Monday, 14 January 2008

Unskilled and Unaware

Following up from my Two-faced post, here's a fascinating paper written by Justin Kruger and David Dunning. It opens:
People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to recognize it.

Well worth a read, if only for the bit about the bank-robber who believed he could render himself invisible to security cameras by rubbing lemon juice into his skin.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Carry On Farming

Just realized that The Maggot Farm is one year old!

Can you celebrate blog anniversaries? Could you extend the idea and celebrate the anniversary of your ruptured spleen or the time you got caught stealing your neighbour's garden gnomes?

I guess one of the best reasons to blog is that it gets you writing and keeps the thoughts tumbling along.

Happy anniversary everyone!

Friday, 11 January 2008


The Queen was most displeased with the new 2p design.

A change is as good as a rest, they say, although sounds like nonsense to me: just as busy as ever.
Lots of interesting differences between writing a narrative comedy and writing a fiction novel.
The first thing that hit me was how obsolete all those literary techniques become. There's no call for devices of sound and word palettes and pulse.
Instead, one is compelled to focus on the raw material of character and situation.
Having spent some time watching and analyzing classic comedy shows (whilst I wait on my next Amazon delivery of 'how to write' books [because I still haven't got a clue]), I've found a good deal of recurring themes and techniques.
Let's begin by looking at obsession and the enormous gulf between how the character perceives himself, and how the character is perceived by others.

Jeremy (Peep Show) is convinced he is a stud. 'I'm James Bond!' he muses. Of course, the viewer and the other characters see his lust, but none of Bond's class. He also believes he is a 'musical genius', and is horrified to find Mark and Toni in fits of laughter as they listen to one of his tracks. (Compare with Father Ted's Eurovision entry.)
And consider David Brent (The Office): Just how far removed is he from the brilliant orator, philosopher, entertainer, dancer, musician, alpha male that he believes himself to be?

There was a super Mitchell and Webb made-for-radio sketch in which character A reveals to hapless character B that he has a piece of ham stuck to his face, and that it has been stuck to his face for some twenty years. As realisation dawns, character B confesses that he had always been aware of a hammy smell.

Characters are driven by a motivation (goal, obstacles, means!). Comedic characters are more susceptible to extremes (because, in part, these lead to contrasts, and contrast is at the root of much humour), and tend to be motivated by obsession. An example used by Robert McKee is Michael Palin's character Ken in A Fish Called Wanda. Ken's obsession is animals: he adores animals and would hate for any harm to befall one.
Here we see how an armada of contrasts are lined up:

Tasked with assassinating an elderly woman, Ken arranges all manner of deaths for the woman. However, each assassination attempt fails to kill the woman - instead, he picks off her dogs one-by-one, drawing him deeper into despair.
And if you were to torture Ken? Remove a fish from his tank and swallow it. Repeat.

Ken loves animals => Through his actions, Ken directly or indirectly causes the death of animals.

Comedy can be distilled from characters with blind obsessions - from characters who are not who they believe themselves to be and who will never become that person. Therein lies a special kind of pathotic tragedy which pervades many of the greatest comedy moments.