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 difference between science and magic

Posted on November 21st, 2010 in Culture, Science, Skepticism, storytelling | 1 Comment »

Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
– Arthur C Clarke

Harry Potter bursts back on to our screens again this week, with the final book split into two no-doubt lumberingly ponderous full-length motion picture “events”. But, we must take solace in the fact that a) it will soon all be over and b) remember that magic has been a huge part of the fabric of narrative since stories began and try not to be too grumpy about the success of this “franchise”. If the appeal of stories is their ability to take us to places and show us things which ordinary life denies us, then it’s easy to see why magic should play such a strong part in especially early stories. Most fairy stories have a magical element – in fact the word “fairy” implies magic.

As we grow up, we leave such things behind, for the most part. The broad appeal of those Harry Potter books and films (and the amusing existence of editions of Harry Potter novels with “adult” covers and a £2.00 price premium) is a notable exception, but especially among male readers, although fairy stories are left behind, fantasy and especially science fiction stories remain popular.

I have observed before that the key feature of stories, the primary quality which distinguishes story from not-a-story is cause and effect. Without cause-and-effect, all you have is a succession of images. (Ironically, if you present such a succession of images to an audience, they are apt to invent the missing cause-and-effect, justifying the action they see in terms of A causing B, such is the storytelling hard-wiring in the human brain.)

Even in stories which don’t present themselves as fantastical, we can often see cause-and-effect being applied in a very limited way. Consider the phenomenon, often noted in pulp, pop or escapist fare, of “goodat”. If characters suddenly announce some convenient talent, skill, expertise, relationship or ability hitherto unmentioned and unsuspected, the audience is likely to feel cheated. “Oh, didn’t I mention I can speak Japanese / crack safes / recite pi to 150 decimal places / fly unaided / control birds with the power of my mind?” It doesn’t matter if these powers are magical, merely require talent and/or practice or are borderline. Conversely, however, if it is set-up that the character in question is “goodat” languages / escapology / mathematics / psychokinesis / animal sympathy, then the audience will probably accept almost any manifestation of this ability, no matter how fantastic. The archetypal version of this would be – as I think Eddie Izzard noted – the ability of someone who is goodat computers to hack into any system in a matter of minutes, just by waggling their fingers lightly over the keyboard and announcing “I’m in”.

So far, so fair enough. Storytellers take short cuts but even bad ones stop short of outright cheating. But there’s a difference between someone, for example, using their total mastery of Spanish to eventually make communication possible with a person who speaks only Catalan – and on the other hand, somebody uploading a Macintosh virus to an alien computer. I suggest that the latter is magic and that the distinction lies in the cause and effect.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider three ways in which a fictional person may be made to disappear before our eyes – Star Trek transporters, Star Trek phasers and Harry Potter vanishings. In Star Trek as you may know, a device known as a transporter is able to whisk people from one location to another. In effect, this device disintegrates the body at one end, transmits only the pattern (transmitting data is much quicker and easier than moving mass I suppose) to the other end, where it is reassembled. The practical difficulties of achieving this are not to be underestimated. A human being is composed of around 10^25 atoms, the exact location and type and state of which all have to be recorded. That’s a heckuva big file. This data is then transmitted to a precise location where no specialised machinery exists, and then the original body is reconstructed out of – what exactly? The TV shows, films and books are generally vague on this point.

But you could (and I’ve no doubt others have) construct vaguely plausible theories about what is going on here. The transporter pad creates a sort of cone or column around the person to be “transported” and everything within that column is processed. 23rd century computers have to “lock on” to remote locations. Maybe something like a tractor beam (not that that exists yet either) is used to process atmospheric atoms within a similar column at the destination in order to make the mass required to reconstruct the transportee. It’s a hugely big problem, but as presented in Star Trek, a hugely big solution is required to make it all work – and sometimes it doesn’t. It can go wrong, with horrible consequences. So this is borderline, but I would say, provided one makes allowances for three hundred-odd years of technological advancement, there is cause-and-effect here, and crucially, the cause (although we can’t examine it all in detail) seems sufficient for the effect.

Now compare those instances with death-by-phaser. Here’s a YouTube video. Watch the phaser deaths that occur around the 1’05” mark.

A phaser beam hits someone and they simply disappear. On a very basic level, there’s cause-and-effect here. Pull trigger on phaser, phaser beam hits redshirt, redshirt disappears. But what do we suppose the phaser beam is doing? It’s not just a narrow pencil-thin column of heat, it doesn’t drill a neat hole through its unfortunate victim. It’s not affecting the air between the barrel and the target, so it’s not radiating out a destructive cone – that would also affect surrounding matter, or if you were too close, not get the whole target. No, the phaser, or the beam itself, just “knows” what is target and what isn’t, what is to disappear in a flash and what is to be left unaffected. Not only is there no plausible mechanism by which this information could be imparted, the presentation doesn’t even begin to hint at a possible solution. Transporters are almost certainly impossible, but at least the series waves its metaphorical hands in the direction of a proper cause. Here the given cause is far to slight for the actual effect.

So, to me, death-by-phaser is far more like a wand being waved and a word being spoken and a Harry Potter character vanishing into thin air. No mechanism exists to define the scope of this action. No care must be taken to isolate only that which you wish to vanish. The waving of a wand and the saying of a word are in no way sufficient to account for the immensity and the complexity of the action which results – which is why Harry Potter is magic and not science-fiction. But magic gets smuggled in under our noses all the time. “I’m in” is a form of magic, as is the bus jump in Speed as is Radar’s ability to anticipate Colonel Blake and so on. The rule is – if the cause is sufficient for the effect, then what you have is science, but if the cause is insufficient for the effect, then what you have is magic.

But this applies to the real world of knowledge, science and medicine as much as it does to storytelling. Remember that humans look for cause-and-effect even where none is present. So, in earlier times, we ascribed the sudden and unpredictable shaking of the earth to the wrath of peevish gods. But since we have no idea where these gods are, what we have done to annoy them, or how they physically interact with the earth to cause such violence, this is magical thinking. Modern plate tectonics provides a much more thorough model (although not yet quite complete) with all the cause-and-effect you could wish for.

Another area where this test can be applied – one familiar to regular readers – is that of homeopathy. Both homeopathic and pharmaceutical treatments for a given condition, joint pain say, have the same superficial cause-and-effect appeal. You take pill. Pill makes pain better. But ask the chemist how their pill works and the answer will include fantastic quantities of detail, each element enhancing the cause-and-effect in the account. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories inhibit cyclooxygenases, leading to a decrease in prostaglandin production. Opioids bind to and activate opioid receptors in the body’s tissues, and so on and so on. As with plate tectonics, the account may not yet be complete, but gaps are acknowledged, and effort continues to plug them. Pharmacology is science.

With your homeopathic pill on the other hand, the explanation is far sketchier. Like cures like, you may be told. How? It just does. Dilution increase potency. How? It just does. Does that mean half a pill will be twice as powerful as a whole pill? No, you have to dilute and the succuss (shake). What does that do? We don’t know. A cursory examination of the cause-and-effect supposedly driving homeopathy is enough to tell anyone that a woefully insufficient cause exists for the claimed results. Thus, we can confidently state that homeopathy is magic.

And, of course, the other thing we know about magic is that it isn’t real.