Writing a Sitcom – Creating Characters

If, for example, you were writing a sitcom, and you were researching your favourite sitcoms to find nuggets of character-creating inspiration, this is the sort of stuff you might find. If you were doing that.

Here’s Dan Harmon on creating characters:

Write your pilot before you know everything about these people. Let the story establish little pieces of them, don’t fill your script with facts about fictional strangers, fill your script with things happening to fictional strangers. Bring the atoms into collision and let your audience get glimpses of their nuclei as they repulse, neutralize and bond with each other. If you are capable of knowing exactly who these people are by the end of your pilot, you are probably writing a bad TV show. The good news being, I predict much success for you.
But if your goal is to create a TV character with depth, it’s the same as if your goal were to create a tree with height: you’ll have to be patient and surrender a lion’s share of your control. God doesn’t make a tree with hammer and nails. He makes a seed. Likewise, actors and audiences and time are the things that are going to give your characters depth, the best you can do as the writer of a pilot is provide the reader with evidence of that potential.

Mitch Hurwitz on the genesis of Arrested Development:

Someone told me once about this paradigm that exists: matriarch, patriarch, craftsman, and clown. It’s this quartet that resonates through history and popular culture, and you can find it as a diagram in everything from The Beatles to ‘Leave It To Beaver’ to ‘Seinfeld’. In The Beatles, you can kind of see it the clearest. You know, Paul is the matriarch, John is the patriarch, the craftsman is George and the clown is Ringo. So I wanted to get that in there, and I thought, “Maybe that will be the four kids. I’ll do a show about four kids.” As it turns out, Michael and Lindsay would be the matriarch and patriarch. The craftsman, to me, is Buster, because he’s a scholar and he’s serious, and the clown is Gob, because he’s a magician, and clowns literally are magicians. [Laughs.] Oh, there are some magical clowns out there. But I don’t want to make this an advertisement for clowns.

There’s an interesting breakdown of archetypal sitcom characters over at TV Tropes.

It is important to note that, unlike the Five-Man Band, it isn’t strictly necessary for each show to have a representative member for each archetype. Keep in mind that, just as in Real Life, the world of Sit Coms is awash in many various and diverse personalities, of which this is hardly an exhaustive list; so there’s no need to shoehorn characters into these categories. Some shows will utilize certain archetypes and leave out others, or may have characters who don’t fit into any of the listed types.

Of course, even when dealing with archetypes, it’s important to remember, as Garry Shandling puts it (when describing a Hank Kingsley character moment)

Everybody’s stupid, everybody’s smart. Everybody’s bumbling, everybody’s intelligent… We’re all different things at different times.

And that’s when your characters become human, I suppose.

15 Storeys High

Without a doubt the most cruelly overlooked comedy of this century so far, Sean Lock’s 15 Storeys High is an absolute gem. I’ll write more about it later. For now just enjoy this wee clip of Vince and Errol and ask yourself: Rantzen or Quirke?

Hank Meets Elvis

Hank Kingsley is one of the finest comic creations in… ever. Jeffrey Tambor just inhabits the character: selfish, venal, needy, greedy, insecure, mean, loving, pathetic and very, very funny. And all the more impressive when you see him playing George Bluth in Arrested Development, an equally complex character, but so different from Hank. What an actor!

There is so much I could say about The Larry Sanders Show, the writing, the performances, the self-mocking celebrities and the amazing triumvirate of characters Larry, Hank and Artie…

But what I really want to say is this: Seriously, I don’t look like Elvis Costello, do I?

Do I?

That’s right. I don’t.

Tucker’s Law

I might have to get one of those teatowels, although I suspect I may be one of the c-bombs in question.

Ths clip is an out-take, of course, from the simply excellent The Thick of It, whch I’ve just discovered is available in its entirety on YouTube.

It really is one of the best British comedy series of the century so far: witty, smart and profane, with suberb performances across the board.

I wonder, if Chris Langham had been able to walk backwards while appearing to walk forwards, whether the general public might have found it easier to forgive him.

Jan Jung on Sitcom Writing

How do I turn ideas into script?


If you have an idea, ask yourself where the idea originates. What is your starting point? Is it a character, is it a funny situation, or is it an idea of a setting? Don’t start with a script, but write down as many ideas you can about it. Remember, the characters are the most important thing to develop – if you don’t have good characters, you done have anything. So, if your setting is your beginning, then begin to think about who can populate it. Who is your protagonist who we root for, who’s dreams we follow? Why doesn’t it work – who is also put there to make life difficult for this person? Where does the comedy come from?

To start, write a few sketches between the characters. How would they act and speak to each other – develop their back-story as much as you can. Think about areas they don’t want to talk about, their flaws and what ultimately makes them likeable? Not necessarily, how nice they are, but what makes us like them. For example, Alan Partridge is an obnoxious person, but we love him because we know he knows has a lot of short comings. When he’s alone we see how horrible he feels about himself, but when he’s confronted with someone he takes on the role of a broadcaster and of someone who is on top of it all. His PA is the complete opposite of him and between the two of them, we can see who he is because she doesn’t need to say anything, its just the way she is – she gives us the image of him.

Mould and define your characters. Get the contrasts out. If you have two characters the same, nothing will come out of it. You can only get the bad side out of a character by exposing it to another character who is the exact opposite. When you have this, then you can define your storyline and your pilot script then begin on your dialogue and put it all together.

More at 4Laughs

How To Write A Sitcom

From Graham Linehan’s recent “masterclass” in sitcom writing at the Edinburgh International TV Festival:

  • Don’t be afraid to procrastinate: ‘Even playing a computer game is valuable. The subconscious goes to sleep and when it wakes up, it panics. Your subconscious is like a writing partner… but one that’s never there when you need it.’
  • Keep rewriting and rewriting: ‘The first draft is like a bunch of notes, it is just something to work with. Writers should be encouraged not to be so precious in the early drafts.’
  • ‘Censorship is good’. He said thinking of ways of getting around rules meant you had to be get creative. ‘The Two Ronnies had more words for breasts than eskimos have for snow,’ he said. He quoted the Master Of My Own Domain episode of Seinfeld, which was all about refraining from masturbation, but never once mentioned the word.
  • Don’t be afraid to keep cutting, even if it seems painful: ‘When you are losing good stuff, you know you are on the right track.’
  • ‘Don’t do everything a TV executive tells you to do.’ But don’t cause a row, either. Just tell them their ideas are ‘interesting’.
  • Make your own rules and stick to them. On Father Ted he and Arthur Mathews vowed never to show Ted at work, leading to a raft of jokes about his very short Mass in one episode that worked because the actual ceremony was unseen. ‘Rules like that focus the mind. They force you to think in more creative ways to get around things.
  • Find the trap that the characters are stuck in; either physical like Porridge or emotional like Steptoe, and make sure there are no other logical ways out of scenes other than the funny one. ‘Batten down the hatches so audiences never get the chance to say, “Hang on, why doesn’t he…?”‘
  • Think of the classic set-piece moments first. ‘If you can find in every episodes two such moments, then all you have to do is connect them up with a series of gags. The way to write sitcoms is to write these set pieces first’.
  • Show don’t tell. If your character is a cynical lawyer, don’t introduce him as the ‘cynical lawyer’. Show him behaving that way.
  • Write scripts, not treatments, which he called ‘reviews of a show that doesn’t exist yet’. Only when you write will you know what your sitcom is really about.
  • Find someone to work with. ‘Writing with a partner is paid socialising. Writing on your own is work.’
  • Think differently. If everyone is doing silly, do realistic; if everyone is doing sketch shows with recurring characters, write one that doesn’t. ‘The main reason I did the IT Crowd was because everyone said that the silly sitcom was dead.’

Link via Chortle.

 I’m doing all right on the procrastination front, at least. Some interesting tips there, although the “think differently” idea is probably only true if you’ve already got a hit under your belt. If you’re thinking differently to the producers who might buy your scripts they’re probably not going to buy ’em. And currently producers seem to be thinking “silly, studio-based, multi-camera”.

If only they were just thinking: “Funny?”

When clams go stinky

A joke that has outlived its shelf-life is consistently referred to as a “clam.” I’ve talked a little about these before, I believe. You know a clam when you hear it. Here are a few of them: “I’m switching you to decaf.” “Check please.” “Who are you and what have you done with ___?” “Did I say that out loud?” “Too much information!” and its brother (hand over ears) “La la la”. Also we have “Was it something I said?” And “That didn’t come out right.” Or “That came out wrong.” And finally “That went well,” and its sister, “He seems nice”.

However, there are ways to adapt or revive clams even after they start to smell. Ways to extend their usefulness…

Find out more at Jane Espenson’s lovely, lunch-obsessed blog.

What’s interesting about the examples given is that they’re the kind of jokes I would avoid using altogether. When your character says “Did I just say that out loud?”, they are talking like a character in a sitcom. And yeah, real people do talk like characters in sitcoms, but I’d like my characters to talk like people who don’t talk like characters in sitcoms.  No clams, fresh or otherwise.

Basically, I don’t want to be stuffing something that smells like fish into anybody’s mouth.

Huh. Well that didn’t come out right.

Writing BBC Radio Sitcoms

The BBC Writer’s Room offers these tips for would-be radio sitcom writers:

Avoid characters, themes and situations that have recently been done. Radio is not like film, where a hit will spawn a host of imitators. A successful sitcom series on Radio 4 guarantees the network won’t want anything similar for some time after.

Avoid trying to be too topical, especially given that the length of the commissioning process will make a flash-in-the-pan topic date quickly. Stories and situations that resurface frequently include history, space, the media, parallel universes, school reunions, and the afterlife.

The idea has to be one that genuinely excites you. Bring your own unique comic insight into a particular situation or world, and you can probably only do that if you really care about it.

Having too narrow a theme can be as dangerous as having no focus at all. Many new writers stop at one idea and overwork it – try to work in sub-themes as well as a main theme.

All your characters should have an original slant, comic potential and mileage. They need to have a comic flaw or two – some weakness that keeps getting them into trouble. They should interact with each other to create comedy, but should also remain believable. Characters should be likable, even if they aren’t necessarily ‘nice’. Sympathy comes through making your characters suffer for their mistakes, or by making them blissfully unaware of their faults.

Telling stories is important
. The main story should probably relate to your main over-riding theme.

Make sure the humour is driven by the characters and stories, and not just about funny lines put into character’s mouths. Avoid characters sniping at each other ‘in a funny way’. Many writers assume that writing comedy for radio means just writing gags. It’s worth limiting the number of formulaic lines – eg “That’s like a cross between…” or “That’s about as healthy as…” or “I haven’t seen anything as bad as that since…”

Avoid factual exposition. The audience very rarely needs to know much about a character’s past or how they came to be in the situation they’re in. How much do you know about the pasts of the Steptoes, Basil Fawlty, Del Boy or Blackadder?

(Link found via World of Comedy)

The Sitcom Trials

The Sitcom Trials is the show where new sitcoms compete, the audience vote for their favourite, and they only see the ending of the winner.

Having been in hibernation since the end of 2005, the show they called “Comedy History” returned in 2007 to win the Fringe Report Award for Best Encourager Of New Talent, thanks in a very great partto new producers Declan Hill & Simon Wright, who will be producing the new 2008 season too.

Interested writers and performers jump on board now, it’s all about to kick off again.


Well I’m interested. It’s like Gladiators but instead of hitting each other with big sticks, contenders go head to head with situations that lead to hilarious consequences.

…although the thought of writers hitting each other with big sticks does have its appeal.

The deadline is August the 15th.


I guess we’d file these under “words for things I didn’t know there were words for”. Comedy writers’ jargon, taken from John Rogers’ excellent Kung Fu Monkey blog. It’s fairly US-centric, but the terms and, more importantly, the comedy tropes those terms describe, are incredibly useful for the aspiring writer to know.

Jargon 1: Includes “a Bono”: a place in the script that, no matter what joke you put there, it fails.

Jargon 2: Includes “laying pipe”: writing and delivering the onerous dialogue which provides backstory and the plot facts needed to support the weight of the funny (or interesting). Exposition, kids, and it ain’t fun.

Jargon 3: Includes “the idiot ball”: On a sitcom, demarks the character who’s misunderstanding of a situation or comment – and his predicate bad decisions — fuels the comedy of the episode. That character is “carrying the idiot ball” for the episode.

Jargon 4: Includes “a couplet”: Two lines of dialogue — one character speaks, another responds. Call and response, setup/punch, question/answer. Considered the basic molecule of script dialogue.

And speaking of comedy tropes, I’m currently plowing my way through all the terms listed here

Comedy Tropes

but I still can’t find the word to describe “any sitcom written by or starring Jim Davidson*”. Other than, you know, the obvious one.


*Yes, I can do topical comedy.