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Clown Hierarchy pt. 3: drama

In Part 1 I explained my basic model of Clown Hierarchy and gave some examples of it operating in classic sitcom mode. In Part 2 I looked at ways some other sitcoms have allowed in the stuff of drama to allow for a sense of progression or different energy, without losing their identity or intent as comedies. I also looked at how this basic model manifests a little differently within the US shows compared to the UK model I'd talked about.

Both those points I expanded upon in Part 2 are relevant to this next part, because I'm going to look at shows which are firmly in the drama category, and they happen to all be American shows.

Actually, I don't think that's a coincidence. The things I noted about American shows - their bigger cast size and season length; their tendency to prefer a sense (whether illusory or not) of character growth and moral improvement - move their sitcoms closer to drama territory than UK sitcoms traditionally operate.

In fact it's interesting to wonder what exactly marks comedy and drama apart. If two shows are both using the same basic model, what makes one a sitcom and one a drama serial? Tone, most obviously, but then sitcoms (especially US sitcoms) are prone to having heartfelt and sad moments, and dramas are very capable of containing a lot of drama. So not only tone.

For example, if The West Wing runs on a Clown Hierarchy model, and creator-writer Aaron Sorkin is famous for snappy humour of his dialogue, what makes The West Wing a drama and not a sitcom?

I think The West Wing specifically has a lot of light to shed but it's also quite peopled and complex, so let's start with another example of what I believe to be a Clown Hierarchy drama, which I think represents a nice clean use of the model handy for explaining the mechanics at work:

The X-Files

Main cast of drama The X-Files
Scully (Gillain Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny)

The X-Files’ ‘sit’ is of an FBI department that consists of two agents whose job it is to investigate cases that appear to be inexplicable by mundane causes. The agents in question are Fox Mulder, who believes in the paranormal, and Dana Scully, who does not. Their work though commissioned by the FBI is looked down on by the institution, especially Mulder’s willingness to believe in paranormal explanations. Setting-wise, though the pair have a small basement office in Washington DC, episodes tend to take them to locations-of-the-week, almost always places that come under the heading of small-town or suburban America.

It's pretty easy to apply the Clown Hierarchy model to the show and find matches. Mulder and Scully are an Auguste Double Act (US comedy might have largely left double-acts behind but detective shows everywhere still love them); they have a recurring boss character at the FBI in the form of Walter Skinner; there are also recurring comedy relief characters like The Lone Gunmen who might be considered clowns.

But if you recall what I talked about in Part II you'll notice that like Hollie in Red Dwarf or Johnson in Peep Show, Skinner is a boss who isn't really a Boss, in terms of show function.

If I go back to what I see as the roots of the comedic Clown Hierarchy we are reminded that the original intent of these roles was to lampoon the world of status, especially social-class and workplace status. That's something modern comedy has carried forward. The ultimate pettiness and small stakes are an inherent part of such comedies, and perhaps all sitcoms. We often sympathise hugely with the personal struggles of the characters but part of the gag and the comfort is that there's nothing bigger hanging off these situations. The biggest stake is personal failure and even that's softened by the fact that sitcom characters normally deserve a lot of their own failing (and that the status quo to which they are returning is the one we enjoy).

It's always interesting to understand the mechanics of comedy. And that's partly because it is (fascinatingly) mechanical, in order to be wildly creative where it matters - 'rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty'.

Comedy's goal is simple but very high-stakes: to be funny. It can pair that with lots of other intents; to satirise, to parody, to highlight, to humanise etc.

But it doesn't have to. Comedies are free to focus on the micro without having to worry about speaking to any macro level that might make the story feel worth telling. They can be about idiots wrapped up in petty little lives because the higher goal is implicit: humour. Cabin Pressure is a fantastic show and it seeks to speak to nothing beyond its exact immediate text. It doesn't reflect any wider truths or themes. It doesn't have a point to make about gender or class or the world of aviation or anything else, though observations from those fields and more may all inform the characters. It's a show about four people in a circuit of relationships/situation that reliably makes them be funny with each other and that drive amply justifies itself, earns its existence.

It turns out that the Clown Hierarchy model is actually quite high-stakes it's just that it's easy to miss because we forget that 'comedy' is in itself very high-stakes. Or perhaps the better phrase is high-tension.

But of course, drama doesn't come with a built-in purpose. And it turns out that you have to plug in something rather substantial to sustain this model for drama. Or to put it a better way, this model has the capacity to sustain some really grandiose theming when bought to drama. The work of Being Funny is so serious that if you seek to replace it with something else you'd better have something substantive in mind.

(As a side-note, that relates back to my thoughts on why the TV Good Omens was lacklustre: it took away the basic comedy framework and the whole thing fell flat without that central buoy).

In Part II I referenced the various basic models of story: Man versus self, Man versus Man, and Man versus Nature. I asserted that sitcom thrived on combining the first two of those. Characters bounce off each other in ways that infinitely bring their own and each others' characters more and more entertainingly to bear.

I noted also how certain sitcoms allow in a little of what I think of as more 'drama' territory, Man versus Nature stuff - only to use that really to generate fresh angle on the Man versus Man/Self material. E.g. Red Dwarf allows in external science fiction plot elements but these almost always manifest as devices that reflect our characters back upon themselves. Meanwhile Peep Show allows in the stuff of progressive drama -births, marriages, deaths - in order to reflect to ever more entertaining extremes just how statically unimprovable its central characters are.

So again, we see that it sitcom, even where there's progression and drama, the ultimate goal is always to perpetuate a cycle of Man versus Man/Self entertainment.

Drama has a different end. It can too be open-ended and have character/relationship storytelling as a priority, but to be successful it must always have a wider story than the immediate relationships of a handful of people. Even soap operas have an implicit wider story to their meandering character machinations. They implicitly claim to represent, authentically, a certain (under-represented) community and thus tell the story of a particular corner of society.

So what we see in Clown Hierarchy drama is that around the central point of the Auguste protagonist the parameters pull out to include a much wider world than just a closed circuit of a handful of people. In fact, both 'Boss' and 'Clown' roles pull away from the immediate t the extent that they're no longer individual characters but whole cultures and world-views. The size and scope of dramas varies widely of course, but the box is now a whole society, its concerns not petty but high-stakes, and it is divided into two cultures existing in balance and tension: Boss culture and Clown culture.

Clown Hierarchy dramas are stories which operate at the fault line of a society divided into two total world-views.

What is more, these can't be just any kind of divisive idea. The central issue might or might not be fictional. In The X-Files it's the idea of the paranormal. But the cultures must be heavily coded to speak to real-world concerns and cultures.

So, in The X-Files the two worldviews that are in tension are: reality as most people understand it (i.e. 'our' reality, mundane, alien/conspiracy/chupacabra-free reality). And there is the real reality where the paranormal operates that only a few people know about to any degree.

Each of these positions is heavily codified into a particular culture within the show's premise.

The former is the world of institution; of the FBI and Washington and suits and middle-class professionalism and low emotional affect and grey and rental cars and so on. That is Boss culture. It's the high-status and dominating one.

The latter is the world of small towns and suburbs and other fringes, of the low-class and undefinable and weird and gross and uncontrollable. Unattractive people having weird problems. This is Clown culture. It's the marginal and unpredictable one.

The X-Files has as its fault-line is the relationship to the paranormal. But it uses that fantasy element to crystallise and heighten a real and recognisable divide. I don't think The X-Files set out to be a grand metaphor about American social divides, but I do think it was and remains such a long-lasting success because the literal text resonated so immediately with real feelings of divide, real tensions. It used fantasy to clarify and highlight vaguer suspicions and resentments and truths that were troubling people in the 90s. The intersection between trusting and being part of institutions and authority, and distrusting them.

The Clown Hierarchy paradigm suits shows that want and need to be ambivalent. That's one of those words which gets misunderstood; it's often taken to mean having no strong feeling about a set of options when it really means 'having or showing simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward something or someone' (x). Really that's only ever going to be a feeling which is sustainable or interesting regarding real-world somethings. There's lots of ways to do a 'hidden supernatural/paranormal world' show and we've seen many variations become successful. But The X-Files' particular angle is a big reason for how long and thoroughly it drew people in was positioning itself at a real-life intersection of two societal forces in interesting opposition. It doesn't matter if a viewer gives any literal credence to the specific kinds of conspiracies that The X-Files includes. It's resonating with a deeper and more universal tension felt in us and in society.

And so just to recap and clarify:

Augustes: Mulder and Scully. Their dynamic matches the previous criteria I have given for an Auguste relationship: they have status parity, each having finely balanced and different advantages and disadvantages compared to the other. But crucially they also each embody a different but a balanced mix of the two philosophies/cultures, Boss and Clown, that define the show. And those philosophies/cultures are...

Boss culture: not Skinner, nor even the FBI generally, but rather the whole culture of which the FBI and Skinner are the parts that pertain most particularly to Mulder and Scully's professional life. It is the milieu and philosophy of government, institution, middle-class professionalism, law, measured tones, suits, middle-aged adulthood, big affluent cities and especially Washington DC, sensibleness. Mulder and Scully belong to this world by employment, but its world of semi-anonymous, professional, cold men is not wholly on their side.

Clown culture: the other, the weird. Mulder and Scully might be based in DC but most episodes see them travelling to places which are quite different from the grey cityscapes full of businesslike people, and into the worlds of a different version of America: the creepy suburbs, the broken-down small towns, the dangerous woods. The world of small town, backwoods American weirdness, redneck-ness, quirkiness, mess, danger; peopled by parochial, sexist, unattractive, but also sympathetic and pitiable and entertaining people with creepy problems.

And as I say, this model doesn't work by the Augustes at the heart of it each being a mouthpiece for the two contrasting cultures/philosophies. Rather they each combine both cultures within themselves and in ways that contrast and come into conflict with one another. In drama, Clown Hierarchy stories aren't about a simple conflict driving towards resolution, but about a stasis of conflict and the dramas that play out at that perpetual intersection.

So Mulder is the earnest believer in / pursuer of the paranormal, which allies him with Clown culture. But he is also a character who embodies many yuppy/Government/normality values that ally him with Boss culture. He’s handsome and fit, affluent, wears nice suits, comes from a well-to-do family etc.

Meanwhile Scully is the non-believer, which allies her most obviously with Boss culture. But she is also a Catholic, and it’s not just that she’s religious but that rather than bland, WASP-ish protestantism, her allegiance is to the weird, poverty-associated, colourful world of Catholicisim - firm Clown culture stuff. She’s a woman, which automatically marks her outside the norms and values of masculine Boss culture, and has more of a familial emotional life than seems to quite match the values of the institution.

The mix that exists within each of them and within their relationship means they always exist in layers of tension wherever they go.

Neither quite fit in in the FBI/Washington environments. Mulder is too passionate and also has enough of a shlubby weirdo energy to feel out of place, with his overstuffed basement office and slightly seedy lifestyle. Scully as mentioned stands out a little by dint of her femaleness and her emotional connections of Catholicism and family.

But then in the field they stand out even more. FBI agents invading a small community; big city slickness against small-town wariness; cold governmental professionalism and laconic-ness against the emotions of people actually affected by the events they are investigating.

Danger springs in contrasting and balancing ways, from both cultures: the show's biggest villains may be found within the Boss culture (the Cigarette-Smoking Man and his conspiratorial associates), buts the immediate danger always springs from this Clown culture. That is where the Monsters of The Week are found. And as the show progresses and its foundations are firmly established, there's room for more points of ambivalence outside our central Augustes. Skinner, initially the face of institution, becomes a staunch and sympathetic ally etc.

It's really a simple model though I might have made it seem more complicated by getting into how it relates to the comedy version: it's a show about two philosophies that divide our society and two characters who exist at the exact intersection of these two forces, with the forces setting both within them and in their relationship. Their work each episode is not to work against one or the other force precisely but rather to do something which reliably brings these two forces into interesting tension again and again - in this case, investigating individual cases. The two forces in tension create a sense of wider stakes and momentum that make such individual outings exciting and interesting, (in a way that's comparable to how the stakes of 'being funny' give weight to the weekly activities of sitcom Augustes).

The X-Files is a useful show to explain the dramatic model by because it's so neat and clean, with such a small recurring cast and a recognisable story model in the form of case-of-the-week detective work. Having hopefully got a sense of the model now, an interesting next case study is a bigger show which uses a lot more 'plug-ins' to its basic core Clown Hierarchy and has a culture conflict at its heart which is a little less easy to spot...

The West Wing

Toby (Richard Schiff), Charlie (Dulé Hill), C.J. (Allison Janney), Leo (John Spencer), Bartlett (Martin Sheen), Sam (Rob Lowe), Donna (Janel Moloney) and Josh (Bradley Whitford)

The West Wing's 'sit' is of the working White House of a fictional democratic presidency.The central protagonists are the senior staff of the administration, as managed by the Chief of Staff and serving under, of course, the President. There are a few other major characters found amongst other White House personnel such as some secretaries to the senior staff, the Presedant's Personal Aide etc. Over the course of seven series the cast shifted and changed but I shall be taking the cast pictured above as the basic model here.

The X-Files features an Auguste Double Act, as double-acts are still a thing in US detective shows. But The West Wing features Augustes arranged more like the example I looked at in Community: a troupe, or pool. That is, The West Wing has a big precinct, with most of the core cast representing Auguste roles.

As for the Boss...

It's harder to imagine a bigger boss than the actual President of the United States, and President Jeb Bartlett certainly serves in the Boss role from time to time. But as you might predict based on my discussion of The X-Files, it's my belief that as a drama The West WIng doesn't have a character who is Boss at all, but a Boss culture. One that Jeb Bartlett himself sometimes serves as an Auguste in relation to. The Boss culture in the West Wing is the institution of the presidency.

To restate my hypothesis: in sitcom, the highest priority is always the interpersonal relationships. In drama, this model exists to exercise wider themes.

In The West Wing I think the fundamental story tension which drives the show is about the tension between the arcane, pompous, awe-inspiring, important, self-important institution of the presidency, and the youthful, clever, modern, fallible, stymied, human qualities and motivations of the people who work within it. Reverence versus irreverence. Role versus occupant.


Augustes: the senior staff: Josh Lyman (Deputy Chief of Staff), Toby Ziegler (Communications Director), Sam Seaborn (Deputy Communications Director) and C.J. Cregg (Press Secretary).

Obviously the job titles alone indicate that these characters are not on equal terms. Sam is a deputy to Toby etc. And I've stated that status-parity is necessary tot an Auguste group. However, I would say these differences of job status do not inform show/relationship status. The characters act as if they are completely equal in every way that matters to the show. Occasionally technical rank is played for a moment of comedy (non-plussed by a furious outburst from CJ, Toby will mutter that technically he outranks her, to no effect whatever) which only reinforces the sense that rank is not meaningful to this set of characters.

No, the tensions that are felt are based on something else, based on those wider thematic tensions. Each of the four featured members of the senior staff embodies that mix of institutional values and personal values differently from the others meaning they are able to frequently come into conflict and dispute with themselves and with one another about issues.

I've talked about how Clown Hierarchy structure in drama is useful for stories that exist at the intersection of two society-defining positions. It is specifically a great framework for a drama where all the characters are on the same side as one another, the same job (more or less), and share the same basic values. It's not a good framework for people in conflict or coming from completely different positions. This is a story structure for getting into smallish individual stories set against a really significant wider set of stakes. Again, not pitting mouthpieces for two different world-views against each other, but the meeting of Augustes who all have a balanced mix of both cultures within them. Each of the senior staff from The West Wing has a mix of the reverence for the role and systems that is the Boss culture, and personal ideals and weaknesses which are the Clown culture.

The Clown culture is further pinned out by the bit players, one-off or recurring, the various politicians diplomats, admirers and experts that play into weekly stories. 'Clown' is a particularly apt word for The West Wing, because it's a series which includes a lot of character comedy, some of it pretty broad. If Clown culture is the culture of the human-scale, of personal, emotional concerns it's not treated as laughable. There's humour in how people-being-people juxtaposes with the pomp of the White House. Not in it thinking it has a place there.

And because The West Wing is a drama rather than a sitcom the 'punchline' of this tension is just as likely to be heartwarming or sad as funny:

In The West Wing we also see something else recognisable from clowning: we have classic models of a happy clown and a sad clown. The former is Sam Seaborn, whose all-American chipperness gets pushed to comedic extremes frequently (and Rob Lowe more or less reprised that in Parks and Recreation - his character in that show is 'literally' Sam Seaborn with the government level dialled down and the chipperness dialled just a tiny bit up). Toby Ziegler is the sad clown. Of course they work closely together and form their own kind of little double-act within the wider picture.

Actually there's a lot of little enclaves like that. I compared The West Wing to Community in terms of cast size and arrangement, but one major difference between comedy and drama is episode length. Episodes of Community are 22 minutes long. Episode of The West Wing last 50 minutes. There's room for, and a benefit to, a variety of little specific groupings and off-shoots that give us fresh dynamics to turn to from one scene to the next.

So Toby and Sam have each other to bounce off in plots involving the working of speeches and so on. Meanwhile Josh has his secretary, Donna, with whom he shares a screwball-esque dynamic that allows for lots of exposition about plot mechanics without it getting boring. Its particularly useful to pair Josh with such a foil both on a personal level (his arrogance is made charming by her ability to prick it) and on a practical one: Josh's is the staff role which is the least intuitive to understand the function of, so it's useful to have the expository mechanic most attached to him.

That accounts for the most protagonist-y characters, but what about other prominent figures? Most prominently, there's the president himself, and his Chief of Staff Leo. If you take the senior staff as the Augustes, these figures above them certainly operate as faces of the Boss culture towards the Augustes a lot of the time. But it's also true that these characters operate in their own stories, not just as representatives of power to the real characters.

I would say what The West Wing shows is that you can have a Clown Hierarchy core and expand upon it. With such a solid centre, there's pace for all sorts of peripheral and complementary set-ups.

What you can plug into the basic structure depends on how you want to play the basic tensions. In The West Wing the central tension between the institution of the Presidency and the human-scale stuff is played for sympathy and optimism. The overall philosophy of the show is that this intersection of checks and balances is something that more or less works well (obviously in 2020 a lot of us have different opinions on that) and the drama is in whether our guys will manage to leverage their intelligence and idealism to create the best possible outcome.

What makes these other peripheral dynamics complementary is stuff to do with tone, of course, but I think what is really essential is that they continue to play on the same fundamental tension of philosophies set out by your central framework. In The West Wing, whether you're watching a scene or episode that centres on the senior staff all interacting together as Augustes, or Josh bantering with Donna, or Sam trying to negotiate with someone from the Senate, the fundamental tension is always about the institutional and conservative existing in tension with the human and modern.

It's easier to explain the reasoning for why I see a particular show as an example of a Clown Hierarchy show than it is to explain why something else is not. For example, I don't believe Buffy The Vampire Slayer could be called an example of a Clown Hierarchy show, and I could list some comparatively fiddling ways in which t doesn't match the criteria - the protagonists don't operate as an Auguste pool because they don't have status parity etc - but with any luck I've explained the wider principle well enough that readers will understand the difference on a slightly more intuitive level now. Buffy isn't a Clown Hierarchy drama because those fiddling differences from the set-up come from an overall difference of interest and intent to the show. It's not interested in stories from the ambivalent interception between two resonant philosophies that define the society of the show. It's interested in something else; the supernatural as metaphorical heightening of the mundane and stuff.

What I'm interested in doing in the final part is playing with some examples of real shows that might be changed into something that functions differently by tweaking them to operate by a Clown Hierarchy structure. I've got a couple of properties I'm interested in. There's Supernatural which is one of those shows which seemed perpetually on the verge of being good, and which I think might have benefitted from better recognising and thus knowing how to strengthen the Clown Hierarchy frame is was essentially built on. There's also Firefly, a short-lived show that personably I wouldn't changed a moment of - but which I'm also quite interested in how there might have been a more commercially successful version of in another universe, which used this model.

So next time - some exercises in applying this pattern to writing.


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