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Monday, October 21, 2002

The Rules of Comedy

So you want to write a radical situation comedy? It’s got to be ground-breaking and edgy with new settings and scenarios, unlike anything seen before. Father Ted, Seinfeld and Will and Grace all rolled into one.

In that case, you just have to follow the rules. You might think comedy is rebellious, but literary critics will tell you that it’s inherently conservative - it seems like normal customs will be overturned, but at the end of the piece, everything is resolved and things go back to the way they were before.

TV sitcoms show this in their episodic structure - compare them to drama series and see how little actually happens in the long-term plots on the comedies. It’s taken seven seasons for two of the Friends characters to get married.

But they also show their conservatism in the relationships of the main characters. Despite all superficial differences, there’s a basic template that most sitcoms follow, and it’s all about family. Follow this template, and you’ll not go too far wrong.

All you need are a husband and wife, a child and a mad relation. Different sitcoms dress these conventions up in different ways, but that doesn’t change the basic relationships between the characters.

The husband is often the centre of the piece - a reasonably stable character, who reacts to the weirdnesses around him. The audience identifies most with him, and his desire to live a normal life.

The wife is more animated, with set opinions and a more expansive attitude to life. The child is stupid but well-meaning, and the mad relative tends to upset the regular life of the family.

Will and Grace follows this convention perfectly. Will is (if you’ll excuse the phrase) the straight man, Grace his slightly wayward wife. Jack is the stupid child who is good-natured but dumb, while Karen is the mad relative who drinks like a fish and has a foul mouth.

Father Ted also slots right into this. No prizes for identifying Ted and Mrs Doyle as the husband and wife, with Dougal as the child and Father Jack as the mad one.

Seinfeld follows the pattern perfectly as well - Jerry as the straight man, around whom the drama revolves, Elaine his spunky wife. George is the dolt, and Kramer the mad one.

Attentive readers will point out that in none of these examples are the husband and wife actually married, or the child even a child. That’s true, but it doesn?t affect the shape of the drama. Older sitcoms have the characters as really married - Keeping Up Appearances for example - but this tends to limit the flexibility possible.

Not that every show rigorously follows this pattern. Perhaps the longevity of Friends can be put down to the flexibility of the roles among the six characters. By turns Joey and Phoebe can be the children or the mad ones, while at times Ross and Rachel, then Chandler and Monica have been the marrieds.

This set of relationship acts as the framework over which you can build the comedy. You still need to add that infernally hard combination of intertwining plots, character, one-liners and catch-phrases. All in a breezy 18 minutes. So when you’re working on the pilot for your kick-ass new comedy, start by keeping it in the family.

Posted in • Square EyesTelevision