Comedy Writing for the TV Sitcom
What is a sitcom? One of the most popular forms of comedy writing is the sitcom, also known as the situation comedy. It is made for TV. A typical sitcom includes a recurring setting, recurring characters, and a recurring situation, such as a family (All in the Family), friends (Friends), or workplace (M*A*S*H).
A typical episode for a sitcom is 30 minutes long. Each episode has a storyline that is usually resolved at the end of the episode. Most sitcoms are performed on a set in front of a live studio audience.
The key to a successful sitcom is variety. Storylines, characters, and settings need to be authentic. Despite the need for variety, most comedy is based on the following setups: Family aggression, workplace aggression, mistaken assumptions, intrusions, heartbreak, moral and ethical conflicts, sympathy for the disadvantaged, physical mishaps, something of value, or failure to cope.
The key to a successful sitcom is also character-driven humour, such as an amusing persona or shtick, memorable character names, slapstick, farce, and screwball comedy.
According to Comedy Writing Secrets, a bestselling book that explains how to write comedy, more than 65% of the sitcom’s time is taken up with serious situations, which are highlighted with comic relief. In fact, most sitcoms are based on realistic situations that are exaggerated. For instance, 30 Rock takes place in an office, M*A*S*H takes place during the war, The Mary Tyler Moore Show takes place in an office, All in the Family takes place in the home of Archie Bunker.
Since the 1950s, after the birth of TV, there have been many successful sitcoms, many of which are still popular today. Here is a list of the most of the popular sitcoms:
Popular sitcoms in the 50s were:
- I Love Lucy
- The Honeymooners
Popular sitcoms in the 60s were the following:
- The Adam’s Family
- Gilligan’s Island
- The Beverly Hillbillies
- The Munsters
- Get Smart
Popular sitcoms in the 70’s were the following:
- The Brady Bunch
- All in the Family
- The Jeffersons
- The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Popular sitcoms in the 80’s were the following:
- The Cosby Show
- Married with Children
- Who’s the Boss?
- Growing Pains
Popular sitcoms of the 90’s were the following:
- South Park
- The Simpsons
- King of the Hill
Popular sitcoms of present day include:
- The Office
- 30 Rock
Writing a Sitcom
To succeed as a writer, the sitcom must satisfy the networks, actors, sponsors, and viewing public. According to Comedy Writing Secrets, the standard salary for a writer is $25,000. But a writer can earn more from TV reruns, which generate residual payments. Given the fact that network TV produces most of the sitcoms, the writing opportunities are limited. Despite the limited opportunities, many aspiring writers dream of writing comedy for a sitcom.
If you are one of these people, here are a few suggestions on how you can learn how to write comedy for a sitcom:
- Watch great TV comedy to learn the techniques. For instance, watch reruns of “I Love Lucy”, “M*A*S*H, and “Friends.” Watch as many episodes as you can. Make note of the storyline, character development and names of characters, sets, jokes, one-liners, exaggeration, and running gags. Understand what makes you laugh.
- Enrol in a course. A good course can teach you how to write a script, copyright your work, and market your work.
- Learn the basics of dramatic writing. You need to learn how to tell a story. A typical story includes an exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution.
- Learn how to write dialogue. Much of the humour in a sitcom is based on what characters say, their dialogue. So, learn how to write funny dialogue.
- Learn the techniques of writing comedy. You need to learn how to write a one-liner, a joke, and use exaggeration to make people laugh. Learn as much as you can about physical comedy. Learn the script format for writing a pilot for a sitcom.
- Write a spec script for sitcom pilot. Include the storyline. List the characters and provide a brief description. Describe the setting. List the potential episodes. Create interesting characters and memorable names. Use the correct script format. Write the pilot that is authentic and funny.
- Copyright your work. After you write the pilot, be sure you copyright it. Otherwise, anybody can steal your ideas and make them their own.
- Market your script. If you want to submit a script for a show in production, check out The Daily Variety (www.variety.com) and The Hollywood Reporter (www.hollywoodreporter.com) Both of these websites list shows in production and the names of producers to contact for script submissions. If you wish to send a script for a new sitcom, you need to contact an agent. You can do this through the Writers Guild of America (www.wga.org )
Resources for Writing a Sitcom
Here are three books that you should read to help you write for a sitcom:
- Writing Television Comedy by Jerry Rannow
- Successful Sitcom Writing by Jurgen Wolff
- Writing Television Sitcoms by Evan S. Smith
If you want to write comedy for a sitcom, you need to discover an interesting idea, master the script writing format, use the effective humour writing techniques, write a spec script that is funny and original, copyright your script, and market your work to those who are connected to TV.