Lots of sitcom writers started out writing sketches. It’s probably the best place to start because mastering a sketch is not far away from mastering a scene. A sketch has a clear simple idea, gets you from A to B with jokes along the way and a really good joke at the end. A sitcom scene is similar. Each scene needs a clear simple idea in which a character moves the story along or faces a challenge – ideally two characters moving their stories along and having to challenge each other. And you need jokes along the way and the joke at the end.
This can be hard. But I’d like to focus, for a moment, on finishing each scene with a joke. This, in my opinion, is something a sitcom writer should always be striving to do – unless there is a very good reason. You want a feeling of completeness that the scene is over and a comic spring into the next scene – and you need a decent characterful joke to do that with, ideally.
There needs to be a very good reason for the scene to not under on a joke. Two possible exceptions would be trying to create an emotional climax that is being played for realism, in order to make the other stuff funnier. Even then, there’s often room of a little kicker. The other exception would be setting up a joke that is immediately paid off at the start of the next scene. But both of these are fairly rare. If you’ve got 12-15 scenes in a show, all but one should end on a joke. And sometimes, not even that.
This is easier said than done, but it’s always worth spending an extra few minutes on a joke for the end of the scene. And sometimes these come naturally – and often they don’t. So here are some possible to solutions to getting your scene to end with a joke:
1. Spend another ten minutes on it. Have a coffee. Walk around. Take a piece of paper and a pen and make some doodles or jot down ideas rather than staring at the script on the screen. But overall, just try harder to think of a decent line or action or comment that’s funny. Sometimes, it really is that simple.
2. Assuming you’ve spent ages on it, or this is the second or third draft and nothing’s presented itself, try changing the penultimate line and see if that sets up a different joke. If that doesn’t work, go back another few lines. Scenes are often conversational stepping stones in sitcoms. You often need to hop from one idea or line to the next, so changing the route might present new areas and ideas.
3. Look for ways to end the scene earlier. If there’s a really funny joke in the scene, is there anyway you could just cut the rest of the dialogue afterwards. Do you really need the rest of the scene? Does it advance the story? Is it funnier than that really good joke? If the answer to all these questions is ‘no’, you’ve got a punchline. End on the funny bit.
4. It may be that you cannot end on that funny line because there’s too much action, story or exposition to wade through afterwards. In which case, look for ways to move that stuff earlier so that you’re able to finish on the decent joke.
It feels like cheating, but it’s just away of shaking things up so that your mind is able to see the scene differently and break the brain deadlock . Try it. I’d be interested to hear how you get on.