Writing a Sitcom
If you’re a comedy writer who wants to break into the television industry, then you will be well aware of the importance of the sitcom. After all, writing a situation comedy offers the promise of belonging to a rich cultural lineage of famous sitcom writers from Johnny Speight to Larry David, so it’s hard to dismiss the allure every generation of writer feels for the genre, despite how much dross has been commissioned on TV in recent years.
That said, there’s a misconception that writers of sitcoms tend to be industry insiders, but the truth is that channels like the BBC have always been enormously supportive of unsolicited material through multiple initiatives and competitions. Though I have never written for television myself, I have dabbled in script writing in the past and submitted some work to the BBC for consideration, so here are some lessons I feel I’ve learnt for those who aspire to start writing a sitcom.
1. Concept vs Character
There are some sitcoms, such as Red Dwarf, which are built around a ‘what if?’ concept. What if a lowly technician on a spaceship was put into stasis, only to wake up 3 million years later to discover all the crew were dead? Let’s consider more: What if a man discovered a time portal to transport himself back to the Second World War and found himself entangled in a cross-dimensional love triangle? Obviously, that idea gifted us Goodnight Sweetheart. What if a suburban housewife actually turned out to be a witch? Abracadaba, we have Bewitched.
The above examples have an elevator pitch which is strongly built around a high concept ‘what if?’ premise, so you may find that’s where your sitcom idea starts. Alternatively, and perhaps more commonly, your idea could also originate with a specific character. Basil Fawlty, by all accounts, was inspired by a real-life hotel owner John Cleese met; a memorable encounter which eventually inspired him to create Fawlty Towers. Ricky Gervais also admitted David Brent in The Office was essentially an amalgam of real-life managers he’d worked under. Very often, real people you meet will indeed spark off an idea for a sitcom character you could happily build a TV show around.
The very best sitcoms, of course, have both bases covered—a high concept premise married with distinctive and memorable characters. Either way, writers should be able to begin writing a sitcom if you have either one of those elements in place, or at least have given it some considerable thought. If you have neither in your head already, then you probably won’t have the hook you need to grab an audience’s attention, let alone a comedy writing agent or a TV commissioner.
2. Conflict = Comedy
Once you’ve considered your concept and character(s), your next step will be to think about conflict. The greatest sitcoms establish relationships between characters from the offset which unearth humour from feelings of inescapability and angst. In other words, if you find a way of ensuring your characters are stuck, trapped, or cannot live with or even without each other, then comedy should naturally follow. It simply has to, frankly, because there is nothing funnier than mutual frustration.
The humour in Steptoe and Son comes from Harold Steptoe’s sheer exasperation that he cannot escape his father Albert Steptoe’s rag ’n’ bone business due to the trappings of familial loyalty. The characters of Lister and Rimmer in Red Dwarf are similarly destined to drive each other insane in deep space, due to Lister’s slobbishness and Rimmer’s pomposity; while Victor Meldrew’s grumpy ramblings in One Foot in the Grave would be nowhere near as funny without his wife Margaret’s constant bemusement.
In fact, once you have a central conflict at the heart of your sitcom—shackling your characters together, essentially—then other, more incidental conflicts will inspire humorous situations you can use in future episodes. If you know, for instance, that Del Boy and Rodney’s father in Only Fools and Horses abandoned them as a child, then when you see said father reappear in a later episode, it only serves to re-ignite those existing conflicts. Put simply, never ignore conflict—before writing a sitcom, you should think about how much humour you can coax out of the dysfunctional relationships you wish to bring to the fore.
3. Plotting and Structure
Each sitcom generally abides by the same Three Act structure.
Act One is all about exposition. Given the time constraints most sitcoms have to contend with (30 minutes for a UK episode), you will need to begin with an inciting incident which sets the plot in motion fairly quickly, basically acting as a disruption to any perceived equilibrium established at the very start of your script. This is what will spring your character into action.
Act 2 is where you should introduce confrontations, allowing your character(s) to encounter complications or obstacles which are a direct by-product of the events in Act 1. It could well be the case that things go from bad to worse, and that the humour arises from any desperate attempts to restore equilibrium.
Act 3 should aim for resolution and finish with a climax. It’s best if the characters are changed somehow by the preceding events.
Given that this outlines a very skeletal framework, it’s understandable for writers to find this a bit cold and clinical. For this reason, I’ve frequently been inspired by Dan Harmon (creator of US sitcom Community) and his Circle Theory to offer a new dimension to the Three Act structure to give you some idea of how you can flesh out what may appear to be a rigid formula. Harmon argues each episode should follow this trajectory:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort
2. But they want something
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
4. Adapt to it
5. Get what they wanted
6. Pay a heavy price for it
7. Then return to their familiar situation
8. Having changed
4. Scripting and Formatting
The hardest part of writing a script is getting your head around the different templates. BBC sitcoms, for example, use a very different template from US teleplays. Luckily for me, I’ve grown up reading script books of British sitcoms, particularly Blackadder and Father Ted, but I can see why some writers may get frustrated with all the formatting requirements. There is a lot to learn about scripts, it seems, and the best way to do that is to get stuck in and read them.
By their very nature, scripts are intended to be used during filming, so they use much terminology which may seem alien to writers who simply just want to crack on with telling a decent story. For example, each scene intended to be filmed indoors needs to be referred to as ‘INT.’ for interior, and any outdoors sequences are written as ‘EXT.’ for exterior. Transitions from scene-to-scene must ‘FADE TO’ or ‘DISSOLVE TO’ one another; ‘(V.O.)’ means voiceover; you will be expected to specify whether it is ‘DAY’ or ‘NIGHT’ under the scene headings; and if you find your episode has far too many scenes in it, then you should perhaps scale back your ambitions.
The fact that a sitcom writer may be expected to curb their ideas in order to make filming cost-effective may fly in the face of creativity somewhat, but it can be a restriction which helps you to strip your plot down to its most essential elements. When it comes to formatting, however, if you want to learn more your best bet is to visit the BBC Writers Room website. Not only do they have plenty of example scripts for you to read, but there are lots of resources on there for you to learn all about script templates. Once you’ve got an idea of script layouts, you can finally crack on with writing a sitcom with the above considerations at the forefront of your mind.
Obviously, I’m well aware I have missed two key components of how to write a sitcom: how to write dialogue and how to tell jokes. There’s a very obvious reason for this, and that’s that both are very difficult skills to teach. Some qualities are innate, and a sense of humour is certainly one of them. That said, even if the idea of seeing your ideas find their way onto the small screen seems outlandish and improbable—especially given how many hurdles there are to impress a TV commissioner into making you famous—it’s always worth stretching yourself and giving it a try nonetheless.
In my opinion, writers can learn something valuable from attempting to write a situation comedy and crafting a script—at the very least, it will allow you to focus on generating a strong concept; creating remarkable characters; placing them at the heart of your story; realising the importance of conflict; and thinking more like a dramatist. Once you’ve done all of those things, you’ll be able to apply each of those learnings to any genre of your choosing. Let’s face it, we can’t all be Armando Iannucci, but with some effort, we can at least perhaps learn the tricks of his trade.
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© 2018 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.