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Clown Hierarchy pt. 2: inbetweens

Updated: Dec 11, 2021

In Part 1 I explained a model I thought had evolved from clowning traditions and now formed the base of many a great TV show.

While there are other models for mapping sets of characters to archetypal personalities (and some which overlap happily with this one), mine is interested less in archetypes of character and more in archetypes of role and relationship.

I proposed a kind of closed circuit:

At the top of the hierarchy, an Eccentric Boss who has the power and will to create the circumstances that motivate those below, and who is (or represents circumstances that are) a bit mad to make sure they are placed to cause the funniest and most extreme plots.

In the middle of the hierarchy, Augustes. In British examples there are always two of these, a double act. The Augustes exist in total status balance to each other, and total rivalry. They are foils: tripping over each other is really tripping over themselves. Whenever the Eccentric Boss introduces a particular motivation, they strive to do it and do it better than each other.

And the Wildcard, who may be low-status but more broadly is just outside the status-struggle of the Augustes but doesn't strive or compete for anything else. Their personality is distinct from the dominant tone too - often a little more heightened in some way. They provide small-ish doses of this counterpoint energy to break up the dominating status-tension-based story.

In a sitcom founded on this framework the Eccentric Boss issues the challenges, the Augustes strive to meet that challenge in competition with each other, and the Wildcard provides variety by operating outside all that and having a personality/view quite at odds with the others'.

Hopefully the examples I gave illustrate the idea at its clearest. In British sitcoms, which tend to only have a few characters in the main cast and the Auguste troupe boiled down to a double act, the mechanics should read nice and clearly. But the British model isn't the only way to play the basic set up.

Clown hierarchy: American edition

So we need to first consider a few things about how US sitcoms differ from UK sitcoms:

1. As I’ve said, my Clown Hierarchy model runs on status tension. But Americans are concerned with different models of class and status than Brits. I’ve also mentioned before that every well-built sitcom has its own particular flavour of ‘status’. In The IT Crowd the values are to do with geek cache and normalcy. In Cabin Pressure it’s about professional status etc. America generally of course has a whole different sense of, and relationship with, class than does Britain, so their status plays are going to be informed by different interests to ours. You’re not going to get distinctions drawn along lines like ‘this guy is clearly officer-class but he’s the sergeant, whereas the actual officer is only petit bourgeois’. But you might get ‘this guy is a winner and he has to deal with all these losers’.

2. American sitcoms are bigger. By which I mean, American shows have bigger casts, a bigger ‘precinct’ (i.e. more locations across which they operate and interact with more people), and more episodes per season. I think the number of characters and the number of episodes is connected - you can simply fill more telly when you have more characters - and both are the direct consequence of differences of size between UK and US writing teams. British sitcoms are almost always written completely by a single two-person partnerships. US sitcoms have whole teams of people writing them. Each model has its own advantages. British sitcoms are often very particular and unique of vision, coming from the shared imagination of a pair who usually have a long-standing partnership. US sitcoms have a lot of people in the writing to smooth out each others' rough edges, and as I say a big writers' room (usually) means a big on-screen cast with lots of variety in voice and type.

3. Relatedly, American comedy has scant ongoing tradition of the double-act in its comedy performance. The nation largely left the structure behind in vaudeville and early film, in contrast to Britain which retains this as its basic unit of comedy writing and performance. That’s for a lot of historical reasons that are far too tangential and arcane to go into here. The point is that British comedy is founded on the partnership and double act, both in its writing and its performance, and US comedy is not.

Which hints that we might be looking at a different set-up in US comedy for the Augustes...


Main cast of sitcom Community

Chang (Ken Jeong), Abed (Danny Pudi), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Jeff (Joel McHale), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), Annie (Alison Brie), Troy (Donald Glover) and Pierce (Chevy Chase)

I think Community is a really good example of a Clown Hierarchy expanded for a big-precinct American comedy.

Community’s ‘sit’ is that of a study group within a US Community College. The event that catalyses the series is protagonist Jeff Winger, who has been a successful lawyer, having his degree discovered to be fraudulent and so needing to earn the qualification for real in order continue in his high-flying life. He attends Greendale Community College, a badly-funded institution with low standards. So the status tensions at play are between Jeff’s yuppie, aspirational ‘winner’ values and standards, and the weird, non-mainstream ‘loser’ culture of the college.

Jeff falls into a study group with six other characters: Britta, Pierce, Shirley, Troy, Annie and Abed. And though initially this is a self-serving operation for him, the group soon becomes something more like the ‘community’ of the title.

Within the college’s population there is also a wider cast of recurring characters, both notable students and the equally odd professors and administrative staff that preside over them.

Eccentric Boss: in the early seasons, this is clear enough – it’s Chang. He’s not in charge of the whole college, but he is in charge of that part of it which defines the Augustes’ relationship. He teaches the class that brings them together. He fits the Eccentric Boss role very neatly: he is eccentric to the point of psychosis and happily and effectively tyrannical. He is very well placed to be the one creating the circumstances which drive the Augustes to their most active, conflicting and funny places. He will issue unreasonable homework demands, outrageous punishment activities and so on.

Later on the progression of the show moves him out of the Boss role (as the study group pass his class) and different authority figures come to the fore.

The Dean is the most consistent of those. His personal authority is largely nominal, but that’s all right. By this point in the show there’s been enough of a ‘buy-in’ to the motivations and stakes of the Augustes that the situation is its own Boss to a large extent. The protagonists are strongly motivated to do all right at college and pass their classes from the off, but as the show goes on it also builds the sense that Greendale college is its own motivating factor. The characters become increasingly ride-or-die for their peculiar school, and we become increasingly ready to believe that it will demand some strange things of them. So the Boss function kind of takes care of itself to a large degree one the college’s own particular world is established. Indeed the lengths the study group are willing to go to is more than once the subject of the joke.

Augustes: the whole study group are the Augustes. As I have said, there’s no central tradition of the double-act in US sitcom, plus US sitcoms are bigger of cast. In a US sitcom like Community, the Augustes are a gang.

Or perhaps think of it like a pool. In any given episode protagonist Jeff Winger will remain a consistent half of the Auguste story, the A-plot. But who in particular he is playing against from within the study group will vary week to week. In one episode he might be clashing with Annie, his cynicism and her youthful idealism coming into conflict. Another episode he might be vying with Abed for leadership status. The basic Auguste status conflict remains consistent: Jeff's shallow, sophisticated 'winner' values versus the study group's earnest, honest 'loser' values. But each member of the study group has a different angle to bring to bear on that basic conflict.

Wildcards: Just as there is a bigger Auguste gang/pool so there is a larger Wildcard pool. And just to be confusing, a lot of them are the same people.

I’ve talked about how in a given episode a different member or two of the study group will step forward to vie with Jeff over a particular angle of the central ‘winner/loser’ tensions. The characters who aren’t serving in that role that week are available to serve as Wildcards.

For example, I gave an example of an episode conflict where Jeff and Abed vie for leadership status over the rest of the group and so embody the main Auguste conflict/plot. But in many other episodes Abed plays as pure Wildcard; appearing only to inject a strikingly different energy to the main plot. In particular, he and Troy form a friendship which gets more and more strange and childlike and this is probably the most frequently seen Wildcard energy in the show. Whole running-gags and subplots develop from the rich seam of Wildcard energy that is Troy and Abed's shared whimsy.

Pierce is another member of the Auguste gang who is often called upon for Wildcarding when not playing in the A-plot. Being played by the excellent physical comedian Chevy Chase as well as having a character who is already quite out of step with, and more extreme than, the rest of the study group, he is well placed to provide his own striking funny moments outside of any story context.

But in addition to the way the study group can work as Wildcards, there are recurring figures from Greendale’s wider student body who are always Wildcards.

Garrett, Starburns, Vicki, Leonard and Magnitude are some of the presences that pop(-pop) up in the show from time to time to provide their own particular brands of non-sequitorial energy outside the status play and plot going on.

Roles within the sitcom Community
Eccentric Boss: Chang / Augustes: the study group / Clowns: students, both study group and non-study-group

Plugging in drama

Red Dwarf

Screenshot of main cast from sitcom Red Dwarf (series one)
Cat (Danny John-Jules), Lister (Craig Charles), Rimmer (Chris Barrie) and Holly (Norman Lovett)

I briefly mentioned Red Dwarf in Part 1, where I mapped the cast onto the Family Paradigm well. But that accounted for the show's cast as they were arranged from its third series onwards. Before it was a Family Paradigm show, it was a Clown Hierarchy show.

Red Dwarf is a science fiction sitcom, in which the ‘sit’ is... well, it's a whole premise. But for the sake of brevity, it is about a man called Dave Lister who becomes the only surviving member of a spaceship's crew, woken from cryogenic sleep millions of years after he went in. In the absence of any living humans being left, his only companions are Arnold Rimmer, his old roommate/colleague resurrected as a kind of hollographic ghost, Cat, the humanoid result of millions of years of evolution starting with the domestic cat, and Holly, the ship's AI interface.

Previously I've used the image of a box to conceptualise this Clown Hierarchy: the Augustes and the sides, the Wildcard is the bottom, and the Boss is the lid. As long as that box is closed, the energy can only bounce around inside that space. The biggest stake and authority that's felt will be the Boss's reaction.

I ended part 1 by hinting that moving the comedic model into somewhat dramatic territory involved 'taking the lid off' this box.

Actually I think the more precise imagery would be to say that Red Dwarf is an example of what can happen when you don't so much remove the lid as just unclip it and leave it standing diagonally atop the box like you do when you’ve just put some hot leftovers into a tuppaware and you want to leave them to cool.

The lid doesn't go away. It just doesn't fully seal off the box. Air can get in.

So the Boss in this outing is present but no longer the highest authority and fear allowed to impact proceedings.


Auguste Double Act: Lister and Rimmer.

Wildcard: the Cat.

Eccentric Boss: well... kind of Holly, kind of not.

I’ve described how the functions of the Eccentric Boss role - to generate crazy circumstances and goals and to have the authority to motivate the other characters to go along with it - can be provided more by the personality of the player, or more by the circumstances. E.g. an example of the former is The IT Crowd wherethe nature of the company that employs our characters is quite ordinary, but the Boss himself is nuts. An example of the latter is Cabin Pressure, where Eccentric Boss Caroline is quite sane, if verging on the tyrannical - but the company they work for is positioned to generate eccentric demands.

In Red Dwarf's case, Holly certainly has an eccentric personality, but he has no real personal status, or interest in status, over Rimmer and Lister. He messes with them, but he’s on their side and ultimately operates at Lister’s bidding.

So is it then the situation that’s the Boss in Red Dwarf? I’d take it further than that and say the whole Boss role is doing something different to what we’ve seen so far, and that this is how the drama function of Red Dwarf slots in.

Red Dwarf doesn’t have a true Boss character because not having a single figure who represents the ultimate authority and stakes in a story means the characters are available and vulnerable to the drama of the wider world of the show. They have to meet and deal with external threats and opportunities.

You might be familiar with the idea of there being three basic kinds of conflict a story can centre on:

Man versus man / man versus nature / man versus self.

A sitcom as I have previously described it is always founded on ‘man versus man’. The Clown Hierarchy Paradigm balances characters in relationships of rivalry and tension, and balances them so finely that each outing of these tensions represents a zero-sum game. It's a 'man versus man' story that will never resolve with an ultimate winner or loser. There will be small victories for one Auguste or the other but ultimately they will continue to exist in a pretty exact status parity.

But Red Dwarf opens the top of the box enough to allow for another kind of conflict to be allowed in: ‘man versus nature’ elements.

In Red Dwarf the characters are frequently motivated by forces external to their circle as they encounter anomalies of space-time, monsters and other examples of science fiction invention.

The show is at its best when these threats and challenges take a form that reflects back on the characters and their relationships. Red Dwarf is still fundamentally a character-led comedy . But the point is that without the upper limit of a true Boss sealing the parameters of the situation, Red Dwarf also manages to include the wider stakes of a ‘man versus nature’ story.

Main cast of Red Dwarf (pre-series 3)
Eccentric Boss: drama / Auguste Double Act: Rimmer and Lister / Clown: Cat

‘Taking the lid off’ by having no single figure as the ultimate authority and stake in a sitcom can be used in different ways. In Red Dwarf it allows for science fiction stories to unfold. They're dramatic but the tone of Red Dwarf remains fun.

While Holly doesn't cap the show in a true Boss role he's still vital to setting the tone and expectations of what's coming in at that level. Since Holly is ditzy and deadpan, the drama always comes with a sense of reassurance.

The term I use for this variation on the Boss role is the Eccentric Miniboss: the figure who sets the tone by which the upper stakes and authority interact with our Augustes but is no where near the last word or biggest danger.

In this variation on the paradigm, there are figures who represent a higher-status, danger and authority, figures to and institutions to whom the Augustes are accountable and punishable by. But there is no one person and no one institution that comfortably stands as the highest stake/authority on the show. We get a steer on the scope and tone of that wider universe from those Minibosses but they are only partial representatives of it.

In Red Dwarf this model is used to allow for external sources of drama. Holly as the most prominent Miniboss of the show helped set the tone and expectations with his deadpan, comic personality that though drama was getting in it didn't have to get heavy.

But there are very different ways to play the same mechanic.

Peep Show

Main characters of sitcom Peet Show
Jeremy (Robert Webb) and Mark (David Mitchell)

Peep Show is a domestic sitcom, centring on the home and social lives of flatmates/embitteredly co-dependent friends Mark Corrigan and Jeremy ‘Jez’ Usborne. They are a classic Auguste Double Act, in constant conflict and competition. Meanwhile Jez's musical collaborator Super Hans is a clear Wildcard, chief among many who recur or move through the show over the course of its long run.

Peep Show is a very populous show, and as well as there being many Wildcards, there are definitely lots of Boss-like presences too.

The recurring character Johnson is probably the most prominent and most consistently present of these. As we start the series he's Mark's boss at work. And has true Eccentric Boss energy, being both quite mad and absolutely high-status: Mark scrambles to satisfy his demands...

But crucially only Mark. Johnson doesn’t have dominion over the bulk of the Augustes lives. He's not involved with the part of their lives which is the focus of the show and the Augustes' relationship, the shared flat. He's not the boss of Jez.

So he doesn't close the circuit. He's not a true Boss. And neither are any of the various other high-status characters.

As I've talked about before, each sitcom has its own version of 'status' it is particularly interested in. In Cabin Pressure it's about professional prestige; in The IT Crowd it's about geeky weirdness versus social capital. In Peep Show it's about something a little more existential - how to be a proper human being.

Mark and Jez are more than willing to cave to the values and expectations of any person who walks into their lives with enough of a sense of status. But these high-status characters are always shown to be outright monsters with values that are always clearly awful. And worst of all, none of them can close that circuit for Mark or Jez.

So characters like Johnson, and Mark's father, his sister, and Elena, and Ian Chapman and the hateful, hateful Ben, and all the other high-status characters who command either Mark or Jez's world at various times are not true Bosses but Minibosses: they set the tone of what the wider stakes and threats are none of them are the last word in it.

In the dark world of Peep Show, the scarier fact is that there is no one to ultimately take charge.

... Or a slightly more optimistic view of the show might be that Mark and Jez are each other's saving grace. Both are only too willing to hand over their agency to the next high-status monster to come along, but the pattern of the show is that the Augustes are each other's Achilles heel when it comes to selling their souls. Mark and Jez are each clear-eyed about each other's latest bid to hand their lives over to the current high-status monster. Partly out of some kind of care for each other and lingering morality, and partly out of bitterness, jealousy and crab-bucket vindictiveness. Their tendency to sabotage or undermine the terrible relationships, work setups and occasionally cults the other gets involved with means neither ever quite manage to effectively become part of any of the dreadful worldview and systems they earnest try to sell their souls into. In a twisted way it's a triumph of human connection. They are probably the only people in each others' lives who share a real connection between their most essential selves and that pull is always a little bit stronger than the pull of the various awful systems they each try to buy into. They keep each other just about honest.

Peep Show opens the box's lid to allow for drama not because it wants to be dramatic - it doesn't; everything is always building to humour however dark - but rather in order to reinforce the central sense of darkness. There's the uncomfortable sense that the characters are available for real life to do its worst to - and real life is available for them to damage too.

Main cast of sitcom Peep Show
Eccentric Boss: disconcertingly absent / Auguste Double Act: Jez and Mark / Clown: Super Hans and others

The adjusted diagram for the tweaked Clown Hierarchy model/s that Red Dwarf and Peep Show run on might look something like this - the box remains but the top is no longer sealing the shape:

So if you let drama into a comedy to a few different effects, at what point does the comedy become drama?

Red Dwarf and Peep Show are very different shows with very different tones, but they both do the same thing: they allow for 'drama' to get in, only to turn that material into further fuel for the character-led comedy.

In Red Dwarf, science fiction invention is always used to heighten and play with characters and relationships. A plot device will, for instance, split characters into versions embodying all their good traits and version embodying all their bad traits; or present them with a version of themselves from an alternate history where they've had different breaks; or introduce a monster would leech off all of a certain personality trait etc. There is real drama to many episodes and the characters are concerned with things from outside their own little circuit. But it also always crucially plays heavily on the characters' sitcom personalities and/or relationships.

In Peep Show the dramatic stuff is always used to bolster Mark and Jez's sitcom positions ever more strongly. Life progresses. There are marriages, births and deaths, but rather than changing the Augustes it instead reinforces their darkly comic position of being unable to relate to any of it.

So these shows remain true sitcoms even as they allow for drama by opening up the top of the hierarchy - because that drama is always used to feed back into the character-led sitcom.

Now I ought to pause here to note that things aren’t as clear-cut as I’ve presented them.

For example, I've used Cabin Pressure as my example of the use of my model for sitcom at its clearest. And it is in many ways. But Cabin Pressure does have a significant element from the world of drama: it progresses. The characters bounce around and off each other in the Clown Hierarchy box but not ad infinitum. They gradually learn from these repeated conflicts and don’t endlessly repeat the same patterns. The most classic mode of sitcom would be to be open-ended, but Cabin Pressure has a certain end-point built in on a meta level: since the series names its episodes alphabetically, we know it will have 26 outings.

So Cabin Pressure is a logistically close-ended series and Finnemore chooses to have a progressive arc, or arcs, play out over that time. The series ends when the characters (especially the Augustes, especially Martin) have learned and grown enough to put aside the box. Martin and Douglas grow as people and as friends, and so out of status-competition with one another. The series ends with the happy breaking down of the box; the resolution of those tensions into happier but unstoried peace.

So Cabin Pressure includes a 'Man versus Self' conflict within its 'Man versus Man' model. Which is, of course, a marriage with a venerable tradition: perhaps a majority of good dramatic storytelling involves matching external relationships to some internal conflict a protagonist is going through. E.g. in The Lion King how Scar externalises Simba's self-doubt into an enemy that must be fought; or how in Titanic, the considerations that would keep Rose from the path of self-actualisation are embodied in her caddish fiancee Cal etc.

British sitcom has traditonally preferred to play to a sense of zero-sum-game for its humour. We've seen how Peep Show ran for eight series and opened up itself to 'dramatic' development but only to emphasise the lack of progression of its characters.

US sitcom tends to resemble more the Cabin Pressure model. US sitcoms are definitely open-ended by tradition. In fact the US TV model provides a specific pressure to generate above a certain threshold of numbers of episodes, in order to make the show available for syndication. But US sitcom also likes to include that sense of a productive and progressive Man versus Self conflict.

We've seen above a further wide range of sitcoms, but there are really only two variables in play regarding the basic model.

  1. You can nudge the lid of the box to not quite cap off the set-up and allow for Man versus Nature drama elements to get in.

  2. You can take more seriously the Man versus Man conflict of the Augustes and allow the inherent Man versus Self to come forward and give the drama progressive, character-growth stakes.

The examples I have given show that you can admit 'drama' aspects via these means within the show moving away from its core identity as a sitcom. In fact, the drama elements can be used to emphasise the sitcom nature as we see in a show like Peep Show which constantly alludes of the possibility of progression only to assert its stasis ever more effectively.

But the same adjustment can be used to power shows which aren't comedy by genre, but outright dramas. The method is the same: it's still about levering off the lid to allow for a more ambiguous and uncertain Boss situation. It's only the degree that changes this sitcom engine into a drama one - as I shall explore next time.


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