How to write a sitcom and where to start

Since the sitcom I’m developing will be part of TheFilmSchool’s FREE staged screenplay reading series later this summer (August 1, at Seattle’s ACT – A Contemporary Theatre), I thought, for some reason, it would be a good exercise to document the full-on, start-to-finish process of developing a sitcom. This way I can either colossally fail or succeed — or perhaps somewhere in between — in front of the whole world. So, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Actually, this process will be similar to developing a feature-length film because some of the same rules apply; however, unlike a feature-length film — which focuses on a specific story that primarily affects a specific character at a specific, critical time of his or her life — a sitcom’s premise must stand the test of multiple episodes and multiple events occurring at multiple times that affect more than one character.

So, where to begin?

Step 1: What’s the BIG idea for your sitcom and what will make it continually funny?

I have my big idea — which I’ll reveal in later posts — and in recent weeks I’ve been brainstorming a variety of story ideas that could stem from that big idea. For example, if your idea is a comedy about folks who congregate at a neighborhood pub, what about that idea will drive numerous comedic episodes?

Tip: It starts with the characters

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This is an obvious truth for all compelling stories, whether comedies or dramas, but it’s particularly crucial for TV shows because viewers need compelling reasons to invest in a show week after week. Think about your favorite sitcoms: is it not the characters who first come to mind? And I’m not only referring to the main character; I’m referring to all of the characters — and particularly how they relate to one another, because therein lies one of the keys to comedy.

One of the great exercises from Ellen Sandler’s sitcom development workshop was creating a “character grid” that detailed how/what the characters thought of each other — as well as themselves. It’s a great tool in the character creation stage because it helps you brainstorm, and it minimizes the risk you’ll create similar characters.

Tip: Create characters with divergent views, methodologies, etc.

Characters are the key to sitcomsConsider “The Odd Couple:” Felix was neat and Oscar was sloppy, but both also had different perspectives and different ways of doing things. Wouldn’t Oscar merely rinse a dish and declare it clean, if he’d even wash one at all? And how would Felix react if he walked into a clean kitchen? Would it ever be clean enough?

Steve Kaplan’s Comedy Intensive workshop delves into the history of comedy and why “funny” is not about one-liners; comedy stems from the characters and their situations — hence, “sit com.”

Tip: Start with at least four characters

The successful sitcoms have at least four characters who appear in every episode, while some, like “Friends,” have more. So who are going to be your key characters, and which one will have more focus than the others? And what supporting characters will populate the world of your story? Be sure to include all of the characters in your grid, because even the minor characters have lives of their own before they enter a scene, and after they leave it.

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