What Do You Wish Sitcom Producers Knew?
July 15, 2011 10:14 AM   Subscribe

In order to create an original show, I turn now to the Hive Mind. Please share with me your preferences and help me find the common threads and elements linking the best sitcoms to ever be broadcast!

Hi, AskMe. Here's the situation: after appearing regularly in a local comedy show, this weekly performance has been placed in my hands - the venue trusts me and I've been given the reins. For the past couple months, this has been a standup showcase / open mic sort of situation and we're building a respectable following and have a stable of reliable comics. However, I feel as if the show could use another element to give it some variety, some final act for it all to build to.

In the past, this meant an improv show right up until the majority of our regular group all moved away. (also, to be honest, I'm not big on improv - when it's good, it can be brilliant, but when it's bad it becomes kind of a grinding embarrassment. And it's been done to death in this town) The situation with sketch is pretty similar - the best players are currently off the board and I feel like there's been a kind of sketch saturation round here in the first place.

Now, what I do presently have access to is a rather large network of very funny, very talented actors - many of whom will soon be without a show to appear in for awhile. In thinking on all these amazing, diverse performers I am fortunate enough to know, I began to consider the possibilities of creating an ongoing, serialized, live action sitcom of which we could produce and stage a brief episode of every week! My hope would be that the core cast could be large and flexible enough that if, performer X or Y wasn't available for this or that week, we could do an episode focusing on performer Z's character and keep a number of subplots and the like percolating from show to show and thus build a crowd who wanted to know what would happen next!

Now, to pull this off, I obviously need to create a compelling enough set of characters and a setting / hook which is interesting enough to keep people in their seats after the standup wraps, not to mention coming back from week to week. And that's where I need your help, AskMe: In your opinion, what are the elements of a truly great sitcom? While I'm of course interested in any and all illustrative examples from the whole history of broadcast, I'm not looking for a list of your favorite shows but rather why you think your favorite show works. What is it about the setting and the characters and the kind of comedy which they deliver that keeps you coming back from week to week? I'm looking to create setting, character and story arc from the ground up here and could really do with some outside information on what works best from actual viewers, not critics (though I'm doing plenty reading on that front as well).

Conversely, if there are some common elements linking most bad sitcoms, I'd like to hear your thoughts on that as well and hopefully avoid those pitfalls. Why do you stop watching a show, or navigate away during commercials and forget to switch back? To your mind, what doesn't work about some serialized comedies? (NOTE: I'm already philosophically opposed to the "very special episode." My personal taste in comedy is more about laughs and less about learning and hugging and growing. Unless it's done hilariously)
posted by EatTheWeak to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There isn't a formula for great sitcoms (hence the criticism that many are "formulaic").

But, all the good ones have characters that you care about.
I love strong side characters (the best ones become recurring roles), but not ones that hijack the show.
Balancing humor with a little heart is important, but it is tricky. One man's heart-warming moment is another man's treacle.
Snark and hip works short-term only.

Best of luck.
posted by smelvis at 10:26 AM on July 15, 2011

Sexual tension -- it creates some great moments of hilarity in prolong looks, word play, all that.
posted by motsque at 10:30 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Assume your audience is pretty smart, and doesn't need every joke, nuance, or subtle absurdity explained or magnified for maximum laughs. Shows like Arrested Development, P&R, It's Always Sunny, etc do/did this very well.

Good luck!
posted by swingbraid at 10:34 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The sitcoms I've always liked, I've liked for the same reason I liked other shows -- realistic characters as opposed to caricatures. Some of them were a little exaggerated in their eccentricity -- Les Nessman from WKRP, Jim and Latka from Taxi -- but never really totally strained credulity. I've also usually been more drawn to shows that featured a group of co-workers rather than a family (WKRP, Taxi, M*A*S*H), but that could be more a matter of personal taste.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:36 AM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I like how Seinfeld usually had three or four stories that came together in the final act. It also makes for good rewatching (Remembering how the stories intertwine).

Don't dumb it down.
posted by backwards guitar at 10:42 AM on July 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

To EmpressCallpygos's note about preferring sitcoms with coworkers rather than families, I'll also throw in Barney Miller and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Very smart, very funny (and often subtle) writing that emerged from the depth of the characters' interactions with each other, which were based in turn in the depth of the characters themselves.
posted by scody at 10:43 AM on July 15, 2011

It is a really cool idea. I think you should include audience participation by letting an audience member play the mailcarrier, or cashier, or whatever fits for that weeks episode.
posted by ian1977 at 10:45 AM on July 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Good sitcoms: Great characters, great stories. Humor arises from the situations and the characters, not forced "jokes." "Cheers" will always be the gold standard for me (the pre-Rebecca era.) One great thing I heard about the "Cheers" writer's room is that, if two writers simultaneously came up with the same joke or line for a certain situation, they would discard it, because that was the obvious thing the audience would be expecting.

Bad sitcoms: Cliched characters. Same old things we've seen a million times before: Husband doesn't want to shop with wife, father is overprotective of daughter, etc etc etc. "Breaking" characters for the sake of a joke- ie, making them do something that person would never really do, because it would get a laugh. Most sitcoms reach this point as they age and run out of ideas- a prime example is the later "Seinfeld" where Elaine is suddenly after Jerry for his money- this goes against everything we know about Elaine from the early seasons, and it's not even funny.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:46 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like it when there's a character (just one) more outrageous than anyone you'd ever really meet, as the purely ridiculous comic relief. The rest of the show you can relate to, but this character and his situations are just absurd.

Kramer (Seinfeld)
Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother)
Eric Cartman (South Park - i know that's a cartoon)
Karen (Will & Grace)
Dwight (The Office) - though i do believe these exist in reality
Sheldon (Big Bang Theory)
posted by lizbunny at 10:46 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

A great way for you to get a sense of how characters should play off each other is to read through the Av Club's TV Club reviews for various shows. They have all sorts of reviews from contemporary to classic sitcoms, and most of the reviewers there are big 'character' critics, so they focus a lot on that aspect of a sitcom.
posted by Think_Long at 10:47 AM on July 15, 2011

The best sitcoms have characters that you come to love and identify with. I think your biggest challenge is that while you hope that you will have audiences returning show after show you're going to need to be able to re-introduce the characters to the audience for each show.

The best sitcoms also seem to have very catchy and memorable theme songs.

You want to have an ensemble of characters so that you can arrange for interesting and ever changing pairings.

You want to be grounded in reality and relatable while leaving room for zany.

While there's a trend lately for stories with season long arcs (and I generally like that a lot), I think you'll want to find stories that are highly self-contained.

Somebody mentioned threads connecting in the final act, which could work.
posted by willnot at 10:53 AM on July 15, 2011

Ken Levine's blog has a lot of great info about writing sitcoms, but you have to dig around a bit since he doesn't use any tagging or categorizing on his posts.
posted by mikepop at 11:04 AM on July 15, 2011

There are two basic ways to go:

1. Unwilling team. Characters who fundamentally dislike each other but are forced together by circumstance. Conflict comes from within the group usually, and outside events are an afterthought. Humor tends to be darker.

2. Willing team. Characters who fundamentally like each other (even if they are dissimilar) and face conflict from the outside world. The character relationships can still involve lots of teasing and normal interpersonal conflicts (so there is some tension from the group dynamic) but the characters have a basically affectionate attitude toward each other.

You can do well with either kind of set-up. If you go the unwilling team route, you'll need a strong reason why all these people have to stick together despite their basic dislike of each other. I tend to prefer shows that are about willing teams, but a lot of the very popular shows (like the Office) are about unwilling teams.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:31 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Examples of "willing teams" would be eg Spaced or Sports Night.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:31 AM on July 15, 2011

I disagree with smelvis. Sitcoms are, by definition, formulaic. It is formulaic in the same way that Bach is formulaic. It is pleasant to the audience, because it sets up an itch, and then instantly scratches it. Each sitcom, in its own way, creates and executes a formula specifically designed to make you laugh the same way a Bach cadence leads the ear to a pleasant, anticipated resolution. And therein lies the rub: the formula relies on anticipation, and anticipation is built by teaching the audience how the character will act. And without a standard cast of characters, you'll have a necessarily hard time building that anticipation. That doesn't mean it is impossible. Far from it. You may have a hard time with this if you don't have at least one set character appearing in every show. The rest of the characters can be exchanged and swapped out as the situation demands, but the core needs to stay the same to develop the anticipation properly. The core can be as small as one person, could be a duo (Hyacinth and Richard, Eddie and Patsy, Geraldine and Alice) or a standard quartet (Seinfeld, Third Rock from the Sun, Will and Grace, Frasier) or even larger (Friends, 30 Rock, Gilligan's Island). The number is up to you, with the only caveats being that the smaller the core cast, the less interesting it is for others to be involved in an ongoing basis - and even larger casts typically have primary and secondary members within the core cast (Rachel/Monica/Chandler/Ross, Liz/Jack, Gilligan/Skipper).

For a great example of a show with only one core character, I commend to your attention "Shells," a live, partially-musical-partially-conversational, one-woman show that hermitosis introduced me to, which featured Roslyn Hart and played at Joe's Pub in NY. It is, essentially a live, musical, serialized sitcom. Shells is the main (and really only) character, who is a JP Morgan Chase Analyst by day and cabaret lounge singer by night. She has delusions that she is Sex-and-the-City Incarnate. Each of Shells' performances brings you a little closer to understanding the train wreck that is her life. And it employs all of the most amazing parts of a sitcom formula. You instantly know Shells because you have this feeling that you've seen her somewhere before. You probably went to middle school with her. Or you have a coworker who you could see sliding over the edge and landing squarely on a stage somewhere with a pitcher full of sangria, an ex on speed dial, and a need to share her song with the world. All of Shells' performances end similarly no matter how the performance begins - with a lot of great music, and even more bad decisions, played out in gory detail for the audience who doesn't know whether to laugh or cry or call the mental health deputies. And the magic is that it is really only done with one character. All the other "characters" - occasionally seen but mostly unseen (read: drunk dialed live during the show) - are minor compared to Shells. She is, and always will be, the only one necessary to drive the show. But she is necessary. It wouldn't be the same without her.

Now what characteristics you imbue these characters is up to you - but give the characters some really specific and really strong motivation so that the situations write themselves. The metasituation should probably reflect your local culture and contemporary issues. You're in Olympia? Maybe your cast are the employees at a local organic co-op, the city council of Enumclaw, the local Tea Party chapter, or neighbors on one of the smaller islands in Puget Sound. You know your audience, and you know what makes them laugh. Go with that. The smaller situations are as simple as saying, "What happens when we send Hyacinth to a polo match and she can't find the right outfit and ends up making Richard take a wrong turn on the way" The characters just have to be so sufficiently motivated that the situation just writes itself. Without even seeing this episode, you know that it starts with the mailman delivering the invitation muttering under his breath about "that bucket woman," Hyacinth get's a phone call from her mooch of a son and tells him all about her good fortune, and then freaks out about what to wear, and who will be there, and whether The Major will grope her, and whether Richard is sufficiently enthusiastic about the whole thing, and how quickly she can show off for Liz and Emmett, and that she gives Richard commands in the car the entire way there - and in doing so gets them lost - and somehow manages to slip and fall and show up to the event covered in mud to discover her sister Daisy and her awful husband Onslow sitting in the VIP section, at which point she declares defeat and goes home. And you know that it is going to be hilarious.
posted by jph at 12:09 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The overriding characteristic of the funniest and most popular sitcom characters, with few exceptions, is that if they existed in real life they'd be insufferable at best, and plain bad people at worst (and most often).

Seinfeld: Especially toward the end, Elaine openly hates all of her friends, Jerry is openly and unapologetically self-centered, George is a sociopath. The worst of Kramer is that he's a mooch.

Friends: Narcissistic sociopaths.

Go all the way back to I Love Lucy... Lucy is conniving and underhanded. She flat out runs a con in half of the shows and in the other half she's putting the screws to ricky so she can get a fur coat or whatever.

Hell, the Three Stooges are explicitly morons. They set random people on fire and let loose fire hoses in court rooms.

I don't say this as a criticism of any of these shows. It's just funny... Bizarro Jerry, George, and Kramer weren't funny. Try it with pretty much any cast. Would you actually want to hang out with Walter and The Dude or Harold and Kumar? They'd be intolerable.
posted by cmoj at 12:19 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

To address the "satisfaction comes from our familiarity with the characters" concern - maybe you could put together a "theme song montage" that would open every performance, of your main characters doing a characteristic or telling action as an announcer says their names.

You could go cheeseball with it (eg Betty scolds her kids and then looks up, realizes the audience is there, and strikes an "oh, YOU" pose - hand on hip, big smile) or more simple (eg Ed straightens up the fliers on the office bulletin board, then straightens his tie unsmilingly).
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:21 PM on July 15, 2011

Maybe that just shows you need to decide if you want to really play up the "this is a SITCOM" idea, which would mean using tropes from older classic sitcoms (eg what you would do if you were doing a sketch that was meant to be a sitcom), or if you want it to be more like one of the present-day shows like Arrested Development that flouts a lot of those expectations.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:24 PM on July 15, 2011

I liked the Black Adder series for the dynamic between classes. Bumbling socialites/heads-of-state are sometimes fun to watch (Hugh Laurie as George in Blackadder the Third)
posted by Khazk at 12:27 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Good comedic chemistry between actors.
Some kind of audience, however small, for the rehearsals so the actors have a sense of where the laughs are and can pace things accordingly.
A willingness to be narratively unkind to characters.
A situation where there are obvious and prominent hurdles to the characters' ability to leave the circle of people represented by the characters, meaning that when that conflict arises, the writers don't have to keep coming up with reasons why someone wouldn't just say "Fuck these people."
Characters who are sufficiently well-developed that an entire episode can revolve around them and be interesting.
Similarly, a sufficient variety in your characters that the space between them can be explored in the space of an episode and not feel worn out.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:31 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think smelvis is partly right that there is no one exact formula for a great sitcom, but jph is also right that there are certain elements that any sitcom needs. So here are some thoughts on why two great sitcoms, Seinfeld and the American version of The Office, have been so wildly successful — for some of the same reasons but also in dramatically different ways.

Imagine trying to sum up either show for someone who had never seen them. "Four friends always gather at one friend's New York City apartment or a nearby diner to talk about their dates and their jobs." "The manager of a Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of a small paper company is so inept that he always loses control of the branch's operations and employees." Yawn! These are not exciting premises; they almost seem deliberately dull. The shows were brilliant because of the plots and the characters. So, what is it about those characters that works so well?

On The Office, I would describe most of the characters as clearly either "positive" or "negative." You are always supposed to look down on Michael, Dwight, and Angela. The characters are so consistent that the audience is primed to laugh at them before they've gotten to the punchline. You know, before they've finished their sentence, that whatever Michael says will be dumb, childish, confused; whatever Dwight says will be overly aggressive and egotistical (and often backwardly rural); whatever Angela says will be judgmental and unfun.

Positive characters may stumble instead of triumphing sometimes, but they're always the smart, well-balanced, sympathetic ones: Jim, Pam, Oscar, Toby. Now, comedy is always driven by negatives. (Have you ever laughed at something just because it's so wonderful and perfect? I doubt it — and if you can think of a counterexample, I'll bet you were really laughing because of the contrast between that thing's wonderfulness and the rest of the world's miserableness.) The positive characters are often there to react to the other characters' buffoonery, and to give the audience someone to identify with.

Other characters have a consistent mix of positive and negative: Andy is foolish and overwrought, but ultimately lovable (which Erin helps us to perceive). Erin is naive and too acquiescent, but sweet and kind. Stanley is Machiavellian but straight-talking.

Seinfeld has a different approach, which is well-suited to the fact that there's a much smaller number of characters you expect to see each episode. All 4 main characters have a unified, pervasive negativity: they're all petty, cynical, hedonistic, and unethical. Yet each of them can be a sympathetic protagonist — especially Jerry and Elaine, but even George (despite being the loser) and Kramer (despite being the oddball).

A plotline driven by Jerry or Elaine is much less about the character's quirks, and more about the specifics of the plot and the show's innumerable bit players. A love interest on Seinfeld is often there as one more joke; both the joke and the character are often used up after one episode. We remember their foibles more than their real names: the "high talker," the "low talker," the "close talker," "schmoopy," "yada yada yada." By contrast, the romances on The Office tend to be more sustained because they're driven by the more complex strengths and weaknesses of the regular characters (Kelly and Ryan, Dwight and Angela, Angela and Andy, Andy and Erin, Erin and Gabe).

One of the commentary tracks on an Office DVD included a good insight: a typical mediocre sitcom would have made Dwight "the suck-up," and that would have been his whole character. On The Office, he is that, but he has so many other sides, and they're all tied together by one strong motivation and one core belief: he wants power, and he believes he can obtain it through aggression. As Jim wisely said to Dwight in season 2: "You are all about authority." (Dwight's response: "Yes. I am.") He sucks up to get power, but for the same reason, he's willing to breach his loyalty to those closest to him, causing them to overreact in their own quirky and flawed ways. (For instance, Dwight tries to take Michael's job, so Michael takes up Dwight on his offer to do his laundry ... even though Michael admitted this was hardly a satisfying restitution: "I have a laundry machine!" Dwight covers up the fact that he killed Angela's cat, so Angela gets engaged to Andy even though she doesn't feel strongly about him, while releasing her pent-up passion by continuing to have secret sex with Dwight.) So many plotlines flow from each character having their consistent set of quirks, which they take to bizarre lengths that seem to make sense only according to that character's crazy logic.

There are over 100 episodes in each of these sitcoms. Most sitcoms might not be lucky enough to stay around that long, but you want to have that potential. So your show needs to be able to go one for dozens and dozens of episodes, while keeping the solid framework and setting and cast of characters that allow it to be so successful. At the same time, the show needs constant drama and conflict — but without being too disruptive. The Office has some restructuring and turnover, but most of the main characters keep working there. When it seems like a main character is leaving, they're often going to come back sooner or later (Jim, Pam, Dwight, Ryan, Andy, Jan, Holly). Steve Carrell's leaving The Office is an obvious exception — and it has called into question how long the show can continue. (Notice that the flimsy rationale for Michael to leave will allow allow the writers to instantly bring back Michael if Carrell ever decides to come back.)

Every episode of The Office has people doing things that would get them fired in real life, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus has pointed out that it makes no sense for her intelligent, beautiful, successful character Elaine to have her social life revolve around the other 3 Seinfeld leads year after year. A lot of comedy is premised on the fact that the "straight" person goes along with the the crazy characters' crazy schemes instead of doing what a normal person would: either getting out of there, or getting rid of the crazy person. The crazies need to stay there wreaking havoc but without doing too much damage. As the old saying goes: "If it bends, it's funny; if it breaks, it's not funny."

On Seinfeld and The Office, the characters are neutral and flexible enough that seemingly any plot idea the writers can come up with will fit at least one character. They fearlessly get humor out of race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. They avoid politics and other current events, which will date a show. (The OJ Simpson references on Seinfeld are a rare exception, and not some of the stronger moments of the series.)

Both shows have one wild-card character who bizarrely but reliably stands apart from both the other characters and society: Kramer and Creed. (For a show where all 3 main characters are of this type, see the great and sadly short-lived Stella.)

Seinfeld famously deviated from prior sitcoms (like Roseanne) by eliminating sentimentality and messages, instead getting by on cynicism, cruelty, and even apathy. (This has often been summed up as: "No hugging, no learning.") The Office — which, it has to be mentioned, is profoundly indebted to Seinfeld — adopts some of that Seinfeldian spirit but juxtaposes it with pathos and warmth and life lessons. There are moments on The Office that aren't even trying to be funny. Jim and Pam kissing for the first time is not humorous; you're watching it simply because you care about the characters. Any earnestness quickly gets interrupted by humor, but the earnest undertone persists. (On Seinfeld, by contrast, even the on-screen, undeserved death of a major character is played up for pure hilarity.) The Office repeatedly teaches us that you get ahead in life by being genuine and positive, not hostile or negative. That's why Dwight stays in the same position year after year while he constantly pours a ridiculous amount of energy into climbing over everyone (he perceives to be) in his path to reach the top. In an extraordinary flash of self-awareness, Dwight himself hinted at his knack for reverting to the status quo in his last lines of the season 7 finale.

On the other hand, Seinfeld's last episode was so poorly received precisely because the show became too self-aware and meta in commenting on the tragic flaws of its 4 leads. In trying to put itself on trial, the show violated its own integrity: it was never supposed to be moralistic. We laugh at the characters' pettiness and rudeness and immorality — and that's that. No one ever learns. On The Office, Angela might never learn, but Jim and Pam and Oscar can always stare at the camera or give a back-handed compliment to Michael in a way that convinces you they understand exactly as well as you how ridiculous the situation is.
posted by John Cohen at 1:43 PM on July 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

I have to agree with cmoj about the "narcissistic sociopaths" element. My favorite shows, Seinfeld, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Arrested Development, and Curb Your Enthusiasm all thrive, 100% because of this. I think this is how people wish they could act on a daily basis, so it's entertaining to see others doing it.

I would say consistency & reliability is a huge thing though. Consistency in character: Making sure that people understand the characters, their personalities, their quirks, and their downfalls. Consistency in Jokes: Think of Arrested Development - "her?" "I've made a huge mistake." "Yeah, but where did the lighter fluid come from?" ... there are hundreds of reoccurring jokes on that show and it is SO FUNNY EVERY TIME. On other shows many of the reoccurring jokes lie within the characters personalities and reactions to situations.
posted by LZel at 2:12 PM on July 15, 2011

i too am a huge fan of shows where the separate stories all intertwine to a big showdown (this will also work in your favor doing this on stage...while some actors are doing a scene, the others can be setting up the next) my all-time favorite example of this (though animated) would have to be the futurama episode '300 big ones'...where all the characters are followed while spending a $300 government surplus...a must see
i also really like when one joke is beaten to death until it just becomes hilarious again...see the dick van dyke show episode 'the curious thing about women'
posted by sexyrobot at 2:31 PM on July 15, 2011

I think the narcissistic sociopath model is pretty polarizing. A lot of people love it, a lot of people are put off by it (like me) because they don't want to spend time watching people like that. Unlikeable characters are common on tv now, but you can do comedy with likeable characters too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:38 PM on July 15, 2011

I disagree with a lot of the advise you're getting.

Your biggest resource is knowing so many funny people. Create a show that is agile and relies on these diverse viewpoints. Don't over plan it. Allow it to be in the moment.

Humor can't be boxed and packaged. It lives in the now. What you make should not look a bit like the shows that have come before. Take a risk.

You're already thinking this way (this is the reason you're sourcing the hive mind). Do the same thing with your talent.

Finally: this will mean that your show is inconsistent. Embrace this. It's the drawback of diversity, but worth it.

Keep it loose. And then edit it ferociously.
posted by Murray M at 7:44 PM on July 15, 2011

Your question and the answers made me think of The Norman Conquests (just thought I'd throw it out there, the concept could work for you I think).
posted by BoscosMom at 4:10 AM on July 16, 2011

The guy who created Community freely admits that 90% of putting the show together was finding a great cast that worked together well.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:01 PM on July 16, 2011

« Older Food + fun in Bemidji, MN?   |   What are some good sounding portable MP3 players... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.