Thursday 27 September 2012

The Situation

Simon Dunn's helpful and pithy blogpost about settings for sitcom got me thinking. I whole heartedly agree with it. Situation comedies are not about situations but characters. In a way, sitcom is bad title for the genre, since they should be called char-coms.

It's easy to see how the term 'sitcom' arose given that they have, until recently,  been filmed on a few sets, usually in front of audiences and so the situation the most striking thing about them has been the fact they are confined to one workplace or one home or one situation. And therefore it's easy to assume that the trick of thinking of a new sitcom is thinking of a workplace that hasn't been done before.

That in itself is hard enough to do. Since the 1950s, Britain has produced a millennium of sitcoms, set  everywhere imaginable. Funeral parlours (remember Fun at the Funeral Parlour - and In Loving Mermory with Thora Hird? No? Try here) and bus stations, factories and vicarages - they've all been done plenty of times.

Furthermore, one might pin ones hopes on the setting itself being funny. It rarely is. And it if starts off funny, it will quickly fade because we're drawn to people and stories, not situations. The best jokes are normally funny because of the character and the story, as well as the situation. Falling over is funny. But Del Boy, out with trigger, trying to be a yuppy and impress girls having said 'nice and cool', falling over is very funny.

And yet...
And yet it's only fair to issue a caveat. I've had three different sitcoms of my own on the radio - Think The Unthinkable, The Pits and Hut 33. For all three, I thought of the situation first. Think the Unthinkable was about Management Consultants, The Pits was set in the British Opera Company and Hut 33 was set at Bletchley Park during World War Two.

The Pits has largely been ignored and forgotten and I probably know why - it wasn't really about anything. Or at least, it was about professional musicians. It was some funny-ish characters doing funny-ish things with funny-ish lines. The show was all about the setting, not the characters. I didn't do it properly because I was overconfident having done quite well with Think The Unthinkable. I knew how to write scenes and jokes and stories, but I hadn't figured out the characters and the central idea behind the show.

With Think the Unthinkable, the starting point was realising I wanted to write a show about people of my own age and no business experience telling people twice their age what they were doing wrong. In the end, the show was about change. My original three main characters were all happy about change - in their own different ways and they insisted on inflicting this on other people who were more resistant, for good and bad reasons. I worked really hard on getting to know my characters inside out before I worked out the storylines, even though I knew the storylines should be funny in their own right

With Hut 33, I wanted to write a show about codebreakers in Bletchley Park, but the obvious angle wasn't going to be all that funny. Hut 33 was full of boffins - and therefore 'being clever' was not at all that remarkable. It was a given. So the show had to be about something else - and in the end it was about class. An over-educated Oxford Professor and a inverse snob from Newcastle are forced to send all day every day together because there's a war on. Bletchley was the backdrop and playground for their stories. (If it had been set in a hospital, it would have essentially identical to Only When I Laugh)

A setting can be a good starting point, then. But you really need to know what your show is about and why your characters are there, and when you've answered all those questions, there's a chance you might have something.

If you want to be in a room to talk about this more, you could do that with Dave Cohen and myself at the second of these writing days in November.


  1. The opening paragraph seems to confuse situation and location.

    Isn't this whole post about how the location is not the situation? The situation is what is happening at the location.

    Sometimes the location gives part of the situation as there are already expectations of characters being forced to get along - workers can't all chose their colleagues and no-one chooses their family.

    Bletchley Park is a location - being forced together with someone you'd rather not be with (due to pressures of war) is a basic situation. And no doubt each episode puts the characters in a more unusual situation as the seed for that episodes' plot.

    Sitcom is seeing how the characters react in a situation, but the situation (not location) is as essential as the characters.

    But heck - whadda I know? Maybe I've just misread the whole thing...

  2. Interesting read, and advice that that will no doubt be useful for any type of writing.

  3. Hey great blog, glad I found it. I aspire to write a sitcom one day. A friend and I had a few drafts of something promising, but along came The Inbetweeners which was basically the same thing! For now I am focusing on short stories on my blog.