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Formats Unpacked: The Langdon
How knowing the end of the story can make formats better
When I started Formats Unpacked I wanted it to include all kinds of formats. The idea was to create a space for those of us fascinated with storytelling to learn about story structures in all forms. It’s a Storythings obsession.
So I was delighted when Rob Alderson asked if he could unpack a joke.
Rob is a freelance consultant working with brands and non-profits on messaging, content and storytelling. Previously he held the role of editor at It’s Nice That and then WeTransfer’s WePresent. He has a brilliant eye for a story and a talent for unpacking them too. So hire him.
Over to Rob…
What’s it called?
The Langdon (a joke)
What’s the format?
A type of joke often heard on a certain kind of BBC comedy show.
In his excellently nerdy guide to comedy terms, the writer Andy Riley describes a Langdon as, "(i) two elements are introduced. (ii) It appears that we’re continuing to talk about one of those elements in particular… (iii) but then it turns out we were talking about the other one."
It's named after the late comedy writer John Langdon who loved inserting them into shows like The News Quiz, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue and Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Rory Bremner wrote a tribute to his friend and collaborator after his death in April. He gave an example of the Langdon – "Boris Johnson and his girlfriend introduced their new dog to Downing Street yesterday. 'He’s a bit scruffy and wants to shag everything that moves, but we’ll get used to him,' said the dog."
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Most of the time, you know what's coming. Occasionally you hear a Langdon that completely wrong-foots you with the pay-off. But it's rare, mainly because they're such a British comedy staple.
You usually twig very quickly what's going to happen – that it's going to be the dog talking in the example above. Some presenters (Miles Jupp, Sandi Toksvig, Angus Deayton) even switch into an arch Langdon tone which telegraphs the type of joke you’re about to hear.
Because you guess what's about to happen, you enjoy the journey. In most stories, the kinetic energy is driven by finding out how it ends – what's next, what's next, what's next. But when that’s removed, the fun switches focus. How ridiculous are they going to make it? How far can they push it?
There's a 2005 documentary called The Aristocrats about a joke that US comics love, told in green rooms and late-night bars to amuse each other. It's a simple set-up – a family walk into a showbiz agent ’s office and say they have a brilliant new act for him. The agent asks them to describe it, at which point everyone tells their own version of the joke. The game is to come up with the most disgusting, shocking act this family troupe is trying to sell. Nothing is off-limits (as the film makes clear – it's not one to watch with the kids). At the end, the shocked agent asks them what they call the act – "The Aristocrats!"
There's a tamer example of the same dynamic in a film like Titanic. Everyone knows how that ends – ship leaves Southampton, ship sinks. This frees up the storytellers to have fun with the middle section, knowing that everything they create on screen will be filtered through the viewer's prism of the iceberg.
Stewart Lee pushes the Langdon one step further. Toying with the familiarity of the format, he only takes it half way, and lets the audience fill in the rest. There's a good example in his show 90s Comedian: "The schedule of the Pope's funeral actually caused some problems for the Royal Family because it ended up being arranged for the same weekend as the wedding of Charles and Lady Camilla Parker Bowles...It's hard, isn't it, to imagine which of those two events would have been most distressing to watch. The public veneration of a wrinkled old corpse..."
There are some hackneyed bait-and-switch formulas you still sometimes hear – i.e. “I went to a very rough school. Drugs, drinking, huge fights. And that was the teachers.”
But really anything where you know the ending – a story, a film, even a photo of a famous person. You know what Harry Styles looks like, but how has this photographer captured him?
If you like comedy deconstruction you’ll love the Rule of Three podcast. I probably wouldn’t have started this newsletter if it wasn’t for my admiration of how brilliantly Joel and Jason deconstruct comedy. That probably goes some way to explaining why I was so happy with Rob’s suggestion.
One of the great things about writing newsletters is getting feedback. I love getting emails from you all. It’s nice to know that there are a bunch of us who enjoy the deconstruction almost as much as the thing itself. Even if it’s just a simple line of appreciation for the format or a nod in agreement with the writer.
Feel free to say hello or send me your thoughts on this week’s format. If you ever want to unpack a format let’s chat.
Thanks for your time.
See you all next week.