Tuesday, 18 January 2011

They're Nice And All, But We Don't Care

And so we reach the age old debate about 'likeable'.

I've heard it said (either by Goldman or Long) that networks want a Mickey Mouse. But comedy writers want to write Bugs Bunny. Let's not beat about the bush on this one - Mickey Mouse just isn't as cool, as funny or even as 'likeable' as Bugs Bunny, who torments, frustrates and bullies his assaillants and walks off with lines like 'Ain't I a stinker?'

Bugs is cowardly, brutal and mean. And yet, as a child, every time cartoons came on, I would cheer if it was Bugs Bunny and switch off mild-mannered-middle-of-the-road Mickey Mouse. Unless Donald Duck was around who as, at least, a comically hyper-charged ball of rage that would at least pass the time.

Let's keep going with this. One of the most appealling characters of British TV of the last ten years is Gene Hunt - a sexist, homophobic, xenophobic throwback to the bad old days of dodgy policing. He was literally head and shoulders above all others in that show because his character was larger than life in every way. Five series later, he's bigger than ever.

Previously I've blogged about the wonderful Damned United (here) in which the incorrigible Brian Clough is portrayed, a man who got under your skin and intentionally set out to annoy people - like Gregory House, MD. Or, for that matter, Gordon Ramsay on his TV shows.

And yet, in a way, we care about Bugs Bunny, Hunt, House and Clough - even though they are sadistic monsters. In pure sitcom, we have the likes of Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave. In 30 Rock, we have Jack Donaghy and Tracey Jordan who are both rich and arrogant monsters in their way.

In my own limited experience, we have Penny and Tilly in Miranda who say and do outrageously unlikeable things, but we love them all the same. In writing Hut 33, I created a character called Professor Charles Gardiner, ultra-conservative Oxford don who was on first name terms with Rommel and Von Ribbentrop when war broke out. Played by the delightful Robert Bathurst, he often had the best jokes and zingers, and was a lot of fun to write for. In fact, the most popular character of that show was the Polish psychopath called Minka, voiced by Olivia Colman. She always brought the house down with her tales or threats of sustained and imaginative physical violence.

The common stereotype of the TV Commissioner is that they want someone 'likeable'. Or think other people think they want someone 'likeable'. This is sadly often true. But let's not confuse 'likable' with 'engaging' or 'absorbing' or 'charismatic'. The audience and the commissioner want the same thing - characters they keep coming back to. We need compelling characters, not necessary likeable ones. Miranda is very likeable. So was Del Boy. But Gregory House isn't likeable. He is an utter jerk, and cruel to anyone who shows love or affection for him. And yet, I've seen every single episode up to the middle of Series 6.

Conversely, the problem of Episodes is that we have a perfectly likeable couple at the centre of the show - but we don't really care about them, as I said here. They're nice and all, but we don't care.

Ultimately, we live with a paradox. We are able to love people we dislike. (Think of your own family). The skill, the trick, the art of writing is to make characters compelling, so that we have sympathy for them. It make be that we make them Mr Nice Guy. It may be that we can relate to them. Or it may be that we understand them, see the world through their eyes, but realise we would dislike them if we met them - but we just can't look away. eg. David Brent, Captain Mainwairing, Victor Meldrew, Tony Hancock.

It seems surprising that writers keep being asked for 'likeable', when that is not, ultimately, what the audience, the commissioners or any of us want.

Of course, Mickey Mouse made Disney and lots of other people hundreds of millions, so we can probably ignore all of the above.

But come on, who wants Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Pluto, when you can have Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn and Elmer Fudd?


  1. With the cartoon characters is it that our parents liked Mickey Mouse et al, (and they held the purse strings. Whilst we liked Bugs Bunny et al because we are at heart all rebellious?

    So the money talked and Disney made billions.

  2. Yep. I don't 'like' even one character in Mad Men but I love the series.

  3. "Warm" is another word beloved of commissioners and producers. I saved a fortune on my gas bill over Christmas just by watching Gavin & Stacey.

  4. The Bugs Bunnies certainly are the popular ones, and are the characters everyone remembers, but don't they only really come into their own when there are a couple of Mickey Mouses/Mice to boss around and bully? In most of the sitcoms mentioned you have the counterbalance character, the one quite capable of brushing off the brunt of Bugs' hostility.

    House - Wilson
    Mainwaring - (again) Wilson
    Meldrew - Margaret
    Hunt - Tyler / Drake

    The Bunnies and Mice play off each other. I don't think the various individuals above would have been as popular if their sidekick couldn't, to some extent, bear with them. I'm not sure who (may have been Cleese himself), but someone noted that people enjoyed the confrontations between Basil and Sybil Fawlty only because Basil's incredibly rude comments simply bounced off his wife. It would not have been the same if the comments affected and hurt her. Not that Sybil is necessarily a Mickey Mouse, but at times she fulfils a similar role.

    That said, the Bugs Bunny is still the life of the show. Even in the Good Life, a show full of 'likeable' mice, the one people hark back to is Margo, the least Mickey Mouse-like of the crowd. Presumably it's human nature to be attracted to corrupted characters, as their more believable. We walk by them, and as them, day in day out.

  5. I'm dealing with this at the moment, and I reckon there's another dimension. I care about a character because of how he or she is seen by other characters I like. Call me shallow, but I really do care what other people think.

  6. Bugs Bunny isn't cowardly or cruel, the worst attribute one can perhaps ascribe to him is being devious, but that is only when he is attempting to get his own back on someone deserves it.