If a meek old lady falls over, we rush to her aid, but if a boorish and arrogant king falls over, we laugh uproariously. The old lady has no status to lose, but the sight of the king suddenly stripped of his status is the oldest joke in the world (probably).

Although status is related to wealth, class, beauty etc it is independent of all of these. There exists high and low status behaviour and people who are naturally high or low status, but these things are not fixed. Although status may be illuminated by dialogue, it is principally something that people do, so it is easy to see even in a foreign language. Great stories, whether their tone is dramatic or comic, will almost always involve status transactions and – if well-acted – these will be apparent whether one can hear the dialogue or not.

Nervously preparing for a boxing match, Charlie Chaplin helps himself to the previous boxer’s lucky charms and visibly grows in confidence. When the previous boxer is brought back into the dressing room on a stretcher, Charlie’s confidence evaporates instantly, and he furiously tries to rid himself of the trinkets he has stolen (City Lights).

The opposite is also (sometimes) true. When, in Steamboat Bill Jr, the side of a house falls on Buster Keaton, a perfectly-placed window saving him from extinction, his failure to lose status as expected is also funny (adding both Saw-It-Coming and Oh-I-See to the mix).

As a rough rule of thumb, sudden changes of status will be funny (especially drops in status), whereas sustained changes of status will be dramatic (Macbeth’s gradual descent from noble warrior to suicidal lunatic). Big status gaps will be funny (Blackadder and Baldrick) whereas small status gaps will be dramatic (Josh and Toby on The West Wing).

Having characters shift status in reaction to events is a part of the general principle of storytelling that characters are affected by the events of the story. Balancing this principle of storytelling with comedy needs of Just-A-Flesh-Wound is one of the hardest things to get right. Too much emphasis on Just-A-Flesh-Wound generates superficial comedy that will likely not travel well. Too much emphasis on King-Fall-Over and the general principle of characters being affected can tip a comedy into drama or leave an audience unduly disturbed at the implications of what is being depicted. The romance between Tim and Dawn in The Office has a character depth that the superficial zingers of (especially early episodes of) Will and Grace can’t match; but some later episodes of Friends were criticised for being amusing soap opera rather than laugh-out-loud sit com.

Status can be employed for comic effect in (at least) the following ways…

  • Sudden drops in status.
  • Attempts to raise status.
  • Playing the wrong status.
  • Established gaps in status.

The status gap that exists between Blackadder and Baldrick (Blackadder), Mr Burns and Smithers (The Simpsons) and Bob Kelso and Ted Buckland (Scrubs) drives a lot of the comedy therein, and is almost never challenged. Ted and Baldrick are the archetypal low-status characters. Often cheerful (Ted is less cheerful than Baldrick, but takes enormous pleasure in tiny victories) they have little or no interest in raising their status. Smithers adds the extra dimension of unrequited love – which is never articulated, only hinted at (touching on Mangoes-In-Syrup, Just-A-Flesh-Wound and Oh-I-See).

Jeeves and Wooster play the wrong status. The formal relationship is that of master and servant (presented here as gentleman and valet), but Jeeves, the servant, plays high status to Bertie Wooster, the master. Blackadder the Third has a particularly pleasing version of this. In the kitchen, Blackadder plays unbridled high status to Baldrick (correct status), whereas in the Prince Regent’s rooms, Blackadder has to play a more restrained high status to the Hugh Laurie’s happy-low-status Regent (incorrect status). This structure allows us to see the false face and the true face of our lead character as well as presenting both kinds of status relationship simultaneously.

Many characters strive for status which they are unable to achieve. In some cases, this is a permanent uphill struggle, as for Martin Bryce in Ever Decreasing Circles or Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. In other cases, it is a back-and-forth tussle as between Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister or Sam Malone and Diane Chambers in Cheers.

Note finally that although British sit-coms are famously more class-obsessed than American sitcoms, that doesn’t make American sit-coms any less status-oriented. In Only Fools and Horses, both Del and Rodney aspire to wealth and class, but the status mechanism is that Del’s high status is unwittingly undercut by Rodney. Likewise, in M*A*S*H, Radar – playing low-status – is nonetheless constantly undermining Colonel Blake’s authority despite the fact that class and aspiration has little to do with this relationship or this sit-com.

Whole books could be written about status. Much of this thinking is due to British improvisation guru Keith Johnstone whose book “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” would be an excellent place to start for more on this topic.

The Why of Funny #0: Introduction
The Why of Funny #2: Mangoes-In-Syrup