Full Marx

Posted on January 7th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »


The Marx Brothers are probably the most important comedy team in history. That isn’t to denigrate any of their peers, antecedents or successors, but just to acknowledge that they revolutionised comedy on stage and on film and their influence is still felt today.

Leonard, Arthur, Julius, Milton and Herbert Marx were born to German Jews in New York at the turn of the century. Their mother, Minnie, turned the four oldest boys into a singing act called the Four Nightingales, but when a touring gig went badly wrong, the four young men took their frustrations out on the theatre manager, tour booker and anyone else they could find to blame. The audience fell about laughing and so Minnie enlisted their uncle Al Shean (of Gallagher and Shean) to construct a comedy routine for them. Four distinct comedy personalities emerged and with them four nicknames which they eventually took on stage – Italian piano-playing Chico, mute harpist Harpo, fast-talking Groucho and now-forgotten Gummo.

The team hurled through vaudeville, took Broadway by storm and eventually arrived at Hollywood. Gummo at some point left the act and so baby brother Herbert was drafted in his place and given the arbitrary soubriquet “Zeppo”. They eventually made around 13 films (depending on how you count) from 1929 to 1949. The BFI is showing a selection of their best. Here’s a rundown of the complete Marxography.

1929: The Cocoanuts

Filmed version of their first Broadway hit play, made less than two years after Warner Brothers up-ended the motion picture business with The Jazz Singer. It’s almost impossible to say if the original stage version would have held up, because the film is so beset with technical problems. The probably-hilarious prison break is shot so poorly it’s almost impossible to see what’s actually going on. Even for the dedicated Marxist this is tough going, with a lot of the running time dedicated to an even more than usually tedious real estate / stolen necklace / young love sub-plot but Harpo is sublime throughout and there are some wonderful moments, including the fastest door-slam / adjoining room scene you’ll ever see.

1930: Animal Crackers

Their second Broadway play makes a much more confident screen outing, with Groucho in particular seeming much more at-ease. The first half contains a number of classic routines including Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the Bridge Game, Harpo Drops Knives and Take A Letter, all of which are absolutely hilarious but the plot takes grim hold for the last half hour which is almost a laugh-free zone during which everyone (except me) seems terribly interested in the fate of a stolen painting. It seems churlish to complain however when the first hour is so often so joyful.

1931: Monkey Business

Their first original and the only film in which they play “themselves”. Stowaways on an ocean liner is the perfect situation for the Marxes and neatly identifies what made them so unique. In the same situation, Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd would emerge from hiding because a pretty girl had to have her honour defended, Laurel and Hardy would be unable to stay hidden out of sheer stupidity, but the Marxes want to get caught because being rude to authority is so much more fun than staying hidden. The Passport routine is just possibly the funniest thing ever put on film – but where is Margaret Dumont? And why does the film keep going after the Marx Brothers get off the ship?

1932: Horse Feathers

Groucho as a college president is a much less interesting situation than stowaways and TV censors have chopped to ribbons what was probably the highlight of the film – all four brothers trying to romance Thelma Todd. Even without the help of the censors, some very good scenes peter out with a whimper of a fade-out instead of ending on a good strong punchline. And the supposed climax is, again, a problem, being a very conventional football game with not enough Marx madness to distinguish it. On the other hand, the Speakeasy scene is fantastic and the film has some of Harpo’s best-ever gags.

1933: Duck Soup

Their most highly-regarded film, possibly correctly, certainly it’s their most concentrated with barely a hint of a romantic comedy sub-plot and with any number of wonderful scenes. Groucho has gone from hotel manager to feted explorer to college professor to running an entire country and – hurrah! – Margaret Dumont is back! But the traditional harp and piano solos are missing and much of the Harpo/Chico stuff with Edgar Kennedy owes more to Laurel and Hardy’s brand of tit-for-tat violence than the Marxes’ own style of mayhem. No doubt director Leo McCarey’s influence is at work – he was the guy who had the bright idea of pairing Stan and Ollie in the first place. Even the justly famous mirror scene is an old vaudeville routine given a thin Marx gloss. That said, the classic scenes when they come are amazing and no Marx film will make you laugh more consistently. It’s perhaps typical of this most perverse of all comedy teams that their best film is also in many ways their least typical!

1935: A Night at the Opera

Duck Soup flopped on its first release and cost the brothers their Paramount contract, but MGM snapped them up. Zeppo at this stage quit, fed up of being the under-appreciated straight man. This prompted the studio to ask if the three of them wanted to be paid as much as the four of them. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Groucho shot back, “Without Zeppo, we’re worth twice as much.” Wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg convinced the boys that removing the romantic comedy subplot had been a mistake (sigh) but he also spent months getting the comedy scenes for their new movie just right, and had the brilliant idea of sending the comedy scenes out on the road so the team could get the timing and the lines just-so. The result is that pretty much every comedy scene is a classic but – as with the earlier films – they now occupy only about half the running time. To be fair, now when the guy-that-nobody-cares-about sings a love song to the girl-that-nobody-cares-about, it’s with the full backing of the 80-piece MGM orchestra and looks gorgeous, but you’d still be tempted to hit fast-forward to get to The Contract Scene or The Stateroom Scene or The Bedroom Scene. Harpo’s presence is a little muted which is a shame.

1937: A Day at the Races

Opera was a smash hit and it was inevitable that MGM would try and get lightning to strike twice. The previous film suddenly became a template to be followed, and most of the films that came after it would try and recapture what made it work so well, including putting the comedy scenes out on tour before filming began. Allan Jones and Sig Ruman both return and the plots are eerily similar. A Day at the Races is fine, but many of the routines are not-as-good versions of previous scenes. Tootsie-Frootsie Ice Cream is good but not as good as The Contract Scene. Groucho’s introduction to the sanitarium is good but not quite as good as his introduction as President of Fredonia. Margaret Dumont’s examination is good but quite as good as the Passport Scene, and so on. The musical numbers are even longer and more boring than ever (the lavish water carnival sequence goes on for about a week – on the DVD I’ve got, even the film historian providing the commentary checks out while it’s on) and when Harpo gets mistaken for the angel Gabriel by a gang of Hollywood 1930s negroes, it’s enough to make you wish you’d never put the movie on in the first place. On the other hand, the twenty minutes in the middle with Esther Muir trying to frame Groucho is as good as anything they’ve ever done. Irving Thalberg died before the movie was complete and some say the Marxes’ enthusiasm for making movies died with him.

1938: Room Service

A real curio. A “straight” stage farce rewritten for the Marxes and the tension between the source material and the comedians playing it often shows. Why would Groucho Marx care if his play gets a backer or not? Isn’t there an authority figure he could spend his time insulting instead? Some of the blacker comedy plays oddly against the Marxes sunny pandemonium as well. The scene which gives the film its title is probably the best and – hey, look – it’s Lucille Ball. Their only film for RKO.

1939: At the Circus

Back under contract at MGM, they rattled off three films in three years. Each one contains at least something of note, but all three are depressingly ordinary most of the time. At the Circus is the least interesting of the three because what stuffy pomposity can the Marxes undermine when at a circus for chrissakes? Groucho now has to join his wig-wearing brothers to conceal his receding hairline, and those awkward negroes from Races are back. Margaret Dumont pretty much saves the film in the last third but before then we do get Lydia the Tatooed Lady which is a real gem.

1940: Go West

Somewhat of an improvement, with a crackerjack opening (albeit another riff on the Tootsie-Frootsie scene) and an amazing train chase at the end, but little that comes between is really worthy of comment. Harpo, who was once an invincible demon from another reality, is here mainly reduced to a doofus who just does silent imitations of whomever is talking, Groucho looks mainly bored and Chico ends up playing straight man far too often.

1941: The Big Store

All three brothers look a bit old and tired now – they were all in their fifties. Harpo and Groucho have a nice scene with Margaret Dumont at the beginning but most of the rest is pretty by-the-numbers. My favourite scene is the piano duet with both Harpo and Chico at the keys. They would reprise this act in their live show for years afterwards. Groucho has abandoned the toupee at least, for what was announced as their final film.

1946: A Night in Casablanca

But Chico’s gambling debts meant that when UA offered them a deal, they had to accept. Casablanca is quite a lot better than anything since Races and in a neat piece of symmetry sends Groucho back to running a hotel just like in The Cocoanuts. Sig Ruman from Opera and Races also returns (no Dumont alas) and Frank Tashlin adds some great gags for Harpo. If you can overlook the constant talk of death and injury, and try not to notice that Chico is now nearly 60, there’s some great stuff here, as well as some stuff obviously reprising earlier, better routines. What a great film to finish on.

1949: Love Happy

Planned as a Harpo film, Chico inveigled his way into the production and then the producers insisted on Groucho taking part too so they could market it as a Marx Brothers movie. He acts mainly as narrator, and nothing in the film is really that interesting, except an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe for five minutes towards the end.

If you really want to, you can count the very strange The Story of Mankind (1957) which includes all three Marx brothers but in different sketches, or the made-for-TV The Incredible Jewel Robbery (1959) which is a wordless Harpo-Chico story for 29 minutes and then has a surprise appearance by Groucho at the end – plus lots of TV appearances by one or two brothers at a time.

Which is the best?

If you want to watch a movie which is very funny all the way through with no longeurs, it has to be Duck Soup. If you want a professionally-made movie with lots of classic scenes, pick A Night at the Opera. If you want to know what the Marx Brothers were all about, watch Animal Crackers. If you want to understand them as a phenomenon, watch all three. And then all the others.

The Why of Funny #4: Oh-I-See

Posted on July 18th, 2011 in Culture | 5 Comments »

George Constanza finds and arranges to buy a Frogger machine which still records a high score he attained years ago. If unplugged, the high score record will be lost, but a battery is rigged up to enable him to transport it home. With only minutes of battery power remaining, he must negotiate the heavy arcade machine across lanes of traffic. As he struggles, we cut to an aerial shot of the busy street and realise that George has become the frog in his beloved game. When the machine is crushed by a truck, Jerry comments “Game Over”. The insight we experience creates an extra comic level to the story. (Seinfeld, season 9, episode 8)

The comedy we most admire is often associated with a rush of insight. The art of developing a moment like that described above consists in assembling the required elements, making each in turn appear to have a real purpose either in advancing the story or being funny in their own right, until you are ready to unleash the insight. Unlike the techniques described under Saw-It-Coming, a successful Oh-I-See moment absolutely depends upon the audience not getting ahead of you.

Another sophisticated example from a recent American sit-com and then we will look at some more common and trivial (but no less useful) examples of this technique. The 100th episode of Scrubs, “My Way Home”, as is usual for this show, presents four major plot lines. JD, who was relaxing in the bath listening to Toto on his iPod is summoned into work and is desperate to avoid anyone who might give him more to do, so he can get home. Turk is eager to persuade the father of a terminally ill patient to donate the boy’s heart in order that he, Turk, can assist in the operation. Carla is wrestling with her feelings of parenthood and worries that she doesn’t have the courage to be a good mother. Elliot fears that she lacks the intelligence to lead the Q&A session on endocrinology she is suddenly faced with. All four plot lines develop smoothly, until as all four characters are marching down the yellow stripe the Janitor has painted on the hospital floor, JD’s voice-over sums up the situation. Elliot wants a brain, Carla wants courage, Turk wants a heart and he wants to go home. In a sudden rush of insight, half-way through the episode, we realise this is an homage to The Wizard of Oz.

This technique is all about “clever” comedy, of which Seinfeld is the apotheosis. The Scrubs episode is exceptional because it combines character development, feeling, and social issues with a brilliantly constructed Oh-I-See moment without allowing any element to swamp the others. However, Oh-I-See also drives what is often referred to as the lowest form of humour too – puns. Here’s college professor Groucho trying to guess the password required to gain admittance to a speakeasy, with Chico on the door.

GROUCHO: Let me see: Is it “sturgeon”?
CHICO: Hey, you crazy. Sturgeon, he’s a doctor cuts you open when-a you sick. Now I give you one more chance.
GROUCHO: I got it. “Haddock.”
CHICO: That’s-a funny. I gotta haddock, too.
GROUCHO: What do you take for a haddock?
CHICO: Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a Calamel.
GROUCHO: Say, I’d walk a mile for a Calamel.1
CHICO: You mean chocolate calamel. I like-a that too, but you no guess it.

In a good pun (if such a thing exists), we experience a rush of insight into the two different meanings that the same or very similar-sounding words can have. Sometimes, we see the connection instantly, other times it’s a slow burn. “Sturgeon” above, generally elicits groans since sturgeon-surgeon is at once too clumsy and too obvious to be a really good pun. “Haddock” typically takes two or three repetitions before the audience re-analyses it as “headache”. Some people don’t get it until “aspirin”. Part of the Marxes’ appeal, of course, was in the sheer rate of punning. They get you laughing at the good jokes, so you still giggle madly through the duff ones, until they hit you with another belter. The good jokes are funnier because they are surrounded by weaker jokes. Compare this with the effect discussed under All-Laugh-Together.

Not all verbal comedy is, strictly speaking, punning. When Groucho, at the end of a bizarre ramble tells Margaret Dumont “You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I got here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle,” we appreciate the status juxtaposition and the surrealism of a record needle used for vaccination to create verbosity, as well as the double-meaning of the word “needle”. And for The Goon Show by way of James Joyce, here are Vivian Stanshall’s astonishing opening lines from Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.

English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere, armoured and effete, bold flag-bearer, lotus-fed Miss Havishambling opsimath and eremite, feudal still reactionary Rawlinson End. The story so far…

The body of Doris Hazard’s Pekinese, unwittingly asphyxiated beneath her husband’s bottom during a wine and middle-aged spread do at the great house, after the ritual fortnight in the Rawlinson fridge, has been given over to Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer, for indecent burial under Sir Henry’s giant marrow. This monstrous jade zebra veg is the master’s puffed pride, and by his stern instruction, the greedy gourd is daily drip-fed with a powerful laxative. Thus “should some rascal half-inch the blessed thing and eat it, it’ll give him the liquorice for weeks!”

Now think on’t. Dot dot dot…

But these kind of linguistic pyrotechnics are not needed for a verbal insight. What about a simple joke?

Q: According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex?
A: Fünf!

The mention of Freud here is brilliant misdirection, surreptitiously setting up the idea of German-speaking in order to unleash the insight that fear (vier) and sex (sechs) are also numbers in the German language.

Sketch comedy “quickies” often exploit this principle. A situation is set up, often sustained for some time and then, for the punchline, is revealed as something rather different than we were led to believe. Whether this makes us groan, gasp in admiration or laugh out loud depends on how “cheated” we feel (does the false set-up really match the revealed situation?), and whether the joke is also a vehicle for another kind of humour: satire for example.

In a Smith and Jones sketch, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones are seen parked outside a house, watching through binoculars and sipping coffee from a thermos. Tension rises, they complain about the waiting. Griff wants to make a break for it, but Mel restrains him. They have to wait it out. Finally the moment comes, their target leaves the house and they slip outside the car. We cut to inside the house and see a card fall through the letter box. It reads “We called to read your meter, but unfortunately you were out”.

This combines a second kind of insight, that beloved of many stand-up comedians, the insight of recognition. And provides a surreal explanation to account for the observed behaviour. Hence in its construction, the sketch uses one version of Oh-I-See in order to deliver a second kind of Oh-I-See. It is also a bathetic ending, using Just-A-Flesh-Wound to substitute the high-stakes stake-out with the low-stakes meter-reading, which in turn is a surreal juxtaposition. Less successful “quickies” generally just depend on the cheap surprise of the Oh-I-See moment for their effect. Some radio comedy is particularly prone to this: “But Captain, why have you given the briefing entirely naked?” That kind of thing.

The dialogue in farces is often designed to sustain two different beliefs simultaneously. Done clumsily, this can strain credulity, but done elegantly, and combined with appropriate juxtapositions and status transactions, the results can be spellbinding – as in the classic Frasier episode “The Matchmaker”, wherein Frasier tries to set Daphne up with a date, Tom, who is actually interested in Frasier himself. All of the dialogue between the two of them enables Tom to believe that Frasier is gay and trying to seduce him, while Frasier believes that Tom is straight and interested in Daphne, with a moment of insight for the audience each time. Finally, the penny drops and each character experiences a rush of insight which deeply affects them.

Also under the umbrella of Oh-I-See is the mechanism of the spoof. Sometimes, the intent will be clear from the outset, as in films like Scary Movie or Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Other times, the spoof will creep up as in the Scrubs example above. The laugh of recognition is useful and important, but once again works best with an element of satire included. It is not enough to include an element borrowed from another work, it is also necessary to comment on it in some way. It is also interesting to note that allowing the audience to reach their own conclusions is funnier than spelling it out for them. This “protects” the moment of insight. This joke, attributed to Spike Milligan, topped an Internet poll to find the world’s funniest joke.

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, and then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”

Two further variations on this theme need to be addressed. The first has as much to do with storytelling as comedy: reincorporation. Elements from earlier in the story reappear towards the end to provide structure.2 However, the reappearance of an earlier element creates a similar moment of insight and can provide a comic highpoint. This is not quite the same as catchphrases and repeated patterns, which are dealt with under Saw-It-Coming. John Cleese stresses the importance of not letting the audience catch you setting up the elements you are going to depend on later, and explains that he and Connie Booth would cover their tracks by putting all their best jokes into the set-up scene.

In the Fawlty Towers episode “A Communications Problem”, an entirely superfluous scene sees Basil reminding Manuel that his visit to the betting shop on Basil’s behalf is a secret. The scene contains not a scrap of new plot information but is stuffed with brilliant one-liners to ensure not just that we remember it, but that we also don’t realise why we have to remember it.

BASIL: You know nothing about the horse.
MANUEL: Which horse? Which horse I know nothing?
BASIL: My horse, nitwit.
MANUEL: Your horse “nitwit”.
BASIL: No, no, “Dragonfly”.
MANUEL: It won!
BASIL: Yes, I know.
MANUEL: I know it won too. I go to betting shop for you…
BASIL: Yes, I know, I know, I know.
MANUEL: Then why you say I know nothing?
BASIL: Oh… Look, you know the horse?
MANUEL: Er, Nitwit or Dragonfly?
BASIL: Dragonfly! There isn’t a horse called Nitw… You’re the nitwit.
MANUEL: What is “witnit”?
BASIL: It doesn’t matter. Oh, I could spend the rest of my life having this conversation. Please, please try to understand before one of us dies…

And so on, for another minute or so. At the end of the programme, Basil needs to prove to vile Mrs Richards that the money is his, and so summons Manuel to explain where it came from. Manuel clears his throat, and to Basil’s horror, proclaims “I know nothing!”

A similar mechanism is at work when one situation is treated like another. In “The Initiative”, an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, vampire Spike has just escaped from a research lab and is lying in wait for Willow. When she lies down on her bed, he pounces and we cut away. When we cut back, Spike is sitting on the bed next to Willow, his head in his hands. “This has never happened to me before,” he complains. “Maybe we could try again in half an hour?” suggests Willow. In fact, Spike has been “chipped” to prevent him from biting people, but the scene plays out like a couple dealing with erectile dysfunction.

Finally, let us also mention practical jokes. Watching a show like Candid Camera we appreciate the additional insight we have which is denied the victim of the prank. When the truth is revealed, we experience the victim’s rush of insight vicariously and so we laugh.

  1. “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” was a popular advertising slogan.
  2. This is another way of describing “Chekhov’s gun” – the observation attributed to playwright Anton Chekhov that “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” See Uncle Vanya for a literal use of this device.

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

Posted on July 7th, 2011 in Culture | 3 Comments »

If an instructor is teaching a self-defence class, then there is nothing in the situation which is inherently funny. However, if the class revolves around the defending oneself against the threat posed by soft fruit, the juxtaposition of the nature of the class and the harmlessness of the fruit creates comic possibilities, enhanced by the instructor’s total commitment to the fatality of mangoes in syrup, correctly wielded. (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, season 1, episode 4).

Mangoes-In-Syrup can represent total surrealism at one extreme. In the “Across the Andes by Frog” episode of Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns, the substitution of frogs for more common beasts of burden is the principal comic idea. Because this seems an arbitrary choice, and it is never questioned or justified within the context of the story, it stands out as surreal. This kind of choice can mark a programme out as being very original and different, but may isolate those who feel they “don’t get it”. The Goon Show, Vic Reeves Big Night Out and Bo’ Selecta all provide numerous examples of this, what we might call “zero tolerance” Mangoes-In-Syrup – creating odd juxtapositions simply for the sake of it. It is far more common, however, to see juxtapositions with some kind of non-arbitrary choice (which can develop very satisfying satire) or where an apparently arbitrary juxtaposition is questioned by a “straight man”.

So, what governs choices of juxtapositions? Even when the choice is arbitrary, it is clear to see that the more different from the expected item, the better (up to a point). Self defence against mangoes is more satisfying than against paper-knives, since while a paper-knife is not much of a threat, it is closer to the anticipated flick knife (or pointed stick!). Similarly, a frog is about as a different an animal from a horse or camel as it is possible to get, and so “Across the Andes by Frog” is an amusing prospect. A frog is still an animal, however, so the nature of the substitution is clear. “Across the Andes by Biscuit” is more obscure, and may be more confusing than funny. There is also the risk that this will be a funnier prospect than it will be when played out. Only if the idea can be continually developed in new ways will it sustain a long sketch, let alone a sit-com episode or comedy film. For this reason, “pure” Mangoes-In-Syrup humour may not travel well.

Very visual surreal humour can be the exception, as Mr Bean proved. The juxtaposition here lies in the extraordinary lengths that Mr Bean goes to to achieve perfectly ordinary ends. Faced with his train reading disturbed by a noisy fellow passenger, he doesn’t simply leave the carriage, he hunches over, sticks his fingers in his ears, and then has to turn the pages of his book with his elbows or his tongue.

Bean carries on the tradition, not I think of Charlie Chaplin, but of Harpo Marx. So, when Chico whispers “Hide!” to Harpo who quickly scampers to the middle of the room and stands on his head (Animal Crackers) we laugh out of sheer confusion. Less arbitrarily, when a hobo asks Harpo for a cup of coffee and Harpo produces a steaming hot cup full of coffee from his trouser pocket (Horse Feathers), we laugh at the juxtaposition of the physical reality we know and the event just depicted. (Also at work here are Saw-It-Coming and Oh-I-See.) Surrealism is threatening, however, and it is interesting to note that when the Marxes moved to MGM, who were after bigger audiences and more accessible comedy, Harpo’s “magic powers” were scaled back. So while in Horse Feathers (Paramount, 1932), he accedes to the request to “cut the cards” by producing an axe from a hidden pocket and severing the pack in two, by the time of A Night At The Opera (MGM, 1935), although he still uses an axe to slice a salami, now it is lying handily on a barrel instead of being secreted mysteriously about his person.

Most juxtaposition is not arbitrary, however. The sight of King Arthur’s knights “galloping” about the place while making “clip-clop” noises with two halves of coconut (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) is undeniably surreal, but the reason is clear. The On The Hour headline “Headmaster uses big-faced child as satellite dish” is a wonderfully surreal image but rather more accessible than the sheer madness of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show scripts:

SEAGOON: He was a tall, vile man, dressed in the naval uniform of a sea-going sailor. Under his left arm he held a neatly rolled anchor, while with his right he scanned the horizon with a pair of powerful kippers.

Making purposeful juxtapositions can open the door to some brilliant satire. When South Park depicts a lone head-louse desperately warning his arrogant fellows that the end of the world is coming, they brilliantly juxtapose the themes of disaster movies, the environmental movement and the mundane treatment of head-lice as a medical condition (see also Just-A-Flesh-Wound). When That Was The Week That Was presents a buyers guide to religions, they juxtapose the triviality of consumer magazines with the reverence in which belief is generally held, and satirise both brilliantly (“The best aspect of the Church of England is that it doesn’t interfere with the essentials. All in all, we think you get a jolly good little faith for a very modest outlay, and we have no hesitation in claiming it the Best Buy.”)

Another way to make surrealism more palatable is to provide a non-surreal point-of-view within the story. The difference between these two approaches can be seen by studying the difference between Father Ted and The League of Gentlemen. Father Ted creates a self-contained surreal world, in which – generally speaking – the characters accept that certain things which we, the audience, know to be abnormal or impossible are normal and everyday. This extends to characterisation as well as to plotting. Father Jack is not a pitiable alcoholic, he is a man pickled in drink, reduced to a few repetitive guttural utterances (in fact, better than that – he’s a priest pickled in drink, adding a further layer of Mangoes-In-Syrup plus a level of Sounds-A-Bit-Rude). Father Dougal is not a bit slow, he is monumentally stupid, unable to work out the difference between small, toy cows near to him and full size cows far away from him. The surreal world allows the writers to use Just-A-Flesh-Wound to include potentially serious elements like alcoholism and mental illness without falling into the trap of bathos. However, it is rare for any of the surreal elements to be seriously questioned by the characters. They are the “norm” and so the “out of the ordinary” has to be built on top.

The League of Gentlemen is far more likely to present bizarre characters whose behaviour is juxtaposed again with the reaction of a straight person. Tubbs and Edward, whose insistence on “a local shop for local people” is a juxtaposition in itself become far more effective when their lunatic behaviour is questioned by someone the audience can identify with. Note too, that further layers of weirdness are revealed in Tubbs and Edward over the course of a number of episodes, again dealing with the “Across the Andes by Frog” problem.

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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