The Comic Hero’s Journey According To Steve Kaplan
Funnyman Steve Kaplan is a comedy screenwriting instructor and script consultant. Not only does he know how to make people laugh, but also why people laugh. He uses the venerable texts of Vogler and Campbell as the basis of his own guide to comedy writing.
In the beginning was the film, and the film was Star Wars. Before I start, just know that I owe a big debt of gratitude to Joseph Campbell and his Hero With a Thousand Faces, and an even bigger debt to my friend Chris Vogler, whose study of Campbell led to The Writer’s Journey, his insightful melding of Campbell’s mono-myth with screenplay structure and storytelling.
If you’ve never heard of it before, or just to refresh your memory, The Hero’s Journey consists of:
If you think about Star Wars, (not a comedy) it closely tracks the steps in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Near the beginning of the film, we meet our Hero, farmboy Luke, living in the boring old desert world of Tatooine (Ordinary World) when he stumbles across the holographic message from Princess Leia (Call to Adventure). Following the message he meets with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Meeting with the Mentor) but refuses to go to Alderaan with him (Refusal of the Call) because he “has so much work to do” and because “it’s all so far away.”
He returns home, however, only to find that his aunt and uncle have been murdered by the Empire’s Stormtroopers, and returns to Obi-wan declaring that he now wants to go to Alderaan, “I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father!”
Traveling to the seedy port town of Mos Eisley (Crossing the First Threshold), Obi-Wan enlists the help of rogue smugglers Han Solo and Chewbacca of the Millennium Falcon, where Luke practices wielding the Force (Tests, Allies, and Enemies). Jumping through hyperspace to what they think is Alderaan, they discover it’s been destroyed and are pulled aboard the Death Star (Approach to the Inmost Cave), wherein rescuing Princess Leia, they must fight off the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader, only to face death in the trash compactor and suffer by witnessing the death of the mentor Obi-Wan (Ordeal).
At the rebel base, Luke realizes his wish: he gets to be a fighter pilot for the Rebellion. Plus, he gets a kiss on the cheek from Princess Leia! (Reward—Seizing the Sword) Luke and the fleet return to attack the Death Star (The Road Back), where he faces almost certain death. As Darth Vader zeros in on Luke’s starfighter, Luke hears and heeds the voice of Obi-Wan and becomes one with the Force as Han Solo returns just in the nick of time (Resurrection), destroying the Death Star! With that stunning victory, Luke, Han, and Chewy mount the platform where Princess Leia honors them for saving the Rebellion and restoring hope to the galaxy. Luke is now a man in full (Return With the Elixir).
But you knew all that already.
So, what happens in a comedy? A comic hero or heroine also goes on a journey. In some aspects, it’s very similar to what Chris Vogler and Joseph Campbell write about in their books. But in many aspects, it’s quite, quite different.
When Luke’s family is killed, he bravely and solemnly vows to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” A comic hero would have un-bravely tried to run away so as to not get killed. Throughout Star Wars, Luke is adventurous, brave, and stalwart. When he’s chasing after R2D2 and there’s the threat that the Sand People might be about, he grabs a rifle, and with no small amount of pluck tells C3PO, “Let’s take a look!”
Comic Heroes tend to be pluck-deficient. Vogler writes that “heroes show us how to deal with death,” but comic heroes show us how to deal with life. “Heroes,” according to Vogler, “accept the possibility of sacrifice,” but comic heroes have to be dragged kicking and screaming, and even then, they try to run away from it.
In The Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy’s three companions plan to storm the Wicked Witch’s castle the Cowardly Lion says to Tin Man and Scarecrow outside the Wicked Witch’s castle:
All right, I’ll go in there for Dorothy. Wicked Witch or no Wicked Witch, guards or no guards, I’ll tear them apart. I may not come out alive, but I’m going in there. There’s only one thing I want you fellows to do.
TIN WOODSMAN, SCARECROW
Talk me out of it!
The hero decides to go on the adventure. The comic hero often has no choice.
The hero usually has a wise old man; the comic hero often meets an idiot who inadvertently says something that can teach him a thing or two.
For many years (and in many places) I have taught workshops on the Hidden Tools of Comedy, and often my students have asked me about story structure. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that there is a very particular kind of story structure in comedy.
There have been a lot of books written about story structure in feature films. I should know; many of them are written by friends of mine. But there have been few that deal directly and explicitly with story structure in comedies. So, herewith is:
The Comic Hero’s Journey
In the Comic Hero’s Journey, your protagonist goes through a transformative experience as well. The steps of that are:
Let’s examine a few (but not all) elements of THE NORMAL WORLD.
The Defective Protagonist
Let’s start with the Normal World.
In the beginning of the Hero’s Journey, our heroes are exceptional. Joseph Campbell writes that the adventure was not one of “discovery but rediscovery.” The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time.” He (or she) has hidden greatness within, but at the start, our heroes are unaware of their undiscovered virtues. They are, as Chris Vogler puts it, “ready to enter the world of adventure.”
However, in the Comic Hero’s Journey, your protagonist, the comic hero, does not have greatness within. Your protagonist is as far from greatness within as is humanly possible, and sometimes, even more than that. He wants a “world of adventure” like he wants a hole in the head. Your protagonist is usually a dweeb or a jerk or some other kind of a misbegotten misanthrope.
In Big he’s bullied and not big enough to go on a ride with the girl of his dreams. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is an egotistical a-hole. In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s low self-esteem has her sleeping with a guy she knows doesn’t like her. In the Normal World, the comic hero’s initial state is flawed in some vital way; there’s a hole inside them; their way of being in the world is deeply, deeply flawed. As Ricky Gervais has said, “No one wants to see handsome, clever people do brilliant things brilliantly. Who wants to see that? You want to see a putz having a go. And failing. And coming through at the end.”
At the beginning of the Normal World, the comic hero’s life does not work, only they don’t know it! They think they’re fine, and their world is perfect. To them, it’s the normal state of affairs and for the most part, they’ve accepted it. If you have a protagonist who comes out in the first act and says, “You know, I . . . I’m just not doing what I should do in life. I’m, I’m, I’m unhappy,” you’ve written a drama. Because the more aware your characters are of their own state of being, the more dramatic those moments are.
Rather than the inchoate unhappiness of a dramatic hero before he finds his quest, the comic hero is blithely unaware of what we in the audience can see is a stacked deck against them, a flawed existence, a screwed-up way of living.
In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman is a great acting teacher, and maybe even a great actor, but who knows? No one will hire him because he’s such an asshole. When he barges into his agent’s office, he’s unaware that his lack of professional success might have anything to do with himself.
In (500) Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is going through the motions writing bad greeting cards, in Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s a mess with a string of failed relationships behind her; in 40-Year-Old Virgin, he’s, uh . . . well, uh . . . dammit, he’s 40 years old and he’s a virgin!
In the Comic Hero’s Journey, that’s the protagonist’s normal state. And the normal state is fucked.
Another big difference between the classic Joseph Campbell hero and the Comic Hero is that the classic hero often has a major overall goal that he or she tries to accomplish throughout the course of the story. In the Hero’s Journey, the hero usually has a goal in the beginning and they either achieve it—happiness. Or they don’t achieve it—tragedy. But it’s the same goal. In the beginning Luke wants to join the rebellion; guess what? He joins the rebellion. He saves the rebellion. Often, the initial goal is the end goal.
In comedy, that’s not true. Many of your protagonist’s goals in the beginning of a comedy are outer goals. These initial goals are usually selfish and shortsighted and certainly are not addressing their inner needs. These initial goals will eventually be replaced by discovered goals as the characters transform during the course of the narrative.
In Shrek, what does Shrek want? All he wants is to get the multitude of fairy tale characters out of his swamp and be left alone like he always has been. He wants to get his world back to the way it was—his Normal World.
In 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell’s goal is simply to wake up, go to work, come back alone, make an omelet alone, play his video games. To him, that’s the length and breadth of his world. That’s what he’s comfortable with, and that’s how he’s going to stay. In Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr. and Ben Stiller just want to make this terrible Vietnam-era movie. To the Comic Hero, life is fine, and it would be perfect if only . . .
The Flawed Or Absent Relationships
In the Normal World, there are flawed or absent relationships. If you’re going to write a screenplay about someone who’s a worm that’s about to turn, it’s best if you don’t start them in a happy, monogamous relationship where everything’s going well. If you’re trying to build a protagonist who’s kind of a loser, having a supportive girlfriend or boyfriend undercuts their ineptitude. Your hero is living in Mom’s basement, playing Dungeons and Dragons by himself. A girlfriend? Are you kidding me? If someone’s cool enough to have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, maybe they’re not as flawed as they need to be. Even if he’s a great guy, like in Sleepless in Seattle, make sure relationships are absent or flawed. In Sleepless, his wife is dead. He doesn’t have or wants to pursue another relationship. In fact, it’s ruining his life, and his son is motivated to get on the phone to call in a radio station to get him another wife.
Relationships flawed or absent: In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segal’s cool girlfriend (Kristen Bell) dumps him right at the start. In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s hook-up is an obnoxious Jon Hamm, who won’t even let her sleep over. Steve Carell in 40-Year-Old Virgin has no real relationships except for the elderly couple with whom he shares viewing episodes of Survivor. He doesn’t have any close friends, certainly no female relationships.
For instance, in Groundhog Day as they’re driving up to Punxsutawney, Chris Elliott turns to Bill Murray and says, “What do you have against the groundhog? I covered the swallows going back to Capistrano four years in a row.” And Bill Murray says, very offhandedly, “Somebody’s going to see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don’t have a future.” Which is, in fact, what’s going to happen. Later on, the insurance salesman tells Bill Murray, “You know some of my friends live by the actuarial tables. But my feeling is it’s all one big crapshoot anyhoo.” These lines aren’t something that makes you go, “Oh, I get what the movie’s about!” But they’re thematic and resonate with reverberations that infuse theme into the scenes and the script without hitting you over the head with it.
In Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, the husband, Danny Aiello, repeats throughout the movie, “Life is not like the movies! Life is not like the movies!” While that does telegraph specifically what is about to happen (the fictional character Jeff Daniels plays is going to emerge from the screen and fall in love with Mia Farrow), in most cases you needn’t be so overt and you can simply imply or allude to what the theme is. In most cases, it’s better if you allow the audience to discover the connections than if you just come out and tell them what the theme is.
Somewhere in the normal world, somewhere in the first act, you need to imply or hint at the theme.
Conclusion (Aand Caveat)
That’s just a bit of what you’ll find in THE NORMAL WORLD, and in the whole COMIC HERO’S JOURNEY, but first, an important caveat. This is not a formula. It’s not a template. All these steps happen in most well-structured comedies, but not necessarily in this order. Most people think of the low point in a comedy as occurring about three-quarters of the way through the film.
And it does, in most films. But not in all. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray tries to kill himself about halfway through the movie. In Tropic Thunder, the platoon breaks up and Ben Stiller tries to go it alone again about halfway through. Other movies may skip or skimp on one step or another. In most movies, all of these elements are somewhere in the movie, but do they HAVE to be in this order? No.
There are a lot of great, idiosyncratic, atypical movies. And while most comedies begin in the Normal World and end with Race to the Finish, yours doesn’t need to. Your comic hero is on his or her own journey. The routes may be similar in many ways, but as they often say in the showroom, your mileage may vary.
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