Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Is There No Comedy in Likeable?

Phillip Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, said, "There's no comedy in likeable."  He made the point that Basil Fawlty and Louie DePalma weren't likable.  He said that the characters in Everybody Loves Raymond weren't likable  He insisted that characters need to be believable to be funny and they can't be believable unless they have flaws.

Fans of Everybody Loves Raymond would disagree heartily with Rosenthal that the series' Barone family was unlikable.  The most suitable candidate for Rosenthal's unlikability premise is Marie Barone, played by Doris Roberts.  Ken Levine, who directed three episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, wrote a  tender tribute to Roberts the day after her death.  His remarks addressed this likeability issue very well.  He wrote:
[T]he truth is, her performance required hard work. To play a character who at times could be the antagonist and yet still be lovable is a major acting feat.
The key was that she played Marie Barone (and every character) "real." Never an exaggeration, never a "sketch" – you loved Marie because you identified with her. That was your mother. Or your mother-in-law. Or you (although you'd never admit it).

And not only did she avoid playing Marie too broad; she also avoided playing her too soft.  Many actors fear being viewed as unlikable so they balk at having to play unsympathetic in any way.  Doris went for the truth of the character in all situations, regardless.   And you loved her even more for that.
Marie is overprotective of her children.  In her role as mother, she is nosy, interfering, controlling, manipulative and disparaging.  But, when all is said and done, Roberts makes it clear in her performance that Marie acts out of loves for her family.  In the end, she wants what's best for them.  Of course, her "mother knows best" philosophy has an element of narcissism to it.  But does anyone regard her as a great villain?   

Levine brought up another very flawed character, Cheers' Diane Chambers.  He wrote:
I have always contended that without Shelley Long playing [Diane Chambers] the series dies after thirteen weeks.  She made a potentially unlikable character funny and adorable and real while still keeping Diane's infuriating qualities. That's not just hard to do.  It's next to impossible.
So, if we are to believe Levine, the flawed Chambers was adorable, which is even better than likeable.  Monica Collins of  USA Today called Diane a "snitty, selfish snob."  Steve Silverman of Screen Junkies was critical of the character for being "too needy and insecure."  The character was definitely flawed yet, at the same time, definitely likable.  Here is our conclusion: there's a difference between being flawed and being unlikable.  Everyone has flaws, but not everyone is unlikable. 

Let us move on next to the anti-hero.  The original anti-hero was not a bad guy.  He was simply a protagonist that had a quality or qualities that we did not normally associate with a hero.  For instance, he might not approach danger with unshakeable courage.  But who does?  Philip Martin McCaulay touched on this subject in regards to William Wellman's Battleground (1949) in his book "World War II Movies."  He noted: "The film is notable for portraying American soldiers as vulnerable and human. While they remain steadfast and courageous, each soldier has at least one moment in the film when he seriously considers running away, schemes to get sent back from the front line, slacks off, or complains about the situation he is in."  It is unlikely you will find a war film with a more lovable group of soldiers.

A hero is defined by his great strength, ability and morality.  An anti-hero is defined by his flaws.  This doesn't mean that the traditional hero doesn't have flaws.  Let's take as an example Hercules.  Few heroes in film and literature possess the unwavering valor and wisdom of Hercules, but even this muscle-bound half human/half god has his share of flaws.  To start, he is severely vain.  This is from the website BookRags:
Hercules thinks of himself as equal with the gods. He also thinks that he can beat anything that he fights. Hercules even opposes and challenges the gods. . . Hercules is more than ready to fight Apollo, and Zeus has to intervene.
Second, Hercules is prone to violent outbursts.  As a boy, he becomes frustrated with his music teacher and beats the man to death with a lyre.  When a priestess refuses to provide her services to him, he flies into a rage and tears apart her temple.  The Goddess Hera exploits Hercules' rage by crafting an illusion that makes the warrior believe his wife and two sons are actually family members of his enemy Eurystheus.  Hercules is quickly stirred to violence, managing to slay his wife and children with arrows before the illusion can be exposed.

Third, Hercules was a drunk.  Josho Brouwers, a Mediterranean archaeologist, wrote, "Statues depicting a drunken Hercules urinating were fairly common in the Roman period and are, unsurprisingly, referred to as Hercules mingens (‘Hercules pees')."

I recently came across a Facebook thread in which people were asked the following question:
How important is it to you that the films or tv shows you watch have likable characters?
Many people said that it is more important that a character be interesting and relatable than be likable.  But don't you like a character with whom you can relate?  Early on, people listed Sam Spade and Vito Corleone as examples of unlikable characters that have served as effective protagonists.  Film historian Jordan Young wrote, "As Elisha Cook said to me about THE MALTESE FALCON, 'Everyone was a shitheel in it.  There wasn't one decent person in the whole picture, and look what a film it was.'"  But I have to disagree with Mr. Cook.  Most fans of The Maltese Falcon and The Godfather would disagree that either of the films' protagonists, Spade or Corleone, was unlikable.  Spade is shrewd, tough, and has a strong sense of duty.  He is focused on finding out who killed his partner and, in the end, denies his own personal feelings for a woman to expose her as the killer.  He is forlorn as he turns her over to the police. Corleone is a dedicated family man who inspires intense love and devotion from his wife and children.


Rosenthal mentioned Louie DePalma from the 1978-1982 television series TaxiTaxi didn't need for Louie to be sympathetic as the series had many other characters to engage the audience's sympathy.  Louie, as the mean boss, normally served as a prime antagonist to the other characters.  The few times that an episode focused on Louie, the character was made sympathetic. Watch "High School Reunion," "Louie and the Nice Girl," "Louie Meets the Folks," "Louie's Mother," "Louie's Revenge," "Zena's Honeymoon" and "Louie and The Blind Girl." Now tell me if you think Louie is unlikable.  Louie was presented at his worst in "Louie Goes Too Far," but even in this episode the character elicits sympathy.

Louie is often struggling to be a better person.  On occasion, he looks for advice from veteran driver Alex Reiger, who he regards as a moral person.  What more can be asked of a man if he's trying as hard as he might to be decent?  This issue is addressed in a first season episode called "Louie Sees The Light."

The series did have a double standard in that characters wince when Louie makes a sexually suggestive remark, but those same characters are amused when Jeff Conaway's charming and handsome Bobby Wheeler makes a sexually suggestive remark.  Was it really Louie's looks that made him bad? 

Levine said that it was hard to write for the character Fay on Wings.  He wrote, "The actress, Rebecca Schull was wonderful, but the character of Fay was so 'nice.' It's always harder to write characters who were basically 'good.'  Daphne on FRASIER was difficult at times and Father Mulcahy on MASH was often a challenge."  Levine made a point to put the words "nice" and "good" in quotes because, presumably, he regards the notion of "nice" and "good" to be unbelievable.  It is only a person of perfect character who earns these designations and, to those with a cynical view of mankind, no person of that sort exists in the real world.   Levine believes, like Rosenthal, that real people are always in some way flawed.  While it could be vigorously debated whether nice and good people exist, most people would agree that a flawed person makes a more interesting character in a story. 

The line between flawed and evil has gotten thinner and thinner in the last twenty years.  For now, people still, for the most part, want the main character in a story to be likable.  Levine wrote, "[I]t's important that you care about characters for a show to work.  If you don't give a shit what happens to them you're not going to invest your time."  But, then, why is interest occasionally drawn to an outright evil protagonist?  Levine's answer is simple: "Because they're interesting."  Flawed people are interesting, as we have said, but people with big, serious flaws are a different category of interesting.  They're "interesting" in bold, caps or italics.

Levine continued:
Evil characters create drama and suspense.  They stir up the pot.  They surprise us.  They make choices that we wouldn't make.  They say things we'd like to say.  They cut through the bullshit (or create their over own).  Their worldview is different. It's fun to watch them operate. Sometimes you actually root for them, and other times you can't wait for them to get theirs. And on certain rare occasions you do both.  Seriously, who holds your interest more – Anna from DOWNTON ABBEY or Claire from HOUSE OF CARDS?
The problem is that the fictional characters are inspirational.   Virtuous characters make us more virtuous by their example.  Rotten characters, especially when those characters dominate the media, are bound to make us more rotten.

In 1931, censors were critical of The Public Enemy for making its lead character Tom, a violent gangster, sympathetic and at times admirable. Obviously the disclaimer issued to satisfy the censors did not influence young viewers as much as Tom's actions in the film.

Al Capone, the most infamous of gang bosses, understood this.  He said, "[T]hese gang movies are making a lot of kids want to be tough guys. . ."


What had the filmmakers done to make audiences respond so favorably to this character?

First, the filmmakers introduce Tom as a child.  We feel protective of a child.  We do not expect a child to act morally at all times because he might not yet know better.  That protectiveness, once established, carries on through the remainder of the story.

Tom's parents are unable to instill proper values into their stubborn, feisty son to stop him from heading down the wrong path.  We are shown his police officer dad (Purnell Pratt) whipping the boy with a leather razor strop.  The father's motives may be good, but seeing this violence inflicted on a child only makes viewers feel more sympathetic of Tom.


The father's discipline fails.  A Filmsite writer noted: "[B]oth boys [Tom and his best friend Matt] turn to petty thievery and shoplifting to escape the drudgery of lower class life. . . They fence stolen items (watches) at a so-called boys' club, the Red Oaks Club (a glorified pool hall) through sinister, Fagin-like, piano-playing "Putty-Nose" (Murray Kinnell) - their mentor in the ways of crime."

Second, cast a charismatic actor in the role.  You don't get any more charismatic than Jimmy Cagney. 

Cagney said in 1986:
The Public Enemy was the film that really launched my career.  I played a mean, mixed-up hood, a tough kid who tried to throw his weight around and ended up dead.  It was a good part. I don't think I took anything away from it. . . It was one of the first of many chances I had to portray that kind of person, the fist-swinging gangster who becomes ruthless in order to succeed. There were many tough guys to play in the scripts that Warner kept assigning me. Each of my subsequent roles in the hoodlum genre offered me the opportunity to inject something new, which I always tried to do.  One could be funny, and the next one flat.  A few roles among them were mean, and others were meaner.  A few roles among them were actually sympathetic and kind-hearted, and I preferred them, but I generally did not get to do many of those parts until much later in my career, for the public seemed to prefer me as a bad guy. . . I don't understand why the public never tired of those awful hoodlums.

Third, surround the character with people we can care about.  We care about Tom's doting mother, his brother Mike, and his best friend's sister Molly.  These are a good people who see something good in Tom and believe he can find redemption.  We can believe in Tom because these good people believe in Tom.

A problem is that Tom kills a police officer early in the film.  There's no coming back from cold-blooded murder.

It would be wrong to turn a blind eye towards this terrible event in the story.  It is generally accepted that Tom has to be punished in the end.

Hollywood is not as careful today in depiction of gangsters as it once was.  A society is rotten when people can do better job quoting Scarface's Tony Montana than quoting Jesus Christ.  Here are a few of Montana most popular quotes:
"In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women."

"I always tell the truth. Even when I lie."

"I'm Tony Montana! You fuck with me, you fuckin' with the best!"

"The only thing in this world that gives orders is balls."

"Every day above ground is a good day."

"You a communist? Huh? How'd you like it, man? They tell you all the time what to do, what to think, what to feel. Do you wanna be like a sheep? Like all those other people?  Baah! Baah!"

"I never fucked anybody over in my life didn't have it coming to them. You got that?  All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don't break them for no one.  Do you understand? That piece of shit up there, I never liked him, I never trusted him.  For all I know he had me set up and had my friend Angel Fernandez killed.  But that's history. I'm here, he's not. Do you wanna go on with me, you say it. You don't, then you make a move."

"You wanna waste my time?  Okay. I call my lawyer. He's the best lawyer in Miami. He's such a good lawyer, that by tomorrow morning, you gonna be working in Alaska. So dress warm."

"You got nothing to do with your life, man.  Why don't you get a job?  Do something, be a nurse.  Work with blind kids, lepers, that kind of thing.  Anything beats you waiting around all day, waiting for me to fuck you, I'll tell you that."

"You think you can take me? You need a fucking army if you gonna take me!"

"I didn't come to the United States to break my fucking back."

"You know what capitalism is?  Getting fucked!"

"This is paradise, I'm tellin' ya.  This town like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked."

"What you lookin' at? You all a bunch of fuckin' assholes.  You know why?  You don't have the guts to be what you wanna be?  You need people like me.  You need people like me so you can point your fuckin' fingers and say, "That's the bad guy."  So… what that make you?  Good?  You're not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie.  Me, I don't have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth.  Even when I lie.  So say good night to the bad guy!  Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you.  Come on.  Make way for the bad guy.  There's a bad guy comin' through!  Better get outta his way!"
Mr. Montana is right about one thing.  Hollywood pretends to be pointing a finger at the bad guys and exposing their evil ways.  But it really likes them and conflates their audience with them.  It tells us that we are just as bad as these people and we shouldn't bother to deny it.  It makes the bad guys our role models.  It makes the bad guys our teachers.  Montana is very persuasive when he tells us that our world is "a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked."  Hollywood is the home to many people who think like that.  Tony Montana is an evangelist for the film industry's cynics and hedonists, who warmly embrace the druglord's immoral philosophy. 

Today, we need more good people in our stories if we hope to be better people.  We need to sort out the good and the bad in our fiction as a way to distinguish the two and this could assuredly benefit us in chosing between good and evil in our real life.  We need to like characters in a story if we are to like others and like ourselves.

Reference sources

"Hercules' Personality," BookRags (2018).

Josho Brouwers, "Hercules the drunk," Ancient History (May 14, 2015).

Monica Collins, "Three `Cheers'! It's Diane's last call," USA Today (May 8, 1987).

Lloyd Kramer (director).  (2011).  "The Misfit."  Lloyd Kramer (executive producer), America in Primetime.  New York, NY: PBS.

Ken Levine. "RIP Doris Roberts," . . . by Ken Levine (April 19, 2016).

Philip Martin McCaulay, "World War II Movies," Lulu, 2010 (North Carolina: Raleigh).

Gregory Speck, "Public Enemy turned patriotic icon: James Cagney on his legacy in film," Interview Magazine (May 5, 2018).

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