The Hidden Tools of Comedy, by Steve Kaplan

Jack Thompson
6 min readDec 12, 2021

Most tools aren’t hidden. In fact, they’re right here, on Medium.

No, no. I’m joking. I wouldn’t want to alienate people. I mean… just look, be reasonable. Go on, carry on reading.

Just.. carry on.

Anyway, you’ve missed the book’s subtitle: The Serious Business of Being Funny. So turn that frown upside down… and back the other way, because you’ve got to concentrate.

The intro has info on Kaplan and what makes him qualified to teach these tools. As he says, they work.

Is he qualified to teach them? I’ll skip that part. He mentions some stuff, but I’m not his rep, so I’ll move on.

He was a waiter or something.

But I imagine it was quite funny soup. Those ripples at the edge of the bowl… you can’t make it up.

The book quickly asks; what is comedy? If you don’t know, why are you reading this?

Uh.. forget I said that.

The answer’s delivered through a scene from the classic comedy, All My Children (which was actually a drama, but Kaplan thinks otherwise. Is he really qualified?).

Straight away, the frog dissection begins. Kaplan’s analysis is medium heavy stuff. He provides a pretty thorough teaching, while he avoids making it feel like 9:00am, Monday mornings.

Good job.

Next, he gives you an equation. The fun part for all would be writers, because equations solve all your writing woes. Feed them a variety of things, and if your sums balance, you’ve got a hit on your hands.

However, if you’ve left your job, and now you’ve crashed your sums, your SO may hit you somewhere else. Did I mention the groin?

No, I don’t think I did. Groin.

As for the equation… like anything else Kaplan, it makes sense. Mostly. But if you write comedy, or write about it, you can’t be completely sane.

Obviously I make some exceptions.

Now where are my cornflakes? Ah, there they are, pressed into the chicken dinner.

The comic equation is a statement you can apply to your scripts. It’s a simple and powerful concept.

What follows is an intro to the tools, which leads to part two of the book, and the first tool.

Which is Winning.

Already, thoughts sweep you back to high school, all the tests, and scoring top marks. That you earned honestly, through sheer hard cheating.

Winning is shown by a Kaplan class exercise and why actors suck at it. It’s well explained, and already the book’s first proper show that comedy comes from character.

Excerpts from Annie Hall, Liar Liar, Groundhog day, show what works. Then there’s Alex and Emma. Small parts of that, for what can go wrong.

Non-hero is another tool. It comes with another good exercise from his classes. But without wanting to damage Kaplan’s reputation.. he’s basically training women in violence.

Anyway, Kaplan’s all about comedy, so he has no reputation. I mean, who wants to be funny? It’s not a skill anyone wants.

While still in the non-hero stuff, Kaplan shows his own, non-hero charm, by starting a fight with Robert McKee.


Kaplan’s 70 + and McKee’s a decade older. So, anyway.. about that fight…the only logical question is, how much for the rights?

Either way, this “fight” involves narrative continuation or interruption, and is only a small distraction.

While the industry recognises him for his accolades, this book recognises him as the world’s biggest banana skin. Steve Kaplan, everybody.

There’s a bit more on Groundhog Day, and why something was tweaked for the final script.

Non-hero goes deeper, with a bit about how the Farrellys came up with that hair gel scene from There’s Something About Mary. Peter Farrelly describes it himself. It’s a really fascinating short piece in the book.

The halfway point gets you to Metaphorical Relationships. There are loads of films and shows touched on; The Odd Couple, The Producers, Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, Monk.

And that’s just all of them.

The chapter’s length is padded by 14 pages looking at the zipper scene — and build up — from There’s Something About Mary. Pondering over a young man getting his junk pincered by his fly…it’s not painful in the slightest.

With that in mind, it’s an enjoyable and informative piece. My only criticism is its link to the core of the chapter is a little overstretched.

Like the elastic on your lockdown pants.

Not finished, Kaplan lays into Alex and Emma a bit more. It’s not exactly a pounding, more a prod with a velvet gloved little pinky finger. It tickles a bit.

The next tool is Positive Action. There’s analysis of Seinfeld, As Good as it Gets, and about 5 pages of a Fawlty Towers episode.

Plus, a really good part when the chapter talks comedy and drama. You’re given a great idea of what tips the scales one way or the other.

Active Emotion covers the hand slapping game, or slaps. No, really. It’s on page 164 of this copy. Then, to heighten the drama, a swearword on page 169.

Most readers will be put off by that, and it nearly ended this review. It had nothing to do with my laziness.

As a tool, Active Emotion is pretty lightweight. As Kaplan says, it’s less for writers, more for the performers and directors.

With that admission, things move to Straight Line/Wavy Line. An intriguing name, for what is Kaplan’s take on the straight man and comic.

At this point, you may be wondering, is this merely semantics? Is Kaplan’s take really better than the rest?

You be the judge. As this is a review, don’t expect me to go out on a limb and offer an actual opinion.

Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First? gets looked at. The 10+ pages of this — and the rest of the chapter — is when Kaplan works hardest to bring you to his way of thinking.

Seinfeld gets taken down the tunnel as well. Is there a train approaching?

The flash beam reckons the tracks were abandoned years ago. Which you would have noticed much quicker had you gone out in daylight.

There’s a funny bit of script, and its analysis, this time of The Burgundy Loaf. It’s a sketch from the defunct Mr. Show. Then, before the chapter’s out, a scene from Meet the Fockers.

And then… (not the film you’re thinking, just added here as a segue. Which has now been interrupted by this explanation that was required for your understanding. Thanks).

An exercise. The only one in the book, but as it goes with one of the more challenging concepts on offer, it’s more than welcome.

A couple more tools remain.

These seem like lesser tools, but even lesser tools must be treated equally. They contain a bit more on comedy coming from character. Then stuff on premise.

How’s that for equal?

Still, good tips, but not as detailed as what preceded them.

In the book ending FAQ, some unexpected questions and answers. These come in the form of… questions and answers.

They make a pleasant read, and the answers keep you reading right until the very end.


This reviewer didn’t finish the book.


Steve Kaplan’s written a book on comedy that doesn’t talk jokes. In fact, it goes right out of the way to avoid them. Here you’ll get to read about his tools and how to employ them. They come with analysis, which is done well, and in a readable way.

Sometimes, there’s a little bit of fighting the wheel of invention, but Kaplan keeps pulling you towards his concepts.

With the amount of comedy things he’s been involved with, it’s very difficult to read this and not come away with something new. And once you’ve read it once, the freshness of the contents, and its depth, justifies at least a couple of reads.


For a different look at things. If you want the Kaplan take on scripted comedy, definitely buy a copy.


No jokes. None at all. Actually, Kaplan tells one very early in the book. It’s pretty good.

Other thoughts

Sometimes there’s a little bit of padding with added script when it really wasn’t necessary. But I’m not complaining. It’s all for education.


260 pages listed. About 9 in Roman numerals. Take off 30 for spacing, cut another 30 for script excerpts and its white spaces, plus reasonable spacing between each line of text.

200 pages sounds about right.

Quicker readers will take a couple of days.

Slower, dedicated readers, a couple of weeks.



Jack Thompson

Writes serious book reviews. Other ideas in the works.