Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Joey School

Hey Carl Niclas!

You said this on G+

“I watched a bunch of Big Bang Theory episodes this Summer, for various reasons, and it is quite interesting: The characters actually get shallower as it progresses. I'm not saying they were poignantly written people with deep and layered personalities from the start, but what little there was of personality dynamics seems to have been deliberately eroded further into the series.”

Now is as good a time as any to tell you, AND EVERYONE about the Joey Tribbiani school of writing and political philosophy.

(This has almost nothing to do with RPG’s at all)

When ‘Friends’ is on the TV on two different channels you can flick back and forth and watch Joey decay.

When the writers started making the show they knew very little about it so they had to make it out of their own lives, or lives they had seen. They drew knowledge of their characters from the world around them. Because of this the characters of ‘Friends’ are a bit more interesting in the first few seasons. This is especially true of Joey.

Joey starts out as an attractive, potent, mildly sleazy guy and ends up as someone so functionally subnormal that if they were real they would be sent to a Home.


Joey was too useful and he refers only to himself.

In a drama or sitcom, especially one with a long-standing cast, drama must be created. A useful way to do this is for people to do stupid things. Make stupid assumptions. Come to stupid conclusions about things they should know well. They kind of thing that happens in your life about once every five years and gets brought out for stories at weddings happens in a sitcom every week.

“What? That was your dog?!”

“The parents were gay? Uh oh!”

I think it’s called the ‘idiot ball’. Someone has to hold the idiot ball this episode. So Joey is hot and sometimes a bit dumb. Then Matt LeBlanc is good at goofy comedy and his character sells well so a few episodes down the line someone asks;

“but why would Chandler believe his boss hated Chinese food? Chandler, after all, is not a fucking idiot.”

And someone replies “Heeeeyy, maybe Joey takes the phone call.”

Yeah, Joey. That fuckwit.

Characters, if they are good, start out as drawn from life, or with the anima of real life. Over time they are seen to be good at a few things. Then, depending on the long-term pressures on the story and the human effort of the writers and creators, they slowly corrode into machines for doing the thing they are good at. Chandler quips, Joey fucks and fucks up, Phoebe is mental, Monica is anal. You don’t really need to think about anything, just press the buttons on the characters to make them do what they do.

It happens slowly in some cases and it happens invisibly. Due to pressure and assumption.

Credit to the writers of Friends, you can see them fighting this, they put in a better effort than most sitcom staff. They keep that shit afloat for a good long while.

But they are fighting gravity. It’s not just a story, it’s a machine. You have 24 episodes a year to do. They can take over a week to film. People are getting fired and tired and freaking out. Things are going wrong. Money is coming in or going out. The system, and everyone in it is under pressure. Get it done. And you need that joke just there. You don’t have the time to draw from life any more. You have to draw from the story as it is.

The first season if Friends is based, a bit, on real-ish life. Or someone’s life. Someone’s story in the writers room.

The later seasons are drawn, increasingly, from the history and dramatic engine of ‘Friends’. The memory of the show and the action of the show become the justification and inspiration of the characters. The idea kind of disappears inside itself.

 Because Joey is so funny. What if he made this mistake. Uh-oh!

This isn’t just about Sitcoms. All complex ideas have a kind of life inside them. There is a half-life of human ideas. Especially ideas of political philosophy. Like ‘Friends’ these ideas are began by people enthralled by the complexity of life. They are usually investigations into things as-they-are. The first-to-middle parts of any book of political philosophy are almost always the best bits because the person writing is as engaged in the world as you are. They are fascinated by all the little wrinkles of nature and all the parts that don’t fit together. You get to surf along with a great mind as they discover, question and understand.

But then we hit the mid-point of the series.

By this point the writer has probably spent a very long time developing their idea. Years probably. They may be under pressure. Even if they are not, they no longer live in the world as much as they did. They live in a self-created world of symbols and ideas.  A world they made so they could understand it.

The more intelligent the person, the greater the danger. A stupid person can’t hide from the discontinuity of their own thought that long. Sooner or later they have to crash back into things-as-they-are. A very intelligent person can keep it up for a long long time. Till they die in fact.

But, because they are living in a system of self-created ideas, those ideas become like Joey Tribbiani. They become machines. They serve the system. Invisibly, they are shaped to produce a result. What began in love of life and proceeded through comprehension and analysis and comparison, almost always ends up as absolutism and certainty. ‘Could’ is replaced with ‘must’. ‘Why’ is replaced with ‘because’. Chains of circumstance that, in the first chapters, begun and ended in examples from life, now begin in theory, pass through an illusion of life, and end up back in theory.

And that’s why you should never read the ends of deep books. You had most of the good stuff at the beginning. The middle made you think. The end is just there to kill thought. You should tear out the last chapters when you buy the book.


  1. That is the best text I've read in forever. And of course it's relevant to RPGs, but it's also relevant to everything.

    Thanks a lot.

    (only wish it wasn't so damn hard to post comments)

  2. The dramatic phenomenon that you describe is also known as "Flanderization," after the Simpsons character Ned Flanders who, as TV Tropes puts it, "was originally just a considerate neighbor and attentive father... before becoming obsessively religious to the point of lunacy."

    I think your analysis of how this process occurs is spot-on. And on the topic of the Big Bang Theory characters that started the post, it was always my opinion that Leonard's friends represent different aspects of geek identity, with Leonard himself representing the actual person who tries to balance his various nerdy habits with the need to function in the real world.

    Thus, a cast of characters who largely started out as fragments of a complete person are treated by the reality of the show as discrete entities while simultaneously falling subject to the Tribbiani Effect or Flanderization process.

    As an odd side-effect, I think that the women in the cast, who mostly originated to serve as romantic foils to the men, have been more able to develop into fully-realized, engaging characters (or at least more fully-developed and engaging than the supposedly more central male cast).

  3. I can't believe you just used a character from Friends to make such a excellent analysis of how smart people can be so fucking dumb .


  4. It's not often that I come through reading a blog post feeling like I really learned something, but god damn it I just did.

  5. Well yessss this is very common, and I think is a classic marker of mediocre writing.

    One way I think this manifests a lot is in the in the writer's impulse to 'do something' with a character. The writer has as usual a blank page, so they sort of frantically look around for inspiration (which at that point lives primarily in their head), and ends up with a 'conclusion' for the character which rests on the beginning of the book. This is unrealistic, this isn't the way the world works, and when it happens in some novels and stories you can tell it by a certain note of metallic fakeness . . . I'm thinking right now of Ian McEwan's 'The Concrete Jungle.' You can also look at characters like Cersei and Tyrion Lannister, or at nearly all the characters in True Blood.

    This by the way is why it's important to think about art, so you can write and consume stuff that isn't total bullshit.

  6. Somebody mentioned Flanders - actually Homer is the worst culprit in the Simpsons. In early series The Simpsons is good because each episode is a discrete story and the humour, although surreal, is located in the reality of a vaguely believable family. Homer is a bit stupid, not a great father, and lazy, but he's still a recognisable human being. But as the series progresses he turns into a monster - somebody so pathological in every respect that the idea he could have a family is beyond any sane person's comprehension.

    I don't necessarily agree about the political philosophy point...I think it's more to do with cognitive bias. You construct a theory based on your experiences, but then once the theory is constructed you start to perceive everything through it, and this warps your perception and leads you to make crazy conclusions. You start off basing ideas on experience but end up experiencing things through ideas.

  7. I've seen a slight counter to this with characters on series that are two-dimensional throw-aways or unsympathetic or outright villains in the first place, where the writers need to "do something" with the character (and perhaps the actor's boredom in playing it) may lead to their resorting to nuance and exploration of motivations. I think of M.A.S.H. as an example of this, where characters like Houlihan or Winchester started out as mere foils for the protagonists, but had evolved substantial back-stories and nuance by the end. Frank Burns, in contrast did get more cartoonish and left the show before anyone had to resort to expanding him.

    And I'm inclined to agree with noisms on both points (Homer and political philosophy (actually most academic writing). The research and initial correlation and critical analysis done by such an author is frequently more valuable and interesting than their ultimate attempts at synthesis where cognitive biases make them prone to discard or diminish inconvenient facts than to accommodate them.

    1. Niles from Frasier is like this. He starts off as a two-dimensional snooty snob but gradually becomes more central to the show - by the latter series (admittedly not as good as the beginning ones) he is almost the main character.

      (I know far more about Frasier than I should because Channel 4 play two episodes a day, every morning, on an eternal loop through the entire run. I watch it over breakfast, and if I don't get to see it I get really grumpy.)

  8. I seen some serious Joey school of Game Design happen that I would not of believed until it did

    1. I almost want examples, but I know what happens when you talk about game design on the internet

  9. Thank you for writing this. It's damnably smart. And it's really timely for me right now, as I look at a load of new historical stuff lying all over the floor and try to assemble it into evidence. I have to try to look at it fresh and not fit it to my pre-existing conclusions.

    Thanks. (bastard)