Writing Sitcoms

Sitcom.jpg
Always look on the sunny side.

Some of the best loved cultural icons of the 20th and 21st centuries are sitcoms. Writing one is easy. Writing a good one is much, much harder.

In this article we’ll look at:

  • ​What is a sitcom?

  • Types of sitcom: character shows and gang shows

  • 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 a suburban house.

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 more-or-less 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.

Types of sitcom: character shows and gang shows

Despite the basic similarity of all sitcoms, they can be divided into two broad groups:

  • Character shows

  • Gang/ensemble shows

In character shows such as One Foot in the Grave and Curb Your Enthusiasm most of the action revolved around a single person. However, gang shows such as Friends featured a number of characters of equal importance. In a gang show it’s hard to involve everyone in a single story so the writers usually 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, but (as a rule) each story carried equal weight, none was more important than the others.

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 the introduction of writing teams, a system where individual writers contribute scripts for episodes which are then tweaked and polished by a team of in-house writers.

 

This team writing model has been the standard in US sitcoms for many years, the show’s creator often overseeing the process in a writer/producer role, a position often known as the ‘showrunner’. In some cases shows use improvisation to develop a script. A writer comes up with a basic plot, but 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 was written this way.

Developing a sitcom idea

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 want to invest in an idea that might last for only a series or two, the goal is to create something that could go on for decades. To see if your idea has legs consider its premise, the sentence that describes your show in a nutshell.

The premise of One Foot in the Grave could 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.

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

These are very different characters is very different situations, but they all have something in common, in each case the premise offers a great deal of flexibility. For example...

In One Foot in the Grave the main character, Victor Meldrew, was retired. Since he wasn’t tied to a day 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 the main character’s 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 eccentric 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, flexible 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 production where multiple plot lines are generated through sheer weight of numbers (see also Use 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.

Sitcom writing tips

For general advice on Writing characters and Writing 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 leads a WWII Home Guard platoon. He’s pompous and overbearing, but we sympathise with him because he’s trying to do a good thing — he wants to make his platoon into an efficient fighting unit to protect his country. All the characters in Dad’s Army have their flaws, but their good qualities make them people we like and care about.

In Fawlty Towers even a near lunatic like Basil Fawlty is sympathetic. His ambition to run a successful hotel is admirable, but he constantly goes about it in a cack-handed way.

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

Much humour relies on tension and if the audience doesn’t care what happens to your characters then 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.

For example, 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 with Gordon’s characterisation was that he was so obnoxious it was difficult for anyone to root for him. This problem was solved in the second season when the writers gave Gordon a dream — to achieve world peace through sports. This is an admirable goal that helped offset his many shortcomings and won 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 what his reaction would be when he saw it out of his window. In most sitcoms half the fun is anticipating how a character will respond to a situation, the other half is actually seeing them do it.

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. The animated comedy Stressed Eric was based on this premise, but it only managed to limp to 13 episodes before it was cancelled.

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 the  daughter of his boss and his secretary is his sister-in-law then 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.)

Make good use of subplots

Subplots are typically used in character-led sitcoms (as opposed to ensemble sitcoms) as a way of giving all your regular characters something to do. The subplot is subordinate to the central story and runs parallel to it. 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. The hamster was actually a rat and you can guess how the two stories eventually collided.

A good 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. This car-minding chore is the basis of the main story. Meanwhile, Elaine encounters an old school-friend who never wears a bra. Annoyed by this Elaine buys her friend a bra and encourages her to use it. However, when the friend  does use the bra she puts it on over her shirt as provocative ‘outerwear’. The two plots collide when Jerry and Kramer are out driving 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 bra-wearing friend for damages.

Aside from supporting the main story and keeping all the cast gainfully employed, subplots also allow your storytelling to be more fluid. If you don’t have a subplot and the action has to follow the antics of one character throughout your episode, then you’re restricted to ending scenes with time-breaks or changes in location. Conversely, if you have a subplot (or plots) you can switch back and forth between it and the main story 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 Writing dialogue). It’s slightly different in a sitcom as everyone already knows what the situation is, but each line still has three jobs to do:

  • Reveal plot

  • Develop character

  • Get a laugh!

A great sitcom 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 practical issues to consider here. Firstly, the physical difficulty of squeezing more than four sets into an average studio. Secondly, the cost of creating multiple locations —  it’s surprisingly expensive to build and dress a set and once they’re created it can cost even more to store them.

Some sitcoms such as The Office are shot entirely on location, but this is not necessarily 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, but in either event look for ways to reduce the number of locations specified in your script.

Writing a sitcom 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 for success, 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 mother dies leaving her a run-down high-street bakery that turns out to be sandwiched between a snobby health food store and a sinister undertakers (hey, I didn’t say it was a ‘good’ idea).

 

Your pilot script could detail that process from beginning to end — from the mother’s deathbed to the bakery’s 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 her neighbouring business owners. As far as possible your pilot should resemble a typical episode. Barbara’s back story can be explained in a few lines during the pilot or explored in more detail in later episodes.

 

As well as your pilot script you’ll also have to produce outlines for future episodes. Traditionally a UK sitcom series comprises six episodes, but 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 Writing television drama and Writing for radio. The BBC Writers Room also has script resources you might find useful.

Where do I send my sitcom?

See the chapters on Writing comedy, Writing television drama and Writing for radio for ideas on submissions.

You can also submit scripts to the BBC via its Writers Room website.

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