Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Readers' Qs - Does every sitcom need an idiot?

This question comes from @andyrileyish, aka Andy Riley, an extremely experienced sitcom writer (Black Books, Hyperdrive, The Great Outdoors), a thoroughly nice man, and writer of a new series of children’s book called King Flashypants. He was also a guest with his writing partner, Kevin Cecil, on The Sitcom Geeks Podcast here.

The question presupposes that sitcoms normally benefit from idiots – and this is true. As a rule, I highly recommend any one setting up a sitcom should find room for an idiot.

Why? A few reasons:

1. Idiots are funny. They get the wrong end of the stick, stay stupid stuff and are basically joke machines. They can also say the unsayable, or bring their own weird logic to bear on a situation.

2. Idiots are useful. Given they often don’t understand what’s going on, someone can explain the plot to them so everyone, including the audience, are clear on what’s happening, and what needs to happen next.

3. Idiots are wildcards. They are often ‘off-the-wall’ in what they do, and so can be a very useful for turning plots on their heads, or throwing a spanner in the works for your protagonists.

The downsides of idiots is that they can sometimes feel insufficiently deep or interesting to make frontline characters, especially at first, but this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, it shouldn’t be.
Rocket (Scott Hoatson)
from Bluestone 42

In writing Bluestone 42, our ‘idiot’ was Rocket, a breathtakingly dimwitted squaddie with a very sunny disposition. He was initially a bit of a foil for Mac, who was filthy and didn’t filter anything he said. But as the series went on, we found that Rocket was every bit as funny and interesting. Rocket’s stupidity tipped over into naivety - which is a nice trait for young man with a gun - and we gave him a love of animals too, all of which also produced some nice plots. And a love of food.

Watch the first few episodes of Seinfeld and Kramer is a dimwit, but his character really takes off when the show played up how convinced that Kramer was that he was, in fact, smarter than everyone else. Soon Kramer’s not so much an amusingly irritating neighbour, but a proactive character who leads Jerry, George and Elaine into all kinds of ludicrous situations in which his schemes always sound just sensible enough to succeed at the start, but which spiral out of control.

Nick Harper (Kris Marshall) from My Family
Being merely stupid, then, is rarely enough for a serviceable useful idiot. Joey in Friends is stupid, but he’s also good-looking, shallow and great at getting women. Phoebe is an idiot of sorts, but she’s more of an alternative weirdo. That can work, but can be a bit predictable. Nick (Kris Marshall) in My Family was an idiot, but he was something of an optimist and charmer who always landed on his feet and was a key to the early success of that show.

Tyler, George & Arnie
I used to write episodes of My Hero which had a brilliant idiot called Tyler. What was great about him was that he was the only human in the show apart from Janet who knew that George Sunday was an alien from Ultron and the superhero Thermoman. He was as mad as you like, so no-one listened to him when he gave the game away, and in one respect, he was more sane than anyone. In one episode I wrote, he was successfully defused a nuclear bomb. Because he happened to know the code. And it seemed plausible.

But the question is hand is “Does every sitcom need an idiot?” When I read that question, the word ‘need’ jumps out. So the question is whether you have to have an idiot?

I suspect not, but I’m trying to think of really good sitcom that doesn’t have some kind of idiot, or at least a character that functions as one at the start:

Cheers had Cliff. Frasier had Daphne Moon, (who began life as a quirky English woman with a ‘spiritual’ side and then came to the fore). Bilko had Doberman. Fawlty Towers had Manuel. Blackadder (Series 2-4, at least) had Baldrick. Dad’s Army had the young and na├»ve Pike (and Jones?). Yes, Prime Minister had the comparatively innocent Bernard. M*A*S*H had Klinger, who was obviously just pretending to be mad. One Foot in the Grave has Mrs Warboys – and the weird neighbour with his mother upstairs.

I suppose there’s no room for an idiot in Steptoe and Son, but then maybe they’re both idiots. In a way, all sitcom characters are, depending on how you definite idiocy. Your protagonist might be defined as an idiot given their lack of self-awareness about their inability to do the task they have set themselves – like David Brent or Captain Mainwairing or Hancock.

So, “Does every sitcom need an idiot?” My official answer is: Probably.

Thanks for you questions, Andy. Keep ‘em coming, everyone.

There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


2 comments:

  1. Great stuff - apart from saying Manual is an idiot. He isn't.

    Manuel is enthusiastic, loyal, kind, determined and hard-working. The problem he faces is due to the language barrier and this is because Basil is too lazy to teach him and too cheap to hire someone who can speak English in the first place. The joke is on Basil.

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    1. good point. He's not technically an idiot. Quite right. He is loyal and kind etc, like many sitcom idiots. And I love how it backfires on Basil - but I think he still functions as an idiot, but perhaps in a spanish hotel, it would be a different series. Wow. Just thought of an idea for a show/spin-off. MANUEL!

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