Creating The Storyworld For A Comedy Series

Cartoon Network

Before writing a comedy series, especially one with a wacky world, the writer must be clear about the rules of that storyworld. These rules subsequently seem intuitive to the audience. It’s easy to forget the amount of work writers have to do to create them in the first place. Even if these rules are not written down, they at least exist inside the creator’s head.

Not everyone shares so much of their creative process, but we have access to a good case study in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, the Warner Brothers cartoon which first aired in 1949, in a post war era. (Which may explain all the acme and use of airspace.)

STORYWORLD RULES FOR ROAD RUNNER

Mental Floss describes the rules of Road Runner as ‘a fascinating testament to the need for clearly defined systems within a wacky creative process’.

  1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “meep, meep.”
  2. No outside force can harm the Coyote — only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.
  3. The Coyote could stop anytime — if he were not a fanatic.
  4. No dialogue ever, except “meep, meep” and yowling in pain.
  5. The Road Runner must stay on the road — for no other reason than that he’s a roadrunner.
  6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters — the southwest American desert.
  7. All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
  8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
  9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
  10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
  11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.

— by Chuck Jones, slightly expanded courtesy of Jason Kottke

 

STORYWORLD RULES FOR COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG

I have previously taken a close look at another favourite cartoon, Courage The Cowardly Dog from the late 1990s. Today I’ll use Courage as a case study to recreate the rules of that particular story world.

  1. Episodes begin with Courage alerting Muriel and Eustace to an opponent from outside. Occasionally we’ll mix it up by beginning with the opponent in their lair.
  2. No outside force can harm Courage, but they often harm Eustace. Eustace bounces back to his grumpy but healthy self between episodes.
  3. Any damage sustained to the Bagge house is repaired by the next episode. Each episode ‘resets’ the storyworld. No one has any memory of what dangers have come before, except Courage, who has good reason to be scared of intruders.
  4. Courage is always the first to spot danger. He morphs into the shape of the intruder when trying to communicate.
  5. Muriel and Eustace never listen to Courage when Courage alerts them to danger.
  6. Muriel is always loving towards Courage.
  7. Eustace is always mean to Courage and also to Muriel.
  8. Courage doesn’t talk, except for a few catch phrases. “The things I do for love!”
  9. Courage can break the fourth wall and directly address the audience but none of the other characters can.
  10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with Courage and Muriel.
  11. The Bagge family must return to Nowhere after their adventures, though they may leave their home to visit other places, inspired by horror and SF storyworld tropes.
  12. Gravity rules are different and work more like a Looney Tunes show than real life.

Why does Schitt’s Creek take a season to get ‘good’?

Schitt's Creek

Schitt’s Creek is a CBC sitcom written by father and son team Eugene and Daniel Levy. You’ll either find it funny or you won’t — I think it’s the funniest thing on Netflix at the moment.

That said, I agree with all the reviewers who’ve said something like this:

Season 1 is decent, but Season 2 is where it really takes off.

NYT, Margaret Lyons

From a writing point of view, it’s interesting to consider why this show took an entire season to really get funny. Continue reading “Why does Schitt’s Creek take a season to get ‘good’?”

Humour Study: Overly Literal Characters

Humorous stories about characters who find themselves in strife after taking instructions too literally are old stock comedy fodder. One of the earliest recorded in Europe is the fairytale Clever Hans — an ironic title, because Hans is a fool. Hans does something stupid, his mother tells him to do it differently next time. But when Hans applies the previous bit of commonsense advice to the new, slightly different situation, this leads to different trouble. Trouble increases in magnitude until he ruins his life.

If you’re anything like me, Clever Hans as a humorous tale doesn’t work. It feels out-dated, by centuries. One problem is the heinous nature of the repercussions. Hans ‘stupidly’ plucks out the eyeballs of the farm animals — an example of foolishness which seems cruel rather than funny to me.

But has the archetype of the overly literal fool gone out of fashion? Not at all. In fact, we’re having a bit of a renaissance. I suspect this is partly to do with increasing autism awareness (which is a different thing entirely from autism acceptance). The stereotypical autistic person, promoted by the contemporary corpus of fiction is:

  • White
  • Male
  • Good at maths/fixing and hacking computers/memorising facts about specialty area
  • Non-empathetic
  • And overly literal, to his own detriment

Atypical Netflix

Sam of Netflix’s Atypical series is an excellent showcase of this popular — but ultimately shallow — understanding of level one autism:

Sam is a basically a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments. He talks in a somewhat rat-a-tat monotone voice (demonstrating atypical verbal development), can’t understand social cues and takes everything very literally (social and emotional difficulties), and has obsessions (imaginative restriction or repetitive behaviour), which manifests in his case as an all-consuming interest in Antarctica and the Arctic and all the fauna of those environments, especially penguins.

What Netflix Comedy Atypical Gets Right and Wrong About Autism

Overly literal interpretation of language is not a characteristic shared by every person with a diagnosis of autism. Many autistic people can throw sarcasm with the best of them. Satire — top level comedy — is not lost on autistic people. At the moment, any overly literal comedic character tends to have a pop-culture diagnosis of autism whether the creators declare that or not. The Big Bang Theory is an excellent example of that phenomenon.

This is why I am delighted to see brilliant Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has revealed her autism diagnosis publicly, a generous act, given that she’s now going to be seconded as ambassador for yet another marginalised group, whether she wants to invest all that time or not. Gadsby does not fit the autistic stereotype. Fortunately for us, she has the gift of seeing satire and absurdity at the deepest level, commenting ironically, manipulating audience emotion with fine precision. Gadsby shares this skill with many in the autistic community.

Perhaps this signals the beginning of a more diverse representation of autism in pop-culture. I hope comedy writers will start pushing the boat out when writing autistic characters, beyond mishaps caused by ‘overly literal’ interpretations. It’s far more difficult to pinpoint humour in the very real differences between autistic and neurotypical communication styles. It really does require #OwnVoices level insight.

About A Boy Film Study

About a Boy

About A Boy is a 2002 British transgression comedy based on a Nick Hornby novel of the same name. In its own way, About A Boy is also a kind of buddy comedy, though the buddies are vastly different in age.

ABOUT A BOY SYMBOLIC TITLE

The boy in this title refers to not one but two boys — one is young but the other is 38 years old and still behaving like a child. The title tells us there’s a boy, singular, and at first tricks us into thinking it’s about the young boy. We will soon realise that the young boy is mature beyond his years and that the boy in the title refers to the grown man. Continue reading “About A Boy Film Study”

The End Of The Fxxxing World Storytelling

The End Of The Fucking World

Listed on IMDb as a comedy drama, The End Of The Fxxxing World is a darkly comic coming-of-age tale with a major crime at the centre of the plot. It is also a twisted and cynical romance. The script is written by Charlie Covell, based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman. Forsman is an American writer, from Pennsylvania. Covell is a British writer and longtime actress. You may have seen her in Siblings or Peep Show and most recently Marcella.

End of the Fucking World

STORYWORLD OF THE END OF THE FXXXING WORLD

How to adapt an American story for British screen, filmed in Britain?

Jonathan’s idea was always to try and do Americana, British-style. So if you look at the way Lucy Tcherniak and Jonathan both shot it, there are lots of nods to American TV shows, hopefully, and American landscapes. So we were trying to find parts of the UK that didn’t look quintessentially British – we filmed the finale on the Isle of Sheppey, and so hopefully there’s a feeling of expanse like you’d get in the Midwest. I think it was almost trying to do a Fargo-take on Britain, so they move from suburbia to an English version of the Wild West.

interview with Charlie Covell

Speaking of Americana, the audience is reminded periodically that this is ‘not a Hollywood movie’. Which is true — it’s a limited British TV series. The car isn’t going to blow up because it’s not a movie. Then it blows up. Both characters are informed by media they have consumed over the course of their lives. Alyssa’s behaviour is explained by her enthusiasm to watch the porn channel in the hotel room. She has no doubt been exposed to a lot of that. She’s seen a lot of crime shows (haven’t we all), and she calls upon her knowledge of crime fiction when deciding to clean the house after their murder. This gets around something all writers wrestle with — how to stop characters sounding like they’ve got their dialogue straight out of someone else’s crime fiction? One workaround, used here and also used in Thelma and Louise, is to acknowledge the fact that your new-to-the-life criminals probably did get their dialogue from elsewhere. Thelma repeats the souped up show-off dialogue of Brad Pitt’s character. Alyssa finds rubber gloves and bleach.

When Alyssa smashes her phone, this solves a big problem for contemporary writers, telling tales about people who would normally be fully contactable. This is fully in keeping with Alyssa’s character so it works. “I’m so glad I smashed my phone,” she says, later, reminding us that no one can easily find them. When we take technology away from our characters, the story immediately has a retro feel. This one feels almost like the 1970s or 1980s, especially with the style of Alyssa’s father’s jacket, and even the architecture of the house they break into.

 

STORY STRUCTURE

The big question introduced in the pilot: Will James really murder Alyssa? If so, how? This question sustains the entire series.

The voice over technique affords novelistic advantages as we hear the thoughts of Alyssa and James, juxtaposed against how they are acting and what they are saying. Watching The End Of The Fxxxing World is like reading a novel which alternates point of view after each chapter. A film which uses a similar technique is About A Boy, also British. Sure enough, both The End Of The Fxxxing World and About A Boy are based on books which alternate points of view.

In line with the ‘Americana’ aims, The End Of The Fxxxing World is basically a Thelma and Louise plot with young adult main characters.

  • Two characters go on a road trip, each of them hoping to have some kind of fun. One of them in particular just wants something to change — anything. She needs some kind of awakening.
  • Both Thelma and Alyssa are escaping domestic violence.
  • An initial rape scene ends with the other killing the rapist, who has raped many times before.
  • This is just the first crime in a series of others.
  • There are stops in cheap hotels, and other characters along the way, who they foil.
  • The characters they meet are stereotypes, which make our heroes seem more human.
  • One of the cops on their trail feels great empathy for them, engendering empathy from the audience, too.
  • After their last big crime, Alyssa, like Thelma, declares that she’s never felt so alive, or more like herself. She’s finally found out who she really is.
  • The pair look set to ‘drive off a cliff together’ (try to motorboat across the channel with no supplies and no fresh water), though that would’ve been too faithful to Thelma and Louise, so they change it a bit.

People who have seen Bonnie and Clyde have said this is the millennial version of Bonnie and Clyde.

See also: Comparing Bonnie and Clyde With Thelma and Louise

Road trip movies take the shape of mythic stories. These stories can feel episodic (and therefore lose narrative drive) because of all the different settings and characters encountered along the way. Modern audiences don’t have much time for episodic stories. So modern storytellers have to find ways to make their threads interweave. In Thelma and Louise, the Brad Pitt character keeps cropping up, for instance. In The End of the Fxxxing World:

  • Alyssa and James’s parents have never met, but they are eventually filmed sitting side by side on the couch. These characters come together rather than drift apart, lending cohesion.
  • There is plenty of conflict between Alyssa and James themselves. They spend part of the story each on their own. When they come back together, more cohesion.
  • It’s critical to have a definite end goal, even if they end up off track. This end goal has to be established early. (Alyssa’s father’s place.)
  • There is a parallel journey going on — in this series it is the cop duo, tracking them. Because they’re following the same mirrored journey, this gives narrative cohesion.

We therefore don’t mind that Alyssa and James briefly meet a number of temporary characters and spend every night somewhere else.

For another Road Trip story see my analysis of Little Miss Sunshine.

CHARACTERISATION

The writers of The End Of The Fxxxing World use a trick employed by Cormac McCarthy in No Country For Old Men. In this case not one but two unsympathetic characters are introduced. The girl is annoying but the boy is portrayed as psychopathic. Terrible though these people are, they suddenly seem relatively normal once they happen to break into the home of a serial murderer. Likewise, Walter White seems benign when compared to the experienced drug lord running Albuquerque.

Alyssa is not initially a likeable character, but she is is constantly fascinating. Like Lady Bird, she is far from perfect but she knows what she wants. She wants an adventure. She’s going to get her adventure even if she destroys her life in the process. (Alyssa is a more extreme version of Lady Bird of Greta Gerwig’s film.) Alyssa is a Thelma-character in some ways, but a Louise in others. By the end of the story she is a young Louise — we know she’ll be cynical and world wise now that she’s even seen through her Dad.

The character arc of James is imbued with comic darkness — he thinks he’s a psychopath. It turns out he’s not — his deadness inside has been a defence mechanism, which started the day he witnessed his mother drive into the pond. Through his relationship with the gregarious, assertive Alyssa, he learns that he is capable of feeling things after all. Tragically for him, he learns this lesson the moment he dies.

This series inverts a number of gender tropes.

  • When female characters break free they are very often required to sacrifice their lives the moment they achieve their aim, failing to break free at all. Thelma and Louise is a classic example of this. It’s so common it’s problematic, genderwise. Plenty of men are sacrificed in movies too, but not in this way. But this time James dies in a typically feminine way.
  • The cops are both women.
  • At the petrol station it’s a woman boss who is mistreating a male underling working in customer service, and who tries to play the hero by apprehending Alyssa.
  • Because Alyssa is so nihilistic in her own right, the show avoids turning her into some Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

In other ways, gender norms are not subverted. A disproportionate number of the male characters are perverts. James winds up sacrificing himself for a girl. Alyssa’s father is a stereotypical useless, uninvolved manchild.

The female cop duo are not in the original comic. One character has been split into two. This is interesting because in most paper to screen adaptations, characters are culled, not added. There is no romantic subplot for the cops in the comic. Their story mirrors the story of Alyssa and James, in a way. Neither is sure they really want to be with the other, but they are each drawn to the other anyhow, in a constant push and pull. The antagonistic relationship between the cops allows for dialogue about the themes: How much empathy and leniency do these kids deserve? Are they still kids?

James’s plan to kill Alyssa comes to an end after a few episodes. To be honest, this almost turned me off watching it. I don’t think I’d have continued had this plan continued longer. But when his plan is changed, he no longer has any plan at all. He’s basically a stunned mullet. It is Alyssa who comes up with all the plans from there on in. This is fairly common in a story with two main characters — one of them makes all the plans, the other goes along with them.

Alyssa’s father Leslie is a comical character — a tragic hippie trope. Portrayed as pretty dim, the joke at the end is that he’s not as dim as we thought he was — he knows enough to call the cops and get reward money. Jeff Kinney use’s Greg Heffley’s older brother in a similar way, setting him up as stupid, then rewarding the audience with the occasional ironic lightbulb moment where he seems pretty genius. Alyssa’s father is soon brought down again, because Alyssa is smarter by a long shot.

 

 

 

 

Masks In Storytelling

masks in storytelling

When creating characters, storytellers draw a distinction between what Michael Hauge refers to as ‘identity’ (masks) and ‘essence’.

  • Identity refers to the faces people present to the world, also known as masks.
  • Essence is the (one) true self.

The underlying message of most stories is the same no matter the genre: It’s only when a mask (false identity) comes off that true happiness can be found.

Genre And Masks

The Love Genre

This distinction is important in the love genre. The audience is clued in about who is right for each other because even if the romantic pair start off fighting, they eventually get to know the other’s essence. All other romantic rivals never get past the ‘identity’ stage of knowing. Continue reading “Masks In Storytelling”

Humour and Storytelling of Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim is a satirical Australian comedy series created by Jane Turner and Gina Riley, which aired 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2007. There are a couple of movies, too.

Kath and Kim was remade in America but failed to achieve popularity. Kath and Kim is a specifically (pacifically) Australian series, though enjoyed equally in New Zealand, and not just because Kiwis like to see Aussies making fun of themselves! (It’s because New Zealanders recognise the same characters.)

What can comedy writers learn from Kath and Kim? Below I take a look at the humour of Kath and Kim taking cues from the taxonomy of humour proposed by the creator of The Onion.

IRONY

Any difference between expectation and outcome

Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based. Satire and irony are not the same, but they commonly go together. (For more on satire, see my post on irony. For the difference between satire, farce and parody, Quora has a good answer on that.)

Continue reading “Humour and Storytelling of Kath and Kim”

To The Manor Born Storytelling Techniques

To The Manor Born is a British romantic comedy series written by Peter Spence which aired from 1979 to 1981. The actors reunited for a Christmas special in 2007. The writer is also known for Rosemary & Thyme and Not The Nine O’Clock News. Spence is educated in politics and American studies, which come across in his one-liners — these English characters have a contempt for all things American and there is a stark division between the blue bloods and the Labour government. He married into the family that runs this estate, so I can’t imagine anyone better positioned to write from an outsider’s perspective about a small English community set around a parish than Peter Spence.

STORYWORLD OF TO THE MANOR BORN

Characters Who Stand In For Subcultures

Oftentimes when two characters clash in fiction, those individuals stand in for the clash between groups of people irl. This elevates an otherwise simple comedy or domestic drama. In Hud we have a clash between old values and new (1960s) values of the American South. In 2017 we saw a similar clash in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which certain characters exemplified racist, insular attitudes. Others struggle to deal with the new, kinder culture. Still others display progressive values. In To The Manor Born we have a very British clash between aristocracy and the nouveau riche — two very different kinds of rich, but both rich all the same, and therefore foreign to the vast majority of the audience.

 

TO THE MANOR BORN STORY STRUCTURE

Continue reading “To The Manor Born Storytelling Techniques”

Humour Writing And Spongebob Squarepants

Spongebob and Patrick

SpongeBob Squarepants is a fast-paced children’s cartoon for a dual audience, written by a guy who is also a marine biologist. This is a highly successful and long-running show, with humour that broadly appeals.

This series has been running since 1999. Critics say the show has been declining in quality in the last few years, which is what critics also say of The Simpsons. What is the longest time a comedy series should run for? Are there any examples of comedy series lasting longer than a decade without a serious decline in quality? I can’t think of any myself.

Here I use Stephen Johnson’s 11 Categories Of Jokes to focus on the humour of SpongeBob.  I’ve used so many SpongeBob examples in that original post that I’m ready to do an entire SpongeBob post. (If you feel that analysing jokes takes the joy out of comedy, this post is not for you!) Studying humour is a lot like doing tennis drills. Concentrate on form and process during deliberate training sessions, but once you’re playing a game (actually writing comedy) we need to put everything you know aside and get into a state of flow.

It’s also worth looking at other people’s comedy writing to hone your own sense of what’s funny and what’s not. While I find most of SpongeBob’s humour funny, I get annoyed with some of it, too. (Backed up by Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid sales as evidence, sexism sells.)

First a note about the structure. Continue reading “Humour Writing And Spongebob Squarepants”

How I Got My Shrunken Head Story Study

How I Got My Shrunken Head

How I Got My Shrunken Head by R.L. Stine is classic Goosebumps #10. This is a chosen one story about a white boy transported to an island in South East Asia.

If I’d read this back in the 1990s I wouldn’t have even know the word ‘microcephaly’ but the world has since had an outbreak of Zika, so the humour of the pile of shrunken heads feels a little closer to reality than it did back then, even though microcephaly was first identified in humans in 1952. This is a story that plays with mismatched size. It’s basically a Skull Island story. This describes the fictional island that appeared in King Kong. It’s also a Jurassic Park story, in which the main character/s go to an island where everything is a completely different scale. Actually, let’s go right back and call this a Gulliver’s Travels trope, or further back again, starting with The Odyssey as ur-story.

TV Tropes call this trope Isle of Giant Horrors.

For more on island symbolism, see this post.

STORY STRUCTURE OF HOW I GOT MY SHRUNKEN HEAD

Stine has said that once he gets his outline done, it takes 8 days to write a Goosebumps book. You don’t pump them out at that speed by mucking around with theme and symbolism and setting the scene. Nope, these books are all about plot.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

At the start of the story the main character, Mark, is insulated in his safe and happy home. The closest he has come to adventure in the jungle is playing a computer game. But all that is about to change, because his true worth as a saviour is about to be challenged.

DESIRE

Since this is a chosen one story, all this boy wants at the beginning of his adventure is to live a nice life in the suburbs, playing computer games with his friends. But the arrival of Aunt Benna’s evil workmate changes all of that, because he is whisked away to a jungle on an island where he must save the day. Once he reads his aunt’s diary and realises the gravity of the situation, he doubles down on his desire to save his aunt and the surrounding environment.

OPPONENT

When Aunt Benna’s workmate Carolyn shows up at the door holding a shrunken head as a gift, we all know this woman is trouble. (All except the boy’s mother, of course, because mothers are bound by society’s rules to be polite and also oblivious.)

As in Welcome To Camp Nightmare, this web of opponents comprises:

  1. Benign human conflict (with Mark’s younger sister who is a nuisance)
  2. Dangerous human conflict with an adult (Carolyn, who basically kidnaps him)
  3. Monsters in the new environs (first we have the oversized rabbit, then the ants the size of grasshoppers etc.)
  4. The natural environment (e.g. the jungle, the quick sand)

There is also a fake-ally opponent in Kareen.

PLAN

Mark realises his made-up magic word works. He call yell “Kah-lee-ah!” and this has an effect on the massive ants. Unfortunately for him, the magic word doesn’t work for everything. (That’s a writing rule — writers can’t rely upon magic to get their main characters out of trouble because that would be boring.)

Mark is still a chosen one, though, so we know there will be a series of things that will help him. Next he manages to get the shrunken head to get him out of the vines which have tightened around his body.

BATTLE

Once captured, the aunt turns out to be pretty useless even though she’s an adult and a well-known scientist, so it’s up to her young nephew to cooperate with her and save them both.

Dr Hawlings carries a ‘large silvery pistol’ in this story as well — will this turn out to be a real gun, with bullets? Actually, Stine only uses the gun as a scare tactic — the real threat is having their heads shrunken in a big vat of boiling water. The rule of Chekhov’s gun doesn’t apply in this case.

SELF-REVELATION

Mark learns to be a bit more grateful for his annoying younger sister when the scratch she put on his magical shrunken head turns out to help him find it from a massive pile of shrunken heads.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The aunt takes the magical powers away from the boy but this turns into a ‘never-ending story’ when he realises the little head he took home as a souvenir can talk. So now he’s stuck with a talking head and the reader can imagine a subsequent adventure about that.