Comedy Techniques In “This Country”

This Country is a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary sitcom with two series so far (2017-2018). The story centers the misadventures of two cousins marooned in a small village in the Cotswolds. Most of their peers have moved on. Kerry and Kurtan are stuck in adolescence. They behave like typical Year 10s, despite being in their late 20s, early 30s.

Critics have said that the strength of this show is the ‘winning mix of heartfelt moments and punchy belly laughs’.

STYLE OF NARRATION

Mockumentary sitcoms are having a moment. The Office is perhaps what kicked it all off. (Charlie Cooper bears an uncanny resemblance to the character of Gareth Keenan.) Of course mockumentaries wouldn’t work unless TV were full of reality TV shows, which is actually what they’re mocking — not actual documentaries. Another favourite of mine is Wellington Paranormal from New Zealand.

Daisy and Charlie didn’t originally write This Country as a mockumentary — producers saw that it was suited to this format and made it a requirement.

How did the producers know? How were they so sure? I can only guess, but if done well, the mockumentary mocks not only the characters but also the audience. There are many pitfalls for documentary makers, namely:

  • They sometimes forget about the larger world in which their project falls.
  • Documentary filmmaking is often extractive, and offers nothing good back to its subjects.

The mockumentary is also relatively cheap to make, and This Country was made on such a limited budget that the a large proportion of the pilot had to be filmed in a single room with just two people.

THE URBAN/RURAL DIVIDE

The danger of setting a mockumentary in a rural area: Storytellers sometimes position their own commentary as superior.

It helps that This Country is very much an #ownvoices story — real life siblings Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper created it, wrote it and also star in it. They come from the Cotswolds themselves; their friends and family appear as actors. Unlike, say, New Zealand’s comedy character Lyn of Tawa, Daisy and Charlie really do speak with the accents used by their fictional characters, the Mucklowe cousins.

Here is the Lyn of Tawa character speaking in a broad New Zealand accent:

But Ginette McDonald actually speaks like this. (The video requires you watch it on YouTube.)

If you’re a fellow New Zealander those two accents will sound quite distinct, though I’m not sure non-Kiwis will hear the difference. Ginette McDonald was playing the house-o character of Lyn of Tawa back in the 1980s, though I doubt her routine would be so well received now. It carries a whiff of classism.

In contrast, the Coopers grew up in precisely the socio-economic environment they recreated for This Country, and have said as much in interviews. I’m sure it’s part of the humble marketing spiel, but they say their characters are basically themselves. (Jemaine Clement has the same public persona, suggesting that he never acts, simply appears.)

Another way in which This Country avoids patronising small towns: The narration that appears as words on the screen at various points in the show will be obviously distancing e.g., ‘Studies show that young people in rural areas…’

Here is the opening scene:

 

These ‘facts’ (stereotypes) are all familiar to the audience — we’ve all seen the media reports on crime, lack of opportunity and obesity in rural areas. These authorial intrusions into the story of Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe achieve the effect of poking fun at urban people who think we know all about rural life, but who glean the sum total of information second-hand, filtered by the unreliable media.

Poking fun both ways is quite a feat, given that the creations of Kerry and Kurtan exemplify these stereotypes exactly. Perhaps it depends partly on the audience to know that the lampoon goes both ways. (This is of course the danger of expecting a lot from your audience — an audience is equally capable of taking these stereotypes and running with them.)

CHARACTER WEB OF THIS COUNTRY

THE FECKLESS, NAIVE MAIN CHARACTER

Kerry Mucklowe, late twenties or early thirties. Thicc, loves her food.

She’s different from other female comedy characters – the focus is not on femininity. This is someone who is asexual, tomboyish, and the biggest unrequited love story is her relationship with her dad. She’s got nobody, and her life is a lot sadder than Kurtan’s. […] She’s so lost and is such a plodder, [Kurtan] feels a duty to look after her.

Daisy May Cooper

The main characters of comedies are often feckless as their stand-out attribute. You wouldn’t trust them with anything. They’re victims of their own whims and can’t seem to control their baser instincts. While everyone else can see they exist near the bottom of the local social hierarchy, they will step on the few who exist below them — elderly and disabled people tend to cop their wrath the most.

Kerry is very naive and insular. It would seem she’s never left her tiny Cotswold village.

She is at times very stupid, but this is lovable because she doesn’t take herself seriously.

This is in contrast to her cousin Kurtan, who has delusions of grandeur. She does have her own comedic mask, but it’s not about seeming smart — she attempts to seem dangerous. (By the end of the pilot episode this mask has already come off and she is revealed to be hapless and ignored rather than actually dangerous.)

Kerry’s character includes some gross-out comedy, with her mother accusing Kerry on camera of failing to wipe her bum properly.

Other Examples OF FECKLESS COMEDIC CHARACTERS
  • Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean lives outside the social hiearchy — that’s how different he is. But he also has a mean streak.
  • Seinfeld’s George Kostanza is a wonderful example, but also Elaine and Jerry at times. George is the closest match to Kerry — he seems wily, but remember he also lives at home with his parents and is mostly unemployed, except for short-lived duplicitous schemes.

THE PETTY-POWER HUNGRY MAIN CHARACTER

Kurtan Mucklowe, around the same age as Kerry. He is skinny to the point where it’s useful for  (he often takes his shirt off in comedic fashion).

 

While Kerry and Kurtan are similar in many ways, the writers have done a great job of making them distinct nonetheless. Kurtan is obsessive, turns into a megalomaniac when he gets a taste of power, fancies himself a bit of a fashion horse and is pretty scathing about old people and those he considers beneath him. On the other hand, he demonstrates great kindness and empathy at times, especially towards his cousin Kerry, buying her a soda stream on her birthday and saying it’s from her dad.

  • Not an obvious connection perhaps, but Kurtan is similar to Hyacinth Bucket in some ways. Both are very good at physical comedy (Kurtan because of his skinniness, Hyacinth because she is the Fat Athlete Woman trope, similar to Mrs Henscher in ParaNorman and The Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s Matilda — a woman who takes up ‘too much’ physical space and is stronger than her middle-aged woman status would have us assume. Both Kurtan and Hyacinth are power hungry, fixating in smalltown/suburban events as opportunities to exert their power and influence.

THE NICE CHARACTER WHOSE NICENESS IS TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF AND WHO EVENTUALLY REVEALS VERY HUMAN FRAILTY

Reverend Francis Seaton — the local vicar and erstwhile 80s popstar

When Kerry injures her leg at a sports event set up by the Reverend, the Reverend faces a moral dilemma. He eventually asks Kerry to lie, and say that she did not injure herself while playing sports. He has failed to get insurance.

When he fails to find a parking spot at the medical centre, parks illegally and gets booked, Kerry and Kurtan (by now our own viewpoint characters) watch him lose his shit.

The Mask is a vital component of any comedy (or thriller, in fact). Great comedy comes from that moment when a character’s true self is revealed. In this case, the Overly Nice is revealed to be nothing more than a mask which functions as a means to an end. The inevitable message is this: We are all equally human, though some hide it better. The other message is this: our feckless main characters may be terrible, but at least what you see is what you get.

TV Tropes calls this Beware The Nice Ones.

Feckless main characters with very obvious moral weaknesses do require a nice character to counterbalance their terribleness.

THE SCARY NEIGHBOURHOOD MONSTER

Mandy Harris — aspiring tattoo artist, bodyguard, erstwhile stalker and S Club 7 fan (she stalked one of the members).

These scary characters will have over-the-top attributes — even more so than the main characters. But they wear their Weaknesses like Soul Toupees.

In the skit above, Mandy is revealed to be a trickster (of the prankster variety). She is volatile, a bully, and a loner desperate for human connection. She probably thinks Kurtan and Kerry are her best friends, though Kurtan and Kerry are revealed to be scared of her. If anything, Kerry models herself on Mandy — at least, the scary part. Mandy also exists to reveal the strong, take-no-shit mask worn by Kurtan, who crumbles in Mandy’s presence.

It’s important that the scary comedic character share some characteristics with the main characters. Mandy shares certain attributes with Kurtan and Kerry — she is basically childlike. This is revealed when she demonstrates an enthusiasm for collecting fluffy Meercat figurines.

But Mandy also has superpowers like a horror movie monster. This is introduced when we first meet her. She has superhuman levels of hearing.

 

TV Tropes calls this trope the Brawn Hilda.

THE PEER OUTCAST OPPONENT

Slugs — breathes through his mouth, laconic, vacant.

Sadly, the actor who played Sluggs died earlier this year. Like the fictional character he played, Michael Sleggs had a terminal illness. He was a friend of the Coopers.

The Peer Outcast Opponent is a character who might easily be part of ‘the gang’ but due to some complicated backstory the main characters of the story can’t stand them. As a result, there will be a long-running, petty feud which never resolves. The audience is kept at a distance to allow insight into this fact: There is really no ethical/moral hierarchy between these tribes — they fight precisely because they are so similar.

Here’s the important thing about writing peer outcast opponents: Whether they get there via sheer dumb luck or by hook and crook, these characters often achieve the upper hand over our main characters who despise them.

Other Examples oF OUTCAST OPPONENTS
  • Seinfeld’s Newman. Unlike Sluggs, Newman presents as a wily trickster. Sluggs is a hapless one.

  • In Freaks and Geeks there is a bully who is revealed to secretly wish he was part of their nerdy gang.

THE OFF-SCREEN CHARACTER

Kerry’s mum, Sue, who only ever shouts from her bedroom upstairs.

Sometimes she reveals a little about herself e.g. “You can [come in] but I haven’t got a stitch on”. She is constantly asking Kerry to do things like get rid of the mushrooms growing out of the cups in her bedroom, but we do know she comes down from the bedroom to perform basic parenting tasks because she makes dinners for Kerry and leaves them in the warmer. (We never see this, though.) The comedy comes mainly from Kerry and her mother yelling at each other from different parts of the house and failing to understand each other.

This off-screen character can have any function at all, but they are linked by virtue of the fact that you never see them. You only ever hear them or hear about them.

There is also a logistical reason why we never see Kerry’s mum — she is voiced by Daisy May Cooper, who is playing her own mother.

TV Tropes calls this The Voice.

Another variant is The Faceless. In common with the Mask, The Faceless trope is utilised in horror as much as in comedy, but to completely different effect. What we can’t see is scary. But the unseen can also be anything we like, including an effigy onto which we paste our own weaknesses. The horror version of this is Norman’s mother in Psycho. (It is often a mother, in both comedy and in horror.)

This trope is related to The Ghost. In horror the ghosts are often actual ghosts.

Other Examples OF OFF-SCREEN CHARACTERS
  • In Keeping Up Appearances, Hyacinth Bucket usually gets a call from their son Sheridan, who we learn, from Hyacinth’s one-sided conversations, is completely different from the son she boasts of to acquaintances. Sheridan is a not very smart, always after money and, in typically homophobic 1990s gags, presents as gay to everyone but his own mother. Technically, Sheridan is an example of The Ghost trope because we never hear his voice, either. Sheridan does eventually put in a brief and wordless appearance dressed in full motorcycle kit. His face remains hidden by his helmet.
  • In Home Improvement we never see the full face of Wilson, his sage next door neighbour. Partly this is funny because neighbours are like that in real life — we see parts of their lives without knowing the full person. Partly it works because of Wilson’s Godlike advice to Tim.

    Wilson’s un-shown lower face became a contractual gag. Originally, he just stood behind a fence on stage. As the show progressed, Wilson was shown out of the house more and set designers went to town finding ways to keep the portion of his face hidden with props. In all these cases, he was never shown, being obscured by at least three props in the scene as he moved around the set. When the cast would take their bows at the end of filming, Earl Hindman would hold a miniature section of fence made of tongue depressors in front of the lower part of his face. There was one time Wilson appeared without any props in front of his face…but it was a Halloween episode and his face was covered in skeleton makeup, to the point where Tim didn’t realize it was him until he’d already walked out of the scene.– TV Tropes

  • Sometimes the off-stage character does eventually make an appearance. In the I.T. Crowd that would be the Goth who haunts the adjacent office. The mystery of the Goth lasted only one episode in that case — he hadn’t been introduced as a long-running gag.

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF THIS COUNTRY

The Desire line of each episode is often instigated by Kurtan, who has a very handy character trait — he develops a new obsession every week. Sometimes it’s Kerry who wants something badly, like seeing the steam engine exhibition. They share the role of being the instigator of an episode’s desire line. Although Kerry is lazy and unmotivated, she nonetheless finds things to do, whether it’s making an imaginary world at the dump or taking it upon herself to educate her younger half-brothers in fighting. Sometimes it’s the vicar who has a task for them, for instance Tea-Time with seniors.

The Opposition comes from all quarters, but a uniting feature of Kerry and Kurtan’s opponents are that they are revealed to actually want the best for Kerry and Kurtan, and for the village. For instance, the Reverend wants Kurtan to go to Swindon college, which stands in opposition to Kurtan’s desire to stay in the village and protect Kerry. Kurtan is fired by his boss at the bowls club, which makes Kurtan carry out a (failed) revenge plan. The big reveal is that the boss turns up to offer him some new hours. He’s not the big, bad opponent Kurtan had turned him into; Kurtan tends to think the worst of people, misunderstanding intentions, overestimating his own importance in their lives. Even Mandy is all elbows and trousers. (We never actually see her punching the blind man.)

Plans are small, and the characters take these plans way more seriously than any sensible viewer would. I have a soft spot for stories about people who do feck all, who don’t have the resources to achieve their dreams, but who nonetheless seem to make the best of their situation. New Zealand’s Bro Town is similar in that regard — young people walking around making their own mischief and fun with the occasional input of adults.

Small plans with small returns emphasise the smallness of the storyworld. Winning the scarecrow competition is so important to Kurtan that he cheats, lies and thieves for it. And because these characters are low mimetic heroes (stupid ones) their plans don’t work out. But rather than come up with a new plan they tend to freeze, unable to come up with new ideas. When Kurtan discovers his old boss has changed the code to the bowling club he is unable to leave the bag of pig shit. We see him struggle with this, thinking hard, failing to come up with a replacement revenge. Finally, he toddles back home with the pig shit — the joke is on him.

For this reason (among many) I believe Kurtan and Kerry are fictional examples of neurodiversity.

Battle scenes are often a tantrum, with one character smashing an object then immediately calming down. Picture books are often written like this, too. (The Cat In The Hat gets a significant mention in the special episode after season two.)

The Self-revelation of a straight (non parody) story is often an optimistic, hopeful commentary on the nature of human kind. (Often but not always, of course.) In This Country, the expected Self-revelation tends to be subverted. For instance, at the beginning of Season Two, we are told a lot has changed since we last saw them. Kerry is on a do-gooder mission. But she is really being generous for the accolades. When she fails to receive the accolades, she decides that being generous is overrated. You just get taken advantage of. She she’s back to being her ungenerous self by the end of the episode.

Because the Self-revelations keep Kerry and Kurtan arrested in their development as adult human beings, the New Equilibrium shows us that the pair haven’t changed at all. That is the entire point. Once a comedic character achieves a character arc for the better, there is no longer series potential. And even when a lesson is learned, the character is unable to transfer that learning point to other, very similar situations.

 

 

 

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