Ask a Smilin’ Networking Machine Script Consultant!

Joey Tuccio

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Joey Tuccio of Roadmap Writers.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

I was going to try to be fancy and say NIGHTCRAWLER or GONE GIRL but I really, really like the series BROAD CITY. Though I’m sure some of it is improvised, I get really inspired by writers that create their own content, which is exactly what these two girls did. And now they have their own show.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I used to read for a ton of production companies to get my foot in the door. Suggestion to all aspiring writers: INTERN!

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

You can be taught for sure.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Good question. There are so many variables, but it really comes down to characterization. Without that, the script has no heart and no connecting tissue. It all comes back to the character, which doesn’t necessarily mean the protagonist has to be the most complex character in the world. It just means the protagonist should be relatable, even if it connects with us in a dark way.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Writers who think they’re ready before they are and jump in way too early. I’m an Italian New Yorker so I understand impatience, but you’ll spend more time trying to get traction if you rush. Take the craft seriously. An executive once said to me that most writers write as a hobby whether they know it or not. Don’t be that writer. An executive can smell it a mile away.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Female characters that are just used as visual trophies. When a dad character calls his son “son”. When a writer clearly gets bored halfway through their script and starts to incorporate bizarre twists to make it seem more engaging.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

-Keep it simple. Have a throughline and stay on that track.

-Make sure you relate to the characters. Don’t write something just because you think an audience will love it. YOU have to love it.

-Make sure you proofread your work and have other people do so before you show anybody. Executives will pass if there are too many typos.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”?  If so, could you give the logline?

Yes, but it’s a client’s, so I can’t say what it is, but I can say it was a low budget psychological contained horror that got him signed almost instantly.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

There are 2 billion screenwriting contests out there. See what the prizes are and who the judges are. See who’s willing to attach their name to a contest before submitting. Too many times writers submit to contests just for the ego boost of placing, and nearly all the time it doesn’t mean anything besides just that. If you’re a writer, then you’re a business owner in your own right. Be a businessperson and be smart with the steps you take.

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

Email me at joey@roadmapwriters.com.

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Pecan pie with vanilla ice cream!

Ask a More-Than-Just-Horse-Sense Script Consultant!*

Tracee Beebe

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Tracee Beebe of The Script Coach.

Tracee Beebe is a working screenwriter whose work focuses on damaged characters and their relationships with each other. An optioned screenwriter, she has had screenplays finish among the top 20% of the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship out of 7,000 entrants and as a quarter-finalist in the 2013 Scriptapolooza screenplay competition. As a script coach she enjoys helping writers bring out the best in their scripts as well as learn skills that will help their future screenplays.

Her previous career as a horse trainer, and her work in animal rescue, has flavored much of her work and given her the tenacity to believe that anything is possible if you just work hard enough along with the humility to know that there is always more to learn.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

I just rewatched To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and fell in love with it all over again. Wonderful, unique characters, tons of subtext, and it just grips you right from the start.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I started out just exchanging scripts with other writers for feedback. After some particularly helpful notes, a Facebook friend offered to pay me to do detailed notes for him, word got out and more and more writers came to me for script coaching/consultation. After about a year of that, I saw an ad on ISA looking for experienced readers to do coverage for a new management company and applied.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Absolutely. I think that part of it is innate, but the more scripts you read (both good and bad), the more you can start to really see what makes a great script.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Entire books are written on this topic, but I think the most vital are structurally sound, unique concepts and really strong, interesting dialogue. Without those, you’re in trouble.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Exposition is probably the worst and most common mistake I see. Another rookie mistake is coming in to a scene too early and not leaving soon enough.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

There are things that make me roll my eyes and say “really? that’s the best you could come up with?” but thankfully nothing I see over and over again. I will say I am not a fan of anything resembling “Let’s get ‘em!” People don’t say that kind of stuff in real life. Oh, and a personal pet peeve (though not really a trope) is a writer using “we see” – to me it denotes lazy writing.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

-Show, don’t tell.

-Don’t write it unless it is important to the story.

-Make every word count.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

It’s rare, but there have been a few. One was a very clever comedy about a personal chef to a mob boss. “When the mob boss’s personal chef gets wind he’s about to be flambéed, he must find a way to take down the Family before his goose is cooked.”

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Yes, some of them. Some of the bigger contests are now so flooded it’s not worth entering unless you have gotten solid coverage and done some strong rewriting before you submit. But there are some good contests out there that also provide coverage to entries. I think that makes it worth the entry fee.

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

www.TraceeBeebe.com

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Pumpkin, with lots of homemade whipped cream! Now I have to go find myself a piece!

 

*because she works with and writes about horses. A terrible joke, I know, but how could I resist?

Ask a Proficiently Perceptive Script Consultant!

Sidney Stephens

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Sidney Stephens of Sidney Scripts Consulting.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

One of my favorite things is when a novel is adapted to the big screen. That’s when the writer in me really comes out to play. I’ll first read the book, then the screenplay, and eventually I’ll get around to seeing the film. I did this about a year ago with the hit TV series “Under the Dome” by Stephen King (only read the pilot script, however), and I also did this with “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. It’s very interesting to see how the story changes from one medium to the next. I enjoyed both of these the most of my recent reads.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

While getting my Master’s degree in Creative Writing years ago, I read numerous scripts, mostly for my classmates, friends and co-writers, and mostly as a pay-it-forward kind of thing. Over a year ago, a friend of mine asked if I would like to start up a script consulting business together. I’d done so much ‘freelance’ work that it made sense. Three months later, my friend backed out of the whole thing. I, on the other hand, rarely back out of anything. So here I am, sole owner of Sidney Scripts Consulting.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Absolutely. Part of learning to write a good screenplay is learning to recognize what that means. And there’s no better way to do that than to read tons of screenplays. Breaking them down into what makes them good and what makes them great. The real trick to recognizing a good screenplay is not finding one that reads smoothly and is error free, its finding one that reads smoothly, is error free, and will translate all its intended emotion to the screen in a way that will captivate its targeted audience.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Believable characters and natural dialogue are two very important components of any decent script. Good characters are what draw the audience into the situation; they are what the audience relates to. If they aren’t believable or their dialogue isn’t natural or strong, it will leave the audience asking themselves why they even care to finish the script/film. Yes, settings are awesome and a twisty plot is always a great way to ramp up a screenplay, but without relatable, believable characters, its not enough to make a good script great.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Some writers, mostly new writers, try to dictate every inch of how the story will play out on film. With tons of camera angles, actor cues, and scene transitions it is hard to stay in the story. It’s important for the writer to know their part of the process and to do just that. Let the actors do their jobs, allow the directors and cameramen do their job, and just stick to writing a great story. Always remember to show, not tell.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

End of the world stories are really starting to wear me out. I think I’ve read every possible way the earth could end, blow up, shatter, freeze, burn, etc. and yet, the surrounding stories are all the same. Man saves family only to stay behind and sacrifice himself for the future of the world. The entire movie is watching them attempt to stop the inevitable only to fail miserably. Until finally, at the last possible moment, the guy saves the planet and is reunited once again with his loved ones. Yawn.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

  • Writing is rewriting. No matter how great you think your draft is, it needs a rewrite. Deal with it.
  • Have a target audience and know exactly what it takes to reach them.
  • Write what you know.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I’ve definitely read some worthy scripts in my days as a consultant. However, it is only after working closely with the writer on rewrites and such and knowing what producers were looking for at that particular time. I think finding any script that is “without a doubt” anything is a rare find that all consultants want that next script on their desk to be.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Screenwriting contests are a great way to get your screenplay read and possibly receive some fairly descent feedback. However, using these contests to “break into the business” or as a way of earning thousands on their scripts, they better be something spectacular. The reality is, hundreds of thousands of writers enter screenwriting competitions every year, and only a handful make it past the volunteer readers in the initial read. Can it be your screenplay? Of course. It is worth it? Well, that depends on the writer.

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

My website: www.SidneyScriptsConsulting.com

My Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sidney.stephens.9465

Email me with any questions: SidneyScriptsConsulting@gmail.com

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Sorry, I’m a brownie girl!*

(*Editor’s note: The blasphemy of this statement will not be held against Ms. Stephens.)

Ask a PAGE Silver-Winning Script Consultant!

Derek Ladd

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on former consultant Derek Ladd. His script Nina NANO was a Silver Prize Winner in the 2013 Page International Screenwriting Competition.

Award-winning screenwriter Derek Ladd started telling stories as a kid and never stopped. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he spends as much time writing as he does shaking off the rain (which is pretty much all the time).

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

The last exceptional script I read belongs to Matt Tolbert, a client of mine. I can’t go into specifics but it’s an historical screenplay about the Nordic Vikings. It’s refreshing to work on a script that pulls me in on page one and doesn’t let go. All of the elements (pacing, plot, characters) came together to create an immersive reading experience. As for movies, the last one I saw that featured great writing was Dallas Buyer’s Club. This is a movie that nails the writing on all levels: the visuals, the dialogue, the subtext, all of it. Another surprisingly good movie I loved is an indie foreign film (horror comedy genre) set in Ireland called Grabbers.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

When I started my script consulting service, one of my early clients wanted to produce a movie. I’d written a couple dozen short stories and a few novels by this time and this client had read some of my work. And since a screenplay is the first element one needs to make a movie, she recruited me to write one. The only obstacle was that I had no idea how to write a script. So I bought two books on the subject and they didn’t help: each book contradicted the other. Then I bought one of those fancy bound scripts at Barnes & Noble – Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman, based on Susan Orlean’s book). Of course, it was more of a transcript so it didn’t help much either. I finally gave in to the fact that I would need to attend a class, and in Portland, Oregon the master of screenwriting was Cynthia Whitcomb. I took both of her classes, read her books and picked it up pretty quickly. My first script was an adaptation of my novel, Without Wings. From there I started reading scripts written by my classmates so I could give them feedback. The writers I worked with were so pleased I started doing it professionally. To date, over a dozen of my clients have won or placed in a variety of screenwriting contests.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I would say ‘Yes’ to both questions simply because one has to know how to recognize good writing in order write good material. While writing novels I found inspiration in everyone from Heinrich Boll, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and David Sedaris to William F. Nolan, Anne Rice and Stephen King. If an aspiring screenwriter thinks Gigli or Showgirls is a great screenplay, trying to write a great script will be damn near impossible. If, however, the same screenwriter dives into work by Michael Mann, the Coen brothers, Joss Whedon, or Luc Besson (to name a few), or any brilliantly written script (JAWS, Fargo, The Matrix, Harold and Maude, Serenity, The Silence of the Lambs), that writer will strive to achieve the same level of success in their own work. Excellent writing that makes you laugh and cry and get goosebumps has more power to teach aspiring writers than any classroom instruction ever could.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The Seduction Element: I watched a good DVD lecture featuring Michael Hauge a while back called ‘Grabbing The Reader In The First 10 Pages’. Mr. Hauge opened the lecture by explaining that part of the title is a misnomer: he said that ‘grabbing’ is too forceful a word and that what a writer should aim to do is seduce the reader. That’s at the top of my list. Seduce me with your words. Make it impossible for me to put it down: make me laugh, make me anxious and/or make me curious in the first five to ten pages. If you can evoke a strong emotion in the reader as soon as possible and keep it flowing that reader will be yours to the end. A famous writer (don’t ask me who) once said, “The first sentence should make you want to read the second. The second sentence should make you want to read the third…”

Strong characterization: A fleshed-out, intriguing character has the power to lead the reader anywhere. If a script starts out with three pages that describe the inside of a barn or a ton of details to set up what’s to come, I’ll put it down, or throw it at you if you’re close enough. The writer may have created the most awesome outpost on an alien planet anyone has ever dreamed up, or constructed the greatest plot ever conceived in the history of the written word, but without a solid character to invest in it won’t matter. For me, strong characterization is the whole shebang: a memorable introduction, sharp, believable dialogue, behavior that’s consistent with how the character would act in a given situation, etc. If the character has an arc (not required in some genres, but strongly recommended) it should be begin and end at the proper times – no rushing and no shuffling. Steady as she goes…

Originality: Is this a script I’ve read a hundred times before, or will it surprise me? I’m not saying it has to be about a group of purple, basketball-shaped alien opera singers from the planet Snergle. When I say ‘original,’ I’m referring to the unique spin a writer puts on the material. As an example, a good detective story populated with adults is okay, while a detective story populated with high school kids (like the film Brick) is original and stands out. No need to reinvent the wheel; popular genres are popular for a reason. Just find a way to spin them and surprise the reader.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Everyone’s guilty of typos and grammatical errors (myself included), so it’s a given that any editor/consultant will find them. Aside from that, one common technical mistake I see involves scenes that spill over into other locations without new scene headings. Drives me crazy. I also see a lot of scene headings written improperly, missing words, character name inconsistencies and factual errors (names of objects, cities, states, countries or famous people misspelled). To a lesser degree, I see action lines that are jumbled: a character enters, pulls a gun, fires. Then it’s noted that the light is flickering overhead. Oh, and the guy in plain sight by the pool table (who was never mentioned before) fires back. It’s like when someone tells a joke and stops in the middle to say, “I forgot to mention, the guy riding the donkey is a priest.” It’s distracting. Unless you’re writing a narrow-to-wide shot, set the scene: describe who’s there and what they’re doing then describe the action. Otherwise it feels clunky and awkward.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The expression “I get it” is everywhere now. I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it’s like the cicadas that surface every 17 years or whatever and it’ll disappear soon. Here’s an example: “Hey, getting hit in the crotch with an umbrella ticked you off. I get it.” The biggest users of “I get it” are the writers for ‘Supernatural’, ‘Criminal Minds’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy’, all great shows that would be even greater if they’d stop using “I get it” six times per episode. It’s superfluous. Think about it: if one character describes what another is feeling, is it necessary to cap it off with “I get it.”? No. It isn’t. So please stop it. A visual trope, as it were, is the weird technique where the action goes into slow motion then speeds up again. I think the movie 300 started that whole thing. Hopefully a better movie will come along to put an end to it soon.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

The following answers are based on the assumption that the writer has developed a unique concept and story that he/she is passionate about. My answers further assume that the fundamentals of story, characterization, plot, dialogue, writer’s voice, pacing, style and overall balance (60% action, 40% dialogue) have been carefully considered throughout the writing process.

-The first 5-10 pages are life and death for a writer. As an editor/consultant, I get paid to analyze a writer’s work. Studio script readers, on the other hand, get paid to say ‘No’ to conserve a producer’s valuable time and an investor’s money. So unless you give the reader a solid reason to say ‘Yes’, your script is headed for the recycling bin. Set the hook as soon as possible and set it deep. Make that studio reader take your script into the bathroom (to read).

-Unless you’ve written a character-based indie script, structure is critical. Do your own structure analysis to see where you land: inciting incident by around page 12, plot point one by the 1/4 mark, strong midpoint by the 1/2 mark, plot point two by the 3/4 mark and the climax in the last 10-15 pages. You’re allowed a brief end-cap/denouement of 1-3 pages and then FADE OUT.

-Formatting DOES matter, especially for a spec script. Know the average length for comedies, thrillers, horrors, dramas, etc. Turning in anything under 90 pages or anything over 120 is a longshot. Know that formatting varies between different genres and how to use these varied techniques to your advantage. Barb Doyon’s book, ‘Extreme Screenwriting’, has an excellent chapter on formatting and how to use it to enhance a spec script.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I’ve read a few scripts over the past ten years I would strongly recommend, which is probably right in line with the industry percentage of one half of one percent. I don’t have loglines to share (without a client’s permission), but the clients whose scripts I would recommend include Chanrithy Him (When Broken Glass Floats), Santa Sierra (spec episode of The Good Wife), Bill Johnston (Requited), Erin McNamara (Boru), Mike McGeever (Smilers) and Dorothy St. Louis (El Cubano). Others can be found at ProofEdge.com on the Testimonials page.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

It really depends on the contest. My advice is to do some research, comb the web and read message boards. Moviebytes has a lot of info on contests and how contestants rate them. Find a contest that’s a good fit for your work. Some contests aren’t as open to traditional Hollywood blockbuster-type scripts (Zoetrope), while others offer a range of categories to accommodate all writers (PAGE Awards). If it’s a sizeable, reputable contest (PAGE Awards, StoryPros, Nicholl, among many others) I strongly recommend using it as a measuring stick to see where you stand as a writer. A writer shouldn’t get too bummed if his/her script doesn’t make it past the first round – a script can do poorly in one contest and win another, it happens all the time. Many contests offer notes for an additional fee, which can be quite helpful if done by a professional. Keep in mind that, while winning is the goal, simply making the Finals can attract studio attention, and doing so looks good on a resume when querying agents and producers. Winning or even placing in a contest can make the difference between an exceptional, unknown writer and an exceptional, discovered writer.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

*Editor’s note – Derek has since retired from offering script consulting services.

 

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Apple, hands down. My mom always made the best apple pie when I was growing up. The way she makes it, the apples aren’t too sweet and they’re not overcooked and mushy. A couple of years ago I made a butter crust from a simple recipe I acquired as a sous chef. The combination of her perfect filling and my crust (which melts in your mouth) is pretty spectacular.

Ask a Guy Who Takes Comedy Very Seriously!

Steve Kaplan

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today focuses on writing comedy, so the spotlight is on Steve Kaplan, who runs the Comedy Intensive course.

1. What would you call a good example of some great comedy writing in recent TV or film?

It’s sometimes difficult to separate great comic writing from great comic performances. That being said, I think the best comedy writing on television occurs, day in and day out, on The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Both shows are able to combine sharp satire with great comic characters, and in the case of The Daily Show, much of the comedy benefits from the relationship between Jon Stewart’s somewhat befuddled and beleaguered news anchor and his crew of inspiringly loony correspondents.

Much has been written about the death of the sitcom, but Network TV still offers the great work from The Simpsons (25 years, and still going strong) and Modern Family’s writing staff, while cable is a treasure trove of niche delights, from sketch shows like Inside Amy Schumer to episodics like Louie, Veep, Getting On, and Episodes. I’m also looking forward to the Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul.

The comedy feature record is spottier. Big hits like Dumb and Dumber To and Hangover 3 may have made a lot of money, but for me, my favorite comedy of 2014 was The Grand Budapest Hotel—funny, lovely, odd, stylish, a little sad, touching and in the end, really about something. (As of this writing, I still haven’t seen The Interview, but I’m really looking forward to it. The trailer made me laugh out loud, it provoked North Korea into a mammoth cyber-attack on Sony—what’s not to like?)

Film comedies I’ve enjoyed from the past few years include Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Moonrise Kingdom, The Trip and The Trip to Italy, This Is The End, Nebraska, Warm Bodies, The Way Way Back, Ted —exactly the way I like my comedies. Some were silly and looney, but looking over the list, most were funny, lovely, odd, stylish, a little sad, touching and in the end, really about something. What can I say. You might like vanilla; I like chocolate. In the end, it’s subjective.

2. What’s your comedy background?

As a kid, I was awkward and kind of odd—I was drawn to comedy because I noted that in comedy movies, the funny guys were awkward and kind of odd, but sometimes got the girl! That was good enough for me!

In college, I studied acting and directing. After college, I was given an opportunity to start an Off-Off Broadway theatre. I convinced my two partners that we should start a theatre that was completely devoted to comedy. Manhattan Punch Line helped launch the careers of actors like Nathan Lane and Oliver Platt, and writers like Michael Patrick King, Peter Tolan and David Crane. While at the Punch Line, I taught classes and worked with and directed sketch groups. I began to wonder why something that was incredibly funny on Thursday night would get no laughs on Sunday. Why sometimes the funniest performance of a play was at its very first table read? What was going on here? That’s when I started seriously exploring the art and the science—some would even call it the physics—of comedy.

At the time, I was teaching an improv class. Without telling the actors, I started experimenting with them—devising improv games to get at the core of comedy: how it works, why it works, what’s going on when it stops working, and what the hell can you do about it?

These experiments led to the discovery of a series of techniques, which in turn led to a forty week Master Class in comedy. When I moved to LA, I it was suggested to me that I gear my course to writers. “You could be the Robert McKee of comedy!” was how Derek Christopher (who produces the annual Story Expo in LA) put it. That led to teaching comedy around the globe, and working with companies like DreamWorks Animation, Disney Animation, Screen Australia and Film Victoria, working as a consultant with writers and producers, publishing my book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy, and ultimately, being interviewed by you.

3. Who are some of your comedic inspirations/role models? What is it about them in particular that appeals to you?

That’s a hard question to answer. I’m a fan of great comedy, and the list of great comedy writers performers and creators could go on and on. There are parts of careers that inspired me—early to mid Woody Allen, late George Carlin, some Mel Brooks, Bob Hope in the “Road” movies, Steve Martin in Roxanne and L.A. Story and Bowfinger, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld, Lily Tomlin, The Bob Newhart Show, All In The Family, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Louie C.K., Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Tom Lehrer (okay, and Allan Sherman), George Burns, Bill Irwin, Judd Apatow, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets. I’m sure I’m leaving out twenty that after this is posted, I’ll hit myself on the forehead, shouting, “How could I forget _________?!!?”

What they all have in common, in some fashion, is an immediacy, honesty (in some cases, a ferocious honesty), an ability to see a slightly off-centered view of the world, and then share it so we see it as well. They all made me laugh, and most had the ability to touch the heart, to make you care and still be funny!

4. Do you think someone can be taught to be funny, or is it something that just comes naturally?

Groucho Marx once said “you can’t teach funny.” But the Marx Brothers were a terrible, just terrible, act when their Mother Minnie first pushed them out on stage. But working eight a day in vaudeville, picking up hints and tips from the other performers, they honed their act into one of the greatest comedy teams of all time. But it wasn’t ‘natural,’ it was through apprenticeship, observation and yes, being taught by other performers.

While you can’t teach someone to be more talented, you can teach someone to act and write to the best of their ability.  And just like you can teach drama, you can certainly teach comedy. Yes, comedy can be taught.

5. What would you recommend for a writer who wants to develop or sharpen their comedy-writing skills?

What can writers do to sharpen their skills? Hang around with other funny people.

There are two great ways to do that. One would be to join an improv group or take improv classes. Since much of comedy is character-based, the best way to get inside a character’s head is to be one. Even if you’re not interested in being a performer or stand-up, the comic skills you’ll pick up are invaluable when writing material, whether it’s long form or short form, or just a set-up and punch line.

The second piece of advice would be to form or join a writers’ group. Once you’ve written your material, it’s imperative to hear the material read out loud in front of even a small group of friends and colleagues. It’s basic to comedy: the interaction between script/performer and audience. You’ve got to hear how those golden pearls play when read by humans to humans. You’re not looking for hours of rehearsal and polished performances, but just an intelligent read can tell you what’s alive and kicking in your script, and what’s dead as a doornail, only you don’t know it yet. So, in a nutshell: Funny people get funnier when in the company of other funny people.

6. Are there any comedy cliches you consider overused? Which ones are you just tired of seeing?

I’ve really tried to think of some that I hope never to see again, but I kept coming up with exceptions to the rule. Spit-takes are overdone, yet I still laugh when Desi or Danny does one. Getting kicked in the balls is another, yet there’s a beat in Monsters, Inc. when Billy Crystal’s one-eyed character lands hard on his privates, and I’m sorry, it’s only a cartoon, but it’s funny. At least I thought so. I guess the difference is a meme or bit done by rote, and one enhanced by a great character or performance.

The things I am tired of seeing are scripts overloaded with weak, puerile jokes; scripts in which every character is a wise-cracker or failed stand-up comedian.

7. What’s the funniest joke you’ve ever read or heard from a non-professional ?

Hmmm. . . my six-year old niece once asked me, “Did you hear about the peanut walking alone in the park at night? It was a salted.” I thought that was pretty funny.

8. How can people contact you to find out more about your services?

My website is www.KaplanComedy.com, and my email address is Steve@KaplanComedy.com. In addition, you can follow me on Twitter at @skcomedy or on Facebook at Facebook.com/KaplanComedy. In addition to presenting one and two day workshops in the US and abroad, I’m also available for script consultations, whether on full-feature scripts, pilots, webisodes or treatments.

9. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Man, that’s a tough question. I love Boston Cream Pie and apple pie a la mode, but if I’m on a desert island, and can only have one slice, I’ll go with pumpkin pie—ice cream on the side!