‘Humour is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humour,
for a subject which will not bear levity is suspicious,
and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.’
Comedy Versus Drama
By Tim Ferguson [An excerpt for ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy’]
Narrative comedy is a not for the faint-hearted. Dramatic writers can explore the human heart at a measured pace, confronting their characters with choices that progressively force them to learn and change. A sound understanding of genre, story structure, character development, dialogue and narrative movement, plus native insight, comprise the dramatist’s toolkit. Their craft is not easily mastered and their technique requires constant re-appraisal and refreshment. Worse, with all its wandering through the dim corridors of the human soul, a drama writer’s life can be awfully depressing. It’s a wonder anyone does it, but we’re grateful they do.
Narrative comedy demands a firm grasp of dramatic technique— and much more. The comic storyteller must know how to compress drama, increasing pace, pressure, surprise, multiplying reversals of character and objective, heightening reality and intensifying action with successive tangential narrative changes. It requires a commonsense understanding of the absurd and both the ability and inclination to ruthlessly expose human weakness and prejudice—beginning with one’s own.
Drama presents fiction as reality.
Comedy presents reality through fiction.
Dramatic heroes are heroic despite their flaws.
Comic heroes are funny because of their flaws.
Both maintain hope, even when it’s unreasonable to do so.
Likewise, well-written villains in drama are never wholly evil. A villain who appears wholly evil at the beginning of a drama should reveal themselves as a flawed human being as the story unfolds. Even Darth Vader, in Star Wars, finds himself through his love for his son.
Most comic ‘heroes’ by contrast are not heroic at all. They are hapless victims without the social skills, perspective or material resources to deal with their situation. When they do act heroically, it is often for selfish reasons. Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers is a classical example of the comic hero: bullying, inconsiderate, self-obsessed, paranoid, vindictive, lonely, lost, needy, greedy, spiteful, manipulative, egotistical, self-hating, overbearing, pussy-whipped, lazy, lascivious and a compulsive liar. Basil Fawlty is Mr Darcy stripped of the bullshit. We see in Darcy the person we would like to be. In Basil we see who we are.
Comic villains are typically evil from the get-go, and don’t change much. Their flaws are immediately apparent and inspire neither sympathy nor empathy. For example, when we first meet Doctor Evil (Mike Myers) in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, he’s sending a henchman to a grisly death and is so behind the times he thinks a million dollars is a lot of money. Though Evil is powerful and equipped with awesome ‘laser’ weapons, he’s bald, scarred and deeply flawed in both personality and outlook. And it’s all downhill from there.
Comedy makes no pretence at ‘reality’. The moment the audience starts to lose themselves in the action, their laughter snaps them out of it. By accepting the audience’s distance from the characters (though that distance may be wafer-thin) comedy writers accept the demand that their stories must be more than real. They must represent the truth.
Where dramatists can leave the audience arguing over the moral questions in their story, comedy writers must deliver their message by flaming arrow. Their characters are unalloyed constructs and—unlike drama—the disengagement this causes is not necessarily a problem. There is no real emotional engagement, for example, in the satirical feature film Wag the Dog (by Larry Beinhart, Hilary Henkin and David Mamet). We dislike them all. Even when the film’s most charming character, Stanley Motss is taken to his death, the audience’s heart doesn’t skip a beat. We may love watching Motss, but we are never asked to love him.
Unconstrained by verisimilitude, comic stories can move at a pace and intensity beyond anything we’d expect from the real world. This freedom from fakery is both a boon and a burden for comedy writers. It’s a boon because it allows us to cut to the chase, pushing our characters and stories in ways that are openly concocted. It’s a burden because we cannot hide behind a fantasy.
But comedy and drama do have one thing in common: they must tell the truth about life. In either genre, the moment the audience senses a lack of authenticity in the writing they switch to a sports channel and never return.
[An excerpt for ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy’)
By Tim Ferguson
‘Just because it’s ancient doesn’t mean it’s old.’
If you’re not sure where to start with a certain character or combination of characters, comic archetypes may provide a base from which to build. Many of these tried-and-true characters populate comedies of all kinds. Archetypes are familiar, perhaps, but that can work for you.
To avoid archetypes being clichéd, you can attach all kinds of bells and whistles. One way is to make the archetypal character’s role in life at variance with their nature. An Idiot can be placed in a role in which they are at the hub of knowledge. In Murphy Brown and Mary Tyler Moore, the Idiot characters, respectively Corky and Ted Baxter, are newsreaders, supposedly the providers of knowledge. You can also give an archetypal character prejudices, fears, limitations and ongoing problems that have not been associated with the archetype before. Thus, a Wisecracking Grouch may hate meat-eaters, suffer from agoraphobia, be illiterate and talk to spirits. Sofia (Golden Girls) and Albert Steptoe (Steptoe & Son) are both Wisecracking Grouches have little in common, but they both share the Grouch’s cynicism and dry wit.
Archetypal characters can make excellent starting points for the creation of cameo or secondary roles. If you’re stuck on a particular character, try breaking them down to an archetype they resemble, distilling their qualities to the necessary basics and then building them up again.
These classic characters are also useful as metaphors for the true nature of a character’s actions. For example, when Kramer and the librarian Pam (Seinfeld) fall in love, they resemble the passionate yet doe-eyed Innamorati from Commedia Dell’Arte. All they see is love, a love threatened by Lt. Bookman (a powerful Elder archetype, known in Commedia as Vecchi). The Vecchi are suspicious, protective of their power and deaf to pleas for clemency or understanding – Lt Bookman in a nutshell.
Combining archetypes to form hybrids is another way of building a character. For example, Lt. Bookman, fills the role of a Vecchi while showing the characteristics of a stereotypical hard-nosed cop.
Even the finest sitcoms can incorporate some characters with their roots in one archetype or another.
From the wicked Blackadder (Plautus’ ‘Acerbic Servant’ in Blackadder) to Raymond’s irascible father (the ‘Wisecracking Grouch’ in Everybody Loves Raymond), archetypes underpin comic characters loved by millions. In The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, only Reginald is a fully-formed human being. He’s beset by stereotypical characters: the gruff boss, the forgiving wife, the sultry secretary, the radical but wet son-in-law and the cheapskate brother-in-law. These underline and make possible the series’ exploration of the conflict between a sane man and the maddening everyday.
Archetypes are recognisable and accessible. Remember, in the average sitcom, time is limited and viewers want to get a handle on a given character without having to work too hard. Seeing, for example, a ‘Nutty Neighbour’ (albeit with their own individual bells and whistles) can give viewers quick insight to the character.
Rejecting archetypes as ‘too easy’ is unwise. Nothing is ‘too easy’ in the sitcom business. Great sitcom writers, such as Larry David (Seinfeld), Richard Curtis (Blackadder), Gina Riley and Jane Turner (Kath & Kim) Mitch Hurwitz (The Golden Girls, Arrested Development) and Gary Riley (Hey Dad..!) have used archetypes as starting points for some of their characters. Reconcile yourself with the fact that, as soon as you decide your series will need a protagonist and an antagonist, you’re already following tradition, entering territory where cliché and hackney-ism can run rife. You are the factor that will make your characters original. Any archetypal qualities (such as unthinking antagonism or blind optimism) don’t detract from the originality of their final manifestation.
There’s also the possibility that, after deliberately building a character from the ground up without basing them on an archetype, you may end up with a character that corresponds to an archetype anyway.
If you’re keen to build all your characters from the ground up without any traditional foundations (and you’re smarter than Larry David, Tina Fay, Gina Riley, Jane Turner, Mark O’Toole, Mitch Hurwitz, Dan Aykroyd, Mary Tyler-Moore, Ben Stiller, William Shakespeare, Plautus, Richard Curtis, Ricky Gervais, Robyn Butler, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Lucille Ball, Gary Shandling, Dick Van Dyke, Gary Riley, Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Connie Booth, Moliére, Matt Groening, Dick Fidler and Ben Elton), a familiarity with comic archetypes will, at the very least, show you what you want to avoid.
For proof that archetypes can not only work but are integral to the medium of sitcom, check out the selection of comic and Commedia Dell’Arte archetypes below. There are many more archetypes available but those below are some of the most common. You’ll recognise their characteristics in many characters both comic and dramatic since the dawn of time, and certainly since the dawn of television.
The list of archetypes below is by no means exhaustive. All of these archetypes have appeared in many successful comedies, and provide the bases for characters with which we are all familiar.
Presenting archetypes in fresh ways is the challenge. Archetypes provide a starting point only for the true character-building. Your imagination is the only limit to the characteristics that will set them apart from their forbearers.
The ingredient that makes an archetype your own is you.
The Straight Man
Straight Man characters work well as foils to the wackier characters around them. They tend to ‘keep it real’.
They may not necessarily be funny, but the Straight Man has a place in many sitcoms. Sometimes, he’s right in the centre (Dad in Hey Dad..!) with the funnier, goofier characters around him, relying on him. But mostly, like Mr Sheffield in The Nanny, he’s ringside, close to the central character.
These straight-laced people are not beyond sarcasm or daffiness, but they’re more rational and sane than the nutjobs around them. Usually, when they’re being funny, Straight Men are being funny intentionally. Like the dry-witted Dorothy (The Golden Girls), the viewer laughs with them. Other archetypes are generally less aware – we usually laugh at them.
Straight Men can provide a strong moral centre for a team of comic characters. Eddie’s wife, Joan (Love Thy Neighbour) and Mrs Cosby (The Cosbys) provide the moral centre for their shows.
Though they are Straight, they can be swept up in emotional stories and make mistakes like the best of us. Of all the characters, the Straight Men are the least comfortable with deception, though it is not beyond them.
It’s common for the Straight Man to be a woman.
Limited Views and Taking Things Literally are the meat and potatoes of the Idiot. A clown-like fool, the Idiot is a common character in sitcom. Lovable but blinded by their own innocence and limited awareness, Idiots can be counted on to grab the wrong end of the stick. Gilligan (Gilligan’s Island) repeatedly gets into trouble by misunderstanding orders or making half-baked plans.
They take euphemisms at face-value – don’t playfully say ‘I’m gonna kill you!’ or the Idiot will go into hiding. The Idiot typically has an enthusiastic attitude. Betty Wilson (Hey Dad..!) is always bursting with energy, ready to help even when she’s not sure of the outcome.
Idiots are easily conned, make terrible liars and find it impossible to keep secrets. Best of all, if there’s something that shouldn’t be said, the Idiot will move a story along by saying it.
Political correctness (the bane of any mature society) has an enemy. The Rebel Without A Clue can be sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic you name it. The irascible Eddie (Love Thy Neighbour) manages to be all of these and more.
Despite their constant vilifying of anyone who isn’t them, the Rebel somehow manages to be loved. Their spouses forgive them, their children dismiss their rantings as typical adult nagging and their friends figure they’re joking. Why? Because, under it all, the Rebel is loyal to those dear to them – for all his limitations, Ted Bullpitt (Kingswood Country) shows the occasional glimmer of romantic love for his wife. And, for Rebels to have attracted their common-sense spouses, we assume that once upon a time they were more idealistic and hopeful.
Like Alf Garnett (Till Death Do Us Part) or Al Bundy (Married… With Children), Rebels have the admirable though annoying quality of not giving a damn what the world thinks of them. And they occasionally see things in a light that has evaded others. We rarely see the Rebel in a workplace. Though they may have a job, they tend to be seen in their living rooms. The Rebel, like the rest of us, wants love. We just wish they’d shut up.
The Wisecracking Grouch
This character is the cousin of the Rebel Without A Clue. A classic Grouch, Frank Barone (Everybody Loves Raymond), speaks his mind without fear or favour, much to the discomfort and chagrin of those around him. Anyone who takes themselves too seriously will be straightened out by this un-sung hero.
Vegans, for example, are the evangelizers of foods and theories that taste just like bullshit. They gobble bran-based morsels and try to make the rest of us feel guilty for eating the bull itself. These eating-disordered Puritans have a ‘kick me’ sign on their greenhouse-gas-producing asses – and the Wisecracking Grouch is their to oblige them.
The Wisecracking Grouch has no time for the Rebel Without A Clue. Carla (Cheers) suffers no chauvinism or stupid-ism, tackling it head-on and always coming out on top.
The Grouch is typically beyond the reach of any counter-attack, and not just because they’re usually right. As in the case of Sofia (The Golden Girls), they’re often older; they’ve lived their lives and have nothing to lose.
They are not perfect; they have passions, lapses and weaknesses (such as a taste for barbequed baby lamb).
Thank Heaven for the Sage. Either old, wise, smart or from somewhere far away to give them perspective, these benign characters can help just when all seems lost. Like the Professor (Gilligan’s Island), they can be good with machines, numbers, social rules and laws.
Sometimes, the Sage remains remote from the main action – in Home Improvement, the neighbour Wilson’s face is mostly obscured by the backyard fence. Wilson offers (flawed) advice to Tim (and only Tim). In Mork, Mork gives weekly reports and receives bon-mots of wisdom from Orson, his leader on Ork.
Like anyone, Sages can have lapses, but they are largely resistant to lust, greed or self-interest.
While they may offer their friends straight, unassailable facts, it does not necessarily mean they are understood or heard correctly.
The Nutty Neighbour
Lock your doors. And your fridge. And your bedroom.
Hell, just move house. The Nutty Neighbour feels free to enter your home whenever they please. They’re like a stalker who’s not so interested in you. Eldin Bernecky (Murphy Brown) arrives in Episode 1 to re-decorate Murphy’s home and the job takes him years.
Like Kramer (Seinfeld), they’ll eat your food, wear your clothes and wash in your bath without asking for permission. If you complain, they’ll squint in bafflement and turn on the Hot tap.
They’re loopy, of indeterminate (yet sufficient) means, easily convinced by conmen and enthusiastic for any risky venture. The Nutty Neighbour believes JFK was abducted by Moonies or aliens or both. They can seem very wise and convincing. Despite being dysfunctional, some Nutty Neighbours manage to attract sexual partners of surprising quality. (Kramer’s girlfriends are usually far more gorgeous than he is.)
Nutty Neighbours have no realistic sense of danger or social mores and inappropriate behaviour is their stock in trade.
The Nutty Neighbour leaps in where many other characters fear to tread. If your story needs someone to stick their head in a shark’s mouth, this is the ideal character to do it. (Don’t worry – they’ll survive and live to raid your medicine cabinet another day.)
The Nosy Neighbor
Found in sitcoms with a secret at their heart, the Nosy Neighbour knows something is up but can’t prove it. Nobody will believe Mrs Gladys Kravits (Bewitched) when she says her neighbour is a witch. And Captain Wallace Binghamton (McHale’s Navy) can never prove that McHale is a shonky opportunist.
Nosy Neighbours will come perilously close to proving and exposing the show’s secret. If they succeed, they often undermine themselves so that their credibility is trashed and no one believes them anyway.
Like battlefield reports from a Greek Chorus, Unseen Intimates leave everything to your imagination. Or they can remain ‘off-stage’, a remote but compelling force in the lives of others.
They tend to be extreme characters. Maris Crane (Niles’ wife, Frasier) is controlling, selfish and impossible to please. Even though we never see her, it’s clear the woman is a monster. ‘Maris is like the sun,’ says Frasier, ‘except without the warmth.’
Stan (Karen’s husband in Will & Grace) is (reportedly) hugely obese. Karen reminds Grace that when Stan died, his ashes filled a garbage bag.
The Clever Slave
A social eunuch, the Acerbic Servant is a descendant of the Commedia D’ell Arte servants (below). He cannot rise any further in the hierarchy. Nor will he lose their status for long – he’s too vital to the social order of his world.
Niles (The Nanny) has an acid tongue. However, the master of the house, Mr Sheffield, rarely seems to notice Niles’ whiplash delivery.
This safe position in the social order gives Acerbic Servants license to speak their minds. They can poke their noses where others would not dare. Because they always speak the truth on worldly and personal issues, they are often trusted by those who rarely trust anyone and are often approached for advice. (This trust may be misplaced in part – they can steal from their masters or manipulate them for personal gain. But, when push comes to shove, Acerbic Servants know who butters their bread.)
Half-nanny, half-slave, they are usually single or (inactively) gay. They typically dislike their jobs but quail at the thought of finding another.
The Ladies’ Man / The Man Eater
Gird your loins, here come the horniest toads in the swamp. They’re not just driven by sex, they’re sex itself. The spunky Sirens of their worlds, they cannot be resisted. Nor can they resist.
Nina Van Horn (Just Shoot Me!) will jump anything with a pulse (and even a pulse is not a deal-breaker).
Sexual liberty is rarely celebrated in sitcom, no matter the timeslot. The most common lesson learned by the Ladies Man and the Man Eater is that sex without love and commitment leads to an empty life. Sexual denial is a message accepted by the majority of viewers and Fonzie (Happy Days) will just have to cop it. These voluptuaries may fall into bed with a glamorous stranger, but by episode’s end, they’ve had a bit of a cry, learnt their lesson and apologised for the stains on the ceiling.
That said, Karen Walker (Will & Grace) is a new version of this archetype. She’s sexually omnivorous, but rarely stops to shed a tear about the shallowness of her life. She’s too busy living it.
Two old Jewish ladies sit eating in a café.
One says, ‘The food in this place is terrible.’
‘Yes,’ says the other, ‘and in such small portions!’
Hey, don’t shoot the messenger! The Ethnic or Regional Stereotype (such a coy term) may seem offensive on the surface, but these archetypes can become very popular characters. Apu (The Simpsons) is a much-loved star, despite the Indian-immigrant stereotype he embodies. Similarly, Spanish simpleton Manuel (Fawlty Towers) is loved by audiences.
From Borat to Acropolis Now, Hogan’s Heroes, Allo Allo, Mind Your Language (a later-scorned British sitcom about a language school for immigrants that was cast entirely with ethnic stereotypes, including the daffy but well-meaning English schoolteacher), the Ethnic Stereotype offers writers a character with a broadly-accepted range of (unreasonably apportioned) characteristics with which to play. The characterisation and moral disposition are already established in the viewer’s mind. In Apu’s case, the audience is aware of his stereotypical traits (he’s tireless, over-thrifty and negligent about store hygiene; an elephant-worshipping, bullet-riddled convenience store attendant).
Ethnic gags abound in some successful sitcoms without causing picket-lines at TV networks. Black Adder, for example, got away with many an ethnic joke that, if quoted out of context, might cause offence. To the Germans…
Caroline of Brunswick is the only available princess in Europe… She’s famous for having the worst personality in Germany. And as you can imagine, that’s up against come pretty stiff competition.
And the French…
‘Bonjour, Monsieur’. It’s French!
So is eating frogs, cruelty to geese and urinating in the street.
Part of the reason why audiences laugh at the ethnic stereotype is that they know they shouldn’t. Another, darker, reason could be that the more ‘enlightened’ viewer reacts to their own rationalised but irrepressible racism. (Remember, we are pushing primal buttons here.) Many educated viewers enjoy Basil Fawlty’s catchphrase apology for the useless waiter Manuel – ‘He’s from Barcelona’. Middle-class frustration with immigrant service-industry workers is on show. ‘It’s a terrible generalisation,’ they say, ‘but it can be true in some cases, can’t it? Why, I had a taxi driver the other day…’
Still, let he who is without racism throw the first halo.
The Regional Stereotype
This character offers writers prejudice without racism.
Private James Fraser (Dad’s Army) is a tight-fisted, pessimistic Scottish undertaker who declares ‘We’re doomed!’ at the slightest danger. Fat Bastard (Austen Powers) is another Scotsman of limited generosity and vocabulary. Crocodile Dundee, Intelligence (the super-computer with the California surfer accent, Team America), Corky (the small-town USA beauty queen, Murphy Brown) and Blanche (the Southern Belle, Golden Girls) all have roots in regional stereotypes.
Many regional archetype characters have exaggerated accents and regularly mispronounce given words. Some accents can be so strong that the character is totally incomprehensible to us (though other characters may translate). These mumbling characters often exhibit Pierrot-like qualities, speaking gibberish that could be waffle or wisdom. A case in point is Brad Pitt rambling incomprehensibly throughout the film Snatch, in his comic turn as Micky O’Neil, the Irish Traveler. Only his friends can understand his accent.
Borders change but regional stereotypes can have deep, tribal roots. In the 13th Century, British ‘regionalism’ was more like racism, with the English deliberately ‘breeding out’ the Scots and criminalising Scottish culture. The Scots suffered terribly at the hands of the English. While they’re countrymen today, the ancient battles still gnaw at them. For proof, call a Scot an Englishman and see what happens.
‘Regionalism’ may become a no-no in a distant feudal future, but for now it’s deemed politically correct. Be warned – it can rankle with those associated with the stereotype. New Zealanders are kinda over the sheep jokes. And frankly, so are the sheep.
Catchphrases work effectively for ethnic and regional stereotypes. The catchphrases are readily repeated and speak to the heart of the archetype. The Simpsons’ Indian stereotype, Apu, shows his dogged insistence upon doing his humble duty by saying, ‘Thank you, come again!’ even when his store is a smoking ruin. These catchphrases can be used to make a broader, satirical point. In a lethal parody of wartime Germany’s conscious ignorance of Hitler’s evil, Sergeant Shultz (Hogan’s Heroes) blocks his ears and insists, ‘I know nussink!’ Team America defines the isolation of the despot when Kim Jong Il sings his signature song I’m So Ronery (‘lonely’).
The Gay Stereotype
From Mr Humphries (John Ingham, Are You Being Served?) to
Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes, Will & Grace), the Gay Stereotype is razor-tongued, highly emotional, flirtatious, camp as an Army bivouac and often too clever for his own good.
The showman, Gunner ‘Gloria’ Beaumont (Melvyn Hayes, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum), adheres to the stereotype, right down to his gift for bawdy double-entendres.
The gay stereotype is rarely, if ever, rewarded with sex and is never in a relationship for longer than one episode. (Sadly, the writers only push the boundaries – they don’t change them.)
Writers’ political justification for using ethnic, regional or gay stereotypes is usually, ‘Hey, it’s ironic.’ This assumes moral affinity with the audience. As irony is in the eye of the beholder, the defence can have mixed results. To be the wowser’s advocate, these stereotypes are also a straight-up, in-your-face pisstake of another culture or social group – and the viewer’s lack of prejudice cannot be assumed.
COMMEDIA D’ELL ARTE ARCHETYPES
The ‘Comedy of Professional Artists’ began in Italy in the 14th Century and became widely popular from the 16th to the 18th Centuries. (Some of Commedia’s stories and characters date back to the Roman playwright, Titus Maccius Plautus. He hit his peak in 200BC.)
The short plays of Commedia are improvised interpretations of well-known stories and characters. A typical Commedia troupe comprises eight men and two women. The actors adapt the settings and characterisations of the scenarios to reflect the personalities and issues of the day.
Commedia scenarios (known as Lazzi) feature a hero being mistaken for a villain and vice versa, a father and son falling for the same beautiful woman, stolen wives and children, wayward servants fumbling their master’s demands (on purpose) and anything that means an actress has to appear naked on stage (shipwrecks and burning cities were useful in this endeavour). The most common story involves two lovers (the Innamorati) who are prohibited from marrying by their elders, typically the girl’s father. The lovers turn to the household servants for help. After initially fumbling, the servants usually find a solution that is less than scrupulous but nonetheless effective.
Originally, Commedia plays were performed as commercial breaks between the acts of epic plays both dramatic and tragic. The players operated on a pay-per-view-or-don’t basis – they’d do a show and pass round a hat. Acrobatics, juggling, illusion or wrestling would be interwoven with the well-known stories.
(Speaking of wrestling, consider that modern television wrestling is comprised of broad archetypes, i.e., the Hero, the Bad Brothers, the Country Hick, the Foreigner, the Handsome Egotist or the Old Champ. These characters act out rudimentary stories such as ‘The Plucky Newcomer Beats The Angry Giant’, ‘The Old Champ Returns’ or ‘The Enormous Man Goes Troppo, Hits The Referee, Gets Disqualified And Goes Totally Troppo’. Audiences world-wide appreciate these archetypes and enjoy the simple scenarios played out.)
The characters in Commedia’s short plays were all archetypes, recognisable by their caricatured masks. The servant characters were known as Zanni (origin of ‘zany’). The audience’s familiarity with both stories and characters meant the actors’ chief task was to reinvent the tried and true, to impose their own meanings on the archetypes through metaphor, local references and topicality. The defining issues were the skill and originality with which the short plays were presented. Like comedian Charlie Ross, who performs the original Star Wars trilogy solo in One Man Star Wars, Commedia actors made the familiar new again.
You can use the Commedia D’ell Arte archetypes in the same way as those above. Feel free to change their ages, sexes, physical idiosyncrasies and modernise their roles in life. These are the window dressing to the character themselves; the paint job, not the wheels. Make them new and yours alone.
The standard Commedia D’ell Arte archetypes are as follows.
As smart as Harlequin, Colombine is an attractive and largely capable woman. She is self-centred, impatient and can be flaky. She is suspicious of get-rich-quick schemes, but can emotionally (and temporarily) latch on to confident people.
She’s capable of flirting or lying to achieve her aims. But she remains beyond the true, lasting romantic love for any man, if only because of her own (often unreasonable) standards and love of independence.
She’s flaky in love: when she does fall in love, she soon hates the object of her affection (for reasons great or small) . Having made a choice of any kind, she quickly feels trapped.
Colombine is often the only character on stage who keeps her head in a crisis, but not always – she’s capable of getting into a stressed-out twist and can create problems with her own vanity. Colombine’s status is normally at a medium level where she has a firm position but little power over others. Grace (Will & Grace) shares these qualities with Colombine while Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy) adds a brittle, panicky edge. Elaine [Seinfeld], Liz Lemon (30-Rock) and Maya Gallo [Just Shoot Me] are ‘Columbines’.
The ancestor of the Acerbic Servant, Harlequin is a more playful and fun-loving character. Dressed in diamond-shaped patches and a black stocking masking his upper-face, he’s quick-witted and untamed by man or beast. He is not devoted to his master at all, finding his chores a tiresome and pointless inconvenience. Dennis Finch (David Spade, Just Shoot Me) is a perfect Harlequin. Never truly engaged in his work, he sees the workplace as a playground. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters) needs intense provocation to become emotionally engaged in his troubles and those of others. He is an example of Harlequin’s playful nature.
Despite his brains, Harlequin can act short-sightedly when it comes to shirking responsibility or flirting with beautiful women, especially Colombine. But, having gotten himself into a mess, this plucky and cunning young man can manipulate himself out of it. Though he’s unlikely to win a pot of gold or a crown, he escapes with his skin (and pride) intact.
Tragically, Colombine remains forever beyond his grasp. (Finch’s perfect partner, the boss’ daughter, Maya, will never be his.)
Another Harlequin archetype with original and contemporary characteristics is the screen identity of Groucho Marx. Groucho’s always the one to get the Marx Bros into, and then out of, trouble. He cheekily baits his betters, confounds his detractors, protects his companions and sees things from a fresh and funny perspective. He preferred a clever solution to a violent one and had little respect for convention. And, like Harlequin, Groucho never got the perfect girl – unless he didn’t want her.
Commedia’s Clever Slave. He’s not as likable as Harlequin. Sir Humphrey Appleby (Yes, Minister) is closely related to Brighella. Sarcastic and selfish, he trusts no one. His complex world-view may be realistic, but is essentially cynical.
He has no joy in his heart and finds no joy in the world, beyond petty victories. With a thin skin, hair-trigger temper and an unhealthy sense of superiority, Brighella is a schemer capable of intricate but workable plans that defy the understanding of those around him.
Contemptuous of those beneath him and ingenuously fawning to those above, Brighella’s only friends are those with his own short-term goals at heart. Like his descendant Newman (Seinfeld), he can’t win without gloating and won’t lose without griping.
The puppet ‘Punch’ (Punch & Judy) is directly based upon this archetype. He’s inventive but foolish, bullying and thick-skinned, Pulcinella is related to the Wise-cracking Grouch but has a nasty habit of inflicting violence upon his wife and child at every opportunity. (There are still calls to ban Punch & Judy puppet shows from public events, proving that even centuries-old material can offend.)
Even with the best of intentions (i.e., to foster his family) Pulcinella can be an opportunistic, dishonest and selfish whinger.
George Castanza’s parents (Seinfeld) are a classic Punch & Judy duo. They’re always bickering at and about each other, thinking the worst of each other, dreaming of separation but unable to survive apart. Where Punch hits Judy with a club, Mr Castanza hits his wife and his son with verbal abuse.
Ah, love! How sweet it’s mysteries! How lofty its dialogue!
The Innamorati are a pair of young lovers so smitten with each other they are incapable of rational thought (if they ever were). For these two blissful dopes, there is nothing in the world but their love.
When Robin Hood encounters Maid Marion (Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men In Tights), the two are transformed into dippy lovers. Blind to danger and deaf to advice, Robin and Marion worship each other with operatic intensity.
The young lovers in every Marx Bros movie are classic Innamorati.
The love of the Innamorati usually faces resistance, normally from older or more powerful male characters (known as Vecchi).
The dirty old millionaire. He’s horny as hell and is usually married to Marinetta who is just as horny – for other men. A filthy-rich miser, blinded by lust and greed.
A common scenario for Pantalone is to fall, then receive ‘help’ from his servants, which usually involves tripping him up again.
The wife of Pantalone. A tough-talking, battle-hardened, morally-sound lady, Marinetta suffers no fools and geniuses will have to prove themselves.
Modern incarnations of Marinetta are typically single as no man is good or strong enough to match them. Still, she maintains a distant hope that one day her man will come. In the 16th Century, Marinetta’s characteristics (intelligence, brutal honesty, sexual awareness and a domineering manner) were regarded as distasteful for a woman. Fortunately for Maude (Maude), Dorothy [Golden Girls], Roseanne [Roseanne] and Murphy Brown (Murphy Brown) this archetype is respected today, if not admired. We don’t want to be her, but when the revolution comes, we’ll stand behind her.
Think Baldrick from Black Adder. Pierrot is the servant of the servant, the lowest status possible. Despite a heart of gold, he goes unloved and unnoticed, surviving on scant resources. He’s a simpleton but is capable of flashes of brilliance or common sense. Sadly, as in the case of Principle Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (Yes Minister) these flashes are usually disregarded or ripped off by others higher on the social ladder.
Harpo Marx was surely descended from Pierrot, a warm and benign character whose gifts were so useless and whose status was so low that audience sympathy for him was inevitable.
Despite himself, Pierrot can inadvertently undo the plans of his master.
A sailor or soldier who boasts of his bravery and skill but is actually a coward.
Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko (The Phil Silvers Show/Sergeant Bilko) was a classic Il Capitano type. When he wasn’t conning his base commander, making a dishonest buck and skiving off work, Bilko paid lip-service to the Navy code – diligence, honesty and bravery.
Another example is Colonel Klink (Hogan’s Heroes). Klink repeatedly claims that no one has ever escaped from Stalag 13, the P.O.W. camp under his rule. But his prisoners come and go at leisure. A stickler for regulations and confident of Germany’s imminent victory, Klink runs from gunfire and turns to jelly in the presence of those higher in the chain of command.
To use a Texan expression, Il Capitano is ‘all hat – no cattle’.
DUOS & TRIOS
Commedia’s servants can join forces to create duos or trios of lower-status helpers-for-hire. Good guys of limited means and know-how, these fumblers will always give the impossible their best shot. Lano & Woodley (The Adventures of Lano & Woodley) have a classic Boke & Tsukkome (Straight Man/Idiot) dynamic.
One classic Zanni duo is Abbott & Costello. Always in a servile role, they’re suckers for a good love story and are usually find themselves working to help young lovers (Innamorati) get married. The Blues Brothers are similarly low-status dudes with a dream (to save the orphanage, no less) and inadequate tools to achieve it. The duo at the centre of Wayne’s World (Wayne & Garth) are lovable nobodies who find themselves thrust into the heady world of cable television, finding love along the way.
Classic Zanni trios include The Three Amigos, The Three Stooges, Daas, The Marx Brothers and the Ghostbusters. These teams are commonly led by a wise-cracking opportunist (respectively Moe [Howard], Groucho Marx and Dr Peter Venkman [Bill Murray]). The other members comprised other archetypes including Pierrot or the Sage being bumbling but well-meaning dummies.
Perhaps the most famous ancient comic duo is Punch & Judy.
George Castanza’s and Ray Romano’s parents display classic Punch & Judy characteristics: they fight constantly and beat up their ‘baby’. They are stuck with each other and complain about each other at every opportunity.