I want to talk about a model I’ve worked out for recognising how a certain kind of show works.
I’m pretty pleased with it. It's not sweeping; it really accounts for just a selection of shows. But I think it's a really useful model for understanding how certain stories are best told.
And I'm particularly interested in it because it concerns episodic shows: shows which may have a sense of progressive character arc and mytharc, but which are built to be discrete weekly outings.
Episodic TV is becoming a bit of a lost art in the age of the streamed binge-watch miniseries, so I think it's worth studying what it does well and how it does it. At its best episodic TV, be it comedy or drama, is a form able to tell dozens and even hundreds of individual stories, all of them individually interesting but all of them outings of a core set of themes and tensions. That's a form worth understanding and celebrating.
My theory starts with sitcom and I have to credit the Rule of Three podcast hosted by comedy writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris for a lot of the thought that informed it. There's frustratingly little out there on the formal study or history of comedy writing, but the comedy professionals who host and guest on Rule of Three talk about models and theories that inform their own writing and their understanding how the funny things they love work, and I've picked up a lot of my general ideas from there.
But as well as sitcom, more recently I’ve realised that the framework I'm going to set out here has a variation which can be applied to many dramas as well.
My hope is that explaining this paradigm I've perceived may be useful to people writing their own projects to whom these principles may apply. In this part, I'll talk about sitcom. I'll go on to talk about how I think drama can bolt onto the classic sitcom form, and then how the model looks for 'pure' drama. So I think we're looking at three parts altogether to cover all that!
And then once I’ve made the argument for how and where my model applies, I might I’m going to try and do a bit of a ‘fix-it’ pass on a show I have in mind, to see how, having recognised the pattern and what it does for a show, it might be used to spot and remedy where a show which has good bones is nonetheless falling over.
But let's get going with comedy!
I’m by no means the first person to come up with a formula for how sitcom casts divide into types. It’s no secret that sitcom runs on formula, repeating successful formats and templates and structures, but making them fresh each time with the particularities of the show. That doesn't mean they are formulaic, at least in the negative sense.
In any story form or piece of media there are the things you must keep locked-down and predictable in order to make room for the parts that it's important to be wild, unpredictable or subversive to be that. Unpredictably and surprise are so essential to the functioning of humour, this applies extra to sitcoms. It's essential that comedy it is given a framework which is just as predictable as you want the punchlines to be unpredictable.
To put it simply the 'sit' must be locked down so the 'com' can be its funniest.
The sitcom’s ultimate goal is to present characters in relationships both of which viewers feel they really get. That means it can bounce them around each other in a way which always delights. Expectation is the foundation of pleasing surprise: if a character reacts just as we would imagine we're delighted, both because it's rewarding to have our expectations met but also because there's always surprise (in a good sitcom) in how they're met.
For example, we might know that Blackadder is going to react to something Baldrick says with utter contempt, but Blackadder always surprises and delights us with the specific language he uses to do it. Or sometimes the gag is that the character responds quite differently to what we would have expected, and that's delightful and funny too. Once in a while, Blackadder says, "yes, good idea Baldrick" and because we have such certain expectations, that's funny too.
So it's important to bear in mind that though what I'm describing might sound formulaic, even reductive, it's a means by which to create space for the funny stuff.
Anyway, before I go into my own theory, let’s run through an existing formula so you get the idea of what kind of thing we’re talking about there.
The Family Paradigm
This is a long-standing sitcom formula which has been quoted by many though no one knows who, if any single source, originated it. It doesn’t have an official name as far as I know but I’m going call this one the Family Pardigm.
The Family Paradigm suggests that a huge amount of sitcom (and other groups too) involves four chief characters each of whom fits a particular archetypal role/personality within the group.
(I’ll be half quoting from this article, which concerns comedy writer Sarah Morgan's explanations of the terms.)
The patriarch: the driver, the motivated one, usually pushing whatever happens in the story
The matriarch: the counterbalancing force for stability
The craftsman: the self-reflective one, dissatisfied, and with aspirations of escape from the status quo of the sitcom’s ‘sit’
The clown: largely content with motivations that are only passing and impetuous; usually an idiot and to be deployed in fairly small doses
So to give an example, let’s start with a show we all know that uses the paradigm in its most obvious alignment:
The patriarch: Homer. Always chasing some new scheme
The matriarch: Marge. Always trying to pull everything back to the status quo
The craftsman: Lisa. Always dreaming of more than the family life can offer
The clown: Bart. Impetuous and if not stupid than usually behaves foolishly
Now, all this patriarch/matriarch stuff might sound like an old-fashioned view of family that we’ve moved past. But in fact this model posits that these roles still remain very rigid – but that who occupies each is flexible. I.e. it’s not by any means necessarily the dad in a family sitcom who occupies the Patriarch role in a sitcom.
E.g. In Roseanne as Sarah Morgan points out, it’s Roseanne herself who has the Patriarch role and Dan who had the Matriarch role.
And in fact though the language suggests a two parents/two children model, there’s actually no need for each example to divide along those lines either. Absolutely Fabulous is a sitcom in which all the main roles are female and the family structure is non-traditional, but you could still map it onto this formula:
So the family in question doesn’t have to be in any way traditional. In fact, they don’t even have to be a family. E.g. You could read the (series 3 onwards) cast of Red Dwarf which features four male peers in a fractious flatshare-like relationship with one another as:
In fact, you don’t even need to be in a sitcom to embody this dynamic.
So as we see, this is a framework with really broad applicability. It’s a good model. It’s a useful framework for running your work against. Sarah Morgan notes in the linked article how she found something she was writing came across more darkly than expected and running it against this framework made her realise that it was because there was no Matriarch figure to give us the sense everything was all right – that there was an ultimate force for stability around.
Once you understand a framework like this you can use it to spot where your work needs adjustment (if Morgan wanted her piece to be less dark, she’d add in a Matriarch figure), or having recognised it you can take control of intentionally subverting it (perhaps Morgan was pleased that her piece was dark, and having recognised that this edge of danger was provided by the lack of Matriarch and having understood the factor at play was able to make sure she kept that going).
But the broad applicability of the model can also be frustrating and vague. Understanding the idea of there being four basic archetypes within a sitcom cast is useful, but the model doesn’t suggest much about how these archetypes exist in relationship to one another, how they interact to respond to and generate story.
Metaphor break no. 1: imagine a medieval rack - but used by an osteopath: a way of taking characters and stretching their relationships into places of tension but only so far as to be usefully uncomfortable.
And I think I have different way of mapping these patterns. It’s more specific: my model doesn’t account for all sitcoms by any means. But it does account for a fair number directly, and once you understand it you can also begin to spot how other shows use parts and play with others to various effects. Understanding how one engine works from the ground up (if that's not mixing a metaphor too badly) can equip you to understand how others work.
My model is not so interested in character type but character role. Not what characters are like but what they must do to make the show go.
And because there’s no point in having a theory unless it sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel, I shall call it:
The Clown Hierarchy Paradigm
So you may or may not know, depending on how much time you have in your life for circus history, but there’s more than one role in clowning.
In a clown troupe, there are three traditional roles:
The Whiteface: the boss clown, the one who sets all the others to a task. If the skit has the clowns tackling a fire, he acts as a fire chief etc. The name comes from how this clown-role’s makeup separates him from the others: he has a white base to his facepaint, which originates as a parodising of the aristocracy. He also tends to wear clothes which ape and exaggerate the upper class and aristocracy.
The Redfaces, or Augustes: the classic clowns, the ones who do all the main clowning, the ones trying to accomplish whatever task they have been set. As they strive they fall over themselves and each other. There are two or more Augustes in a clown troupe and they operate in competition with other. This dynamic is where film clowns like Laurel and Hardy and the Three stooges spring from. These clowns either use their natural skin-tone as the base for their facepaint, or lay down a pink or red shade that originally sent up the rosy, tanned look of the rustic.
The Character Clown: a clown with a specific regonisable role to play outside of the general Auguste action and status competition. They might be a housewife or a policeman or some other distinct role clearly signaled by dress. Whatever it is, they have a status, function and costume that is marked apart from what’s going on with everyone else. One particular sub-type of Character Clown is the Tramp, a type Charlie Chaplin immortalised his own version of.
So what we see is a clear, closed circuit of hierarchy and status. The Whiteface is in charge, and the Augustes compete to impress him. The Character Clown is either low-status and appealing, or else occupies a role outside the status play. They are able thereby to bring in some counterpoint, wildcard energy.
My argument is that this clown troupe structure has evolved into an enduringly popular modern sitcom set-up. It's often, but not exclusively, seen in workplace sitcoms. So:
The Whiteface has evolved into a role I call the Eccentric Boss. This is, naturally enough, the person in charge. Either they personally, or the institution of which they are the face, operate in a way that is authoratiative but also unpredictable/mad enough to mean every week they are throwing a freshly provocative cat amongst the pigeons.
The Augustes have become – well, I still use the word Auguste for this rank because I find it has changed the least from the clowning concept. It has been codified into a specific form, though. Whereas in a clown troupe there’s likely to be a few Augustes to fall over each other, in modern British sitcom this troupe has reduced and concentrated to take the form of a double act. So I will introduce the term the Auguste Double Act. The Auguste Double act character are always the protagonists. We find the Auguste Double Act in the middle of the hierarchy, with an Eccentric Boss above them and a sense of someone (sometimes the Clown but not always) below. The Augustes have different but balanced statuses from each other. One will have the higher professional rank, while the other has more social capital, etc. The Augustes operate in a competitive but co-dependent relationship (whether that codependency comes of a trapping situation o from a purely emotional source. Usually it’s a mix).
The Character Clown has become the Clown. I hope the use of this word doesn’t become confusing, because the Clown archetype is not necessarily the same as the Clown archetype in the Family model. As I say the Family model is more descriptive of specific personality types whereas my model defines by role. In the Clown Hierarchy, the Clown’s role is to provide a sharp counterpoint energy from the status play going on with the rest of the troupe. Clowns aren’t subject to this status tension themselves, either because they’re low-status and happy with that, or because they have some kind of role which removes them from conventional status altogether. Clowns in this model are often impulsive idiots, as in the Family Paradigm’s definition, but they can also be, for instance, low-energy shamans like in The Mighty Boosh (more on which presently). The point is that however they act, it’s motivated differently and manifests differently from the dominant tone and energy.
To illustrate the comparison visually, here's a few sitcom casts alongside that image of a classic clown troupe. Notice how the clothes here continue to do what the clowns' various outfits do - denote who exists in what rank.
… So that’s probably rather a lot to digest, and the best way to explain in a more sticking way is probably to get into some examples. So let’s get into some!
I’m going to start with one of the most straight-cut modern examples of a four-person sitcom with the Clown Hierarchy roles played very classically, and that’s John Finnemore’s radio sitcom, Cabin Pressure. It’s such a clear fit that if you know the show, you’ll probably be able to skip ahead and recognise who fits where in this framework.
Cabin Pressure’s ‘sit’ (i.e. situation, the ‘sit’ part of ‘sitcom’) is that of a very small charter airline – or, as the show has it “an airdot. You can’t put one plane in a line.”.
The entire staff of the airdot are pilots Captain Martin Crief and First Mate Douglas Richardson, owner-manager of the business Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, and her son, Arthur Shappey, who works as cabin crew.
Eccentric Boss: Carolyn. As I mentioned in my description of the Eccentric Boss role, it might be the character themselves or the circumstances they represent which provides the eccentricities. Whether by quirks of personality or circumstance (or both), the Boss character needs to be someone who can functionally and believably push the Augustes to the extremes under which they’ll become most active and funny. In Cabin Pressure’s case, the circumstances provide the eccentricities and Carolyn herself provides the boss-ness. I.e. the setting of a small charter air firm immediately provides a scope for varied situations and circumstances, and the positioning of MJN Air specifically as being a minute business always teetering on the edge of bankruptcy allows for the company to be picking up some unusual jobs or going to some crazy extremes. Add to that the fact that Carolyn is a steely and sometimes desperate CEO and we find her well placed to be the reason the pilots have to work Christmas Day, or become a wildlife-spotting plane at a moment’s notice or any of the other extremes to which they are pushed.
Auguste Double Act: the pilots, Martin and Douglas. Finnemore borrows a trick from Dad’s Army and has the guy that obviously should be the captain be the second-in-command and vice versa. That immediately creates the status tension I’ve described above as being centrally necessary to an Auguste Double Act. First Officer Douglas Richardson is posh, smooth, experienced, quick-witted and unflabbable. Meanwhile Captain Martin Crief is neurotic, inexperienced, awkward and easily panicked. But he’s the captain. He openly cares desperately about that, but Douglas cares every bit as much underneath his louche exterior, and that status issue that matters so deeply to both of them is why the two constantly come into tension and, frequently, conflict. Carolyn the Eccentric Boss provides the circumstances that push the Augustes to extremes, and the Augustes reliably react by competing with each other.
Clown: Arthur. As I mentioned, the Clown is there to provide refreshing points of something from outside all this status-driven main plot. They will frequently have a flighty or whimsical nature to best absent them from the bounds of conventional status and equip them to bring a non-sequitorial energy to proceedings. In Cabin Pressure, Arthur has a low-status role but his childlike personality (and his familial relationship to the Boss) frees him from being defined by status relationships. He is earnestly happy with his lot in life and has no ambitions or sense of competition with anyone. Another important role of the Clown is their ability to unite the Augustes. The Boss tends to divide, by being the one bringing in the plot that will prompt the Augustes to compete and conflict. The Clown offers an external point the Augustes can agree upon – they agree that he is an idiot. In Cabin Pressure it is often a shared attitude towards Arthur (be that frustration or amused teasing) that sees Martin and Douglas agreeing or even working together rather than against each other.
Simple enough, right? I start with Cabin Pressure because it so neatly maps onto the framework. I should say that while I believe the dynamic I have described is fundamental to the shows I'm discussing it doesn’t mean every single episode of, say, Cabin Pressure, will do the thing of directly pitting Martin and Douglas against each other. Sometimes in Cabin Pressure the plot happens because a one-off character external to the regular troupe is acting antagonistically and the team work together against that.
But Finnemore has talked about how, nice as those kinds of episodes are, there cannot be too many because the engine of the show is this underlying tension in the main characters’ status relationships. They must be an exception and not the rule.
Metaphor break no. 2: sitcoms are closed circuits. The status tension is a static energy, and each episode begins with something happening to convert that static energy to kinetic. It bounces around the circuit of players for the space of the episode until something happens to turn it back into the static energy of simmering tension. It’s like, well, a game of fizz-buzz.
So Cabin Pressure is a really clear example of this Paradigm. But not all sitcoms that fit map with such immediate obviousness.
The thing is that the TV screen isn’t the circus tent. In clowning – a lively pantomime played to the back seats of a Big Top – there is only room for broad ‘types’ to be assigned to individual clowns, and role and personality must be one and the same. But TV is character-driven and 'role' and 'personality' have become somewhat separable. A character on TV might have a clownish personality but not be the Clown. A character on TV might be a boss but not the Boss.
I believe these roles remain pretty rigidly necessary but sitcoms don’t always fulfil them in such a direct way as the Cabin Pressure example. Let’s next take a look at a couple of sitcoms where one of the roles in each example bears a little more examination: The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh.
The IT Crowd
The IT Crowd‘s ‘sit’ is of the IT department in a large and anonymous company. The show kicks off when new hire Jen Barber is appointed to manage the department despite having no computer expertise, and moves into the basement office of IT specialists Roy Trenneman and Maurice Moss.
Eccentric Boss: Douglas Reyholm. Things are simple enough at the top of the hierarchy. The head of the company, Douglas Reynholm (played by Eccentric-Boss-actor-extraordinaire Matt Berry) is exactly what you’d think of from the archetype’s name. In the spectrum of whether it’s more the boss or the cirumstances providing the eccentricities, Douglas Reynholm is at the opposite end of the scale from Carolyn Knapp-Shappey. The company itself is perfectly mundane and boring/vague of operation. It’s Reynholm who is nuts.
It’s worth noting that The IT Crowd’s first series featured a different boss; Denholm Renholm played by Chris Morris. He was certainly odd, but in his case not in a way which particularly fueled unpredictability of plot or gave rise to crazy new situations for the protagonists. He had no special relationship with or interest in the IT department distinct from his attitude to the wider company. Douglas, when he came in, did. I wonder if these missed Eccentric Boss points were the reason for the character being swapped out. It is in the Berry seasons the show seemed to get its engine running consistently and the show took off in popularity.
Auguste Double Act: It’s as we get to the Auguste level that we need to take a harder look at who fits where. Because if you know the show and were asked to name the central relationship or double act in The IT Crowd you might say that it’s Roy and Moss. But it would be a mistake to imagine that because they are a frequent duo that they represent the Auguste Double Act of the show. In fact, they don’t have that crucial Auguste relationship: they’re not in competition, they don’t have a latent status-tension which is needled by the new obstacles and aspirations that the plot throws at them. Moss isn’t really in conflict with anyone. In fact, he is really the Clown.
It’s Roy and Jen who form the Auguste Double Act. It’s her entry into the IT department that starts the show and she and Roy balance out each other’s statuses perfectly. She’s the head of the department, but he’s the one who knows anything about IT and whose environment this already is.
Every show has its own particular version of 'status' that most concerns the characters. In Cabin Pressure status has to do with professionalism and professional prestige. Job as identity. In The IT Crowd the status tension has a lot to do with social standing. The show is about weirdo geekery coming into conflict with normalcy. So Roy and Jen most frequently compete for the status of greater social acceptability.
Clown: meanwhile Moss doesn’t have any aspirations around that kind of self image. As he says himself, “Weird’s all I’ve got. That and my sweet style”. His mannered ways and flattened affect is also distinct against the more naturalistic tones of Roy and Jen meaning he brings in a sharply different energy. He’s a classic Clown, he’s just a more prominent one than in the classic model.
But the fact that Moss is often involved in the A-plots, rather than being reserved for side-stories or non-sequitorial moments running at a counterpoint to that, means he’s not always placed to wholly cover the Clown role on his own. If Moss is already playing in the main plot, he can’t pop up to offer something fresh and amusingly unexpected from the outside.
And so what we see is the introduction of a secondary back-up Clown to fill this gap: the recurring character of Richmond (played by Noel Fielding), a secret fourth member of the IT department who lives in the server cupboard and is gothy to the point of being an outright vampire. Where the wider show is reasonably naturalistic, with only edges of heightening and surrealness, Richmond’s concept, look and performance all has a foot firmly planted in the fantastical. If Richard Ayoade’s performance as Moss is a step towards the stylised, Noel Fielding’s as Richmond is fully occupying that territory. His performance is so out of step it even leads to fourth-wall-nudging jokes. He’s filmed differently, and the other characters try to work out what he's doing when he is presenting a dramatic pose directly to camera.
All this would be enough to tip the balance of the show and reset the show’s ‘normal’ if he was too frequent a player, but sensibly his appearences are reserved. But he’s ready to deploy in situations where a Clown energy and role is called for and Moss is unable to quite cover that slot.
I should be clear that I’m not necessarily saying that the writers in question are filling these roles consciously. Comedy writers do tend to be quite aware of and interested in mechanics and structure, I think, but I’d be surprised if the writer of The IT Crowd (who I’m not going to name because ugh that guy) cooly calculated that because Moss had shifted off the Clown’s base a little he needed to invent a secondary Clown. I’d imagine that the character of Richmond emerged in a more collaborative and instinctual way Models such as the one I’m proposing are useful as a conscious checkpoint for a writer who feels that something is getting lost or steering oddly in their work, but I think frames like tend to manifest amongst the experienced as learned instincts. A star to guide by rather than an exact map of the territory.
The Mighty Boosh
The Mighty Boosh is a show with a reputation for wilful whimsy and ‘surreality’ but in fact it follows a very neatly executed classic sitcom format.
The Mighty Boosh spanned three series and in each the ‘sit’ of the com was reset to something new and the characters reshuffled a bit, in accordance with its Brechtian-children’s-show style presentation. For the sake of clarity, I’ll be talking here specifically about the set-up of the first series.
In this series the action is set in a small zoo in which our main characters, Howard Moon and Vince Noir, work as zookeepers. There is no sense of a separate home life; functionally they seem to live entirely at the zoo. But most of their exploits take them into zones of adventure whether story-book-like versions of real places (the jungle, the Arctic tundra) or total fantasy inventions like a ‘zoo for delinquent animals’. Despite these trappings of fantasy adventure, episodes are tight and classic sitcom forms with the cast employing the four-person Clown Hierarchy Paradigm neatly. The zoo is managed by Bob Fossil, and there are recurring appearances from a figure who incongruously and inexplicably lives within the zoo, the shaman Naboo the Enigma.
Those four characters I have named would seem to account for the roles of the Clown Hierarchy, and indeed they mostly do, but as with The IT Crowd there are some informative idiosyncrasies to observe in exactly how the show orders its Boss, Augustes and Clown types.
With The IT Crowd I gave the example of how Clown duties were split: there the main Clown was serving as a more major player and so losing some of his ability to always operate as the classic Clown, meaning the show had space for a second more extreme Clown to fill in the gaps. In The Mighty Boosh we see a similar thing only with the Boss.
Eccentric Boss: Bob Fossil is nominally the boss and he is indeed very eccentric. He’s just not very high-status in anything but name. He's not very powerful. In the radio series version of The Boosh that prefigured the TV outing, Fossil did fulfil the classic Eccentric Boss role, instigating the circumstances which would set off the episode’s plot and retaining enough authority to get the Augustes into situations and for him to be a stick by which their personal standing was measured. But in the TV series his eccentricity has been pushed to the point he’s too wacked-out to have the status to really make Howard and Vince do anything, let alone motivate them seek to impress or please him. But that’s fine, because there is a second Boss ready to step in to serve this role where needed: Dixon Bainbridge (played by Matt Berry again) who is the owner of the zoo
Auguste Double Act: Howard and Vince are classic Augustes, finely balanced in different kinds of status. In fact I would say a problem which crept in a little in later series was how the Auguste statuses got knocked off-balance with each other. Vince becoming too high-status against Howard. But in the zoo setting Vince’s greater cool and social ease is off-set by Howard’s greater status (or at least semi-successful affect of greater status) as a zookeeper
Clown: Naboo is the Clown. As I’ve mentioned above, sometimes being the Clown means being zany and colourful and having an outsized performance. But sometimes, as in The Mighty Boosh, all those qualities are already the norm of the show and the Clown needs to be something else to provide a fresh counterpoint. So Naboo is played with a listless, low-energy, can’t-be-bothered performance. In the later series Naboo is to become a bigger part of the show and actually step into the Boss role instead of Bob Fossil. But for now he’s a non-sequitorial Clown, his very lack of context and story the joke
It’s an interesting side-note to observe that later series The Boosh developed a whole secondary group which also ran on Clown Hierarchy. That was the Board of Shaman characters from which the characters of Tony Harrison and Saboo served as Augustes, while the Head Shaman Dennis was the Boss. The presence of a small boy incongruously among the council provided the Clown energy (again, against all the zaniness in the main the cast the Clown here actually ends up being the deadpan straight-man presence).
Looking at these examples we can see that the roles that make up the Clown Hierarchy Paradigm can be manouverable. Personality and function have become separable. A literal boss might actually be low-status rather than serving as a Boss, and a Clown role might be low-energy.
So while these are the roles that must be fulfilled for a sitcom following this template to work, we see that there’s more than one way of fulfilling them. There’s room for organic growth. E.g. if a character like Moss outgrows the limited confines of operating on Clown terms, he can be allowed to expand into a more prominent role and you can cover the territory he leaves behind with a second, more extreme Clown.
I’ve used the metaphor of a closed circuit. Another might be of a box.
Metaphor break no. 3: the Clown Hierarchy has a lid (the Eccentric Boss), sides (the Augustes) and a bottom (the Clown). That’s a great structure for a sitcom. A box keeps the energy bounding around inside. The Boss keeps it contained at the top because they represent the ultimate stake or danger in any episode. In a classic sitcom the highest stake for the Augustes is that the Boss will be cross with their failings.
It might read as futile, the idea that the Augustes will always bounce around the walls and off the top but it’s also comforting. They’ll never drop out the bottom either. Sitcoms are designed to keep the energy bouncing around the cast because, so long as you’ve built your characters well, that’s always where you’re going to find the good stuff.
As I said near the top, comedy thrives on predictability because it thrives on surprise: the latter requires the former.
So sitcom works with the closed circuit or box, because it thrives on the structure being known and predictable to clear the right space for the unexpected. You can’t be surprised into a laugh if you haven’t been given the means to form expectations.
But, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t think the Clown Hierarchy Paradigm is limited to classic sitcom. I think it can be employed for drama.
Next time I'm going to take a look at what happens when you take the lid off the box...