The Simpsons to Brooklyn 99 - how to make the perfect sitcom
Situational Comedies, we’re going to go out on a limb and say, have never been better. But is the formula for getting them right art, or…science?
We are, you’re almost certainly sick of being told, in a golden age of TV drama. Swedish procedural thrillers and intricately-plotted hour-long grimfests probably make up the bulk of your Netflix queue, and if you haven’t seen Succession yet, well, you might as well not even bother going back to work until you’ve rectified that, buddy.
But what of the humble sitcom? Scratch that, what of the glorious sitcom, TV’s finest creation, demanding the impossible task of packing character, plot and funnies into 20-something minutes, week after week, for up to a decade?
Sitcoms, let’s be honest, are in their own Elysian era, mercilessly shorn of fluff and stuffed to the gills with one-liners like hilarious foie gras, then sent to do battle across your on-demand services until only the best remain. The good ones are really, really good, is what we’re saying, and there’s method to the mirth – every genuine banger gets the same elements right.
But what is that expertly measured, almost scientific formula? Grab a seat, and allow us to explain.
At heart, most comedies are about people having a terrible (at least temporarily) time. Because of this, it helps if they’re stuck together for some reason – otherwise, they’d just leave. Classic British sitcoms like Porridge (prison), Red Dwarf (spaceship) and the original The Office (uh, office) smash a bunch of disparate characters together and then force them into challenging situations, leading to the second ‘C’ of good comedy: conflict.
“A scene with just jokes is not a scene,” says BBC comedy writer James Cary. “You have to ask yourself – what are the characters trying to do? What goes wrong? Sometimes, a scene can contain some big reveal – but exactly how does it change things, and what are the characters going to do as a result? Similarly, a scene where the hero fails isn’t as dynamic as having the failure create new problems, or one where the problem’s fixed but a bigger, fresher problem arises.”
Brooklyn 99 is easily the uncontested king of conflict: every episode features two or three plotlines involving problems that get resolved in a way that makes everything worse, then they have to be solved again.
Laughs Per Minute > Jokes Per Page
The modern sitcom is a streamlined beast, shorn of laugh tracks and other fripperies to interrupt the flow, and, yes, they pack the jokes in. Consider the golden era of The Simpsons, Michael’s rambling monologues in The Office (US) or the way 30 Rock milks its dialogue and reactions for gags – in 2018, if you aren’t bursting at the seams with gags, it’s tempting to think that someone’s going to switch over (It’s Always Sunny, incidentally, pushes this even further by having overlapping dialogue streams, nudging itself straight through the absolute limit of theoretical hilarity).
But does this mean that every sitcom should aim for as many gags as possible? Well, no: while 30 Rock and Brooklyn 99 average 6-7 jokes a minute, the more ponderous likes of Frasier and Curb Your Enthusiasm only include three or four, keeping audiences hanging on for payoffs that might not come until the end of an episode.
Mainstream favourites like Friends and The Big Bang Theory tend to hover around the 5-6 JPM mark – suggesting that, if you’re aiming for genuine crossover appeal, you can’t give audiences too much to think about – but, most importantly of all, there’s no sense in writing a whole bunch of jokes that just aren’t funny. You’re better off with one big laugh than a bunch of missed punchlines – and yes, season 30(!) of The Simpsons, we’re looking at you.
Character Count = Difficulty Of Plotting
Fawlty Towers has four characters who get involved in every episode. Friends has six (obviously), Arrested Development has nine, and Parks and Recreation has anywhere from eight to twelve, depending on the season. What’s the perfect number? There isn’t really one. “The upside of a high character count is that you have a lot of different attitudes to any given situation – and so lots of different types of joke, and you don’t need many guest parts, because lots of roles can be filled by regulars” says Cary.
“The downside is making sure that everyone has lines and jokes and a satisfying story that gets resolved in 20 minutes.” Keeping focused means paying attention to one key character (like Leslie Knope or Jake Peralta) or relationship (like Liz and Jack from 30 Rock).
“There are exceptions, of course,” says Jake. “One would be Modern Family, which has a large cast and seems to split its focus equally between the three family units with no clear ‘star’ or ‘hero.” The Simpsons does the same, although it mostly focused on Bart (and then quickly shifted to Homer) in early episodes. “Whatever you decide, however many characters you end up with, you need to make sure that all your characters have clear, contrasting voices and unique perspectives,” says Cary.
“If they are all given the same task, they should all instinctively go about it in completely different ways. When some news breaks, they all react differently, and end up in conflict.” Then: hilarity!
Relability = Longevity
Ever used the phrase ‘double dip’ or accused someone of ‘re-gifting’ or being a ‘close talker’? You probably got it from Seinfeld.
“Written with a stand-up comic’s eye, Seinfeld has transcended the era it was produced in primarily because, like many classics, it focused on what was timeless about timely events,” explains Ryan Holiday, author of Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts. Compare and contrast with Family Guy’s here-then-gone pop-culture references, or the guest cameos that dominate the later seasons of The Simpsons. Relatable comedy focuses on things that don’t change.
This is where comedy (sort of) overlaps with drama: the worse the character’s predicament, the more watchable the show. Yes, ultimately, almost everyone wants to see Chandler and Phoebe (not Ross) bumble through their mishaps eventually, but before that happens, things need to get worse, and worse, and worse. “In life we avoid conflict, but in fiction we seek it,” explains author and television writer Chuck Wendig.
“Your tale is fueled by tension, conflict, urgency.” This happens in every good sitcom – the tension between characters, and the problems they cause each other, is what makes for a compelling story. Otherwise, it’s just a load of one-liners.
…And One is the magic number (of fools)
Do you need a fool in a successful sitcom? Here’s a better question, genius: maybe you’re a fool for asking.
Anyway, before you untangle that last sentence, please recall that every good sitcom of the last three decades has one iron-clad bozo, a dyed-in-the-wool nincompoop who can get things wrong, say stupid things, or bring their own oafish logic to bear on any situation. “Fools can be useful,” says Cary. “Given that they often don’t understand what’s going on, someone can explain the plot to them so everyone, including the audience, are clear on what’s happening, and what needs to happen next.”
The main problem is that they aren’t always deep or sympathetic enough to maintain an audience’s interest as a central character, and that’s why TV’s most memorable dimwits often evolve from season to season, like Seinfeld’s Kramer, Joey from Friends or even Homer from The Simpsons – adding charm, cunning or occasional strokes of genius to their general cloddishness.
Oh, and the final reason to include an outright doofus? To shake things up and act as a wildcard, as explicitly explained when The Gang Solves The Gas Crisis in Always Sunny.