Puns are often simple wordplay for comedic or rhetorical effect.
Puns are at the heart of “Dad Jokes”, though in Dad Jokes, the “dad” generally pretends he doesn’t understand the speaker’s intended meaning. The Dad feigns stupidity, the Victim knows he’s only playing stupid, and the joke succeeds if it elicits a groan from the Victim.
The Victim: “I’m hungry.” The Dad: “Hello, Hungry. Pleased to meet you.”
Both Victim and Dad understand that the victim needs to eat; the Dad pretends to believe the Victim’s name happens to be homophonous with the common adjective ‘hungry’.
Creepy Carrots (2012) is a picture book written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. For anyone wondering how to create a scary book for the very young reader without keeping them awake all night, this book is our masterclass in the horror-comedy blend.
First of all, the story is about carrots — a familiar, everyday food item not typically associated with horror. This story is therefore an inherently funny ironic juxtaposition.
CHORIC FIGURE: Any character in any type of narrative literature that serves the same purpose as a chorus in drama by remaining detached from the main action and commenting upon or explaining this action to the audience. I’ve also seen ‘choral commentator’ and guess it means the same thing.
It may be useful to think of choric figures in terms of a continuum rather than ‘choric commentators’ and all the other characters. That said, a ‘normal’ character can morph into a choric commentator. See below for an example from Charlotte’s Web.
At the ‘very choric’ end of that continuum we’ve got Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets, who literally sit in the audience. Whenever we see them, they are spatially removed from the ‘show’, and they remind the real audience that we are watching a show. Their commentary is therefore meta.
DESIGNATED NORMAL CHARACTERS IN COMEDIES
Then there’s Stevie Budd from Schitt’s Creek, the designated ‘normal’ character in a cast full of oddballs. In the final episode of one season of Schitt’s Creek, Stevie says that she feels like crying. She says this to ‘no one’ in particular; she says it to us, and Stevie’s emotion successfully evokes pathos in the audience. Importantly, Stevie Budd very much has a personality of her own, but if anyone’s going to be offering sarcastic commentary, it’ll be Stevie (and also David).
Jerry Seinfeld is the designated normal character of Seinfeld, and what he says, what he observes (as part of his stand-up routine) is a choric commentary on the absurdity of life, embodied by his friends and their disastrous dating escapades.
Jim and Pam of the The Office are not-exactly-subtle choric characters because the structure of the comedy allows characters to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly.
The Designated Normal character of This Country is the Vicar.
Basically, these choric characters say whatever the writers expect the audience might be thinking, or giving the sensible advice the audience would likely give, if this were a real life situation. The designated normal character is inherently relatable and very useful. Oddball characters can be alienating, and when an audience sees there’s a ‘normal’ person who loves them, this helps us to love them, too.
The Designated Normal character is also useful for various types of lampshading. “Now WHAT are you planning? Isn’t that utterly ridiculous?” The Designated Normal thereby functions to highlight the warped logic of the screwball characters, who must nevertheless run according to their own internal logic. Their internal logic must somehow be made apparent to an audience.
The Designed Normal character is also used as a Straight Man, of course. But we all understand the importance of the straight man.
THE SUBTLE END OF THE CHORIC CONTINUUM
Now for some much more subtle examples of choric characters.
I consider the ‘new kid in town’ (or the ‘new dead kid’ an example of a choric character in the sense that they are new to the situation and as baffled as the audience. There’s a good narrative reason why stories often begin with a character moving to a new house or to a new school. The narrator can realistically observe and comment upon the things they are seeing all around them, things which would be normal and non-noteworthy if they were already acclimatised to this particular setting.
Sometimes with a story on screen, it’s not so much in the writing as in the acting. Chloë Grace Moretz is known among critics for an acting style which often makes her seem alien in her fictional environment, as perplexed as we are. Her performance in If I Stay, based on the young adult novel by Gayle Forman, is a good example of that. She looks bewildered at events playing out before her. (She’s the perfect choice; she’s newly dead.) Like her audience, she is trying to work out what’s going on.
Now for a completely different kind of subtle chorus. In Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White there are not Statler and Waldorf commentators but in his Annoted Guide, Peter Neumeyer points out two choral commentators.
The first is Dr. Dorian, who tells Fern’s mother (and also the reader) that we should believe in magic such as animals talking in a barn. Wise owls are often used in this way by children’s book writers, though sometimes their wisdom is subverted (e.g. in Winnie-the-Pooh).
Next Charlotte takes his place by morphing into a choric commentator, though it’s very subtle.
“What’s inside it?” asked Wilbur. “Eggs?” “Five hundred and fourteen of them,” she replied.
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Perhaps the shift in Charlotte’s narrative use is because she’s approaching death.
There’s this idea that people approaching death have achieved some kind of greater insight into life matters in general. Whether this is true in reality is debatable, but in storytelling writers milk this idea. Hence, as Charlotte sees her impending death, she achieves The Overview Effect and is able to see ‘the circle of life’ and be content with it, guiding Wilbur through his Being-toward-death enlightenment in the process. (Her egg sac will let her achieve immortality.)
Characters approaching death are perhaps more often used by storytellers as choral commentators, even when previously they didn’t seem to have any advantageous insight into life matters.
Katherine Mansfield utilised a choric figure in her short story “Marriage a la Mode“. One of her characters creates witty titles for yet-to-be-made works of art. It’s unclear whether this character is being earnest or ironic, but that doesn’t matter. The effect on the reader is the same: Pointing out the ridiculousness of these artists for the reader.
Reaction shot. From the movies, a cutaway shift inside a bundle of narrative action which shows us the emotional or other responses of a character, usually a reader surrogate.
There are many ways of thinking about narration. Another continuum, oft talked about: the psychic distance continuum. In this post I’ve been talking about the distance between a particular, designated ‘audience/cast member’ character. This describes how that character emotionally aligns with the audience. (The relationship between character and audience.)
Psychic distance instead describes how fully a third-person, unseen narrator is inside a character’s head. (The relationship between narrator and character.) Psycho narration happens when a narrator is right inside a character’s head.
Commentators have used the words ‘dissonant’ and ‘consonant’ to describe the degree to which a narrator is inside a character’s head at any given moment, noting that it shifts as a story progresses. We might use those same words to describe the choric figure. Sometimes they seem like another ordinary member of the cast (dissonant), but the writer can jerk them partly off stage and use them as a proxy audience member if needs be (consonant).
I’m sure narratologists have talked about this but, heigh ho, this is how I think of it.
‘Man Bites Dog’ describes inversion humour. I’ve also seen ‘hat on a dog’ describing the same category of joke, in which the audience laughs because the usual way of things is back to front.
MAN BITES DOG IN JOURNALISM
Journalists also use ‘Man Bites Dog’ to describe stories that are popular because they intrigue via (often humorous) inversion. This is partly why news stories about ‘the first female rugby coach’ or ‘8-year-old codes his own traffic app’ are newsworthy in the first place; these stories are only news because a certain element is unexpected.
For some reason we commonly think of dogs when describing this category of joke. In Harald Skogsberg’s illustration below, a hare chases a dog through the woods. This is comical because for one reason only: in the real world, hounds chase hares instead. The Man Bites Dog gag is a single-layer joke.
In 2002 there was a news story in which a man literally bit a dog. Because the ‘Man Bites Dog’ trope already existed, this was now a double-layer joke.
MAN BITES DOG HUMOUR IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN
Although the hound and hare illustration above includes an audience of adults, children’s picture books are full of man bites dog gags, because preschoolers are yet to understand multi-layered humour such as satire, but will laugh their heads off if they see Dad put on Mum’s hat, for example. In this post I take a close look at the sorts of jokes enjoyed by child audiences at what ages, based on a taxonomy proposed by the co-founder of The Onion.
In order for Man Bites Dog gags to work, the audience needs an internalised schema of ‘expected normality’, and the comedian needs to make use of established norms in order to invert it. By making use of the established norm, the comedian further cements the established norm.
The illustration below is also by Harald Skogsberg, who lived through the 20th century. While a modern audience may not see the humour, it is partly humorous in its intent. A wife scolds a man, who is dressed as a housewife, and is clearly doing the wife expected of a housewife.
There is no better way to cement ideologies than by use of humour. The ideology reinforced within the illustration below: Housework is for wives, not husbands. The image aims to elicit a laugh, but also does the social work of reinforcing the idea that if husbands do their share of housework, they will appear ridiculous to onlookers and lose their status.
This is why Man Bites Dog gags can be so problematic. You might think that contemporary bestselling children’s books are free of the sort of mid-20th century humour depicted in the house husband image above. Unfortunately it hasn’t disappeared.
One of the most quietly problematic examples of gender inversion can be seen in The Day The Crayons Quiet by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. If it seems subtle, that’s only because we’re not looking back on our current era with the benefit of enlightened hindsight. Likewise, there are many, many children’s stories in which a man dresses as a woman, reinforcing the gender binary and all the rules around what proper masculinity and femininity should look like. (tl;dr If boys want to wear dresses, they will look ridiculous.)
The huge numbers of people buying The Day The Crayons Quit indicate that most adults are simply not seeing any problems with that book. I’m sure most mid-20th century audiences enjoying the humorous illustrations of Harald Skogsberg weren’t fully cognisant of his ideologies, either.
To tell 20th century audiences that Skogsberg was problematically sexist would’ve been like explaining water to a fish. And to tell
The Office started out in 2001 as a UK mockumentary devised by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I can’t enjoy the level of cringe executed by the UK cast, especially the Ricky Gervais boss, who make me want to curl into a ball due to transferred humiliation. But like many, many other viewers I love the concept. I soon turned to the American spin-off starring Steve Carell as boss Michael Scott. The American Office ran for nine seasons (2005-2013), which makes it one of the most successful comedy series in history. Mockumentaries enjoyed a new lease of life, leading to another favourite of mine, This Country.
Well, fast forward a few years and Australian kids now have their own cartoon series reminiscent of Peppa Pig. Bluey is made at Ludo Studio in Brisbane. There are currently about 60 people working on the show.
I no longer have a little kid in the house, but we both checked out Bluey on ABC iView, because a Twitter friend recommended it thusly:
Bluey is getting a 9.5/10 rating on IMDb and was nominated for an Emmy. Bluey is marvellous.
First, why does Bluey remind me of Peppa Pig? The nuclear family set-up is similar. Instead of pigs the family are dogs. Bluey is an Australian blue heeler, making this a specifically Australian show, but not so Australian that the series won’t garner an international audience. (Bluey could be any dog, because she is first and foremost a kid… a human child in an animal’s body.)
The art style is similar. Look at how both shows deal with aerial perspective (hint: It’s in the colour of the outlines.)
But the colour palette of Bluey is more appealing than that of Peppa Pig, and I wonder if Luke Pearson’s Hilda has been an influence.
Bingo and Bluey are 4 and 6 years old, the ‘social emotional developmental phase’, as described by Joe Blumm. He really likes this age because the kids are learning not so egocentric anymore. They want to play imaginative games but that involves other kids also having their input. The games temper their egocentricity. They need persistence to stay in those roles. The show is for that age. There’s no reading or anything like that, aimed at a more abstract age.
Blumm does not believe that kids are little adults. He wanted to create a show specifically for 4-6 year olds. His interest in psychology has clearly influenced his character development.
Family Life Realism
Another comparison is Olivia the Pig, but Bluey leaves Olivia in the dust. Bluey is clearly the brain child of people who know parenting and know kids. Ian Falconer (who wrote the original Olivia picture books) is not a parent himself and this shows in stories such as Olivia and the Missing Toy, in which I want to break the fourth wall and slap the pig parents. The actions of Olivia’s parents make no sense regarding Olivia’s character arc. In Bluey, the influence of good parenting has a direct effect on the child characters. This is realism.
Although the TV adaptation of Olivia no doubt included many parents on staff, to me it never ever reached the level of parenting realism achieved in Bluey, because the source material was lacking. Or maybe my perception of the Olivia series is partly coloured by the fact I’m not a rich New York parent. Perhaps the very Australian-ness of Bluey makes it feel like a more realistic portrayal of parenting to me (currently modern parenting in Australia).
But it’s more than that. Joe Brumm has two daughters, and the producer’s got two daughters and both his brothers have got two daughters. If you’re asking, “Why is Bluey a girl?” there’s your answer. But does the question really need to be asked? Why is it still so unusual to see a girl character without a massive pink bow telegraphing her gender smacked on top of her head?
What else makes Bluey feel ‘real’? (Code for ‘relatable’)
Integration of technology into family life
When Bluey wants to talk to her grandmother she simply calls up on the tablet. Granny doesn’t live in the same house, but she is only a call away. When Bluey and her father get back from the vet, distraught after finding a dying budgie, the mother is right there in the driveway waiting to offer comfort. It is clear that the father has called in advance to tell the mother what’s happened. This is how families are using technology.
In some ways story craft has become more difficult because of technology. How to put your fictional kids in real peril when parents are one phone call away? These kids are still too young to realistically carry mobiles, so there’s that. But my point here is that technology has also made story craft easier in some ways. The writers don’t need to show a retelling of the story to the mother, and no one would ask how she already knows.
MODERN PARENT-CHILD INTERACTIONS
Compare this show to any show from 15 years ago and you won’t find parents as realistically active and involved as these ones are. The parents in Bluey exist on the same hierarchy as the kids, but not in a way that subverts, in a carnivalesque way.
There is a long, long history of dispatching with parents in children’s stories but for modern kids, this won’t ring true. About half of the Bluey episodes include parents in the puppies’ imaginative play. I believe these are the best episodes, and my 11-year-old agreed. By including parents in the play, the writers are able to model more adult-like emotional literacy, and this show is very much about emotional literacy.
How do you apologise to someone (after leaving them out of a game)? How do you cope with being factually incorrect (about Grannies and flossing)? The parents are there to nudge the kids in the right direction.
Like any modern kids’ story, the lessons in Bluey are not taught overtly by the adults. The child characters receive prompting after being allowed to experience hard feelings on their own. At no point are they told that their bad feelings aren’t okay. It’s okay to be in a funk for the entire session at preschool. It’s okay to run out on a game if you need some time alone.
I was initially a little disappointed that it seemed the father constantly having fun with the kids (Mother as Female Maturity Formula, Dad as Doofus Fun Guy). But a few episodes in, the mother is shown participating in one of the kids’ games. Moreover:
Both mother and father make the bed, together (even though the mother is gently admonishing the father for some housework matter that supposedly didn’t happen yesterday)
The mother isn’t busy cooking dinner and waiting on the family while the dad has fun, like we often see in older stories. In the pilot episode of Bluey the mother is out at a baby shower (supposedly a fun social outing for her) while the rest of the family stay home and have fun of their own.
THE KIDS FEEL LIKE REAL KIDS
Bluey’s puppy characters are voiced by children, and these kids don’t sound like they came out of London’s most expensive elocution school. I don’t know how they did it, but it sounds naturalistic.
That said, it’s more than voice acting that achieves the sense that these puppies are ‘real kids’.
On Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes, the puppies are low-mimetic. They’re not tricksters. For example, one morning Bluey wakes up her father one morning and mimics everything he says and does. Eventually the father says, “My name is Bluey and I smell like a monkey’s butt!” Bluey isn’t savvy enough to NOT fall for that one, and the father good-naturedly ‘wins’. Fathers do tend to win these sorts of games, because fathers have been around longer.
There’s plenty of language humour in Bluey, with words specific to the show. These examples of familect (I’m guessing from the creator himself) are likely to become part of the wider cultural lexicon, much like ‘Yoink!’ and ‘Eat my shorts!’ from The Simpsons.
A lot of the jokes on this show are funny because they are relatable family moments. Family moments might be given its own terminology e.g. ‘a tactical wee’. Giving something ordinary a name is funny in its own right.
In “Copycat”, Bluey’s father observes she has finally stopped copying everything he says. Ironically, Bluey has learned how to deal with grief over a dead budgie and has been channelling him exactly in her make-believe game in which her younger sister refuses to die like the budgie did.
This medium lets creators play with an unlimited amount of cartoon violence but Bluey is restrained in that regard. Instead we enjoy physical comedy such as slipping on a can of beans or watching grandparents attempt the flossing dance move, and failing.
In episode one, the father has been twisting his daughter in rope swings, about to release her. When she asks him how babies get into their mothers’ bellies, he releases her for the spin to avoid answering the question.
If you like Bluey…
… and you are an adult viewer, check out We Bare Bears. This show is more squarely for an older audience, though I’m sure younger kids would be intrigued by it. The pace of talking will be too face for the 4-6 age group.
Burlesque is a type of entertainment that caricatures serious works. It is an extreme form of parody. Burlesque can be used as a verb i.e. to burlesque something. You might accidentally burlesque yourself by buying expensive tennis gear then turning up with no idea how to play, for instance.
Comedy derives from the contrast and juxtaposition. It also derives from the fact that someone with enough money to buy expensive gear is brought down a peg when it is revealed they don’t have superior skills to match their superior equipment.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BURLESQUE
The word derives from the Italian burlesco, in turn derived from burla — mockery. Starting in early 1700s Europe, ‘burlesque’ described musical works which juxtaposed and combined serious and comic elements. This achieved a grotesque effect.
‘Burlesque’ as a literary term became widespread in 17th century Italy and France, and later England. In literature, it was most popular during the Victorian era.
Today ‘burlesque’ is still used in music to indicate a bright or high-spirited mood, sometimes in contrast to seriousness.
Burlesque overlaps in meaning with caricature, parody and travesty and, in its theatrical sense, with extravaganza.
In modern usage, it can also mean a kind of striptease. What has this on-stage striptease got to do with the original meaning of the word? This entertainment is more properly called ‘American Burlesque’, a genre of variety show popularised in the late 1800s. The style derived from the ideas of Victorian burlesque, but by the 1900s it had evolved into a combination of satire, comedy, striptease, and musical theatre. It seems the striptease was the most popular part of this ‘variety show’, and now it’s the main thing left.
In modern popular culture, the most commonly represented form of burlesque in film and television is the parody. In fact, parodies have a massive presence in the popular film industry, especially films which parody older films.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF BURLESQUE?
Burlesque has two distinct functions: to elevate or denigrate. 17th and 18th century burlesque was divided into two types: high and low. One elevates — the other denigrates.
A literary, elevated manner is applied to a commonplace or comically inappropriate subject matter. A high burlesque ‘elevates’.
A shift from formal diction to a more direct and colloquial register might indicate high burlesque. The song below takes a music style from an earlier, more formal era (at least in the modern imagination) and eventually reveals itself to be about something slightly shocking.
(I had previously used the phrase ‘low brow’, then learned via the American Hysteria — @AmerHysteria — podcast that the terms ‘high brow’ and ‘low brow’ come from eugenics, and the idea that rich white Europeans had higher brow ridges. Much of our language is rooted in racism.
Low burlesque applies an irreverent, mocking style to a serious subject. It denigrates its subject. Also known as ‘Mocking satire‘.
Burlesque literature is much more than entertainment. It has been a major literary and dramatic technique for social activism and commentary for thousands of years; using humour to attract attention to serious and unresolved issues in society.
Burlesque can be used as a way to deliver opinions and messages to encourage change and awareness, all by presenting information through comedy that is often outrageous, unusual, and vulgar.
HOW DOES BURLESQUE HUMOUR WORK?
Burlesque makes audiences laugh because of the gap between the content and the form (the style and the substance).
Burlesque relies on the audience having prior knowledge about its subject — the writer assumes that the audience will understand the context and the theme.
Any time you see a style of narration which juxtaposes form and style, you’re dealing with burlesque comedy. For instance, a narrator might switch from formal diction to a direct and colloquial register, sometimes before the end of a sentence. The juxtaposition amuses. In novels, free indirect discourse is an excellent tool for authors who’d like to make use of burlesque humour in the narration.
Note that stories featuring cannibalism are often an indicator of burlesque sensibility.
a glass of water next to the bed, and a conically shaped bedside lamp
a large, warm kitchen with 1950s appliances (e.g. the chrome toaster, which has since come back into fashion, but has a retro feel)
It has become clear in 2019, with the publication of Mercy’s origin story, that this is not literally 1950s America. Chris Van Dusen was charged with the task of drawing a cute, young, highly loveable pig, and in one interview admits that he initially forgot to age-down Mr and Mrs Watson. He subsequently put sideburns on Mr Watson and gave Mrs Watson a fringe. This suggests it was the 1970s when Mercy was young, which actually makes this 1980s America. (How long do pigs live? This is getting depressing… Okay, I looked it up: 15-20 years. Could be the 1990s.)
Apart from all that, the following image is reminiscent of American TV shows from the 1950s and 60s, which made use of split screen. We rarely see split screen used today unless the filmmaker is deliberately evoking a mid-20th century vibe. (More correctly, the split screen has evolved. You could say we’re living in the age of the split screen — so often we are watching TV while simultaneously on the Internet.)
Even the cartoon convention of ‘screech’ zig-zags emerging from the toaster is reminiscent of Superhero comics from the Cold War era.
A GENUINE UTOPIA
Even in a genuine utopia, something exciting must happen. The storyteller’s challenge is to create the frisson of excitement while preserving the cosy, safe environment.
How does Kate diCamillo achieve that? First, she opens with a cosy goodnight scene. You can’t get much more reassuring than this:
Mr. Watson and Mrs. Watson have a pig named Mercy. Each night, they sing the pig to sleep. Then they go to bed. “Good night, my dear,” says Mr. Watson. “Good night, my darling,” says Mrs. Watson. “Oink,” says Mercy.
the opening to Mercy Watson Fights Crime
Chris Van Dusen’s illustration reinforces the love that the Watsons feel for their pig — they’ve even had Mercy’s initial inscribed into her bed head. But look again. Look at the shadows. You could argue that, well, of course the shadows must be there — if the illustration contains a light source, then there must be shadows. But every single thing in an illustration is on purpose. Nothing existed here before the blank page. That strong shadow which falls across the bed? That’s ‘The Other Parents’ a la Coraline. A shadow that strong and defined gives the illustration an exciting, menacing vibe. Van Dusen could easily have made that bedspread light orange and it would’ve looked fine. The addition of that shadow is a master stroke.
Compare with the next bedroom scene — a simple one-point perspective, which is a useful layout when the illustrator wants to avoid any scary art noir associations. In the illustration below, Mercy has heard a noise from downstairs. She’s not scared at all because she hears the toaster screech and thinks someone is making toast.
Notice how Van Dusen has avoided casting the bedroom in darkness. Yet no one has switched the light on. The brightly-lit bedroom is an outworking of Mercy’s state of mind ie. not worried one bit. And if Mercy’s not worried, readers needn’t worry either.
The shadow which does exist is of Mercy’s own head —comical rather than menacing.
Leroy Ninker is a small man with a big dream: he wants to be a cowboy. But for now he’s just a thief. In fact, Leroy is robbing the Watsons’ kitchen right this minute! As he drags the toaster across the counter—screeeeeech—and drops it into his bag—clannngggg—little does he know that a certain large pig who loves toast with a great deal of butter is stirring from sleep. Soon a comedy of errors (not to mention the buttery sweets in his pocket) will lead this little man on the wild and raucous rodeo ride he’s always dreamed of!
Importantly, Leroy is not very smart. (Not sure how much he thinks toasters fetch on the black market.)
He personifies objects and can’t work out how to get out of the house without disturbing a sleeping pig. More than that, he’s burgling someone’s house and doesn’t seem to realise he should leave the scene afterwards rather than ride around on a pig!
Leroy is also endearing because of his imaginative capacity. While riding Mercy, we are told he imagines riding a dangerous bucking horse. He’s a Walter Mitty character — harmless, with big ideas about himself. This ability to sink into a paracosm is also his downfall.
Ostensibly, Leroy wants to steal items from other people’s houses. This is the outworking of a deeper desire, which is to imagine himself a fearsome, respected and tough bandit, reminiscent of the fantasy of the Wild West.
Let’s consider Leroy as Opponent here for a moment.
Leroy Ninker is introduced in an ominously tinted scene. This is the archetypal robber, with the eye mask, the sack flung over his back. These would make him generic, much like the robbers in Walter The Farting Dog, in which generic robbers are useful. But diCamillo is turning the robber himself into a comedic character, and a comedic character requires a distinguishing feature or two. Kate diCamillo has made use of a mash-up of archetypes to arrive at a unique man:
archetypal child who wants to grow up to be a cowboy.
Leroy is basically a Cat In The Hat character, who turns up when he isn’t meant to and wreaks havoc. While wreaking havoc, the child viewpoint character (Mercy) has a lot of fun.
Before she lets Mercy have fun, diCamillo reveals Leroy as an unthreatening character, despite his sticky fingered ways. He contains several layers of comic irony:
A small man with a big hat (in which the hat symbolises his self-importance)
He makes plenty of noise himself while telling the toaster to be quiet
He has sticky fingers both literally and metaphorically, because his favourite food is butterscotch.
But what about the enduring opponent of Eugenia Lincoln next door? It’s a rule of this setting that the sisters must appear at one point, in which the narration switches point of view. It’s also necessary for the plot to work, because Leroy turns out to be Mercy’s comrade in fun.
Leroy will break into Mercy’s house and see if he can get away with stealing things. He will wear his cowboy costume because this is basically cosplay.
His Plan looks set to fail when Mercy trots downstairs thinking someone is making toast. Instead, expectations are foiled, because Mercy doesn’t realise this guy is a burglar. How does diCamillo turn this into a comedic situation? First there’s the comedic obliviousness — characters who don’t realise what we realise are always laughable (dramatic irony). But on top of that, diCamillo slows the pacing right down. Narratologists would say the story is set to ‘pause’.
One way a writer can achieve that is by saying what is not happening. This was pointed out to by by Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. Mercy sees that there is no toaster, no bread and no butter. But she wholly fails to see what IS there; she is single-mindedly fixated on buttered toast.
In a carnivalesque story, the ‘Battle’ is an episode of extreme fun. Here it is the comedic sight of a tiny bandit cowboy riding a pig, all the while thinking he’s an actual cowboy.
Comedy is heightened when we are shown other characters enjoying the spectacle with us. Eugenia and Baby come in handy for that — they are functioning not so much as Opponents but as the two old men from The Muppet Show who make sardonic comments about everyone else in their vicinity.
The characters experience no anagnorisis because this is a comedic story in which the characters remain less knowledgeable about their situation than the readers, who have seen a broader picture. We’ve seen Mercy going to bed, the inside of Eugenia and Baby’s home, the arrival of the robber and the conversations between the police officers. This is true omniscient narration, and keeps the reader in audience superior position, feeling smart.
The revelation is simply a conclusion of fun. If we haven’t realised immediately we now know that Leroy’s penchant for butterscotch is going to be his downfall, because Mercy will accost him for it. Significantly, diCamillo made sure to ‘casually’ mention (twice) that Leroy enjoys butterscotch. (I was very slow on the uptake and didn’t even connect butterscotch sweets to Mercy’s love of buttered toast.) By the time we see Mercy on top of Leroy we’re wondering what she’s after. Then all is revealed: She’s sniffed out the treats!
We might assume Leroy is taken to prison, though subsequent tales in the off-shoot series reveal that Leroy finds gainful employ at the cinema. The rule of this series is that everyone sits down to enjoy buttered toast. Order has been restored.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Some people enjoy wine and food pairing — I enjoy pairing children’s stories with stories for adults. Compare Mercy Watson Fights Crime with “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” by John Cheever.
“Beer Trip To Llandudno” is the mythic journey of a group of middle-aged men, ostensibly on an ale-tasting expedition, metaphorically on a life journey towards death. This short story is included in Barry’s Dark Lies The Island collection (2012).
Kevin Barry won The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2012 for this particular story and I’m feeling pleased with myself because I immediately spotted the genius in this one, without knowing about the award.
Here’s Kevin Barry interviewed soon after learning he’d won it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxPfnMVysb0
(It’s interesting to hear Barry say that he writes 10-12 short stories a year but only one or two of those will be good enough for publication. Therefore, one collection every five years is about the right pace for a short story writer.)
Like a number of Alice Munro stories, “Beer Trip To Llandudno” involves a plot in which two characters meet after a long absence. It is a surprise to find the other has aged. There’s nothing more confronting as a reminder that you, yourself, have aged equally (or worse).
When a story’s main characters are in their forties, they often experience a second Being-toward-death realisation. I’m in my forties myself, so I see how it happens. I lost my first friend to health reasons at the age of 40. And I was saying to a same-aged bloke the other day, things start breaking down when you’re 40. He agreed: “I’ve never been to the doctor so much I have in the past two years.” I ran this idea past my own doctor. She said, “Yes, 40 is a defining age.”
And one of the last things my 40-year-old friend posted to Facebook before he died was a meme that went something like, “Welcome to your forties. If you’ve been lucky to make it this far without anything wrong with you, just wait. You’re about to get something.” Matt died a year ago today as I write this.
I’ve so far been lucky in the health stakes — health is always a temporary state of being — but I wasn’t six months forty when I realised I can’t play tennis anymore without proper warm-ups. Learnt that the hard way. This second Being-toward-death moment reminds us that there’s nothing we can do to stave off death — death is coming for us no matter what. Life also seems to speed up around this time. (I’m told it only gets quicker.)
What would Heidegger call the middle-aged equivalent of Being-toward-death? The characters in Kevin Barry’s “Beer Trip To Llandudno” are overweight, heavy drinkers, strangers to exercise. All of that is right there on the page. By the end of the story the narrator realises he’s no longer youthful. Perhaps Heidegger would call this life stage ‘Being-significantly-closer-toward-death’, or the German equivalent thereof.
Psychologists speak of Death Anxiety. This is very different from the young adult realisation that death will come for you (eventually) because life’s possibilities have yet closed off to you. Perhaps this is that.
STORYWORLD OF “BEER TRIP TO LLANDUDNO”
It’s summer. The temperature doesn’t seem outlandish compared to where I live here in Australia, but it’s easy to forget that the late 30s with humidity is pretty unbearable, especially when the buildings have been built for warmth rather than for cooling.
Seasons are highly symbolic in storytelling — sometimes ironically so. Summer, in its non-ironic meaning, symbolises youth, health, vitality, the ‘best times’, where fun memories are made. These guys are out together hoping to non-ironically create their own summery excursion, making new memories, behaving like lads.
But the summer symbolism is ironic in this one. The heat is not fun but oppressive now. In contrast to the oiled limbs of the young women they see on their travels, the heat only makes their arses ‘manky’. They take off their shirts and reveal their overweight, middle-aged, beer-swilling bodies — throughout the story they are described as pigs.
On the pig theme, they stop in at some pub to rate some famously good pork scratchings. What became of those particular pigs? Pays not to think about it, but the imagery of death is right there in the (gallows) humour, and in the motif of the pig.
Aigburth station — ‘offered a clutch of young girls in their summer skimpies’
Birkenhead — ‘shimmered across the water. Which wasn’t like Birkenhead.’
Cheshire — ‘We had dark feelings about Cheshire that summer. At the North West Beer Festival, in the spring, the Cheshire crew had come over a shade cocky. Just because they were chocka with half-beam pubs in pretty villages.’
Flint Castle — where Bolingbroke was backed into a corner
Abergele — the men run out of beer
the Penrhyn sands
Little Ormes Head
Llandudno (North Wales)
The Heron Inn — an anticlimax, ‘a nice house, lately refurbished, but mostly keg rubbish on the taps
The beach — they walk past it, thronging with youth
Prom View Hotel — by now it is ‘dogs-dying-in-parked-cars weather’. This is where Mo meets his old flame.
The Mangy Otter — with the good pork scratchings. The carpet has diamonds and crisps ground into it. The men decide to linger here. Big John remembers a beer from when he was sixteen years of age. This pub symbolises middle age — you start to look back on your youth and you’re afraid to go on further, for example to a pub with Crippled in the name…
The Crippled Ox on Burton Square — ‘TV news shows sardine beaches and motorway chaos. There was an internet machine on the wall.’ (What era is this? Before smart phones, I take it — early 2000s?) They talk about how Mo has let himself go. The narrator recalls a ‘screaming barney with the missus’. Billy says they won’t be suffering from the heat much longer as there’s a change due. Thinking of hot nights, the narrator says he’s inclined to get up and watch astrophysics documentaries on BBC2 — this is him getting older and being able to take in the larger view. Mo turns up with scratch marks down his cheek.
Henderson’s on Old Parade — the men originally plan to head here but change their minds after Mo’s reappearance.
The train back home — Mo talks about how they ‘turn around’ and the girl is 43.
Connah’s Quay — Tom N notices new buildings since last time he passed through here. We learn that Tom N has been put on the sex offender’s register.
Out Speke way — terrace rows with cookouts on the patios. ‘Tiny pockets of glassy laughter’ heard ‘through the open windows of the carriage. Families and what-have-you.’
Liverpool — ‘you’re not back in the place five minutes and you go sentimental as a famine ship.’
The Lion Tavern
the Grapes (of Wrath)
CHARACTERS IN “BEER TRIP TO LLANDUDNO”
The comedy of “Beer Trip to Llandudno” derives from the futility of the mission juxtaposed with the seriousness of the characters. A similar comedic set-up can be seen in the TV series Detectorists, in which the outsider (the audience) is encouraged to laugh at characters who take metal-detecting so seriously that in-group factions develop. In “Beer Trip To Llandudno” who cares what these men think about the beer and how the rating system is set up? They do, is all.
Stories about in-groups with shared hobbies have a few things in common:
The main characters care A LOT about their passion
These stories tend to star men who will never be alpha males, so they get together to be the alphas of their own, separate worlds.
Everyone else in the setting cares not a jot.
A few of the opponents are actively dismissive. Often those dismissive characters will be women and girls. (In Detectorists, one of the characters observes that women seem to be immune to obsessions. I disagree, but that does describe the stereotype expressed across the oeuvre of these stories.)
The male main characters are often blatantly sexist. They can’t be alpha men, but at least they’re not women. Asexual archetypes are also pretty common.
It’s true that most comedies involve an element of ‘niche passion’. The characters in The I.T. Crowd, for instance, have highly specialised knowledge of computers. Joey from Friends has a thing about sandwiches. Kramer from Seinfeld seems to have developed a new obsession every episode (soup, fruit, etc.).
The main characters of these stories must know a lot about their subject matter, which means a tonne of research by the writer. These characters often know little about anything else, and lead chaotic lives.
On screen the roles will be played by ‘character actors’ (or the literary equivalent). No leading men here. They have little social capital outside their own limited subculture.
If they lose their subculture of friends they are left with very little. Remaining part of the gang is everything. Exclusion is a type of death. (That happens in this story.)
Within the subculture there will be constant jostling for hierarchy. This serves to show the audience that the human wish for power and social capital is a part of the human condition, and happens at every level. These stories remind us that whatever power big struggle we are involved in, it looks ridiculous to anyone with a wider, birds’ eye view. Such comedies lend themselves well to dark commentary on death, because the audience asks, What am I doing with my life? Are my daily interpersonal big struggles life and death matters?
As mentioned in the interview above, others have pointed out that each of the men fulfils a role within the ‘family’ of friends. ‘We were family to Mo when he was up at the Royal…’
The Members Of Real Ale Club, Merseyside Branch. One thing that connects them is that they don’t approve of lagers, or of anyone who drinks them.
Narrator — Well-prepared and knows what’s what with his Illustrated Guide to Britain’s Coast
Mo — the child, asking questions about the route (rather than looking it up himself); interested in the roller coasters and water skiing. Down a testicle since spring (emasculating him)
Tom Neresford — stomach troubles. Has never been far. Has been put on the sex offenders’ register. (I’m inclined to think this was for a good reason, unlike the interpretation of his mates, who prefer to think of it as a miscarriage of justice.)
Everett Bell — ‘wasn’t inclined to take the happy view of things’. Knows a lot e.g. about history and Shakespeare. “My brother got the house, my sister got the money, I got the manic depression.” ‘Half mad’
Billy Stroud — ‘the ex-Marxist’, ‘involved with his timetables’, has an earpiece in, listening for the news and the weather. He is the organiser, and therefore I take it he’s the ‘mother’ of the group. Cemented when he says that cold stuff makes you hotter overall because it makes the body work harder — he seems to be the one organising the food as well as any logistics. However, he is also described as ‘innocent’. Perhaps he is one of the children?
John Mosely / Big John — ‘if there was a dad figure among us it was Big John with his know it all interruptions’. Decides when it’s time for the group to move on. Jobless for the past 18 months.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEER TRIP TO LLANDUDNO”
“Beer Trip To Llandudno” is your classic mythic journey. In story, train trips are often symbolic of the one-way ticket through life. Typical of a road trip journey, the characters in “Beer Trip To Llandudno” (chosen family) jockey for position with their own minor conflicts, but meet true opponents along the way. By the end of the story the main character will have come to some realisation, and home will never be the same again. In this case, our ‘main character’ is the first person narrator.
My wife and I were living in Liverpool at the time and the heating in our flat was really terrible. So we had no option but to go to a pub across the road called The Lion Tavern of an evening—just to keep warm, you understand. It was a real ale pub and the local branch of CAMRA [the Campaign for Real Ale] was often in there. And one night I went up to the bar and there was a newsletter about recent outings by this group of ale enthusiasts and I just thought, “Fucking gift,” you know? A beer club’s outing gives the perfect shape for a story.
The companions are allies for the main part, but there’s niche in-fighting regarding his dual roles on the committee.
The main opposition comes from the people they meet who remind the men that they are no longer young.
Mo’s old-flame Barbara is the stand-out opposition, therefore, because she has aged. ‘A lively blonde, familiar with her forties but nicely preserved, bounced through from reception.’ Notice how the men notice her age. The narrator says ‘but’ instead of ‘and’ in that sentence. It’s easy to see how a woman has aged; not so easy to turn the mirror back on yourself if you’re a man. (When asked, women tend to say we begin to feel old at age 29; for men it is 58.)
The young women also remind these men that they are old. They admire the girls’ bodies knowing they can’t have them. (Although perhaps one of them hasn’t realised that — which might explain why he’s on the sex offender’s list.)
The men have planned a journey through Welsh pubs. Their task is to rate beer and snacks.
The running argument (comedic for its triviality) is that the narrator should not be holding two positions in Ale Club, outings and publications. Finally he steps down from writing the newsletter. We know this is the main Battle scene because it directly precedes his Anagnorisis. He has lost the big struggle to keep both roles and ends up getting rid of them both.
First I want to talk about Kevin Barry’s preferred narration in relation to the Anagnorisiss experienced by his storyteller narrators.
The first person voices in a Kevin Barry story are so realistic I have to remind myself it’s not the author narrating — it’s an invented character. Generally, these narrators are able to step back and view their own intradiegetic selves as comedic characters, along with the rest of the crew. This particular narrator fits that description. How is he able to step outside himself? Because he’s gained enough perspective over the course of this particular story that he is able to see himself as a flawed individual.
Sometimes one of the more difficult decisions when writing our own short stories is choosing the style of narration. First person? Third person (close)? Third person (distant)? If, like Kevin Barry, you want your main character to have stepped back and seen the comedic, human side of themselves by the end of the story, this first person narration works well.
Of course, this particular Anagnorisis is all connected to the realisation that he’s not young anymore, but I went into that up top.
What does the narrator do, which tells us, the reader, he has achieved that particular realisation? Well, he steps down from his role as newsletter writer. He can’t face writing any more obituaries.
In short, the narrator has developed Existential Death Anxiety over the course of one day out with the ‘boys’. In order to reach this point, it is said you need the following three things, and since the brain is still developing until about age 25-30, these milestones generally only come with middle age:
a full awareness of the distinction between self and others
By stepping down as the writer of obituaries, sometimes of very young men (around the same age as these characters), the narrator is turning away from death. And for now, that is how he will cope with it.
This is the difference between the 40s and the 80s — not many octogenarians are able to turn away from their own impending deaths — they’ll have lost too many peers. Their own health has deteriorated and they feel it keenly. A story about 80 year olds would feel quite different from this one.
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.
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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcQtilmZeU4
Kerry is very naive and insular. It would seem she’s never left her tiny Cotswold village. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piXcsnA5cJ0
She is at times very stupid, but this is lovable because she doesn’t take herself seriously. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bISOmcPa0MA
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 hierarchy — 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.
Feckless main characters with very obvious moral shortcomings 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). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFh_IhFNKFM
These scary characters will have over-the-top attributes — even more so than the main characters. But they wear their Shortcomings 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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcoDWApChLA
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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcnGNez9udw
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.
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 shortcomings. 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 setting. 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 Anagnorisis 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 Anagnorisis 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 Anagnorisiss keep Kerry and Kurtan arrested in their development as adult human beings, the New Situation 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.