The Hope Principle

By | October 19, 2017

“It’s hard enough to write a good drama; it’s much harder to write a good comedy; and it’s hardest of all to write a drama with comedy, which is what life is.”
—Jack Lemmon

[Excerpt from ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy’
by Tim Ferguson]
There’s an ancient principle that underpins many comic stories.
Ever since Homer (the writer of the Odyssey, not the bloke from The Simpsons), heroic stories have been comprised of some simple elements: a hero strives to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles between himself and his goal. He has weapons, tools, brains and skill. Throughout, his heart burns with an enduring hope that he will succeed. If the story is a heroic drama, he’ll triumph. If it’s a tragedy, he’ll fail and die.

Aristotle’s Poetics states that ‘Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in real life.’ He takes the template above, applies it to comedy and identifies two differences. Aristotle says that comedy doesn’t demand a noble, wise or heroic protagonist—quite the opposite. Secondly, the comic protagonist should lack the weapons, tools, brains or skills they need to achieve it.

There’s a joke about a wide-mouthed African tree frog that illustrates Aristotle’s principle nicely:

A wide-mouthed African tree frog (a tree frog with a very wide mouth), bounces through the jungle. He approaches a monkey.
‘I’m doing a survey on animal diets’, says the Treefrog. ‘What do you eat, Mr Monkey?’
‘Nuts and berries,’ replies the monkey.
The wide-mouthed African tree frog thanks him and approaches an anteater.
‘Mr Anteater, what do you eat?’
‘Uh, ants,’ replies the anteater pointedly.
The wide-mouthed African tree frog thanks him and bounces down to the river where he spots a crocodile.
‘Mr Crocodile, what do you eat?’
‘I eat wide-mouthed African tree frogs.’
The tree frog purses his lips tightly. ‘Really? You don’t see many of those around these days …’

The wide-mouthed African tree frog has a goal—to survive. He faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle (the crocodile is powerful, dangerous and likes eating tree frogs). The tree frog doesn’t have the weapons, brains or skill to escape the crocodile, so he tries the only thing left to him—hiding his identity. His pathetic attempt is his only hope and he gives it all he’s got. (It’s a Lame Cover-Up gag-type.)

When it comes to telling the joke, the punchline works best if the tree frog’s eyes seem as innocent as a naughty schoolboy’s. He thinks he might get away with his deception. e more hopeful the tree frog seems, the bigger the laugh.

We never find out what happens to the frog. The joke is over once the tree frog’s goal, the obstacle he faces, his inadequacy and his enduring hope have been presented. The options for continuing the story (e.g. the frog and the crocodile become friends or the crocodile takes pity and releases the tree frog) are workable, but they’re not comic.

The tree frog demonstrates the ‘Hope Principle’ that lies at the heart of cover-ups and distractions (see Chapter Six: ‘Narrative Gags’).

When Basil Fawlty is lying to Sybil in Fawlty Towers, his desperation is soothed only by the enduring hope that he will get away with his fumbling deception.

The more forlorn the hope, the more feeble the attempt, the funnier the situation becomes. Watching a character struggle on despite the odds touches something very human in all of us. When they maintain unfounded hope despite their pathetic inadequacy, the odds against them mount and so do the laughs.

In The Office, David Brent’s insurmountable obstacle is his own deficient personality. He wants to be admired but lacks knowledge of his own failings, and thus doesn’t see that admiration will never come until he learns and changes. So he resolutely struggles on, filled with a hope born of self-delusion. The effect is a cruel insight that is agony to witness. Our laughter at Brent is excruciating, yes, but it beats crying.

This principle underpins the narrative arc of individual stories. In Seinfeld George Castanza is as inadequate as they come. He’s short, fat, bald, insecure, petty, dishonest, miserly, angst-ridden, lazy and obsessive. No matter what he turns his hand to, he’s doomed to fail. When George sucks up to his black boss by comparing him to Sugar Ray Leonard, his boss accuses him of racism. George doesn’t believe himself to be racist, but realises he has no black friends. He strives vainly to make some so he can prove his progressiveness to his boss. Finally, George fakes a friendship with his bug exterminator, but his boss sees through the ruse and now believes George is racist and callously manipulative. The boss exits, furious. When a young waiter innocently remarks that George’s departed boss looks like Sugar Ray Leonard, George races to catch him. But it’s too late. George’s behaviour throughout the episode has rendered the proof meaningless (‘The Diplomat’s Club’ by Tom Gammill and Max Pross).

The hope principle is not underpinned by any moral imperative. It’s completely unjust: it’s not fair that someone should retain hope against all odds and still be frustrated. But comedy is truth. The hope principle recognises that if the worst can happen, it probably will—even if, most of the time, the worst is not too bad.

You might think a similar principle underpins certain serious narratives, such as the hobbit Frodo Baggins’ journey into the dark land of Mordor in J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t.

Yes, Frodo faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles (the all-powerful magician Sauron) and he has enduring hope (‘Where there is life’, he says, ‘there is hope.’). But Frodo’s tools are more than sufficient for his task. His unbreakable sword can detect orcs and goblins. His vial of Elf cordial glows in the dark and blinds giant spiders. He’s accompanied by the future king, the mightiest wizard in the land, three of the toughest warriors in Middle Earth and his manservant, Sam, who will lay down his life for Frodo without hesitation. Best of all, Frodo bears a magic ring that makes him invisible and has the power to destroy Sauron and his armies. Frankly, Frodo couldn’t be better equipped if he had a Hummer with a machine-gun turret. As for his personal qualities, Frodo is brave and noble. For such a short-arse, he has remarkably few insecurities.
The hope principle belongs to comedy alone. Dramatic heroes have it easy by comparison.

The principle however does not always apply to secondary characters, who often serve different purposes for the writer. George Castanza’s parents, for instance, have one primary story function: to torture George. They’re well- equipped for torturing, with cantankerous natures, sharp tongues and thick skins. And they certainly don’t need any hope to rain misery upon their son, and each other.

But for a comic protagonist the hope principle is nearly always essential. The hope principle drives a comic hero far beyond rational limits in pursuit of their goal. To make this believable, the viewer must suspend their disbelief. Hope, no matter how slender or ill-founded, has the power to blind both the protagonist and the viewer to reality.

Comic stories tend to end in ironic failure. Shakespeare, whose comedies and tragedies follow Aristotle’s model, allows his comic heroes to fail ironically—that is, by discovering they never really wanted what they were striving for. Only the purest of heart will achieve their goal, but even then the victory is hollow. For instance, Robin in Robin Hood: Men In Tights (by Mel Brooks, Evan Chandler, J.D. Shapiro) marries Maid Marion, but can’t get her chastity belt open.

Conventional morality dictates that characters must overcome their personal flaws before they’re rewarded. Modern sitcoms often feature comic heroes who strive against obstacles and maintain an enduring hope of success, but because of their personal failings, they fail and end up where they started. For example, the main characters of The Hollowmen (by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch), always end with the status quo or worse. Any victories they gain are, as the name suggests, hollow. And no matter how hard Gilligan and his shipmates (Gilligan’s Island) try, they repeatedly fail to escape from the island. When at last they do escape (in the 1978 reunion special, Rescue From Gilligan’s Island by David P. Harmon, Al Schwartz, Elroy Schwartz and Sherwood Schwartz), it’s not long before they are stranded on the island once more.

If you’re wrestling with a scene that is close to funny but not quite there, try standing back and looking at the way the characters are striving for their goals. It may lack a desperate ‘any strategy is a good strategy’ edge because:
• The obstacles your comic hero faces may be too small.
• Your comic hero may be too capable of winning because of his personal attributes or the tools he has at hand.
• Your comic hero’s goal is not important enough to him or her.
• Your comic hero is pessimistic.

[Excerpt from ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy’
by Tim Ferguson]


By | December 17, 2016

‘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.’


‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Michelle Pfieiffer & Kevin Kline, 1999

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, 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.

Madeline Khan

Drama writers may think they’re showing life as it is, but if that were the case they would be making documentaries. Drama explores contemporary but universal issues with gritty, well-drawn characters in an intricately constructed narrative, performed by actors, backed up by stirring music and edited for dramatic effect. Drama’s subject matter may be real but the vehicle in which it’s presented is an artifice.

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’)
©Tim Ferguson