Wednesday 31 October 2018

Where Do Sitcom Characters Come From?

It’s a good question, especially if you’re in the business of writing and creating sitcom. A sitcom isn’t really a situation, but a place where characters interact and generally get on each other's nerves.

Situations are fairly easy to think up, including ones that haven’t really be done before. Here we go:

Oil Rig
Betting Shop
17th Century Padua
Garden Centre

That wasn’t hard, was it? But why are we in these situations? Who is there? Why are we watching? Who are the characters? And where do they come from? How do we think them up?

Way back when Dave Cohen and I started the Sitcom Geeks podcast, we talked about characters being ‘Larger than Life’, like Alf Garnett or Edina from Ab Fab. It’s still a good place to start. But the rise of single camera shows and fly-on-the-wall docs may beguile us into thinking that modern sitcom characters should be less cartoonish, more moderate and realistic. Hopefully, a few episodes of Brooklyn 99 or The Goldbergs should dispel that notion.

Here’s the thing: Beverley Goldberg is not even a fictional character. Real people are often ‘larger than life’. See also Brian Clough and Gordon Ramsay. I’ve written more about them here. But what if you’re seeking to create a character, or you don’t have an insanely protective Jewish mother to drop into your sitcom?

No problem. Just think of a comedy character. Make one up. Invent one.

But this is easier said than done. Much as writers like to think these characters can be plucked from the deepest recesses of their imaginations and dropped, fully-formed, into their sitcoms, the reality is that they can take a very long time to develop.

The way to increase your chances is to think of lots of characters.

And the way to do that is to write sketches.

On Twitter the other day, some of us were musing on the number of sitcoms that were based around characters that originally began life as a sketch. Edina from Ab Fab began as a sketch in French and Saunders. This is not an usual situation. We also noted how characters like Alan Partridge, Rab C Nesbitt, Dave Lister (Red Dwarf) began life as sketch characters. See also The Detectives, Still Game, Mr Don & Mr George, Grass and Pixelface. UK Gold's The Rebel was a cartoon strip, as was BBC Radio 4's Clare in the Community.

Let us not forget one of the greatest TV shows of all time, The Simpsons, began life as filler on The Tracey Ullman Show.

But, when one thinks about, all recent BBC1 mainstream sitcom hits have not merely come from a writer’s imagination and spun immediately into comedy gold. They all had a serious head start.

Mrs Brown began life as a radio character, before becoming books and, yes, a movie starring Anjelica Huston (yes. seriously) and then a stage show.

Mr Khan, from Citizen Khan, had appeared in BBC2’s Bellamy’s People and it’s precursor, BBC Radio 4’s Down the Line.

One might also argue that the sitcom personae of both Miranda Hart and Lee Mack had come through years of live performances, Edinburgh shows and radio sketch shows before becoming the characters in Miranda and Not Going Out.

So What Now?
Take action. Write sketches. Create characters with strong voices that will sustain comedy sketches, and are very easy for the audience to get a handle on. Who knows? One of these creations might turn into a TV sitcom in 2-15 years time (after the Hollywood movie or spoof radio show appearance).

Writing sketches is worthwhile anyway. Sketches are not only a great place for writers to learn their craft. They are also like comedy lego bricks that build bigger things like sitcoms and movies.

But here’s the bad news.

You’ll probably have to do it yourself. Make your own audio and video. Put on your own stage shows. Draw your own cartoons. TV channels, for whatever reason, have essentially turned their backs on this form of comedy. (It's usually money - and second guessing audience tastes.)

It’s a triple disaster since writers are losing out on places to learn their craft, but also to make a living to keep them in the game. And the TV landscape is being robbed of places where comedy characters are being incubated before growing into fully fledged sitcom charaters.

Tracey Ullman’s BBC1 shows are the notable exception. But let’s also remember where she got her break? In a sketch show called Three of a Kind.

Maybe the execs are just hoping lightening strikes twice and that some cheap, badly drawn insert in Tracy Ullman's show becomes a multi-billion-dollar juggernaut that runs for 26 years longer than the show it started in. Maybe it will, but that’s still only one show. BBC1 needs three or four. And ITV would like a couple.

Where will these tried and tested sitcom characters come from? I honestly don’t know. Maybe you?


Have you written a sitcom script? Would you like me to have a look and give you some notes? That can be arranged.

Or you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.