A while ago, I was asked to write a slightly tongue-in-cheek article about the ingredients of a successful sitcom. The result of that is here. In short, a successful sitcoms needs characters, conflict, confinement and catastrophe. Crucial to success is also casting. And a catchphrase is nice too, if you can bear it.
I'm happy to stand by this. It is true. And it's possible to have a perfectly good and successful sitcom with those ingredients.
But a great sitcom has another ingredient. It's a certain je ne sais quoi. Or a certain something, as the French say. The show needs a philosophy, an attitude or a stance. It needs to capture something about the human condition, or the times in which we live. These are the shows we still want to watch on Dave or UK Gold. The hairstyles may date, and the cultural reference points change, but the show says something.
I've been thinking about this recently as I've been doodling on a few new ideas for sitcoms, and thinking of characters that seem interesting and funny, and scenarios and situations that feel fresh and fertile. But I keep asking myself the question 'So what?' It's a good question to keep asking yourself because somewhere along the line, someone is going to ask you that question - a comedy executive or a commissioner. They ask questions like 'Why would I watch this show?' or 'What's this show really about?' There's no point getting cross or rolling your eyes. They may not know why they're asking that question. They may have read in a manual that it's a good question to ask that sounds plausible. Or they may realise that good shows are about something.
The Office was about funny characters, and had good stories, conflict, confinement and all that. It was very recognisable and felt fresh. But it felt like it was about something. About being trapped in a dead-end job and feeling powerless to do anything about it. Or about the lunatics surrounding you. Tim (Martin Freeman) was really the eye of the story and one sensed that he could see his life and chance of happiness slipping through his fingers. It infused every episode. And when Tim did something about it, and finally said something to Dawn, and David Brent himself seemed to change after the love of a good women, the show was, essentially, over.
If you've only got jokes, you ride or fall by every joke. And when the jokes misfire, as they will surely do now and then, the audience may realise there's nothing underneath, and that the whole thing is artifice. They already know it is, and are willing to suspend their disbelief - because a really good show is about more than characters and jokes. Look at the great sitcoms, and you'll see they're not just confined characters coping with catastrophes: Only Fools and Horses, Yes Minister, The Good Life, Steptoe, One Foot in the Grave, Dad's Army, Reggie Perrin. The list goes on and on. Great shows that said something, and still say somthing.
Friends isn't about Friends
One of the most successful shows of recent times is Friends, which is a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right. It's about six friends. That's it. Well, not quite. The creators of the show spotted there was a strange post-college, pre-family time of life when twenty-somethings relied on friends and hung out with each other, and were wanting to form close-knit groups that functioned like families. They were right. The show captures that, without ever saying it. They also thought that Monica and Joey would be the 'hot couple' for the show, which shows they didn't get everything right.
But you don't need to get everything right at first. You start with a fairly good idea of where the show is and what it's about, and with a bit of luck, an open mind, a good cast and following wind, you might just make a great show.
It is clearly absurd to make a leap to this largely ignored radio sitcom what I wrote, but I can only speak from experience. When I had the idea of setting a sitcom in Bletchley Park during World War Two, it would have been easy to have written a show about boffin odd-balls like Alan Turing doing daft things. Like a 1940s Big Bang Theory. But I felt that would become fairly tiresome fairly soon. And so I wondered about other themes that emerged during World War Two - and remembered my wife telling me that one of the main reasons for social reform after the war was how our nation were forced to work alongside each other, rich alongside poor, elites alongside outcasts. And both sides were pretty appalled.
And so I wondered whether throwing two characters together from different ends of the spectrum could work. Hey presto, we have a posh, highly-educated, elitist Oxford Professor (Robert Bathurst), and a self-taught, working class, Marxist Geordie (Tom Goodman-Hill) Both saw the world through completely different eyes. And both were right. And both were wrong. And it made writing the show a lot easier than writing Enigma jokes. After all, did you hear the one about the German and the Enigma Machine? Me neither.