Contents


Sitcoms

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Sitcoms

You’ll find additional advice on developing and submitting programme ideas in the chapters Comedy, Television drama and Radio.

In this chapter we’ll look at:

What is a sitcom?
Who writes sitcoms?
Developing a sitcom
Writing tips
Constraints of sitcom writing
The pilot

What is a sitcom?

In any sitcom we meet the same set of core characters in the same situation episode after episode. Fawlty Towers was situated in a hotel, Cheers in a bar, One Foot in the Grave in suburbia.

This predictability is at the heart of the traditional sitcom: at the start of an average episode everything is normal, a problem crops up, the characters work to solve it, and by the end of the show the problem is resolved; everything is back as it was.

In some long-running sitcoms the situation does change over time, partly as a consequence of character development and partly because the writers begin to run out of ideas that don’t involve introducing new elements to the situation. In the UK sitcom Only Fools and Horses the situation of the main character, Del, changed dramatically over the show’s seven series as he acquired a wife, a child and, eventually, wealth. In the same way the characters in Friends saw gradual but profound changes to their personal circumstances during the ten-year life of the show.

Who writes sitcoms?

In the UK sitcoms have traditionally been written by a single writer or a writing partnership, famous pairings being Galton and Simpson, Clement and La Frenais, and Perry and Croft. A recent development has been a system were individual writers contribute scripts for episodes that are then tweaked and polished by an in-house writing team. This team writing has been the standard in US sitcoms for many years, the show’s creator often overseeing the process in a writer/producer role. A few shows use improvisation to develop a script: a writer comes up with a basic plot then it’s left to the actors, guided by the director, to come up with dialogue through a process of trial and error. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is written this way.

Developing a sitcom

If you have an idea for a sitcom first ask yourself if it has legs. If a sitcom has legs it will run and run. No-one will invest in an idea that can last only a series or two; the goal in longevity (currently the Simpsons is the world’s longest-running sitcom reaching its 500th episode in 2012). To see if your idea has legs consider your premise, the sentence that describes it in a nutshell.

The premise of One Foot in the Grave can be described as: grumpy middle-aged man coping with life after early retirement.

For Frasier it might be: the adventures of a celebrity radio-psychiatrist living with his dad.

Only Fools and Horses: inept East End wheeler-dealer trying to make a living on the wrong side of the law.

Each of the above is very different, but they all have something in common — flexibility.

In One Foot in the Grave Victor was retired; since he wasn’t tied to a job he had plenty of free time and could be up to something different in every show. If he had a regular job his options would have been far more limited.

In Frasier his job as a radio psychiatrist gave him plenty of free time and brought him into contact with many interesting people. His status as a minor celebrity and his unusual home-life also served to create unusual situations.

In Only Fools and Horses Del was a self-employed market trader who’d sell anything to anyone. Like Victor Meldrew he wasn’t tied to a regular job and could be involved in a different scam every week.

Each of the above has a good premise — in each case it would be relatively easy to write down a long list of ideas for future episodes.

Not all successful sitcoms conform to this pattern, many feature characters who lead relatively routine, humdrum lives. Cheers belongs in this category as does Friends and My Family. In these cases the legs are provided by a large cast of characters. These sitcoms are ensemble productions (sometimes called gang shows) where multiple plots are generated through sheer weight of numbers (see Subplots below).

If someone twisted your arm and demanded you write down twelve episode ideas for your sitcom, could you do it? If you could, and quickly, it has potential.

Writing tips

For general advice on subjects such as Characters and Dialogue consult the relevant chapters.

Make your characters sympathetic

Your characters have to sympathetic even if they’re not particularly loveable. Take Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. Mainwaring is pompous and overbearing, but we sympathise with him because he’s trying to do a good thing — make his platoon into an efficient fighting unit to protect his country. All the characters in Dad’s Army have their flaws but they’re people we like and care about.

Even a near lunatic like Basil Fawlty is sympathetic. His ambition is harmless enough (to run a successful hotel) but he constantly goes about it the wrong way.

Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm is often infuriating but most of the scrapes he gets into are the result of doing someone a favour or righting some wrong (imagined or otherwise). We like him and want him to win.

Much humour relies on tension and if the audience doesn’t care what happens to your characters there’s nothing to generate it. It might be fun to watch an unlikable, unsympathetic character slip on a banana skin once in a while, but if the audience can’t make a connection with them they’ll soon get bored and switch over.

Take The Brittas Empire a sitcom set in a public leisure centre. The centre was run by Gordon Brittas an insufferable pen-pusher obsessed by form-filling and petty rules. The trouble was the Brittas character was so obnoxious it was difficult for anyone to root for him. This was solved when the writers gave Brittas a dream — to achieve world peace through sports, an admirable goal that helped offset his many shortcomings and win him sympathy with the audience.

Keep in character

Once you’ve established a character make sure they react to situations in a predictable way. This is true of any writing but in a sitcom it’s particularly important for the audience to be able to second-guess a character’s reaction to an event. Some humour is based on surprise, but much depends on anticipation. If someone installed a public toilet in Victor Meldrew’s front-garden we could guess his reaction when he saw it out of the window. Half the fun is anticipating how a character will respond to a situation; seeing them do it is the other.

Ensure situations are believable

Let’s say we have a sitcom where the main character is a harassed businessman who employs a lazy, drunken nanny and an incompetent secretary. There might be opportunities for humour in this situation, but after a while we’d get irritated — the situation is not believable. In the normal course of events the man would fire both of them and because he doesn’t we lose sympathy for him and his self-inflicted problems.

To turn this around we’d have to trap the man in a situation he has little control over. If we discover his nanny is his boss’ daughter and his secretary is his sister-in-law, these would be compelling reasons to keep them in employment. The sympathy switch is flipped and we start to wonder how this character will deal with these horrible people. (See also Limiting character choices in Expanding the basic story.)

Use subplots

Sitcoms can be divided into two broad groups:

Character shows
Gang/ensemble shows

In character shows the action revolves around a single person such as Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave or Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Gang shows such as Friends feature a number of characters of equal importance.

In a gang show it’s hard to involve everyone in a single story so the writers give individual characters or pairs of characters their own plot-lines. For example, in every episode of Friends there were usually at least two or three separate stories going on simultaneously. As a rule each story carried equal weight, none was more important than the others.

Another way of giving all your regular characters something to do is to create a sub-plot that runs parallel to a central story. Subplots are often used in character sitcoms to keep minor characters occupied. For example, in one episode of Fawlty Towers the central story involved Basil getting the hotel ready for a visit by a health inspector. The subplot involved Manuel, Polly the waitress and Terry the cook trying to find Manuel’s escaped Siberian Hamster (actually a rat). You can guess how the two stories eventually collided.

A subplot usually helps resolve the central plot in some way. For example, in an episode of Seinfeld called The Caddy Jerry is asked to look after George’s car while he’s away. Meanwhile, Elaine encounters an old school-friend who never wears a bra. Elaine buys her friend a bra but the friend uses it as provocative outerwear. The two plots collide when Jerry and Kramer are out in George’s car and become distracted by the sight of Elaine’s bra-wearing friend walking down the street. Kramer crashes the car, the accident bringing all the characters together in a courtroom climax where Kramer tries to sue the friend for damages.

Aside from supporting the main story and keeping actors gainfully employed, subplots allow your storytelling to be more fluid. If you don’t have subplots and the action follows the antics of one character throughout (as often happened in One Foot in the Grave) you’re restricted to ending scenes with time-breaks or changes in location. Conversely, if you use subplots you can switch back and forth between them and the main plot allowing you to duck in and out of scenes as you like. This flexibility allows you to hone down a script and concentrate on the action and dialogue that will deliver the humour.

Keep the dialogue tight

In drama each line of dialogue should do at least one of three things: reveal plot, reveal character, reveal situation (see Dialogue). In a sitcom everyone knows what the situation is but your lines still have three jobs to do:

Reveal plot.
Reveal character.
Get a laugh.

A great line will do all three at once.

Try to write six laugh-lines per page

When you’ve finished your script go through it and tick all the lines you think the audience will laugh at. These are your laugh-lines and you should aim for at least six per page. This is a tall order, but try anyway. If pages are low on laughs do whatever it takes to inject more humour into them, even if this means a severe re-write.

Remember, a sitcom can be many things; zany, bittersweet, ironic etc but the only thing it has to be is consistently funny.

Constraints of sitcom writing

An average television studio can accommodate four reasonably large sets. In Fawlty Towers three commonly used sets were the Main Lobby, the Dining Room and the Upstairs Landing, while the fourth might be a Guest Bedroom, Basil’s Office, the Kitchen or the Bar.

When you’re developing your sitcom idea think of the main sets you might use throughout an entire season. Decide on a handful of principle locations and, as far as possible, restrict the action in any one episode to three or four of these sets. There are two issues here: the physical difficulty of squeezing more than four sets into a studio, and the cost of creating multiple locations. It’s expensive to build and dress a set and once they’re assembled it costs even more to store them.

Sitcoms such as The Office are shot entirely on location, but this is not a cheap option. It takes time to research locations, money to pay for the privilege of shooting there and it’s a hassle to re-organise the actors, lights and sound each time you move to a new one. Location shots are also occasionally used in studio-based sitcoms, in either event look for ways to reduce the number of locations in your script.

The pilot

Your pilot script must introduce your situation, your characters and the relationship between them and wrap all this up in an entertaining story with a satisfying ending that is consistently funny. There’s no magic formula, you just have to do your best.

However, you’d do well to avoid a pilot that establishes a situation. Say you have an idea for a show called Barbara’s Buns about a woman whose long-lost mother dies leaving her a run-down high-street cake bakery that turns out to be sandwiched between a snobby health food store and a sinister undertakers (I didn’t say it was a good idea). Your pilot script could detail that process from beginning to end — from mother’s deathbed to the shop sign going up — but this script would say little about your ability to produce more than one episode based on this premise. It’s better to start your series with the shop up and running and concentrate on extracting humour from Barbara’s interactions with her staff, customers and other business owners. As far as possible your pilot should resemble a typical episode.

Apart from your pilot you’ll also have to produce outlines for future episodes. A UK sitcom series usually comprises six episodes; in the USA there will be twelve or more shows per season. In either case write outlines for at least six further shows. These outlines don’t have to be that detailed — half a side of paper should be enough to get the basics across — but they should be good enough to illustrate the show’s potential.

To see how to lay out a television or radio script go to Television drama and Radio. The BBC Writers Room also has script resources you might find useful (http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/insight/scriptsmart_formats.shtml).

Where do I send my sitcom?

See the chapters on Comedy, Television drama and Radio for ideas on submissions.

You can submit sitcom ideas to the BBC via its Writers Room website. There are two sites: one for television sitcoms (http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/writing/guidelines_tvcomedy.shtml); the other for radio (http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/writing/guidelines_radiositcom.shtml).

To see other titles dealing with the themes in this chapter visit The Writers’ Guide website (http://www.thewritersguide.co.uk/sitcom.html).


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