Creating The Page: What Does It Take to Make A Sitcom?
Posted by NALIP on February 25, 2023
We are thrilled to introduce the first article of our Screenwriting series, Creating The Page! Every month you can expect to find all sorts of tips, resources, scripts, and more. As a starting point, we will begin by diving into the world of sitcoms through Evan S. Smith's book, Writing Television Sitcoms. Now, let's turn to the page!
Since the dawn of time comedy has been around driving out the most unfiltered laugh in us all. Comedy as many put it, "brings us all together" and there is so much joy found in a sitcom series that doesn't fail to be relatable, sophisticatedly funny, or just plain fun. Writers old and new can posses that same joy-bringing ability by mastering techniques tried and true. So, for those who have an idea in their head, need help starting, or are currently in the writers room in need of a refresher, here are some beginners tips we have gathered from Evan S. Smith's book, Writing Television Sitcoms. Evan S. Smith is an associate professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and has written sitcoms for studios including Paramount, MTM, and Twentieth- Century Fox.
Although some can claim comedy to be at its peak when it is spontaneous and free of thought, the truth is that comedy can be taught and practiced, hence Smith's book on creating sitcoms. The first characteristic he gives on comedy is incongruity (14). This is when you "join two dissimilar notions together" and the incongruity creates a "tension just begging for release" (14).
Incongruity= 2 dissimilar notions=tension=needed release
Yet, before one goes and explores all sorts of hilarious predicaments for an ensemble cast let's take a look at some examples. In Schitt's Creek, created by Dan Levy and Eugene Levy, a wealthy family is forced to leave behind their lavish life and retreat to a small town once purchased as a joke. In the show's premise itself we are given two dissimilar notions that will drive out all sorts of situations. In this world we can try to picture David Rose, a delicate and high-maintenance man, attempting to cattle a herd of pigs at the annual Schitt's Creek Petting Zoo. Or Moira trying to give a masterclass in acting to a room full of small town southerners, it's not going to be pretty. The incongruity tool will always set up a situation just burning for that needed release.
Want more of Schitt's Creek? Click below to read the series' pilot episode and try to see what incongruities you can find between the story's world and its characters.
Courtesy of IMDB
The truth hurts but sometimes the truth is funny. Smith further mentions in his first chapter, First Some Theory, that when a joke carries a thread of truth, one that strikes a cord with the audience, that joke will be doubly funny. "You win extra laughs for being not only amusing but also cleaver and insightful." The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, has done something audiences haven't seen before, be it on a large scale, and that's a female comedian. For those unfamiliar with the series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a series that follows the crumbling life of a 1950s housewife. In the beginning she has it all the penthouse, faithful husband, and a reputation the woman next door would kill for. Yet, little did she know that her life was filled with so many cracks that as the season moves along Maisel (Midge) slowly looses the life she held so dear.
At its heart the series is about a female comedian utilizing her crappy life and turning them into segments she can do onstage. What makes Midge so funny? She talks about the things women during this period can only think about. What woman during the late 1950s has the guts to curse in a room full of men and women, probably no one. Midge's situations: failing marriage, crappy life, and over bearing parents are problems that almost everyone can relate to. When an audience can laugh away their aggression and relate to it the joke will always hit on a deeper level. This series ties together the truth and aggression so beautifully that it is master level. The jokes and the situations all are threaded in truth and in lots of aggression and relatable jokes will always kill.
Courtesy of IMDB
Audiences familiar with the series know Gloria and her character. She's feisty, strong, and not all that great with the English language. The staff writers utilize her dominating characteristics and have Gloria give two short sentences.
Instead of having her give a whole discourse on what happened Gloria gives us less and that makes this scene all the funnier. Screenwriters should observe Modern Family's pilot script because it tethers together the world of these three families so seamlessly. It ran for 11 seasons that itself speaks volumes.
Courtesy of IMDB
Creating a series that has incongruity, truth, aggression, and brevity all either releases or increases tension. Conflict and tension that is what brings an audience in and wanting more. Over the first season of Schitt's Creek Johnny Rose has to find a way out of his current situation and that's the owner of a town in the middle of nowhere. Midge must find a way to be the comedian she naturally is gifted to be. Each member of the Modern Family in their own way attempts to do their best to be a family. The premise is what drives the story and the comedy is driven by the release and increase in tension. By including these three characteristics of comedy your script will have what it takes to make others laugh and appreciate.