent classics, but I’m proud to point out that, even at 13, my love of The Three Stooges extended only to Shemp, who I thought alone exhibited the heart, compassion and bewildered sweetness that was the hallmark of great comedy and was lacking in Moe, Larry and Curley.
HDYGT: Where have you worked prior to now?
Steve Kaplan: Well, immediately prior to immediately prior, I was doing some talent development gigs for Chris Albrecht at HBO. I was then given an opportunity that, in retrospect, I should have turned down. I went into talent management representation. So I zigged when I shoulda zagged.
HDYGT: I used to have that problem in tether ball. Want me to show you?
Steve Kaplan: No, no, that’s OK. I worked it out.
HDYGT: (starts to stand) Sure?
Steve Kaplan: Uh…positive. To give you a sense of how it turned out, I once approached my partners about taking on a new act, and one of them said, “That Jack Black and Tenacious D are never going to amount to anything.”
HDYGT: And how did you begin teaching Comedy Intensive Workshops internationally?
Steve Kaplan: Well, that’s a position I really had to invent myself. I do give a lot of credit to a guy who worked for Robert McKee who took me to lunch and said, “You could be the Robert McKee of comedy.” I don’t think I’m at McKee’s legendary status yet, but it’s been an amazing ride so far, and it’s taken me to New York, Vancouver, London, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore!
HDYGT: Wow. Any other jobs stand out in your past?
Steve Kaplan: The theatre I started in New York was called Manhattan Punch Line, and it was an amazingly vital and creative time of my life and an amazing launching pad for new talent—Steve Skrovan (Executive Producer of Everybody Loves Raymond), Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City), David Fury (Lost, 24), Peter Tolan (Rescue Me), John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt—the list goes on.
HDYGT: How cool is that?! Any valuable life experiences do you wish to share?
Steve Kaplan: Hey, waking up is an amazing life experience!
HDYGT: And for my final question– Are you or are you not Steve Kaplan?
(Elderly Couple lean in closer.)
Steve Kaplan: You’re actually going to post this?
HDYGT: Of course, I’m a professional! I’m not doing this for laughs, you know.
Steve Kaplan: Uh… right… In that case I have to be honest. My real name is…um…Robert McKee.
HDYGT: I knew it! I’ve got a nose for this – nothing gets by me! (Hi-fives impressed Elderly Husband)
Steve Kaplan: (relieved) Yep. You saw straight through me.
HDYGT: Thank you for coming clean, Mr. McKee. And to Steve Kaplan, where ever you are, I’d like to send out a very big Thank You for Playing!!
© HDYGT 2010
For almost 15 years, Steve Kaplan has been the industry’s most respected and sought-after expert on comedy. The artists he’s taught, directed or produced have gone on to be nominated for 43 Emmy Awards, 1 Academy Award, 3 Golden Globe Awards, 1 American Comedy Award, 6 Writers’ Guild of America Awards and several others. (They’ve WON 10 Emmys, 1 Oscar, 2 WGA Awards and the American Comedy Award.) In addition to having taught at UCLA, NYU, Yale and other top universities, Steve Kaplan created the HBO Workspace, the HBO New Writers Program and was co-founder and Artistic Director of Manhattan Punch Line Theatre. He has served as a consultant to such companies as DreamWorks, Disney, Aardman Animation, HBO and others.
(originally published August 2010)