The Problem with Our Critical Language
The sitcom, or situational comedy, receives much scorn for its stale tropes, stock characters, and cliches. Nevertheless, it continues to be made. The genre, defined as a comedy with a fixed location and cast of characters, cops flak for laugh tracks and its hallmark cheesiness.
The truth is that cliches can prop up bad writing, but they can prove a friend to writers and readers. Cliches can liberate and inspire. No better proof of that exists than in sitcoms’ relationship to its parent, Greek New Comedy.
In the 4th century B.C.E., New Greek Comedy took the stage from Greek Old Comedy to establish an art tradition that would last two thousand years.
Counterintuitively, Greek comedy began with sophisticated societal critique and descended into raunch. As I mentioned in my analysis of Euripedes’ Heracles (which was part of a larger article), Athens’ plays were playwrights’ instruments for political change and group introspection, not merely entertainment. The first phase of Greek comedy practiced more than its fair share of toilet humor and innuendo, yet it served a similar purpose.
We receive satire from Greek Old Comedy. Peter de Vries explains the spirit of the genre best: “The satirist shoots to kill while the humorist brings his prey back alive and eventually releases him again for another chance.”
Aristophanes is not only the most accomplished name from this period, but also embodies its highs and limitations. In The Clouds, an old man hounded by creditors attends “The Thinkery,” a parody of the earliest philosophers. He hopes to turn “inferior arguments into strong ones” and argue away his debt in the courts. Aristophanes mocks Socrates by name, mercilessly characterizing him as a charlatan and navel-gazer. In Lysistrata, women go on strike and refuse to have sex until Athens ceases its war with Sparta. Aristophanes uses the play to extol the rewards of peace and castigate Pericles, Athens’ foremost statesman. His work seeks topicality and combines the highbrow and lowbrow.
Old Comedy (fifth century B.C.E.) gives way to New Comedy in the fourth century. Everyday households become the center of attention. Grumpy old men, slaves, and soldiers replace mythic figures. Plots complexify and twist themselves into knots. Politics disappear entirely. Wordplay and banter persist as the motive oil of scenes, but they grease the wheels of plots with disguises, mistaken identities, tricks, and schemes gone awry. Characters don’t develop or ponder, but act on the basest impulses and screwball intentions. Most importantly, characters become flatter, less cerebral. In other words, it births the sitcom.
This two-dimensionality, this newfound focus on mundane “antics” over concepts, dominates the stage for two main reasons: Firstly, it isn’t controversial — politics divide audiences no matter what century you’re in. Secondly, people can relate to grumpy old men, slaves, and soldiers more easily than Orpheus.
It is impossible to continue this history without mentioning Plautus. Plautus contributed to the survival of New Greek Comedy by tweaking it for a Roman second-century audience. He both wrote arrangements of older plays and concocted a few of his own. His productions were runaway successes.
You can, after a fashion, experience his plays. The Broadway hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is the equivalent of a musical medley. It combines scenes and snatches from all of Plautus’ surviving plays and adds musical numbers from the great Stephen Sondheim. The 1966 film adaptation attracted some disapproval due to its quick cuts and rapid plot twists, but the faster pace of today’s films arguably makes it ahead of its time.
Those gains are possible through reduced characters and recycling. In fact, playwrights recycled so much that every character has a category. Writers would deliberately lift characters from one script and stick them in a new one.
Here are a few examples:
The Parasitus, the Parasite
The freeloader; the moocher; the slave to his appetites. The parasitus moves from table to table and character to character, begging for scraps. Functionally, they do little but comic relief. Comically, they prostrate themselves to fill their bellies and the more pathetic they become, the lower they stoop and the funnier they get.
In Plautus’ Captivi, the mooch Ergasilus laments how difficult panhandling for food has become.*
ERGASILUS: The young men push us poor starving comedians away. . . . I tell them one of my best jokes, the kind that used to get me a month’s worth of free dinners. Not a single person laughs and I realize it’s all a set-up: Forget about the laughs, not a single one of them so much as bares his teeth like an angry dog. I see I’m being mocked and so I leave them and I go to one group, then another, and another — same old story. . . . I know my rights and even if I have to invoke some foreign law, I’ll have my day in court against those who conspired to deprive me of life, liberty, and the pursuit of food. Their fine? Ten dinners, I choose the menu.Plautus, Captivi
Where Is the Parasite Now?
If you find it difficult to laugh at that, it’s understandable. The guest rites (xenia) and cultural rules surrounding food have changed. Nevertheless, the setup itself has crossed time.
Futurama‘s Zoidberg takes the parasitus’ brand of humor to the extreme. Basically, a sapient crab, Zoidberg feeds on carrion, lives in a dumpster behind the Planet Express Delivery Service building, and feasts on trash. Whenever he’s not the most incompetent doctor on Earth *and beyond), he’s scrounging.
Seinfeld’s Kramer seasons the comic recipe with eccentricity, but almost all of his apartment entrances begin with him raiding Jerry’s fridge. Then there’s the food tab debacle. . . .
The parasitus: proof that the phrase “Are you going to finish that?” is immortal.
The Boastful Soldier
ARTOTROGUS: I do remember this. In Cilicia there were a hundred and fifty men, a hundred in Cryphiolathronia, thirty at Sardis, sixty men of Macedon, whom you slaughtered altogether in one day.
PYRGOPOLINICES: What is the sum total of those men?
ARTOTROGUS: Seven thousand.
PYRGOPOLINICES: It must be as much: you keep reckoning well.Plautus, Miles Gloriosus
The vainglorious soldier (miles gloriosus in Latin) usually travels with a parasitus (Artotrogus in this example) in tow. The parasite pays for his meals by polishing the soldier’s laurels. Notably, though, the parasite confesses to the audience that they detest the soldier and follow him solely for a hot supper.
The miles glorious acts as the main antagonist more often than not. As you can see from the excerpt above, his humor comes from a colossal ego matched only by his incompetence. He constantly exaggerates his accomplishments and puffs himself up. Inevitably, reality (or his bumbling) tries to cut him down to size, but he tends to revert back to braggadocio.
Where is the Boastful Soldier Now?
Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan demonstrates how well this archetype can work in any setting. All of the “twenty-five star general’s” enemies are defenseless (“Fresh from his bloody triumph over the Pacifists of the Gandhi Nebula!”) and “every mission with him is a suicide mission.” He even has his own parasitus, the long-suffering Kif. Kif groans at Brannigan’s stupidity a lot and still remains by his side. The motivation may not be food, but Kif fulfills the same role.
Other good examples include the nebbish Frank Burns and needlessly macho Colonel Flagg from M*A*S*H (the former of which often operating as a parasitus to the latter).
The clever slave archetype is Plautus’ great gift to comedy and of his own invention. Slaves in Greek comedies often had little to do and existed for the same reason as the nurse in Romeo and Juliet: for jokes at the expense of the working class and for some flavor. Plautus elevated the slave to a hero. He is a servant who’s smarter than everyone around him, including his master. Ultimately, he embodies a perverse relationship to authority.
In a Plautus play, he conducts the plot and his machinations form a kind of setpiece. In Pseudolus,* for instance, he challenges his master’s father, Simo, to a battle of wits. He vows that by the end of the day, he’ll coax money out of Simo’s pockets. Instead of anger, Simo expresses curiosity:
SIMO: What’ll you do now? Now that I’m on to you, no money is going to be stolen from me! I’ll publicly proclaim: “let no one load Pseudolus a penny!”
PSEUDOLUS: I’ll never beg anyone for money as long as you’re alive: I guarantee you’ll be giving me that money! Or, to be more precise, I’ll be taking it from you. . . . I’m telling you so you’ll be on guard.
SIMO: I know one thing for sure: if you pull it off, your achievement would be absolutely amazing!
PSEUDOLUS: I will.
SIMO: What if you don’t?
PSEUDOLUS: Then flog me with rods. But what if I do?
SIMO: As Jupiter is my witness, you’ll spend the rest of your life in peace.Plautus, Pseudolus
The audience watches to see if he’ll pull it off. Of course, he does. This brand of comedy appeals to that part of us which enjoys seeing ingenuity triumph over power.
Where is the Clever Slave Now?
The decline of slavery’s reputation has, of course, impacted this archetype, but it hasn’t eliminated it. Sitcoms recreate the slave-master relationship through contexts like the army or retail, where hierarchies dominate and someone’s always at the bottom of the totem pole.
In the NBC sitcom Superstore, wage slave Garrett McNeill misleads management and co-workers to reduce his workload. In one situation, he’s ordered to operate the cash register. He agrees to do so, but only if he’s allowed to finish an intercom announcement for movie DVDs. He proceeds to list the synopses of every popular movie he can think of.
The schemes of M*A*S*H‘s Pierce and “Trapper” fall under this category as well. Early episodes focus on plots against the suffocating grip of the U.S. Army and attempts to get what they want.
How Writers Benefit from Comic Archetypes
Copying these characters improves comedy more than you think. Accepted conventions allow writers to play with form. Futurama’s Kif differs from the traditional parasitus because he lacks the gluttony which accompanies the role: he clings to Brannigan through low self-esteem, ennui, and resignment. Superstore’s Garrett reimagines “the clever slave” as “the clever wage slave,” breathing life into an entire library of jokes. These are excellent starting points for writers.
More importantly, archetypes supply immediacy. Tragedy can camouflage ponderousness as a slow burn, but comedy must aim for the belly and move fast. Slow and elaborate comedies are dead on arrival. Stock characters act as shorthand, a way to engage an audience with a few words and hastily sketched personalities. We’ll feel like we’ve known stock characters forever because, in a way, we have.
How Audiences Benefit from Comic Archetypes
Through the careful addition of stock characters, a comedy recipe can become more than the sum of its ingredients. A social conscience or layered characters would have robbed us of Seinfeld’s famous Frogger joke or the many outlandish pick-up attempts of How I Met Your Mother. To long for character development or intellectual content seems almost impolite. We want Penny, Sheldon, Leonard, et al. to remain in that apartment forever, or at least until the writers have exhausted every scenario an apartment can provide. Leaving behind maturity and growth rewards comedy with levity and spectacle.
The value of this comedic method is irrefutable. Unlike, say, governments or laws, comedy doesn’t endure two millennia by accident or oversight. It lives or dies onstage because of its results, namely laughter. It might be the most democratic and meritocratic of arts for that reason.
That’s some cause for re-evaluation. “Stock,” “cliche,” and “conventional” carry no positive connotations. Some people even play connect the dots with them, treating forests like trees and discounting composition. How does the Brannigan-Kif dynamic affect Futurama’s comedy versus Artotrogus-Pyrgopolinices? What is the relationship to, say, the rest of theater (Kabuki, for example) or how does the pairing interact with its contemporaries? Trope hunters don’t really care.
As I’ve said elsewhere, our ability to be truly original is limited. We suffer from myopia about our influences. Let us open our eyes, then. Instead of castigating films for unoriginality, we should consider the freedoms that unoriginality brings. We should weigh the positives and negatives of their use and how they work together for the edification of the whole. Of course, should a writer squander those advantages, metaphorical stones should be thrown, but respect the value of the trite.
*I use the translation by David Christenson but provide a link to the Perseus website’s version