Status based comedy is some of my very favorite comedy, and yet I don’t see it played as the primary dynamic in improv often. So here are my ideas on main ways status can comprise the driving force for a scene.
1) A race to the top/bottom
2) A comedy of errors
3) Mixed status as character
Ok, the basics of “status” in comedy is the idea that a person can have high or low status: a king or a beggar, the CEO or the cleaning lady. In learning about status we take it further; noting that there are not only 10s (sultan, quarterback, secretary of state) and 1s (urchin, terminally ill hobo) but all shades in between. A high status character may be surprisingly low status when put in a different situation; the intern suddenly has higher status than a senator when she reveals a tape with which to blackmail him.
The point is that there are a variety of factors which control status. Status is also a quality which can exist independently of other characters in a scene. Some high status characters are low-status with regard to objects or parts of themselves: the quarterback has trouble with his computer, the editor is very clumsy, the vicious boss can’t console her infant son when he is brought in to the boardroom, or the prince has an uncontrollable lisp –which puts him at odds with himself, even as he is in control of others.
With status as the basis for comedy we laugh at two things: unexpected reversals of status or the status pattern of a character that continually heightens the repercussions of their own weaknesses. Put another way; your luck changes relative to someone else’s luck or you keep bringing the same kind of luck upon yourself because of personal flaws like hubris, cowardice, greed, perversion, or stupidity. Yes, we all laugh at these things.
1) A Race to the Top/Bottom: the competition dynamic
We often caution ourselves against getting caught on stage in an unfunny conflict over who is higher status. This is something we try to avoid because it is rarely done with any intention. If no one understood the underlying joys of a Straight/Absurd dynamic it is easy to imagine that we’d try to avoid going “too crazy” on stage. “Don’t go too crazy!” we’d say “You don’t want to alienate your scene partner by being unfathomably outlandish or weird.” – but, of course, we don’t say these things because we understand that the Absurd character and the Straight character both have responsibilities in heightening the scene intelligently. The same is absolutely true of a scene about the competition to be top dog.
Status reversals are at the heart of the race to the top/bottom type of comedy. A good example of a race to the top is the episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth the page is competing with the head page to get the job with the Olympics, or the episode of Michael and Michael Have Issues where the two Michaels compete with each other to impress their intern. In these scripted sketches it is paramount that one character “win” a point, only to be bested by the next heightening move. The trade off, the reversals, are what keep the dynamic alive and fascinating. This seems simple to say, but if you are in a scene where old-school your mama jokes are being exchanged and neither character is stung by their sparing partner’s insults, you do not have a funny scene. If, on the other hand, each insult completely changes who is top dog – something amusing is likely to be happening. If you are in a scene where two law men want control of this here El Paso outpost, each has to be vulnerable and tough; if one man insists that he is the fastest draw in the west he is. And that is a problem. Good thing you’re the most efficient cup-cake maker in the west, and most importantly, that this is an equally devastating revelation for your competitor.
So what is the race to the bottom? It is the twin of the race to the top: it is always a race toward a valued position of debasement. Two peasants might compete to be servile, two priests to be self-sacrificing, or two girls-gone-wild to be objectified. A wonderful example is this Monty Python sketch:
(also, it is a fact that the grandmasters of status comedy are Larry David and the whole of the British people).
2) Comedy of Errors,aka you do it to yourself, you do and that’s what really hurts
This type of comedy is based on providing extreme discomfort. Ricky Gervais’ character will always lose at life. Something very bad, that is over half his fault, will happen to Larry David at least five times every episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Everyone on Pulling will make it worse till it don’t get no worse, then find a new kind of terrible to fall to.
Losers losing makes us laugh when they BRING IT ON THEMSELVES. We normally don’t laugh when a character is just “picked on” by everyone – we laugh when they invite it, or their own error continually brings them down.
However, we also laugh at the comedy of errors that involves those that shouldn’t win, winning anyway. Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, Jack Donaghy are the American flavor of this dynamic. They make us laugh just as hard when they are on top as when they hit bottom. We laugh at winners wining when they inexplicably overcome the obstacles of their own flaws. A king ruling won’t make us laugh; though a foolish king overcoming the (justified) derision of others will make us laugh. Eastbound and Down is proof positive that the only thing funnier than a loser bringing catastrophe onto themselves, is a loser driven to win and his unlikely triumphs. Also see, “Homer Simpson.”
3)Mixed Status as Character
By its self high status isn’t funny. Low status isn’t funny. But, mixed statuses ARE funny.
Outside of the type of scenes enumerated above, scenarios in which status cracks us up are often based on the fact that no one is a 10 or a 1 really in life: all people have high status parts and low status parts. Common types are successful because they pair high and low status in a way that delights us.
Dumb Blonds /Sexually Desirable and Stupid
Joey (friends), Cerie (30 Rock), Vince Noir (The Mighty Boosh)
Absent Minded Professor/ Socially Inept Intellectual
Dr. Zoidburg (Futurama), Dr. Fink (The Simpsons), Moss (The IT Crowd)
Impotent Rich Man/ Wealthy and Powerless
Mr. Burns (The Simpsons), Andy Bernard (The Office), Helen Harris (Bridesmaids)
Brilliant Child/ Wise or Clever + Naive
Kenneth (30 Rock), Lisa Simpson, Southpark (the whole show)
In Summation: look and be aware if you are in a race to the top or bottom scene. If you are in that scene, remember that the laughs come from reversals, so you have to trade off to make laughs. If you are in a comedy of errors you are either a wining loser or a loosing loser: a winning loser overcomes obstacles (that they brought on themselves) while a losing loser fails gloriously and has himself to blame. If you are just playing status as a character choice, mix it up. Complex status (a 10 status quality + a 1 status quality) = Comedy. A simple high or low status won’t stand on its own as a driving force for a scene.