Creepy Carrots by Reynolds and Brown

Creepy Carrots book cover

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.

Continue reading “Creepy Carrots by Reynolds and Brown”

Choric Figures In Contemporary Storytelling

Statler and Waldorf

WHAT IS A CHORIC FIGURE?

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.

USEFUL TERM

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.

Glossary of Words Useful When Critiquing Science Fiction

RELATED

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 Humour

‘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.

Harald Skogsberg hare chases hound

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

FURTHER READING

Subversion in storytelling: How is it done?

The US Office Character Studies

The Office poster

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.

Continue reading “The US Office Character Studies”

Burlesque In Storytelling

Charles Green - Her First Bouquet

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.

High Burlesque

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 very low brow and slightly shocking.

Low Burlesque

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.

EXAMPLES

Note that stories featuring cannibalism are often an indicator of burlesque sensibility.

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey
  • A parody of gothic fiction
  • Heroine Catherine Morland is a young woman with a vivid imagination. The author suggests this is caused by her love of gothic novels.
  • Austen is mocking the popular Victorian view that literature could cause unrealistic ideas as a result of reading fiction (especially in young women).
  • Today, Jane Austen’s work itself is parodied e.g. Pride, Prejudice and Zombies  (2009) by Seth Grahame-Smith. 
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  • A parody of the 1978 cult classic Dawn of the Dead
  • Makes fun of the zombie flick genre by mimicking its style in an exaggerated way.
Not Another Teen Movie
  • This movie takes teen movie tropes and plays them for laughs.
  • There’s an entire category of film spoofs, spoofing other movies: Epic Movie, Austin Powers, Tropic Thunder.
  • Scary Movie makes fun of serious but unrealistic teen horror films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

MYTHOLOGICAL BURLESQUE

This term refers to Greek and Roman 4th century comedy. These comedies burlesqued traditional Greek mythical stories. They did very well in the Athenian theatre, especially between 400 and 340 BCE.

FEATURES OF THE MYTHOLOGICAL BURLESQUE
  • Comedians refashioned well-known mythical tales according to the model of their contemporary Athenian society. This is now known as “Atticisation).
  • The marvellous motifs of myths were given the rational treatment
  • If marvellous motifs were kept, they were placed in a fully urbanised environment. This produced ludicrous incongruity.
  • Comedians applied standard genre story structures to mythical material, so now mythical beings were seen as stereotyped stage figures in comic love plots. They were given happy endings.

Header painting: Charles Green – Her First Bouquet

Mercy Watson Fights Crime by Kate diCamillo

“Mercy Watson Fights Crime” is book number three in the Mercy Watson series by Kate diCamillo, first published 2006. This series is beautifully illustrated by Chris Van Dusen.

SETTING OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME

Where in America is this series set? Based only on fictional representations, this feels Southern to me. (Do Americans get that? I have to guess.)

ERA

This is archetypal, mythical 1950s America, in which happiness consists of a wife at home wearing an apron making everyone lots of delicious food. The houses are large, the gardens manicured.

What do I mean by ‘archetypal, mythical 1950s’? Picture books are not exact depictions of real homes. When it comes to picture books, illustrations will likely include:

  • wooden beds with sturdy bed beads and foot boards
  • a chair in the bedroom
  • 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.)

A split screen from Pillow Talk, 1959

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.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME

Marketing copy centers Opponent Leroy Ninker as the main character, with lots of fun onomatopoeia:

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!

from the Teacher’s Guide issued by Candlewick Press

I believe Leroy is the main character of this story, so will break down the structure accordingly. This is also a carnivalesque story, which has its own specific structure.

SHORTCOMING

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.

DESIRE

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.

OPPONENT

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 robber
  • 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.

PLAN

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.

BIG STRUGGLE

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.

ANAGNORISIS

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!

NEW SITUATION

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.

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. 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.

TV Tropes calls this Beware The Nice Ones.

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

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. 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.

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 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.

The Socially Aspiring Woman Comedy Trope

socially aspiring woman Hyacinth Bucket and her husband Richard

Recently the Woman’s Hour podcast talked about a gendered comedy trope which I’d never really noticed was gendered: the socially aspiring, snobbish female.

Hyacinth Bucket is a standout example, along with:

  • Linda Snell from The Archers
  • Audrey fforbes-Hamilton from To The Manor Born
  • Margo from The Good Life (Penelope Keith is especially good at playing these characters)
  • Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) from Keeping Up Appearances
  • Sybil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers
  • Doreen from Birds of a Feather

In literature, Britain has several archetypal socially climbing women:

  • Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair
  • Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice

These women living in the 1800s had no choice but to be socially climbing, because for them, living in a patrimony, marrying well was a matter of life or death.

Although the trope is very old, the socially climbing female a little out of fashion at the moment. Note that those sit-com examples listed above are concentrated in the 1970s and 80s.

The standout modern example in England right now is Pauline from Mum, written by Stefan Golaszewski, who grew up on those older sit-coms. However the tone of Mum is quite different. Margo can laugh at herself on The Good Life, but Mum is ‘impenetrable’.

We do still see them as a part of a wider cast in a show starring a different kind of comedic character. Fleabag’s step mother (from Fleabag) is another modern example of the socially aspiring woman.

You tend to see these women in the following situations:

  • She affects an accent which she perceives to be higher class, but gets it wrong.
  • She is completely self-absorbed and blind to other people’s wishes.
  • Her fashion choices are over the top, whatever that means for her milieu. Her choices are perceived by the actual powerful class as kitsch (‘stuff other people unaccountably like’)
  • There will be something about her home environment which stands out as very ‘her’. With Hyacinth it is her home decor, full of flowers and perfectly dusted. She’s often holding a duster.
  • There will be a skeleton in the closet which comes off in each episode to great comedic effect. This is the ‘mask coming off’ comedy trope.
  • If she’s a mother she’s either overbearing or distant.
  • This is a white and heterosexual archetype.
  • If she’s married, her husband is henpecked and mild-mannered.
  • She is disgusted by people who she perceives as lower rank than herself.
  • These women strive to be powerful (that’s their Desire) but they are not in fact powerful. They therefore surround themselves in people who are less powerful than themselves. They may have a kind of lackey best friend.
  • As you can probably tell, her psychological shortcoming and moral shortcoming is perfectly set up and inherent to the trope — she feels inferior and she steps all over others in an attempt to rise above her own station.
  • This lackey best friend (or neighbour, or sister) will be a ‘see saw’ character, who is very, very nice and a people pleaser. Other people pleasers are vicars, postmen, people working in service industries, and they all tend to crop up to allow this woman full comedic flight. It’s not as fun to watch her come up against someone with more power than herself because we don’t really want to see her get quashed, but in a show such as To The Manor Born, it is satisfying to see Richard, with far more actual power, afford her a certain respect.
  • It may be necessary for the audience to feel a little sorry for these women, in lieu of actively ‘liking’ them. We will usually be shown her ‘behind the scenes’ self. That might be the character without her make-up, with her hair looking wild; her poor relations; her economically destitute situation.
  • The archetype rests upon the stereotype that women are impossible to please; flighty, capricious — for husbands there is ‘no winning’. These women are insatiable, unable to be satisfied, so you shouldn’t even try. Pacifying her is your best bet. This stereotype can be deployed with much malice or less — the degree of sexism depends partly on how it is written.
  • She is commonly depicted as gabbing into the telephone. This plays on the wider cultural idea that women and telephones make natural companions, because women do love to chat! Hyacinth Bucket and Sybil Fawlty are frequently depicted using the telephone. In both cases, the telephone is associated with a memorable catch phrase, “Oh I knoooow!” and “It’s Bouquet.”
The Call Country Gentleman Magazine, March 25 1932. Art by J.F. Kernan.
The Call Country Gentleman Magazine, March 25 1932. Art by J.F. Kernan. Since telephones made their way into homes, women were seen as enthusiastic (slightly crazed) up-takers of this new technology while their laconic husbands stood by, failing to understand why their wives needed to gab so damn much.

Despite the prevailing view that talking by telephone was frivolous, and favoured by women, the telephone became a key technology the telephone became a key instrument in keeping people connected during the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918-1920. Initially seen as a luxury, the telephone quickly became a necessity.

THE SOCIALLY ASPIRING WOMAN IN AUSTRALIA

Australian audiences understand this comedy trope perfectly. Our own standout example is Kim from Kath and Kim. Kim is stupid rather than wily, which is what keeps her in her position of no power.

However, it is said on Woman’s Hour that this trope is a specifically British one which we don’t really see much in America. The closest example they could think of was Monica from Friends, who aspires to have everything tidy, but it’s not really the same thing.

THE SOCIALLY ASPIRING WOMAN IN AMERICA

Why don’t we see much of this woman as a comedy trope in America? Probably because social climbing is actively encouraged. Why would you not aspire to have more capital, economically, socially and otherwise?

I do think America has a related trope: the woman who wants to be more sexually alluring than she is perceived by those around her. It’s the Bouquet/Bucket dichotomy only in relation to sexuality. This gag only works if the woman in question is not perceived by the audience as sexually alluring, in the same way the Bucket joke doesn’t work unless we all read B.U.C.K.E.T. as ‘bucket’. The actress who plays her cannot conform too well to the Western female beauty standard.

Sometimes the character is indeed sexually alluring by everyday standards, but that’s the only nice thing about her. Every other attribute is exaggeratedly terrible. Regina George from Mean Girls is the stand out example of that. We see this archetype in British comedy as well, for example Jen’s insistence on wearing too-small shoes in The I.T. Crowd.

However, I do think America is starting to embrace this comedic archetype, perhaps because the culture is starting to question the American story that everyone can rise above their station given enough work.

I’m thinking of Moira Rose of Schitts Creek, whose accent is a comedic affectation. This character considers herself queen of the town despite being widely disliked. However, Moira Rose does have an admirably wide vocabulary:

Moira owns a vast collection of precious wigs, which is the classic trope of putting a headdress on yourself as a ‘crowning’ glory. Moira is a very camp character as well — she revels in putting on ‘the mask’, and knows exactly what she’s doing. Someone like Hyacinth Bucket doesn’t seem to realise she’s wearing a mask at all.

Perhaps Moira Rose is the modern, ’empowered’ version of the socially aspiring woman: she has no power, but she takes it anyway, knowing no one is about to give it to her for free.

circa 1910 Little Peggy O'Moore
circa 1910 Little Peggy O’Moore

The lyrics to Jolene are regressive and speak to the weakest place in a woman. But they strike me as the meditation of a woman who is far more interested than this other woman than in… her man.

The lyrics of Candy by Doja are from a harsher, dirtier narrator, but I notice similarities to the older Jolene:

She’s just like candy, she’s so sweet
But you know that it ain’t real cherry, know that it ain’t real cherry
She’s just like candy, she’s so sweet

But you know that it ain’t real, know that it ain’t realI can be your sugar when you’re fiendin’ for that sweet spot
Put me in your mouth, baby, and eat it ’til your teeth rot
I can be your cherry, apple, pecan, or your key lime

Tobermory Short Story by Saki

Tobermory” is a short story by Hector Hugh Munro, otherwise known as Saki. Anyone with a pet has probably wondered what that pet would say to you if it could talk. Many children’s stories have this premise, and this particular wish fulfilment fantasy. We imagine if our pets could talk they would say satisfying things.

Saki’s story, about a talking cat, reminds me of a cartoon in which a man wishes his dog could talk. But as soon as the dog starts talking the man is weirded out and says, “You’ve seen too  much.” He immediately takes the power of talking away from his pet.

Gary Larson has also mined this gag, also on dogs:

Man invents talking machine for dogs and they only say hey hey hey

But cats are thought to be more circumspect. We consider them haughty, knowing and at the top of their own hierarchy. The heterodiegetic narrator of Tobermory is like a cat himself, and as viewpoint character, sees through bluff and bluster of the assembled human party.

HUMOUR OF SAKI

The humour of Saki’s stories derives from an ironic gap between the highly formal register, most often used by the highly educated, and the subject matter, which is completely unbelievable. The register tips over into ostentatious and affected. Saki makes deliberate use of purple language such as ‘he expostulated’.

The comparisons he makes go way outside the bounds of the story itself. Here is a sentence which says ‘Cornelius Appin was crestfallen.’

An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement.

Australian author Kathy Lette writes in a similar fashion in some of her novels, such as The Boy Who Fell To Earth. This story gets a lot of its humour from its great many parenthetical asides.

It’s the ironic gap between register and subject matter that makes Saki’s humour feel irreverent. Add to that insights on human nature from his narrator and you have a wry social commentary. No better character than a talking cat to criticise humans.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TOBERMORY”

SHORTCOMING

The great shortcoming of this group of people is that they don’t really like each other at all, yet here they are, all forced to commingle. They’ve been saying nasty things about each other behind backs.

DESIRE

Each has their own conflicting desire which they bring to the dinner party:

  • Mr Cornelius Appin wants to demonstrate his wonderful invention (foiled because the invention is terrible)
  • Sir Wilfrid does not want to be taken for a fool (foiled because he is revealed to be a fool anyway)
  • Lady Blemley wants to be a good hostess (foiled by the cat)
  • Mrs Cornett wants to be regarded a beauty (though she spends much time with make-up to get herself looking presentable)
  • Miss Scrawen, ironically, doesn’t want everyone to know she leads such a good and virtuous life
  • Odo Finsberry wants to keep his private life private since he is meant to be reading for the Church
  • Agnes Resker wants to enjoy a free meal since she is experiencing financial hardship
  • and so on

OPPONENT

The talking cat is the opponent, but only because the web of opposition has already been set up.

PLAN

Sir Wilfrid suggests they put strychnine in the table scraps and leave them out for the cat to eat.

The rest of the party do their best to paper over that a huge rift has emerged between the neighbours of the Tower.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle of cat eating poison and dying is subverted. The death happens off-stage in an unexpected fight with a Tom. On the other hand, this is entirely expected. We might imagine the cat was able to articulate nastiness to other cats as well as to other humans.

ANAGNORISIS

This story includes an entire cast of characters but Saki has chosen to home in on one character’s response to all this: That of Lady Blemley, who ‘sufficiently recovers her spirits to write an extremely nasty letter to the Rectory about the loss of her valuable pet’.

This is displaced anger, of course. And this is the reader’s revelation. People deal with humiliation by branching out with it. It’s called lateral violence, when it happens as part of a system.

NEW SITUATION

Saki finishes in children’s picture book fashion (also utilised a lot by Paul Jennings) in which another similar story happens a second time, but with a different main character. This time it’s an elephant, and the reveal is that the elephant learned to talk and got sick of an Englishman who was trying German irregular verbs on it.

The joke is readily understood by any English speaker who has ever tried learning German verb conjugation. (Though English is far less regular than German.) Note that Saki has not waited until the final paragraph to mention the elephant — one of the characters suggested elephants at the dinner party, since elephants can’t sneak about under chairs and whatnot and therefore make a safe subject.

It’s a good idea to prepare the reader in this way if you mean to end your short story like this. This is how you get your ending to feel ‘both expected and surprising’. Otherwise, readers will complain that the ending feels ‘tacked on’.

Elephants are an excellent choice for this final episode. My father remembers a traveling circus coming to the small town of Amberley. This was the 1950s. He and another boy rode their bikes to see the animals before the circus opened, one evening in summer. The friend had nothing to offer the elephant, so offered it a stone. The elephant took the stone in its trunk, perhaps thinking it was a peanut. But after realising its mistake, the elephant heaved the stone at the boy. The elephant seemed to know it had been tricked, then exacted revenge.

HOW WOULD YOU ILLUSTRATE THIS CAT?

The wonderful thing about cats is that they can be depicted in so many ways, from contemplative, gentle, silky creatures to mischievous tricksters to evil familiars.

wood engraving by Tirzah Garwood Ravilious  The Cat Wife, 1930 a LaFontaine fable
wood engraving by Tirzah Garwood Ravilious The Cat Wife, 1930 a LaFontaine fable

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Compare “The Child” by Ali Smith, in which a woman finds a baby in her supermarket trolley. The child can talk, and it says nasty things.

Humour in the Nancy Cartoons by Olivia Jaimes

bushmiller_nancy_glasses

I really like Scott Dikkers’ taxonomy of humour categories. Today I’m taking a closer look at why the new Nancy cartoons by the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes work so well for so many. In short, why are these minimalist snapshots funny?

The strip, about a rambunctious little girl, her buxom aunt, and her tough-talking best friend, was a study in comedy’s bare essentials, using a handful of panels to tell exquisitely crafted jokes, many of which played with the format of the comic strip itself. It began in 1938, as a spinoff of an earlier strip, Fritzi Ritz, about Nancy’s aunt who gradually became a supporting character in her own strip. And it was so ambitiously simple that it inspired a famous work of comics criticism, the 1988 essay (and later book) “How to Read Nancy.”

Vox

(I haven’t read How To Read Nancy, but I’d like to.)

How To Read Nancy

Some points from the book and from enthusiasts:

  • To dismiss ‘Nancy’ as a simple strip about a simple slot-nosed kid is to miss the gag completely. ‘Nancy’ appears to be simple only at a simple glance.
  • Every element in a “Nancy” panel adheres not to a comic strip but rather to “the blueprint of a comic strip.
  • In comics, all action is composition.
  • In ‘Nancy,’ Ernie Bushmiller created his own reality, where everything is wholly his and the world as we know it has been reduced to its essentials — there’s a Zen-like mastery of form.
  • Unlike a justly venerated classic like ‘Peanuts,’ ‘Nancy’ doesn’t tell us much about what it’s like to be a kid. Instead, ‘Nancy’ tells us what it’s like to be a comic strip.
  • There’s an emotional sort of flatness of the stories
  • The gags aren’t side-splittingly funny but they are always visually satisfying.

The following strip is considered classic Bushmiller at his peak:

Nancy Bushmiller at his peak

Notice how Nancy is a trickster, observing a situation then getting her own back, with extra on top. (Her opponent uses a water pistol; she is about to make use of an infinite stream of hose water.) The Battle is kept off the strip because we know exactly what’s going to happen.



THE FUNNY FILTERS BY SCOTT DIKKERS

1. Irony – Intended meaning is opposite of literal meaning

Is Nancy ironic? I believe it’s hipster ironic, always aware of irony itself.

[Jaimes says] her comic is “#relatable” — and here I detect a sideways irony in her voice as she pronounces the word hashtag.“The self-hating part that often comes with #relatable comics is being like, ‘Ohhhh, I procrastinated, I’m the worst,’ ” she says. “And ‘Nancy’ adds one more panel to that, being like, ‘Who cares? I don’t care. More corn bread for me.’ ”

Vulture

2019 readers tend to find it ironic that we listen more to the people on the other side of a screen than we do to people sitting proximal to us in the real world, so the following cartoon works on an ironic level, but I do wonder if younger generations won’t start with that expectation — that the person in the room with you cares more about you than people on the other side of a screen. For them, this may not be irony:

Nancy sincere interest

2. Character – Comedic character acting on personality traits

Jaimes is a brilliant character writer. Her version of Nancy is all rapacious appetite, unwilling to curb herself in almost any way. (When Jaimes took over the strip in April, the title character was introduced going in on that cornbread.) And Jaimes’s version of Nancy’s long-running foil Sluggo is probably kinder than Nancy, but he also seems to have less patience with his friend’s antics just because she’s the protagonist. Aunt Fritzi, meanwhile, shows a welcome change from the hypersexualized version of Gilchrist’s era — she seems like someone who can’t believe she’s somehow raising her niece but making the best of it anyway.

Vox

“Nancy as a character had drifted from where I envision her,” Jaimes says, “in that the Nancy I know and love is a total jerk and also gluttonous and also has big feelings and voraciously consumes her world. […]Vulture

Nancy can be overconfident to a ridiculous degree.

Olivia James Nancy

She’s also destructive.

Nancy breaks ornaments

3. Reference – Common experiences that audiences can relate to

The technology humour of Nancy is also reference humour. Anyone on Messenger can relate to this one:

gibberish

Nancy is perfectly suited to our present moment of cynical hedonism. The character is focused solely on self-satisfaction and stubbornly opposed to anything that gets in her way, and the strip allows readers to see themselves in her tech-addled narcissism and have a laugh at their own expense.

Vulture

You’re going full Black Mirror.
This is my plan. “Nancy” is going to become Black Mirror.

Vulture

4. Shock – Surprising jokes typically involving sex, drugs, gross-out humor, swearing

This is based on something started in the 1930s, so even if the strip had ever used shocking language, it wouldn’t feel shocking today. This is not part of ‘Nancy’.

5. Parody – Mimic a familiar character, trope or cliche in an unfamiliar way

Nancy humour regularly makes fun of our use of technology. Here, our addiction to it, as Nancy is compelled to get out of bed to check an inconsequential message because her phone is charging and she can’t have it in bed right next to her. The general grimness of it is an extra overlay of dark humour.

And then there’s the well-known joke that while we’re staring at our screens we’re failing to notice the world around us, to our own detriment.

Nancy technology

If I hadn’t just watched a documentary on kids who are Instagram famous I wouldn’t get this joke, which describes how keen Instagram users know that at certain times of day their posts will get more likes:

Nancy instagram relatable

6. Hyperbole – Exaggeration to absurd extremes

While Bushmiller gave Nancy megaphones as gags, Jaimes realised she couldn’t give modern Nancy megaphones. She doesn’t need megaphones because we all use phones for that. The phone itself is hyperbole, but it’s a kind of realistic hyperbole, because we all use them so much:

‘Nancy uses something in a way that’s different than intended,’ ” Jaimes says. “[In Bushmiller’s originals] she’s got, like, a thousand megaphones sitting around her house just waiting to be used creatively in jokes.

Washington Post

I realized that all of the nouns that Nancy used to have are being supplanted by a phone. Things that she would have lying around the house to make up a joke are gone. She uses megaphones for a ton of things in Bushmiller’s strips, and I don’t have megaphones lying around my house. So how, then, can Nancy solve problems, given that technology is advancing to the point where problems are being solved in really nonphysical ways? That’s why I’m making her learn robotics. It opens up a wider range of visual gags to make down the line.

Vulture

7. Wordplay – Puns, rhymes, double entendres, etc.

Wordplay often involves taking a metaphorical extension of a word and making Nancy interpret it more literally, as in the various meanings of ‘move’.

Nancy art that moves

8. Analogy – Comparing two disparate things

This isn’t such an easy concept to understand, so I’ll quote from Dikkers’ book (How To Write Funny):

Analogy is the comparing of two different things and finding their similarities. The two things should be very different—opposites are especially good, and there must be many similarities. It’s finding these connections between the two things and making the reader aware of them that makes Analogy funny. Analogy, like Parody, is slightly more complex than the other Funny Filters. It provides another “hidden secret” in your writing. The secret in Analogy is the half of your Analogy that you keep veiled.

When you compare two things in an Analogy, you only want to overtly reveal one of them to the reader. The other is alluded to, and readers are invited to add two and two to think of it on their own, thanks to your clues.

So far, the closest I’ve found is this example. The real world is compared to the online world which, to Nancy, is more real.

Analogy Nancy humour

9. Madcap – Crazy, wacky, silly, nonsensical 

Jaimes has also updated Nancy in other ways, bringing more characters into the world of the strip, like Nancy’s robotics teacher and her friend Lucy (the girl in the yellow shirt in the comic below). Just the idea of Nancy taking a robotics class is the sort of gag that marks the strip as being written in 2018, but it’s easy to imagine Bushmiller loving it for its ability to create chaos.

Vox

Nancy big bites

10. Meta-humor – Jokes about jokes, or about the idea of comedy

[Jaimes] constructs jokes patiently, often using the idea of the comics panel itself to make them funny. Consider the comic below, for instance, where Nancy (the little girl with the bow in her hair) and her friend Sluggo remain stationary in the frame, and the action consists entirely of scenery that simply appears around them. Even the old man who has all the dialogue barely changes his facial expressions.

Vox

Nancy metahumour

[E]ven while adding plenty of her own flourishes, Jaimes has smartly returned to one of Bushmiller’s trademark joke structures: Using the format of the comic strip itself to create gags that refer to “the artist” as a weird presence in all of the characters’ lives. (They seem to know, at all times, that they live in a comic strip, but they also seem okay with this.)

Vox

Nancy cartoon humour

nancy punchline

Nancy meta

Nancy meta drawing

Nancy work art

(For more on metafiction, see this post.)

11. Misplaced Focus – Attention is focused on the wrong thing

Deliberately misplaced focus is part of Nancy’s character humour. She interprets answers to her questions as she sees fit.

She also runs on her own internal logic.

nancy textbooks

Jaimes also uses lots of chestnutty advice and ends it with Nancy having interpreted it in the opposite way from that intended:

Nancy misplaced focus