Allison Silverman has written for some of the greatest satiric minds of television: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Cecily Strong, Tina Fey. When she was in college she would watch comedy onstage and make a note whenever a status shift occurred. “Status informs all humor,” she maintains.
So, what is a status shift?
Consider a toddler. The parents possess the default power. But when a toddler throws a tantrum and the parents try to calm their child by acquiescence, a status shift has occurred. The toddler is now in charge. This is possibly the entire premise of the movie Boss Baby.
Why are status shifts funny?
Not all status shifts are funny. A hard worker who loses her job at the factory and can no longer support her family has experienced a status shift, but an unfunny one, unless the scenario is specifically played for laughs.
Then, why are some status shifts funny?
Status shifts can perform a variety of functions. They can expose someone in power who shouldn’t be. They can highlight the strengths and weaknesses of opposing characters. They can subvert audience expectations.
In Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae, there are both minute and plot-melting status shifts. Consider the following exchange in which a young protagonist, Ezra Mason, is debriefed by an unnamed interviewer aboard a getaway ship.
Ezra Mason: Yeah. So all hell breaks loose, and Kady is yelling at me and I’m yelling back. All this stuff that’d been building up for the last year and boiling just under the skin. Like, I loved her. I love her. But she had this way of just . . . It was so stupid. The world is ending all around us and we’re screaming about college applications and commitment and shit. I mean, can you believe that?
Interviewer: You’re seventeen, right?
Ezra Mason: Almost eighteen.
Interviewer: Then yes, I believe it.
Ezra begins the scene in a powerful position. He has information the interviewer wants and the interviewer requires his cooperation. Then Ezra makes a further buy for power. By rounding his age up, he’s making a bid for adulthood. It is the interviewer’s final line in this excerpt that provides the status shift. Ezra is positioned as a kid; his cares, the cares of a teenager, his perspective compromised by his age. The interviewer’s simple line provides an elegant, efficient shift.
Status shifts are also funny when they run counter to our perceived understanding of a situation. Imagine a typical job interview. The interviewer often holds the power and the interviewee is in the low-status position. But we can imagine a comedy premise in which the interviewer is self-conscious and inept, possibly very young, maybe this is their first interview and they, by disposition, don’t trust their own judgment. Then a confident interviewee approaches. They nurture and comfort the interviewer, complimenting them on their excellent questions, correcting them when they bluster, and generally guiding them through the process. The disparate images the reader holds in their head (the idea of a typical job interview and this new permutation) create a space for comedy. The unexpected. Things are not how we know them to be.
Power is ubiquitous. In every interpersonal dynamic, power will be present in some form. A writer can wield this. Play with it. Who deserves it? Who has it? And what if, suddenly, if only for a scene or a moment, they didn’t?
Kristen Ritter is the 49 Writers Communications Coordinator. She is a playwright, writer, and comedy performer living and working in Anchorage, Alaska. Her writing has been supported by The Alaska State Council on the Arts, The Kennedy Center, The U.S. Department of State, and Theater Alaska. In the spring 2022, in partnership with 49 Writers, she will be teaching the class, Girl Walks Into a Trope.