Changing for the better

The mantra John Lasseter ascribes to all of Pixar’s successes, from Toy Story to Up: “It’s gotta be about how the main character changes for the better.” Of course, that'd be the opposite of Curb/Office/Seinfeld approach where main characters just stay awful.

Update: In this comment, Matteson says, "I think the big difference there is that Pixar makes movies, while the counter examples you mentioned are all TV shows." He also talks about this idea in the world of storytelling/standup: "Audiences in particular HATE when someone talks about doing something bad and doesn't indicate remorse or a lesson learned. You can tell audiences all sorts of horrible things about yourself, and have them still like you, as long as you learn something and are at least trying 'to change for the better.'"

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3 Comment(s)

Blogger Matteson said...

I think the big difference there is that Pixar makes movies, while the counter examples you mentioned are all TV shows. If you've never seen it, Dan Harmon has a really interesting theory about story structure, which he calls the "Story Circle". (http://channel101.wikia.com/wiki/Story_Structure_101:_Super_Basic_Shit). One part is how TV uses the Story Circle differently (http://channel101.wikia.com/wiki/Story_Structure_105:_How_TV_is_Different).

In summary, the pilot of a show is intended to get the character halfway around the circle (aka put him in a situation where he tries to become a better person). It's basically establishing the "situation" of the situational-comedy. The rest of the series is watching him try to escape that situation, but never succeeding b/c then there'd be no reason to keep watching. Larry David's "situation" in Curb is that he doesn't know how to properly interact with the world. Every episode is about Larry David trying, and failing, to live in the world as a normal human being without causing conflict. If he ever "changed for the better" the show would instantly be unfunny. For an example from the drama world, in Lost, the pilot puts them on the island, and the rest of the series is about trying to get off/figure out what the island is. In a movie, they need to get off that island, but in a TV show, they can't until the series is over.

One way in which this applies to stand up, particularly for "story telling" stand ups, is that regardless of how menial or small a story seems, it needs to have this journey to truly resonate. Hosting the moth, I hear a lot of stories, and the ones that are the worst don't have the protagonist (the person telling the story usually) changing for the better. Sometimes this may be because the story is actually just an anecdote (an incident rather than a true story). Other times it's because the story teller wasn't able to relay how the event changed them. Audiences in particular HATE when someone talks about doing something bad and doesn't indicate remorse or a lesson learned. You can tell audiences all sorts of horrible things about yourself, and have them still like you, as long as you learn something and are at least trying "to change for the better."

5/22/12, 7:19 PM  
Blogger Matt Ruby said...

Interesting points Matteson. Do you think this applies to storytelling comedians like Birbigs (thinking Secret Public Journal days) or Burr? It seems to me like a lot of their best stories don't have them changing for the better but instead have them remaining mean/clueless/apathetic/etc.

5/23/12, 12:30 PM  
Anonymous Selena said...

Matteson, I agree with you and as I was reading the original post, I was thinking about storytelling also. The worst storytellers are ones who tell a story in which they do something shitty but they're almost smug about it. It might be cathartic for the storyteller, but it's hell for the audience. We want to hear a journey. We WANT you to not be a piece of shit.

I wonder if a more famous storyteller (such as Birbiglia) is given a pass by the audience and he's allowed to get away w/ behavior that an audience wouldn't normally permit for a civilian at a story slam?

One story that I recall from Birbiglia's one-man show is when he talks about getting engaged by accident, then not knowing how to break it off. It's hard to hear because this poor girl wants SO badly to be engaged to him, but he tempers it with a likeability on stage and ultimately (I think) a realization that he had to stop this wedding train and that HE had messed up. So he does admit that it was his fault and he was more sensitive the 2nd time around.

5/23/12, 2:26 PM  


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