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 while they may have a sense of progressive character arc and mytharc, are built to operate as 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 while also being outings of a core set of themes and tensions. That's a form worth understanding and celebrating.
My theory centres on 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 the writing of people they admire, and I've picked up a lot of my general ideas from there.
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 which 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!
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 that goes against our expectations, that's funny too.
The foundation of either joke is the audience having a very clear understanding of the characters at play, and the expectations around them.
So it's important to bear in mind that though what I'm going to describe 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 etc.
Sarah Morgan in the linked article gives the example of Roseanne: in that show, it’s Roseanne herself who has the Patriarch role and husband 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 - 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 was able to make sure she didn't put one in).
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.
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 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 'Whiteface' reflects this authority too: this kind of clown traditionally has a white base to his face-paint, which originates in the 18th century as a parodising of the aristocracy and their powdered faces. 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. In a 'putting out a fire' skit, they're the firefighters. 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. While the Whiteface face-paint orginates as a parody of the pale aristocracy, the Redface clown uses either his natural skintone or a pink/red base to imitate the ruddy tones of the low-status, comically foolish/drunk 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 costume. Whatever it is, they have a status, function and look 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, and is thus able to inject a different energy to keep things lively and unexpected.
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. they might be personally eccentric, or the eccentricity might come from the nature of the institution the preside over. This character has the authority and status to create situations, and embodies enough eccentricity that these situations are extreme and weird.
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. 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 concentrated to take the form of a double act. So I will introduce the term Auguste Double Act. The Auguste Double Act characters are always the protagonists of a sitcom. Hierarchy-wise, we find the Auguste Double Act in the middle, 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. E.g. 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 or from a purely emotional source. Usually it’s a mix).
The Character Clown has become the Wildcard. In the Clown Hierarchy, the Wildcard’s role is to provide a sharp counterpoint energy from the status play going on with the rest of the troupe. Wildcards 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. Wildcards in this model are often impulsive idiots, similar to the archetype of the 'Clown' in the Family Paradigm, but their wildcard/status-less-ness can manifest in other ways as suits the particular sitcom, as we shall see presently.
It;s often possible to see these types just from looking at a sitcom cast. Notice how the clothes here continue to do what the clowns' outfits do - denote who exists in what rank. I mentioned how clown costuming and make-up evolved to parody particular ranks of society (the Whiteface being a take on the high-status aristocrat; the Redface being a take on the rustic) and that same basic function is very much present in sitcom too. We still have costumes and aesthetics that define us (just look at how synonyms for the working-class and middle-class are 'blue collar' and 'white collar') and comics continue to mimic those cues in their dress in order to reflect societal 'types' with immediate recognisability.
… 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 thst has the Clown Hierarchy roles played very classically, and that’s John Finnemore’s brilliant 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’ 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: owner-manager of the business Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, pilots Captain Martin Crief and First Mate Douglas Richardson, and Arthur Shappey, who is Carolyn's son and works as cabin crew.
Eccentric Boss: Carolyn. As I mentioned, with the Eccentric Boss role the eccentricity might be provided by the personality of the occupant, or the circumstances of which they are the face. In this case it's more the latter: MJN Air is a business so small it is perpetually on the edge of collapse and that provides impetus for Carolyn to get the crew into some very eccentric situations in order to make money and survive. She is highly motivated to keep the business going and more than happy to be rather tyrannical about getting the pilots into what ever eccentric scenario she feels is necessary to make money , and so it all adds up to a very effective Eccentric Boss.
Auguste Double Act: the pilots, Martin and Douglas. On a flight deck there's a very clear hierarchy of Captain and First Officer, and such a pairing wouldn't serve as an Auguste Double act because such a pairing need a parioty of status. But Finnemore borrows a trick from Dad’s Army: he has the guy that obviously should be the captain be the second-in-command and vice versa. First Officer Douglas Richardson is posh, smooth, experienced, quick-witted and unflabbable. Meanwhile Captain Martin Crief is neurotic, inexperienced, awkward and easily panicked. That immediately balances the two characters and creates the status tension I’ve described above as being centrally necessary to an Auguste Double Act. Martin openly cares desperately about being sen as the Captain, and Douglas cares every bit as much underneath his louche exterior. This unresolved status tension is the main engine of the sitcom. It's the spring always ready to be sprung. Carolyn the Eccentric Boss reliably provides the circumstances that push the Augustes to extremes, and the Augustes reliably react by competing with each other.
Wildcard: Arthur. As I mentioned, the Wildcard 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 function of the Wildcard 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 Wildcard 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.
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 deals in close-ups. So 'Role' and 'personality' have become somewhat separable. A character on TV might have a screwy personality but not be the Wildcard. A character on TV might be a boss but not the Boss.
I believe these roles remain pretty rigid in that there must be someone fulfilling each part, 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 generic 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 existing IT specialists Roy Trenneman and Maurice Moss.
Eccentric Boss: Douglas Reyholm. This at least is nice and obvious: Douglas Reynholm could be the dictionary definition of an Eccentric Boss. Unlike Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, the eccentricity here all comes from personality: while the company is unextraordinary and vague, its CEO is mad as a bag of cut snakes.
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 worked for the Eccentric Boss function. He had no special relationship with or interest in the IT department distinct from his attitude to the wider company and so he wasn't well-placed to reliably bring the kind of extremity into the lives of the Augustes that an Eccentric Boss should. I wonder if these missed Eccentric Boss points were the reason for the character being swapped out. It is in the subsequent seasons that 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 frequently played as a duop, in storylines together, 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 Wildcard.
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 'normalcy' and acceptability.
Wildcard: 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 Wildcard, he’s just a more prominent one than in the most straightforward 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, does mean that he’s not always able to wholly cover the Wildcard 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 Wildcard 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. His Kiss-like goth facepaint even makes him look like a literal clown. If Richard Ayoade’s performance as Moss is a step towards the stylised, Noel Fielding’s as Richmond is fully occupying that territory.
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 appearances are reserved. But as it is he’s ready to deploy in situations where a Wildcard 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 good writer he might be but good human being he ain't) cooly calculated that because Moss had shifted off the Wildcard’s base a little he needed to invent a secondary Wildcard. 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 this tend to manifest among 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 only.
In this series the action is set in a small zoo in which our main characters, Howard Moon and Vince Noir, work as zookeepers. 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. There is no sense of a separate home life; the characters exist entirely within 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 lands. Despite these trappings of fantasy adventure, episodes are tight and classic sitcom forms with the cast employing the four-person Clown Hierarchy Paradigm neatly.
As with The IT Crowd there are some informative idiosyncrasies to observe in exactly how the show orders its Boss, Augustes and Wildcard types.
With The IT Crowd I gave the example of how Wilcard duties were split: there the main Wildcard was serving as a more major player than the standard and so losing some of his ability to always operate as the classic Wildcard, meaning the show had space for a second more extreme Wildcard to fill in the gaps. In The Mighty Boosh we see a similar thing only with the Eccentric Boss role.
Eccentric Boss: Bob Fossil is nominally the boss of the zoo and he is certainlyvery 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, retaining enough authority in addition to his eccentricity to be able to instigate story and competition between the Auguste Double Act. But come the TV series Fossil's 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 Eccentric-Boss-actor-extrordinarie Matt Berry again. He is the owner of the zoo, and not a regular cast-member but available to bring into episodes where there's a particular need to motivate story.
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
Wildcard: Naboo is the Wildcard. As I’ve mentioned above, sometimes being the Wildcard means being zany and colourful and having an outsized performance. But in The Mighty Boosh, all those qualities are already the norm of the show, and so the Wildcard needs to be something else to provide a fresh counterpoint. So Naboo is the Wildcard but being 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 Wildcard, his very lack of context being 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. Head Shaman Dennis was the Eccentric Boss; Tony Harrison and Saboo served as Augustes; and the incongruous presence and deadpan performance of a small boy among the council provided the Wildcard energy (again, against all the zaniness in the main the cast the Wildcard here actually ends up being the low-energy 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 Wildcard role might be the opposite of 'wild' in 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 Wildcard 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 Wildcard.
I’ve used the metaphor of a closed circuit. Another might be of a box.
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 enough. You've built a whole microcosmis society there. We are all the frustrated person in the middle on the hierarchy with mad decisions above us and idiots around us.
If this model suggests predictability, it's because that makes space for the unpredictability so necessary to comedy.
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...