Thoughts on How to Write a Sitcom

TV critics hooted at ”Gilligan’s Island” as gag-ridden corn. Audiences adored its far-out comedy. Writer-creator Sherwood Schwartz insisted that the show had social meaning along with the laughs: ”I knew that by assembling seven different people and forcing them to live together, the show would have great philosophical implications.’ From a NYT Obituary of Bob Denver (who played Gilligan).

I’ve been thinking long and hard about sitcoms recently (getting ready to write a series of scripts myself). I’m going to write 10-15 scripts myself and then try to encourage other people to contribute to the pool (a sort of open submission project). Unfortunately I couldn’t dig up a link to a website cataloguing all of TV sitcom’s cliches; I could only find wikipedia article of common sitcom plots. November 8 Update: The site is tvtropes

Update: I could probably add a few things here. Check Sam and Jim Go to Hollywood, a great introduction to TV writing by working writers. They have more insights than I ever could.

Here’s a list of “requirements” for a sitcom as evident from the history of previous sitcoms.

  1. Every sitcom must have one full-fledged asshole. Totally negative, totally outrageous. He/she can be humanized eventually, but take your time. Enjoy it a little.
  2. Two, maybe three settings. Sitcoms must not have unlimited budgets or ability to move around. Visually, sitcoms are static. All in the Family and Honeymooners are perfect examples of using small settings to your advantage.
  3. Segue Scenes. Drew Carey Show has many examples of segue scenes which really make the show more interesting visually. The carpool scene and (later) the bus scenes are great changes in scenery. I just loved every minute of being in that cramped carpool! Similarly, I just love the chitchat in Arnold’s bathroom in Happy Days and the taxi rides in Taxi.
  4. Collisions of workspace/family space/recreational space. Drew Carey is the perfect example. Warsaw Tavern, department store, Drew’s house.
  5. Start with 5 or so primary characters, with the option to branch out into each of their stories. That’s the main advantage of sitcoms at work or bars; they can always introduce family members or work buddies. One genius to the original Bob Newhart Show was the therapy sessions, which allowed 6-8 patients to become part of the story.
  6. In and Out, then Goodbye. There needs to be a place where new characters (usually strangers) can be rotated in and out of the main story thread.
  7. Families exist in pairs. Dick Van Dyke, Joey, Yes Dear, King of Queens, Honeymooners, I love Lucy.
  8. As an aside, doesn’t it seem as though all these sitcoms could practically write themselves? It’s not simply good writing, but good narrative structure. This is not a show I love, but Gilligan’s Island had some creative albeit brain-dead ideas to work with.
  9. Sitcoms involve extended social networks above and beyond what ordinary people have. Yes, it’s artificial, but it’s a kind of foreshortening for the sake of TV.
  10. In residential sitcoms, don’t assume that all neighbors have to know one another. In Three’s Company, the only neighbors who know each other are Jack, Janet & Chrissy and their landlord. That’s all. That’s more than enough to sustain several seasons of sitcoms. The same principle applies for work environments. In Bob Newhart, the dentist down the hallway and the common receptionist just made the show what it was. Number of people doesn’t matter as much as a plausible premise for two unlike people having a reason to interact on a regular basis.
  11. Routines. Sitcoms need repetitions of plot patterns, though it works better if they are the exception rather than the rule. Esther’s entrance in Sanford & Son was never so frequent that one expected it; yet it happened often enough to make one joyful when she did arrive upon the scene. Same for the Big Giant Head’s messages on 3rd Rock, George Jefferson’s arrival in the Bunker household or “We were on a break!” On the other hand, Gilligan and even Three’s Company overdid the routine. Once every three or four episodes is sufficient.
  12. “Catchphrases” are overdone in the American sitcom. If a phrase happens to captivate an audience, let it ride, but don’t force it. Actually though, everybody uses catchphrases. It’s part of character. But we don’t keep repeating ourselves, even the most brain dead. Avoid creating situations just to use the catchphrase. Just write normally and let the opportunities fall into place. “I asked you not to tell me that.”
  13. Don’t become obsessed with making people laugh. People laugh some (not all) of the time. A good sitcom is more than slapstick.
  14. Minor characters can play pivotal roles. Carlton the doorman. Third Rock’s Secretary. Newman, Joey’s agent (I love that dame!). We don’t want to learn anything more about these characters. Good that the writers resisted the urge to plumb into their depths or even to put them in many scenes. In Friends, the “Oh……my…..god” girl with the nasal laugh just made the show. But luckily the writers put her in the show rarely. (Her romantic mix tape for Chandler was one of the funniest things I heard; if you don’t know, Chandler “regifts” the mix tape to Monica only to find out during a cuddling scene that the “Oh my god” girl records a lovey-dovey message between each song especially for Chandler.
  15. House or apartment? With a house, you’re dealing with family comedy. With apartment, you’re dealing with dates/wierd strangers/roommates.
  16. Sitcoms need to be serious sometimes. With friends, the Ross-Rachel thing was a farce, then a drama, and then farce. Part of the comic effect derives from these mood changes. Ultimately, a few seasons of shows are going to make you want to vary the moods anyway.
  17. The Larry Sanders show and King of the Hill demonstrated that laugh tracks and live audiences are totally unnecessary. Instead they should be afterthoughts for those shows that are already popular.
  18. All in the Family is the ideal sitcom, followed by the Honeymooners. All in the Family had 4 regulars, and one or two guest stars. Interestingly, the guest star to “All in the Family” was the topical event of the day…Nixon, the Vietnam War, affirmative action, homosexuality. Both sitcoms had minimal sets, with minimal special effects. Contrast that with Drew Carey who threw in a lot of special effects, dance numbers, magical realism and farcical events.
  19. Expect the show’s center to shift over time. Fonzie became the show after a year. So did Earkle of Family Matters or Kramer of Seinfeld.
  20. If a character succeeds, he stays. If he succeeds only moderately, get him out of there!
  21. Sitcom Romance. Don’t try unless you can live with the prospect of one of them permanently leaving the show.
  22. I like two story houses. Consider three shows where you know the house intimately well. Brady Bunch, King of Queens, That Seventies Show. The genius of That Seventies Show is using the family basement as a hangout for the teenagers. We know that all the scenes there (especially the dope scenes) involve teenager stuff. Stuff at ground level involve parent-child stuff. Backyard/driveway is for traveling/arrivals. King of Queens, look at that. Bedroom banter. Garage for guy stuff. Living Room for parties, kitchen for getting ready to leave, and finally the basement for Arthur’s tunnel vision. Whoever designed that set is a genius.
  23. This wasn’t always true, but contemporary audiences enjoy sitcoms that reference previous episodes. Mention, but don’t dwell.
  24. Nothing is wrong with jumping the shark. But you have to design your plots in a way so that you can extricate yourself from a bad plotline if necessary. Shark jumping was only a two part episode, and then it was over for good. Burning down Arnold’s (on the other hand) or burning down Cheers was a major plot device with major consequences down the road. Do if it you really need a different direction. But have a few backup directions to go if you totally mess up the overall thrust of the show.
  25. Audiences are tolerant about little outbursts of sentimentality, as long as they’re balanced by some sort of smirky postscript.
  26. Don’t worry about curtain lines. Just end when time runs out. All in the Family was famous for just ending after the 23 mark without any real reason. With Friends and Seinfeld, commercial interruptions made plotlines so disconnected that it no longer mattered where you ended anymore.
  27. Don’t watch only American sitcoms. Watch Mexican and British sitcoms and anything else you can get your hand on. They have different conventions, different tricks which you can steal shamelessly. The Office is a perfect example. It would never occur to Americans to make a character so boorish. Oh yes, that Internet thing, it’s supposed to get pretty big someday. Maybe somebody is producing new web-only sitcoms as we speak.
  28. Don Quixote. Police Squad and Get Smart being the best example. Pop culture has genres that take themselves too seriously. Find some sancrosanct cultural institution, and then transform it into something silly. For example, grab a popular TV drama or video, remake it into something silly. Reality shows. CSI. West Wing. Talk Shows. Law and Order.
  29. Fish out of Water. Good if one character is totally out of place or doesn’t belong. Like the policeman brother in Everyone Loves Raymond. Why is he still living with Mom and Dad?
  30. Comedies don’t need continuities of action. Look at Twilight Zone. Self-contained stories, but the series content stayed consistent. (Hitchcock show was another). In Get a Life! Chris Eliot dies at the end of almost every show. But I digress.

(See also: My Fave Sitcoms ).