Archive for June, 2011

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 Why of Funny #0: Introduction

Posted on June 27th, 2011 in Culture | No Comments »

Some years ago I was invited to write an assessment of what made people laugh and why. I was given eight categories to work through and then a further, longer list of comedy types and examples. Now, as Barry Cryer once said “Disecting comedy is like disecting a frog. No one laughs and the frog dies.” My lofty aim was to write a piece that would be genuinely insightful, genuinely funny and not result in even a single amphibian fatality. With permission of the original commissioners, I am reproducing it here, with just a few edits, in a serialised form.

The following eight descriptions are intended to shed light on to some of the ways in which successful comedy programmes achieve their aim of making the audience laugh. The list is not exhaustive, nor is it an infallible recipe. Comedy is a delicate art and a small misjudgement can mean the difference between hysterical, amusing and tedious. John Cleese has described spending hours finding the perfect branch with which to beat his recalcitrant car in the “Gourmet Night” episode of Fawlty Towers, believing that if it were too flimsy then the scene would lack power, but too rigid and the scene would be grim.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that great comedy moments and certainly great comedy stories are almost invariably combinations of more than one of the below elements, and their relative strengths will also to some extent determine how funny a given audience finds the scenes presented.

I hope this is useful and interesting.

The Eight Theories

  1. Superiority Theory, which I call King-Fall-Over, which is really about STATUS.
  2. Incongruity Theory, which I call Mangoes-In-Syrup, which is really about JUXTAPOSITION.
  3. Ambivalence Theory, which I call Just-A-Flesh-Wound, which is really about EMOTIONAL RESPONSES
  4. Configuration Theory, which I call Oh-I-See, which is really about INSIGHTS.
  5. Release Theory, which I call Saw-It-Coming, which is really about TENSION and ANTICIPATION.
  6. Surprise Theory, which I call Balloon-Go-Bang, which is really about SUDDENNESS.
  7. Psychoanalytic Theory, which I call Sounds-A-Bit-Rude which is really about SOCIAL TABOOS.

And, standing on its own slightly

  1. Biological Theory, which I call All-Laugh-Together, which is about WHY PEOPLE LAUGH IN GROUPS.

We’ll look at the first of these in part one, in a few days’ time…

Today’s supper: beef with broccoli, ginger and orange

Posted on June 15th, 2011 in recipes | 2 Comments »

Some stir fries end up a bit bland. Not this one!

Rump steak, 400g
4 cloves garlic
2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger
1 orange
1 onion
1 head of broccoli
1 chilli
Dark soy sauce
Sesame oil
Groundnut oil


Finely chop half the garlic, ginger and the de-seeded chilli. Zest the orange and squeeze half its juice. Combine in a shallow bowl with 2 tbsp sesame oil, 4 tbsp soy sauce and a pinch of salt and pepper to make a marinade. Thinly slice the beef (against the grain) and leave in the marinade for about half an hour.

Finely chop the onion and the rest of the garlic and ginger. Thinly slice the broccoli. Get a wok nice and hot and heat some groundnut oil. Add the onion and stir fry for about a minute. Add the onion and garlic and fry for about a minute longer – you don’t want it to colour. Add the broccoli and stir fry till cooked through.

Set the broccoli to one side and clean out the wok. Put a touch more oil in and fry the beef in two batches, brushing bits of marinade off.

Strain the reserved marinade into a small saucepan (and any from the wok) and bring to the boil. Add the juice of the rest of the orange and 2 more tbsp of soy sauce. Mix a tsp of cornflour with a little water and add to the sauce.

Clean the wok again and add both the beef and the broccoli. As the sauce thickens, taste it. If it is too tart, add a little honey. If it isn’t rich enough, add a little more soy sauce. If it isn’t sharp enough, add a little white wine vinegar.

Add the sauce to the wok and mix thoroughly to combine. Finish with a little more sesame oil.

Serve with steamed rice. If you like, garnish with sliced spring onion and / or more fresh chilli.

Sorry – no pictures this time!

So… what did I think of A Good Man Goes To War?

Posted on June 12th, 2011 in Culture | 2 Comments »

Goodbye, for now, Series Six, we hardly knew ye. Younger blog-readers may be perfectly used to a mere thirteen week season, but from 1970 to 1981 we typically got new Doctor Who 26 weeks of the year (40-odd weeks a year in the sixties!). And for Peter Davison’s three years, 1982-1984, we got the same number of episodes, albeit in a twice-weekly schedule. Sure these were 25 minute episodes for the most part, but still – a new episode of Doctor Who 26 times a year!

In the late eighties, the number of episodes was slashed to 14, but still at 25 minutes, so about half the number of new minutes that we get today, and it may therefore seem churlish to grumble, but grumble I will. It’s been less than two months and suddenly my Saturday nights seem empty and grey again. Boo! Splitting the season has the advantage of broadcasting six episodes in the more-traditional autumn months but the wait for September will be agony!

Still, at least Moffat and co gave us plenty to go out on. This was full of incident, character and delightful touches. Beginning with a hugely enjoyable pre-credits sequence with Amy talking up Rory who then proceeds to exceed even her prodigious description of him, by busting into a set of extremely glossy-looking Cybermen and delivering an explosive message from The Doctor while dressed as Roranicus Pondicus and waggling a sword. “Don’t give me those blank looks!” Ha!

Next, Moffat keeps The Doctor off screen for half the episode (shades of The Christmas Invasion) but keeps him firmly in view since he’s pretty much all anyone talks about. Moffat attempted – possibly misguidedly – to top Rusty’s “companion army” in The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End with a “monster army” in The Pandorica Opens, dragging out of storage every serviceable monster costume since 2005 and having them form a slightly absurd and fanwanky alliance to kill The Doctor. This time, he’s done both at once, with a companion army formed of old monsters. But he’s smart enough to give most of them a cheeky twist. So we meet Madame Vastra, a Sherlockian Silurian living in lesbian sin in Victorian London. We encounter Commander Strax, a Sontaran warrior who approaches his new vocation of nursing with exactly the same bombast and bluster that the stumpy clone-warriors generally bring to vanquishing Rutans (“I am capable of producing magnificent quantities of lactic fluid!”). And we get the return of big blue Dorium Maldovar from The Pandorica Opens, now fleshing out both his name and his personality.

Arthur Darvill, as noted, gets to play Rory with considerably more nuts and panache than usual – although he still (delightfully) fumbles his sonic-ing of the door to Amy’s cell. Even Danny Boy – the magic laser-equipped World War Two space flying aces – suddenly seem like a good idea and not blitheringly stupid when deployed out of the blue like this. Only Pirate Captain Boring and his moppety son remain resolutely lacking in any interest whatsoever. What a waste of a classy actor like Hugh Bonneville.

That lapse aside, throughout this episode, Moffat showcases his two great strengths as a writer and as a Doctor Who writer in particular. Much has been made of prolific Who-scribe Robert Holmes’ line in the cast-iron classic The Talons of Weng-Chiang, “I was with the Filipino army at the final advance on Reykjavik”. In this single throw-away from The Doctor in response to the villain’s challenge about how he can know so much, Holmes conjures up a brief glimpse of a whole other world, history and culture. We don’t know all the details, but we strongly suspect that they are all there, and this makes everything feel so much more credible, tangible and complex.

In the same way, Moffat’s easy and unfussy reuse of the religious army motif from the excellent The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone opens a window into a universe in which worship and warfare are identified (as has generally been the case in human history until very recently, Moffat points out). Casual references to praising costing more, the attack prayer, level one heresies and the papal mainframe herself tell us tantalisingly little but add untold depth and richness to the narrative fabric.

Only partially successful in this context are the headless monks – maybe a case of Moffat’s love for Doctor-Who-as-fairy-tale pushed a little too far? And the narrative seems unsure about whether the contents of their hoods should be a surprise or not. On the one hand, the rest of the marines look thoroughly startled when Colonel Manton dramatically exposes them (revealing a slightly wobbly appliance balancing on a diminutive extra’s head and shoulders). On the other hand, we’ve basically seen what’s under there through the eyes of The Fat One (“we’re the thin fat gay married Anglican marines – why do we need names as well?”) and, well, they’re called The Headless Monks, for fuck’s sake. What else could have been under there? Well, The Doctor obviously and that wasn’t much of a surprise either.

But what happens next is glorious stuff. “Please point a gun at me if it helps you relax,” crows The Doctor, dramatically returned to the centre of the narrative at his most playfully heroic. Colonel Manton is very, very well drawn here. An intelligent, possibly sensitive man, with a clear mission and a moral purpose, who makes the best decisions anyone could under the circumstances and who is still completely and totally outwitted by The Doctor in under four minutes. What follows is the outstanding scene of the episode, possibly the series, as The Doctor dubs him “Colonel Run Away”.

Matt Smith, who has previously been captivating, mercurial, whimsical, moving and enthralling is nothing short of mesmerising in this stunning exchange, surely destined to become a classic. If someone who vaguely remembers the one with the giant maggots asks you what the new series is like, you need do little more than show them this single two-minute scene. “Oh look, I’m angry. That’s new.”

This also brings up The Dark Doctor, a figure which the series has toyed with since day one. Much has been made of the original Doctor’s “crotchety”, “anti-hero” status but series creator Sydney Newman was well aware that a successful long-running series could not be based on this and on viewing the unbroadcast pilot had the Doctor’s performance toned down for the real first episode. “Old man still not funny enough,” he fumed in his notes to producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein. The Doctor quickly became a much more benign figure and this trend increased over the next ten or so years, during which The Doctor quickly became a benevolent uncle instead of a mysterious and aloof outsider. Sure, he had occasional moody or sombre moments, but these were rare and fleeting. The Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, had a few more of these, but under producer Graham Williams, these vanished again, replaced by a lot of rather self-indulgent undergraduate humour, and then with Peter Davison, The Doctor became more straightforwardly heroic than ever before.

But the production team suspected that a darker vein could be mined for dramatic effect. Their first attempt was so hopelessly botched, I can’t even begin to recount it here, but a slightly less crass version was begun with Sylvester McCoy in the last years of the Classic Series, before the show was axed and the experiment terminated – at least on TV. In the original novels which filled the void while the series was off-air, this vision of The Doctor as arch-manipulator, one step ahead of everyone else, and playing companions and villains alike eventually became overwhelming and pretty soon the pendulum swung back the other way with later Seventh Doctor adventures and pretty much all of the Eighth Doctor original novels and Big Finish audio plays depicting a Doctor who just liked careering around the universe fighting monsters because it was fun.

It’s this sense of fun which Russell T Davies first chose to emphasise when the series triumphantly returned in 2005, but by making The Doctor now the Last of the Time Lords, a new darkness was allowed to bleed in as Eccleston’s intense Ninth Doctor struggles with survivor guilt and so the pendulum swings back and forth between The Blithe Adventurer and The Lonely God, depending on the demands of narrative and variety.

Part of this is a new (and welcome) devotion to reality since the series returned in 2005. Issues which were previously ignored are now being addressed and often used as the foundations for new stories. If you uproot young women from their lives and take them on a tour of the universe, they will be missed. If you fight alien invaders on planet Earth they will be noticed. And if you fight every alien menace in the universe and always win, then your reputation will spread. Sure, the series also feels free to ignore these elements when it suits (especially first contact) but the notion that The Doctor is known, famous, feared is certainly interesting and logical. It’s also dealt with much better here than in The Pandorica Opens (sufficiently that I don’t mind the repeated motif of an evil alliance forming to create the perfect trap for the hated Doctor) and in general this is so much better than the way in which the Sixth Doctor was portrayed essentially as a member of a galactic rotary club, a universe in which everyone had heard of Time Lords and was sort of vaguely impressed but regarded them fundamentally as self-important nuisances rather than near-omnipotent and aloof figures of tantalising mystery.

The question is – can the series survive this deconstruction of its lead character? Moffat is smart enough to know there are some conundrums which are only interesting when they are unanswered. Susan, the First Doctor’s granddaughter notwithstanding, The Eleventh Doctor simply answers “no” when asked point-blank whether he has any children. (Notice the Gallifreyan collar notch in the back of his cot?) But equally, he knows that if he never answers any questions, pretty soon we won’t be tantalised so much as lost. Or even worse, Lost.

So, here come the answers – or at least the answer – we’ve been waiting for since Silence in the Library. River Song is Melody Pond, Amy and Rory’s daughter, conceived (“they don’t put up a balloon”) on board the TARDIS in flight. It’s a testament to just how good this episode is that I’ve written nearly 2000 words already without even alluding to this revelation, because really it isn’t the point at all. Point or not, it’s still handled with tremendous skill. This is Moffat’s other key strength as a writer – his ability to hide secrets in plain sight. As with the TARDIS being something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue in The Big Bang last year, he gives us just enough that we kick ourselves when we see the revelation, but not enough for us to be able to work it out ahead of time. Melody = Song. Pond = River. This may not have been planned as far back as 2008 but he certainly had it by the time of The Eleventh Hour.

But many, many questions remain – how does The Doctor suddenly know where Melody is? Where, in fact, is she? Is she – as many assume – the regenerating child who found herself in America in 1969? What will Madame Kovarian do with her next to complete her transformation into a weapon? Is there any connection between her and The Silents? And so we return to my first point – the sheer cruelty of making us wait another three or so months to find out the answers.

These have been a very strong set of episodes, but I remain slightly disquieted by the tension between the fundamental Doctor Who adventure-of-the-week format and Moffat’s new serialised approach. Would he have been happier plotting out a genuine 13 part narrative – 24-style? Watching episodes 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7 consecutively there’s a very strong narrative arc that works extremely successfully. What’s confusing and distracting is that the two more-or-less stand-alone episodes are such polar opposites in terms of quality. If the propulsive series-spanning story is going to grind to a halt for a week, then it needs to be for something as magnificent as The Doctor’s Wife. It can’t be for plodding run-of-the-mill stuff like The Soggy Pirate Rubbish or whatever it was called.

A few final quibbles from this episode. I assume The Doctor was joking when he said he could speak baby – god help us all if the TARDIS translation circuits start translating its every half-formed thought. Why are we saying “avatar” now and not “ganger”? Did Moffat not read Matthew Graham’s scripts? What on earth was going on with that here-today-gone-tomorrow forcefield around the TARDIS? Very weak.

And finally… “Let’s Kill Hitler”!?

Over all though – five stars, no question.

Now, I’m going to rewatch Silence in the Library to try and fill in some time until September. Still, there’s always Torchwood I suppose.

So… What did I think of The Almost People?

Posted on June 3rd, 2011 in Culture | No Comments »

Like Utopia way back in 2007, The Almost People is very much an episode of two halves. The first forty minutes do a pretty decent job of wrapping-up all of the plotlines developed in the previous instalment (Utopia was seemingly a stand-alone episode) and then that cliff-hanger suddenly spins us off in a new direction altogether, as the series arc reasserts itself to staggering, jolting effect.

Let’s take the first half first. The prospect of multiple Matt Smiths makes all sorts of delicious promises and thanks to some nifty effects work from director Julian Simpson and The Mill and some exceptional playing from Smith himselves, all of this promise was gloriously fulfilled. The Doctors spar, josh, finish each other’s sentences and generally make themselves deliriously obnoxious.

Amy’s reaction to the faux-Doctor is particularly powerful. She doesn’t remotely seem them as equals, and yet this is the very crux of the story – is a sentient ganger a moral agent? What about one which is still being safely “puppeteered”?

Meanwhile, the largely interchangeable crew get gradually bumped off (in a strict one-of them, another one of us formula which makes for a disappointingly neat ending, when something much more complicated was available) and The Mill gets to dust off that thing from The Lazarus Code and stick Sarah Smart’s face on it for a big running-down-corridors ending.

This is making it sound as if I didn’t really care for The Almost People, but actually I thought it was great. Spooky corners, big laugh lines, some ethical conundrums, impersonations of previous doctors and lots of good old fashioned scares. Two key emotional scenes didn’t quite come off for me, and they both involve Scottish Crew Member whose name escaped me. Bringing in his tousle-haired moppet of a son is a good narrative choice and an excellent way of confronting the question – what’s really important about the person standing in front of me: how they came to be, or how other people see them? However, the performance is not up to scratch and so the scene comes off as mawkish and manipulative.

Even worse is the death of Scottish Crew Member which is contrived in its construction and equally mawkish in its playing, although the narrative bounces back when the Ganger Scottish Crew Member has to take over as father, which is really the point of the whole episode after all.

The final ending is a little too neat and tidy with one of those irritating throw-away lines that papers over a gaping hole “The TARDIS has magically stabilised you all” – and which is then contradicted seconds later.

So let’s talk about that ending. Firstly – wow! Suddenly, the Doctor’s apparent fore-knowledge of the Flesh makes perfect sense as does Amy’s quantum pregnancy. Surely no-one could have seen that the Doctor’s plan to see the Gangers up close and personal, Amy’s womb, Frances Barber and early cryptic lines from the Ganger Doctor would all have the same solution. And don’t forget, it’s next week which supposedly has the “game-changing” cliffhanger!

But, I note that Matthew Graham in Confidential is very keen and quick to point out that The Doctor’s apparent extermination of the Ganger Amy is no different than cutting a telephone wire. A puppeteered ganger is not sentient at all – a mere device. And I’d like to believe that, I really would. I’d like to believe that The Doctor would splatter a living sentient creature all over the walls and the floor of the TARDIS just to test a theory. But it’s a little tricky to sustain that belief when most of the previous twenty minutes has been a passionate and detailed argument for the opposite point-of-view!

So, some lapses of judgement, some unfortunate casting and a little bit of moral muddle, but none of these can eclipse a rattling good adventure which hopefully will continue to shine from under the long “arc” shadow it will no doubt cast over what is turning out to be one hell of a season so far.

Four stars.