Monday, May 20, 2013

Specific Genre Structures, Part 1: Comedy

Just to review, the general arc of classical structure, as I identify it, can be boiled down to four quarters separated by three turning points:
  1. First quarter: Longstanding problem becomes acute through a humiliation and a new opportunity to solve that problem is identified.
  2. ¼ point: Hero commits to the opportunity.
  3. Second quarter: Hero tries to solve the problem the easy way.
  4. Midpoint: Disaster and loss of safe space
  5. Third quarter: Hero tries to solve the problem the hard way.
  6. ¾ point: Spiritual crisis
  7. Final quarter: Wiser hero solves or succumbs to problem.
For now, let’s just focus on the four quarters. The essential quartet of Problem / Easy Way / Hard Way / Resolution is vague enough to apply to just about any story about a large problem, but eventually you get tired of having to squint all the time. When we opened our eyes all the way and tested this structure against some actual movies, we found that different genres tended to have very different takes on that quartet. This week, we’ll look at hour several different genres tend to define those four quarters.

Surprisingly, although there are many profoundly different subgenres of comedy, I was able to identify on more-specific quartet that applied to almost all of them:

Discontent / Transgression with Mask / Deal with Consequences / Growth Without Mask:
  • Easy Living (mask = false identity that is thrust upon her)
  • The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday (mask = pretend to no longer to be in love)
  • Sullivan’s Travels (mask = phony poverty)
  • Some Like It Hot (mask = drag)
  • The Apartment (transgression has already begun, then escalates, mask is unwanted but adopted to get ahead at work and explain strange goings on to his neighbor)
  • The Producers (mask = scam)
  • Breaking Away (mask = Italian accent)
  • Risky Business (mask = sunglasses)
  • Tootsie (mask = drag)
  • Raising Arizona (literally with and without masks)
  • Swingers (mask = phony pick-up persona)
  • Rushmore (he’s been wearing the mask for years, but now it escalates)
  • Wedding Crashers (mask = fake identities)
  • The 40 Year Old Virgin (mask = fake confidence)
  • Juno (first transgression has already happened, second transgression happens late)
  • Superbad (mask = fake ID)
  • Mean Girls (mask = fake personality)
  • The Hangover (transgressions not seen, revealed as part of lengthened consequences section)
Even the exceptions I identified were slight:
  • In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant has no mask but it doesn’t matter because Hepburn insists on treating him as something he isn’t, so he gets the same benefit, in that he gets to flee his responsibilities for a time.
  • I was surprised that Bridesmaids, which feels like a very classical comedy, is the most atypical of the comedies I looked at, since our hero engages in almost no transgression, but merely attempts to be dutiful. She does wear a mask, however, to the extent that she pretends not to be broke and not to be horribly depressed about friend’s wedding and life in general.
Though, as we’ll see throughout the series, some movies end up jumping into other categories altogether:
  • Dr. Strangelove didn’t fit at all, but I think that that’s because it’s a conspiracy movie that’s played as a comedy and thus fits the “mystery” arc that we’ll look at tomorrow. (It was adapted from a dead serious novel)
  • Annie Hall, likewise, doesn’t fit, because it’s really a drama arc played for laughs.
Tomorrow: Thriller, Action and Mystery


Bill Peschel said...

Now, how does the Marx Brothers fit in this? Answer: Very difficult, unless you get four pants with that suit. (Honk! Honk!)

Matt Bird said...

True, the Marx Brothers movies don't fit at all. Those were not movies about the solving a large problem, so they required no version of the classical structure.

If I had to define the "structure", I would say: "A series of loosely-connected sketches, mostly based on a specific institution, arranged in order of escalating speed."

Emily said...

Would you say that usually the "mask" is related to the "easy way to solve the problem" and the "loss of safe space" is related to the loss of the mask? Or is that sort of a backwards way of thinking about it?

Matt Bird said...

Yes, that's definitely what I would say.

MCP said...

I'm excited to see the rest of this series. The 2nd Quarter-Midpoint-3rd Quarter transition of a script seems one of the most challenging parts.

The way you have described it before was certainly useful, but the concept of the mask in comedy and the examples provided are more concrete and thought-provoking. Very helpful new perspective.

Vlad said...

Is there some post where you go into detail about these elements? I'd be curious to learn more about what the transgression means, and examples of that and examples of growth without mask.