This question came from @amazingmikeyc
When devising a sitcom, do you start with story, characters, or situation?
I cover this in the first main chapter of my book, Writing That Sitcom, in which I write the following:
One might assume that the trick of thinking of a new sitcom is thinking of a workplace that hasn't been done before. Thinking of an original situation in itself is hard enough to do. Since the 1950s, Britain has produced a myriad of sitcoms, set everywhere imaginable: Funeral parlours (Fun at the Funeral Parlour, Billy Liar and In Loving Memory); spaceships (Red Dwarf and Hyperdrive); vicarages (The Vicar of Dibley, Rev); hospitals (Only When I Laugh, Surgical Spirit, Doctors and Nurses). They've all been done plenty of times. And plenty more times and for longer in America.
A new situation might be appealing or ‘feel funny’, but be careful. A funny situation might sell the show, but people will watch it week after week because of the characters. 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. Sure. But it’s much funnier when the guy falling over is Del Boy, out with Trigger, trying to be a yuppy and impressing girls having said 'nice and cool'.
The characters are the key. If you can, think of characters first. Having said that, the four sitcoms I’ve created or co-created have all started by thinking of the situation first. But each time, the bulk of the development was spent working on the characters. Purely for illustration, let’s look at each of the shows, the first three of which were sitcoms for BBC Radio 4.
Think The Unthinkable
The more I thought about the show and developed the idea, the more I realised that it was about change and differing attitudes to it. 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 a mixture of 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 would probably be funny in their own right.
But ultimately, The Pits was all about the setting, not the characters. I didn't do it properly because I was over-confident, having done quite well with Think The Unthinkable (which had won Silver at the Sony Radio Awards and was on its fourth series). 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. Naughty.
In Hut 33, I really wanted to write a show about codebreakers in Bletchley Park. The obvious angle didn’t feel like it was going to be all that funny. Hut 33 was full of boffins - and therefore ‘being clever’ was not at all that remarkable. And a show full of super-smart people didn’t seem viable. (This was a few years before Big Bang Theory turned super-smart people into billions of dollars). It felt like the show had to be about something else. But what?
Through talking to my wife, who is much more interested in social history than guns and the bombs (I know. Weird), I learned that World War Two brought together people from very different social classes. Everyone saw how the other half lived. Poverty and privilege living cheek by jowl. It’s why Churchill won the war, but lost the general election that year to Attlee in a landslide. People realised that Britain had to change. Hut 33 became a microcosm of that desire for change. So the show was about class – and a potential upheaval in the class system.
Robert Bathurst played an over-educated Oxford Professor who, like many on the social scene in the 1930s, had been on very friendly terms with the likes of high- ranking Nazis like Von Ribbentrop and Rommel before war broke out. Tom Goodmall-Hill played a working-class Trotskyite from Newcastle. Gordon, played by Fergus Craig, was a 17 year-old naïve genius stuck in the middle, wishing everyone could be friends. They were forced to spend all day every day together in a cold confined space because there was a war on. Bletchley was the backdrop and playground for their stories. If it had been set in a hospital ward, Hut 33 would have been almost identical to Only When I Laugh.
Richard Hurst and I met working on Miranda. We had a few ideas for new shows, but wondered if there was anything in a show about soldiers. Nothing new there, given Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, The Phil Silvers Show (Bilko) or the truly great M*A*S*H. There had been a lot of drama and documentaries about the British Army covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but nothing comic.
Our understanding of British soldiers was that a sense of humour is extremely important, so we were interested in thinking up a show that reflected that.
A section of squaddies would be broadly similar in background and outlook – and all male – so we looked for an army unit that would bring different perspectives, backgrounds, genders and expertise together. We arrived at the idea of a bomb disposal squad because it was an inter-disciplinary unit which performed a function that was very easy to understand and show on the screen. There’s a bomb. Deal with it.
We started with the guy who does the long walk, Captain Nick Medhurst. We imagined him to be a cocksure rogue who did a job that made him irresistible to women (Okay, he’s Sam Malone, from Cheers). And then we thought of a character, Mary, who would try harder than most to resist because she’s a padre. (Okay, she’s Diane, from Cheers) And we built the rest of the team around that scenario. But the show developed from there, as the last three episodes of Series 3 contained neither Nick or Mary – because the show is ultimately about something: why soldiers love being soldiers.
A situation can be a good starting point. It can be the reason your characters are together. It can inform the underlying philosophy or point of the show. But a sitcom is not a comedy about the situation. It’s about the characters.