Thursday, 15 January 2015

Three Kinds of Guest Character

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about guest characters in sitcoms – and the danger of getting too excited about writing them. The audience aren’t as interested in the guest characters as you are. They’re all about the main characters they’ve come to know, understand and, hopefully, love. So don't get carried away.

The one thing that’s been gnawing away at me since posting that is Seinfeld. Mostly this bit (and I know it's bad form to quote oneself):
The successful and memorable ones tended to be completely extraordinary and at least partly based on truth eg. The Soup Nazi or The Bubble Boy. Their names explained exactly who they were so the audience were up to speed straight and we could get on with the jokes. A catchphrase helped that along too ('No soup for you!'') But what we enjoyed the most about these characters is the reactions of the regular cast to them. Seeing George humbly bowing to the Soup Nazi and then being cheated of a bread roll and then being banned is funny - because it's George. And then there was the unpleasant incident with the Bubble Boy... Other characters in Seinfeld weren't funny at all but downright annoying, intentionally so because they put the regular characters into awkward or unpleasant situations, one of the most obvious examples being the infuriating comedy hack Banya. Banya made Jerry funny.
I'm happy with everything I wrote there. But it kind of goes against my case about not getting hung up on guest characters and not bothering to make them funny because the audience don't care. These guest characters are really funny and work brilliant. Why?

Well, I think I might have stumbled across an answer, whilst processing some really interesting podcasts. The first was UK Scriptwriters latest podcast with Andrew Ellard, who’s script edited Miranda, IT Crowd and a bunch of other stuff. I know Andrew a bit, and when it comes to sitcom logic and motivation, this guy is in the Premier League – which may not sound like a compliment, but it really is, especially bearing in mind my last post about The Logic Police.

Vive La Difference
In the podcast, Andrew said something about conflict that struck me and made me thing that sometimes this term is overplayed in sitcom. Andrew said that there doesn’t need to be conflict, necessarily, but ‘difference’.

Now, despite the fact that Nobody Knows Anything and there is no formula to comedy, my general rule of thumb when it comes to sitcom is this:
Characters + Conflict + Confinement + Catastrophe = Comedy*
*except when it doesn’t.
That is to say, you need characters with clear points of view that contrast. And they’re stuck together in a situation and stuff goes wrong. But the conflict is more than tiresomely repetitive arguments from different viewpoints with nothing much actually happening.

Before I could think more about that, I heard the latest episode of Scriptnotes which is all about conflict. Craig Maizin produced an interesting list of six types of conflict, which make the point that the is more to conflict than argument. His six kinds of conflict (with some of my comments added) are:

An Argument – an expressed difference of opinion: either a blazing row or a passive aggression scene between some characters.

Struggle Against Circumstance – our hero has locked their keys in car and has to fight the car to get them back and continue with their quest. So this is Man vs Nature/Object/Corporation (eg. Castaway)

Unfulfilled Desire – a character has a life goal that they want to achieve, but can’t. And in the movie this desire will be fulfilled – ideally in a way they hadn’t expected. But in a sitcom, this is life goal remains unfulfilled in pretty much every episode. Basil Fawlty wants to run a classy hotel, but he’s too much of a snob to see that this is a fools errand. And he’s too lazy to put the work in to make this a reality.

Avoiding a Negative Outcome – I have to do something in a way that doesn’t get me (or someone else) hurt or into trouble.

Huge special DVD boxed set available. Yay!
But not in the UK. Boooo!
Confusion – You’re in conflict with the world around you because you don’t have all the facts. In a movie, this state doesn’t last long (here’s my crazy but literal ‘fish out of water’ example – Splash) In a sitcom, this situation can be an almost permanent state of affairs, especially where aliens are involved. eg. Mork and Mindy, Third Rock from the Sun, My Hero. Or even a ‘coming of age’ ‘how-does-this-crazy-world-work?’ show like The Wonder Years where a child is trying to figure out the world around him.

A Dilemma – Your hero has a choice to make, but all the choices are bad.

I’m sure Craig would be the first to admit this is not exhaustive or exact list. I think some of these categories overlap with each other.  For example, ‘An Argument’ is a subset of all them, rather than a conflict in itself. An argument comes about when someone is struggling against circumstance (represented by a character) or confused in some way and starts to lash out. And as they struggle, they may be left with ‘a dilemma’ in which they can’t avoid a ‘negative outcome’. You get the idea.

But it’s a really interesting list nonetheless. It demonstrates that are many kinds of conflict beyond the verbal disagreement, which is probably the least interesting of them all – and because it’s not all that interesting, it’s very difficult to write.

So, how do we get to Seinfeld Guest Characters from here?

I’m getting to that. Stay with me.

As Craig and John talked on the podcast, they talked about how your characters can want the same thing – but still be in conflict. And here we come back to Andrew Ellard's 'Differences'. The characters go about things differently, or do things to avoid an argument which results in an argument, or different kind of conflict.

This is useful, since this helps explain the success of Friends in which they are, well, friends. The show is not called Enemies. They are friends, trying avoid the negative outcome of hurting each other’s feelings, which makes it quite a huggy, warm, fuzzy show. No harm in that. It’s easily in the list of Top Ten Sitcoms of all time. Somewhere below Seinfeld, which is not huggy at all. Quite the reverse. (We’re getting there, okay?)

Being Reasonable
Then John and Craig talked about keeping the characters likeable and believable. We’re back to the logic police, and it occurred to me that our regular characters may be larger-than-life, but there’s always a reason for what they do.

Basil Fawtly is not angry. People remember him beating that car with a branch, but this isn’t because he’s fundamentally an angry man. He’s driven himself (ha ha. Driven. Sorry) to this. Fawlty gets angry because he’s a snob, and he wants to run a classy hotel so he can be with the higher class people. But he doesn’t belong there and he’s not very good at running at hotel (for various reasons). Everything he does is motivated. He’s reasonable to the point of explosion. Like Victor Meldrew – who only gets angry when he is treated like an irrelevance. His cause is usually just and we’re on his side.

The regular characters, then, are reasonable – even if they’re monsters. Their quests and causes have to make sense. But with guest characters, all bets are off. They can be unreasonable. We don’t have to like them, or even understand why they’re crazy because it’s almost as if they’re from another world. You can have an efficious parking attendant who seems to get pleasure from giving people tickets. This character would probably be tiresome, or not believable, as a regular character. But they might work well for a scene.

So we have at least three kinds of guests character that tend to work:

The Plausibility Person
A character who is needed for the sake of plausibility – ie. It would be odd for there not to be a nurse/teacher/traffic warden in the scene you're writing. Your characters report a crime at a police station. You need a policeman at an incident desk, but the scene is not about them. These are characters who are there because they're essential to the scene.

The Sensible Cypher
Someone who might be in a few scenes and arrives on the scene as a sibling, or a love interest, a temporary neighbour or an inspector. It’s as if they’re representing the real world – the world of the audience.  And they do and say the kind of things we would do and say. Often, they walk in are amazed at what they find. A lot of their action is reaction – but sometimes they make moves that the regulars have to respond to (esp if they’re an inspector or authority figure), if that's part of the their mandate. In Bluestone 42, we’ve had a few characters like this; not least the Vet who ends up being interrogated by the team in Series 1; and the politician whom Nick chases away from Mary in Series 2.

The Unreasonable Sociopath
These are forces of nature who react in bizarre or unexpected ways – and the episode often turns on these characters. We have no idea why they are like this – or even what becomes of them. And Seinfeld’s most memorable guests characters fit into this category: The Soup Nazi, Lt Bookman (the library detective), The Bubble Boy, Jimmy (who always refers to himself as ‘Jimmy’), The Doorman, Izzy Mandelbaum (the octagenarian fitness freak). And even characters who were in a handful of episodes like George Steinbrenner, Jackie Chiles (the lawyer), Jack Klompus (from ‘the pen’ episode), Bania, Mr Peterman and Mr Pitt were all crazy in their own way.

And that’s how they created memorable guests characters on Seinfeld that could be a big part of a plot. Because they weren’t regular, we didn’t need backstory, motivation or moderation. We didn't need to like them. They arrived crazy. They drive out regular characters crazy. And they leave crazy.

I'm sure there are more kinds of Guest Character, so please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.

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If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.


1 comment:

  1. James, I read that guest character blog post of yours recently and it influenced me quite a bit. I basically stopped writing guest character parts and I intend to push back the two episodes that do revolve around guest parts. I think I’ll have at least the first four or five episodes focus on the main characters. My show is set in Beijing so both guest characters are “nailing the type”. There’s the blowhard, emerging market guru who thinks he’s an expert on all aspects of Chinese business culture and can’t wait to tell everyone. Then there’s the fempat: bitter, single, complaining white woman who think she deserves the near-constant indulgence of two-hour massages and cocktails with friends exactly the same as her.

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