A sitcom, or a situation comedy, as it was called at school, is a staple of television today. Since they began cropping up in the early fifties, they have enjoyed enormous success, both critical and commercial. Decade defining sitcoms such as I Love Lucy, MASH, Cheers, The Andy Griffith Show, Seinfeld, FRIENDS and The Big Bang Theory have enjoyed enduring popularity well beyond their years.
A sitcom is essentially a sketch comedy that’s developed a habit. Hence, foremost among the concerns of a sitcom writer, aspiring or otherwise, are the characters. The characters breathe life into the cloying stories that a sitcom delivers. Even old stories are given a whole new spin when combined with interesting characters.
That is where one starts, by making up a character. And then making up some more. Giving them stories, personalities and motivations. Pet peeves are optional, but welcome. Yet it is unwise to gather all the eggs in one basket. A wisecracking gal with mother issues is interesting. A guy with OCD, abandonment issues, inability to commit, who makes jokes to keep people away and has a partridge in a pear tree is too much bother to get to know.
The fascinating part about making up characters is that the writer always knows them better than anyone else. Their most secret wishes, the thing that makes them tick, that is shared by only the writer and the character. And that is how it should be kept. The writers may hint at it all they want, but never bare their characters heart without cause. An aura of mystery adds far more than it can ever obscure. Just ask the dame who walked in the door with trouble shining on her ruby lips, and slide off in gleeful disappointment across the gentle smirk that follows.
Characters which one may think up might seem to conform to tropes already set in stone in TV shows across the years. Instinctively, some try to add outrageous differences to add that little bit of zany zing to their script. At this point, it does well to remember that tropes are tropes for a reason. Sitcoms reflect characters caught up in the hopeless intricacies of their lives. And therein lies the secret. Life. The world is made out of clichés. It is not always a bad thing if a sitcom is too.
It is easy to dream up characters, but equally difficult to find the place they’re supposed to be. With some trial and error, a bit of luck and some inspiration, doubtless the setting will form around the characters. A group of oddballs in mind might toddle off to share drinks, and before one knows it, there exists a world to put the characters in, and let them romp to their hearts content. Essentially this is where Jurassic Park meets the Sims.
After putting out the cutlery and bringing out the porcelain plates, it is finally time for the main course. Writing episodes for sitcoms is something that is pretty formulaic once a good hard look is taken, but so are all stories. It is how one writes it that makes all the difference. To stretch the cooking metaphor slightly further, two people can follow the same recipe, but the subtle changes each makes can produce two vastly different dishes.
The skeleton of the sitcom lies in the fact that a sitcom doesn’t have quite enough time to tell you an entire story. Thus, it plays a riff off of Luis from Ant-Man, and delivers a highly entertaining summary instead. It shares elements with the monomyth concept that was laid out in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a seminal work which determined how most stories are slight variations on the same story.
Every story begins with laying out the problem that the characters will then proceed to solve. Here, in the unlikeliest of places, one can see the Zen in every person. We know the characters will solve the problem, and the status quo of the entire sitcom world as a whole will remain unchanged from the initiation to the ending of the episode, yet, we like to go through it nonetheless, appreciating the journey far more than the destination.
The ending mirrors the beginning, the characters solve their problem, and return to their daily lives, wiser and better for the lesson they learnt, which is promptly and conveniently forgotten before the next episode begins.
The most interesting part of the sitcom lies in the middle. Since time is ever against the hapless writer, the story must be short, but not too short, else the sitcom may end before it even begins (Which may be an asset to some sci-fi sitcoms, but is usually a deterrent.) Here arises your strongest weapon, the false victory. The protagonists try to tackle the problem, and invariably fail, no matter how good things may be going up until that point. It adds an urgency, and increases watchability endlessly. Then, defeated but not dissuaded, they enter the fray again, and make it till the ending.
The final part is the actual writing. Apart from a few things to keep in mind, writing scenes for a sitcom allows for a huge margin of flexibility. The most pertinent piece of advice is, if you want your character to be funny, make them say funny things.
The pacing of a sitcom is important as well, and it varies from writer to writer. Some add multilayered jokes in every line. Others let funny things happen to their characters and draw out laughs in that way. There are also sitcoms in which the audience can be expected to react at every line that is spoken.
It’s not all fun and games all the time though. Writers can dole out gut-wrenching drama as well, which gets accentuated by the constant cheer which usually pervades sitcoms. The abrupt death of Col. Henry Blake in MASH remains to this day a landmark moment, which brought home the harsh reality of war in a sitcom which usually made fun of its setting.
Rather than taking something away from the sitcom though, drama adds a layer of pathos which brings a sitcom ever closer to the mirror it holds up against reality, and reminds us why we love to watch them.