The Why of Funny #1: King-Fall-Over

Posted on June 30th, 2011 in Culture | 2 Comments »

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 Hierarchy of Storytelling Ideals

Posted on March 31st, 2009 in storytelling | 1 Comment »

The first draft of this was written some years ago, in response to a perfectly idiotic book about storytelling, which I shan’t name, in which a lot of badly-researched synopses of famous stories were marshalled in support of a predetermined idea of what stories ought to be – a regrettable example of opinion presented as fact. What struck me most about this nameless book and its anonymous author is that he (yes, it was a he) seemed to be examining stories and trying to expose their workings like a Martian who had never seen a story before and didn’t quite “get” it. Humans do get stories, we communicate all the time by telling each other stories, so I thought it would be interesting to go all the way back to first principles and looking at what makes a story a story (as opposed to not-a-story) and to keep adding qualities until we reached the very best that a story can be. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and you’ll get the idea. I ended up with seven qualities, and here they are…

1.    Coherent

  • The story should be clear. We should understand its setting, its characters and its events. There should (almost) never be confusion in the mind of the reader, only curiosity.
  • The timing and construction should be such that we learn new information as we need to.
  • The choice of characters, settings and events should be purposeful.
  • Without coherence, a “story” barely even qualifies as such (although humans tend to use justification to provide coherence where it has been omitted).

2.    Consistent

  • The story should make sense. Later events should not contradict earlier events.
  • The theme of the story should be apparent throughout. This is a more stringent requirement than mere coherence.
  • Cause-and-effect drives the narrative. The characters, especially the central characters take action to achieve their goals.
  • Reincorporation should be used to strengthen and make consistent plot, character and theme (e.g. second appearance of witches in Macbeth).
  • Lack of consistency makes for episodic or confusing narratives.

3.    Convincing

  • The story should be believable on its own terms. This is a more stringent requirement than mere consistency.
  • The story should never provoke a reaction of disbelief from the audience which causes them to reject the story.
  • The story must not rely on coincidence.
  • The story must evince sufficient detail to paint a vivid picture.
  • Unconvincing stories do not engage the emotions since the failing cuts off empathy. It is possible to tell very simple stories which lack convincing detail (e.g. fairy stories) if the human drama is sufficiently accessible.

4.    Transforming

  • The characters or setting of the story must be transformed over the course of the story. Ideally the hero is transformed in a life-changing manner (and in a way which is also coherent, consistent and convincing) but even a restoration of the status quo for both heroes and setting– as in a James Bond film – may be sufficient if…
  • The hero is made to suffer.
  • Moment-to-moment transformations are as important, if not more important, than story-long “arcs”.
  • A story may even sacrifice consistency for transformation very occasionally (e.g. The Big Sleep).
  • Failure to transform, especially characters, may make a story seem inconsistent (because there is no cause-and-effect as measured by reactions to events), unconvincing (because transformation is likely given the events and setting of the story) or dull (because without transformation the story seems ‘pointless’ – and therefore incoherent).

5.    Surprising

  • To the extent allowed by being coherent, consistent, convincing and transforming, the story should be surprising.
  • This can mean that the story’s structure, theme, setting or style are novel at the time (Pulp Fiction, Citizen Kane, Look Back in Anger) or that…
  • The events of the story are not easily predicted.
  • A story may be surprising but lack transformations and thus seem “flat” (The Village).
  • It may be more important to surprise the characters than the audience. (“I am your father, Luke”).
  • Without surprise, a story is dull through being overly predictable (although audiences will take a lot more ‘obviousness’ than some writers believe).

6.    Ironic

  • An additional layer of interest and meaning can be provided by dramatic irony, wherein the audience has information that the characters do not. This can be at the cost of surprise so the choice as to whether to surprise audience and characters simultaneously (“I am your father Luke” or to withhold information from the characters only for the purpose of irony (any number of mistaken-identity plots) is a matter of style.
  • Ironic resolutions or situations may seem richer than their simpler counter-parts, (the B52’s desperation to reach its target in Doctor Strangelove, compared to many similar race-against-time situations).
  • Without irony, a story is dull through being too simplistic. An ironic layer (or more than one) creates a sense of complexity more readily than multiplying elements in a story does.

7.    Subtle

  • Audiences appreciate being allowed to come to their own conclusions. Finding room for subtlety among the earlier constraints is the mark of a great writer.
  • Subtlety allows for the possibility of personal interpretation on the part of the audience, giving a story richness and enduring power.
  • Subtlety may allow a writer to create irony, surprise and transformations, without sacrificing coherence, consistency and verisimilitude.
  • Subtlety may even allow for ambiguity if there is enough of the foregoing to occupy the reader.
  • Without subtlety, a story may be entertaining, even enduring, but also crude and simplistic.
  • Unsubtle writing may also seem expositional or “clunky”.
  • Some very crude and simple stories nonetheless contain subtle imagery which elevates them – often transformational (The Ugly Duckling, Jekyll and Hyde, Cinderella’s coach and horses)

These are all things that stories need to be. Stories can of course be any number of other things as well – funny, true, political and so on, but they still need to have the qualities on this list. Sometimes, other forces conspire to promote or demote one or more of these qualities.

The ACTION story or the MUSICAL are often coherent, consistent and convincing but rarely surprising or more than moderately transforming. ACTION SEQUENCES or MUSICAL NUMBERS distract the audience from the paucity of story. (Marx Brothers films for example often function as MUSICALS, whether or not there is much music in them).

The THRILLER, compared to the ACTION story, contains more surprise, but sometimes at the cost of being convincing. PLOT TWISTS keep the audience guessing, and distract from the paucity of transformation.

The ROMANCE, compared to the THRILLER story, contains more transformation (unless it is constructed as a thriller, like Romeo and Juliet) but often less surprise.

More thoughts on some of the details herein to follow in future posts…

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