Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Sociopathic Behaviour

When I start noticing trends in sitcoms, I’m always very suspicious of my observations – especially when comparing the current crop of shows to those of a certain era. Dozens of British sitcoms seemed very funny in the 1980s, but I was only six years old in 1981 and hardly what one could classify as discerning.

Moreover, you only remember the good stuff – or the stuff you liked, because you watched lots of episodes of that, and didn’t bother with the stuff you didn’t like. Unless, of course, you knew from a young age you wanted to be a TV critic, and so you were training yourself to watch TV you despised so that you could write about it at great length (and somehow still not know that canned laughter isn’t fake).

I didn’t watch loads of TV in the 90s, although some would argue it was still plenty. I suppose I had more choice, being in my teens, when we had two TVs in the house. But although I had my own TV as a student, I didn’t watch it very much. After being a student, I was trying to earn a living and was going our more (although not much). And it just wasn’t as convenient to tape things. Although I always thought Videoplus was a bit magical.

Now I’m in a lot more, because I have two small children. And I’m a comedy writer, so I feel professionally obliged to watch lots of new comedy, including stuff that isn’t aimed at me. So I’m now watching TV as a 40 year-old dad, so not only is the comedy different, but I’m different too.
So there you go. Four paragraphs of caveats because I make this following observation: an awful lot of comedy at the moment seems to feature characters that are essentially sociopaths. And that’s being reflected in the scripts that I read too.

Is it just me?

For the avoidance of doubt, Chambers’ dictionary defines sociopathy as:
“any of various personality disorders characterized by asocial or antisocial behaviour”.
I’m seeing a lot of that at the moment, especially in comedies that end up being called ‘dark’; characters who are just plain awful human beings, rude, incapable of engaging in normal human relationships or grindingly selfish.

I realise that lots of great sitcom characters are borderline sociopaths, like Victor Meldrew, Basil Fawlty or David Brent. They are all sociopathic in some sense. Kramer too. They all behave very antisocially at times – or don’t seem to know how to behave are various crucial moments.

But Meldrew, Fawlty, Brent and Kramer aren’t selfish idiots. They are people who are driven into terrible behaviour, ludicrous schemes or clumsy speech by overarching desires. Meldrew wants to be respected – and as an old man, he frequently does get that respect. This means he often takes matters into his own hands, and then it backfires. Fawlty is a snob and simmering with rage that his mediocre hotel attracts very mediocre guests. Brent just wants to be truly loved by his colleagues. Kramer is always trying to be one step ahead of the crowd and thinks he’s smart.

So these characters aren’t funny because they’re awful human beings or behave transgressive. They’re funny because they’re motivated by desires that make them behave awfully or transgressively.

Let’s take an example of a scene that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in a ‘dark’ comedy or a script I’d been asked to read. Let’s say we have a couple called Ian and Susie. They’ve been trying to have children and it hasn’t happened for them. And they can’t afford IVF, or its gone wrong. That, I’m sure, would be very painful. Susie has a sister called Beverly. And she’s a sociopath. Just awful. And selfish.  And everything. She doesn’t know how to talk to people. And in one scene she gives Ian and Susie a lovely present: a baby doll. Because it’s the next best thing, isn’t it? Pretending. In fact, dolls are better because they don’t crap everywhere and you don’t have to feed them. Susie starts crying, and, not being a sociopath, makes an excuse and leaves. Susie is baffled. Ian just has to do the best he can. And suggests that they don’t want the baby doll, and now Beverly is offended and starts crying. Beverly, being a sociopath, has made it all about her. Tears. Pain. Misery.

Is that funny?

I don’t think it is. Maybe it is. Is it just a taste thing?

But I’m seeing this sort of thing quite a lot on TV and in scripts at the moment.

There is probably comic version of the scene I’ve just described, if we make Beverly a very sympathetic and warm character. She’s on her way to visit a goddaughter – and has the baby ready as a present for the goddaughter. But stops off at Susie and Ian's who are having trouble conceiving. Over the course of the conversation with Susie and Ian, Beverly gives the false impression that this present is for Ian and Susie. Ian is appalled, as he can’t believe that Beverly would be like this etc. Susie runs out weeping,  Beverly then realises and now has to do that thing she didn’t want to do to make it up to her sister, etc.

That might work although I’m not going to take the rest of the day off after thinking of a scene like that.

Is this all in my head? Is it because I’m 40 and a dad? Help me here.


  1. It's because sociopaths don't change. They're easy to accommodate in sitcom, which sort of relies on people not changing. Fawlty et al are definitely sociopaths, but maybe they're not quite psychopaths.

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  3. Hi James, intriguing post and something I've been thinking about for a while. I'm still growing my understanding of comedy, so apologies if the below is only half formed..

    I think Brent, Fawlty and Kramer are somewhat awful humans who behave transgressively regardless of their desires and circumstances. They have baked-in flaws that means they can’t help themselves. Crucially they see their flaws as strengths, or perhaps of no consequence, and are confused when others don’t behave the same way. They perceive their base actions are rational, even though to others they are largely transgressive.

    So we have unstable, volatile, but always just about tolerable characters, who through the course of an episode start making bad decisions in an attempt to satisfy their desires - usually unobtainable goals.

    As you well know (and have taught me!) these bad decisions unsurprisingly lead to bad outcomes, which they try to fix, but again make bad choices. The pressure builds up, usually setting up a feedback loop. An external pressure may also be used to speed things up or tighten the screw further (e.g. the threat of redundancies in The Office).

    So over the course of the episode Brent, Fawlty and Kramer et al have annoying but tolerable habits transformed into absurd, awful behaviour by inbuilt flaws, which they lack the self-awareness to see, and bad decisions, which to them seem rational.

    In your example perhaps a middle ground might be that proud & tough (strength) Beverley desperately wants to the dependable big sister (goal) but isn’t aware of her complete lack of ability to empathise (flaw). She genuinely thinks giving the baby to Ian and Susie is a good idea (bad decision 1). Ian and Susie are appalled, but Beverley doesn’t understand way and thinks they’re acting unreasonably. She’s proud so she tells them so (bad decision 2). Susie storms out, Ian hits back. Beverley cries - why is Ian being so mean to her? The next day she tries again, only with something even more inappropriate (bad decision 3) etc.

    Perhaps we’re seeing ‘short-cut’ characters - out and out sociopaths - because they generate a similar effect and are easier to write? The trouble is, as you say, this lack of a conflicted complex character isn’t as satisfying from a comedic standpoint.

  4. I agree with you. I don't have a problem with one or two sociopaths in a sitcom, but when they outnumber the sympathetic characters three to one the laughs are brief and forgettable. I wasn't sure why I didn't like MUM but I think you might have put your finger on it here - although of course you didn't mention MUM and may not have been thinking of it at all.

  5. I'd propose that characters do need to have a selfish tendency in order to quickly drive a plot through, however writers seem to have lost the motivation to do it in an endearing/human way. There are comedies from both old and new which I hold dear which have a more natural touch with their juxtapositions, however there are far too many examples of writers going for the wisecrack at the expense of letting the laughs come from a real place.
    To keep watching a show, I don't have to like all the characters, but I feel I do have to like watching them.
    Take Bernard Black, a complete sociopath with countless abhorrent character traits, (Linehan has a perfect penchant for the "what is the worst..."), but I still hold him close as one of my most loved characters. That, I think I put down his endearing frailty, but there is another trait I love about him: I never knowing what he will ever say or do. This is true also of Kramer as well I think, although I reckon he would be much more loved if he showed more of a inner coherence of humanity, if we could see him actually trying to be whacky to boost his sense of worth/standing, if we could see him disappointed that his antics are not being appreciated, or even a peek at exactly why he feels the need to be an irregular guy (does it come from a place of insecurity for example).
    People I feel want to “get” characters, I think, even in a small way, and simple wise-crackers stick out as obvious script devices, and cliches. Take Friday Night Dinner, there are plenty of silly characters clearly there to cause imbalance, but they are still all understandable in some way.

    I waffle too much I'm sorry.
    Anyway, love the blog, keep it up, you’re great!

  6. I like to watch clean sitcoms that i can enjoy with my family without any awkward feeling.
    I'm a 90's kid and wasn't allowed to watch Friends when I was growing.
    I did enjoy watching the reruns of Small Wonder and Boy Meets World.
    Not to mention the Disney sitcoms. Those were some innocent days.