January 17, 2012

Community, Comedy & DramaSystem

Benjamin Hayward asks:

After watching the first season of Community sequentially, I was struck by how much it's characters resemble Dramatic Heroes much more than Iconic ones in their decisions despite the show being advertised as a sitcom. Reading the DVD box reveals all. The show is supposedly about how attending college changes the characters through the lessons they learn. In this way, the characters all slowly change throughout the season, with some doing so more than others in each episode. Have you watched enough of Community to comment on how Drama System might fit it? Or perhaps how Drama System might fit serial comedy in general?

I haven’t subjected comedy to the same analysis that I have drama and the procedural, so consider these thoughts provisional. Blame Aristotle for losing the treatise on comedy that originally accompanied The Poetics. If only he’d backed up to a USB drive!

Comedies tend, like procedurals, to threaten the characters’ status quo and then return to it. The leads aren’t solving external problems as the iconic heroes of procedural stories do. Iconic heroes encounter disorder and tame it. Comedy protagonists tend to instigate disorder (often by pursuing an internal flaw, just like tragic heroes), which continues to spiral out of control in response to their efforts to control it. Finally the disorder reaches a culmination. The hero, undone, confronts his flaw and all is forgiven and order restored.

The equivalent of the procedural would be the slapstick or physical obstacle: the accelerating conveyor belt, the clock hand from which the hero dangles, the damnable road runner who won’t be caught. Moments of character comedy play out just as dramas do—there’s a petitioner who wants something, a granter who does or doesn’t give it to them. Because of these similarities you could play a sitcom format with DramaSystem—though I’m not sure who really wants to. It’s easier to be funny by riffing on a putatively serious game than to keep the jokes flying on purpose.

Community creator Dan Harmon sets out to subvert sitcom conventions and as such bends his characters much further out of their original molds than the audience’s comfort level might permit. This becomes all the more apparent after Season One. Still, you could argue that whatever changes the characters go through, or surprising qualities they reveal about themselves, the study group itself—the real community the show’s title refers to—is restored to harmony at the end of each episode.