I was lucky enough to go to the Sitcom Mission Grand Finale earlier this week. All five finalists showed flashes of comedy-writing talent but one sitcom (Thunderer) was head and shoulders above the rest. It got me asking, why? What did they do right that others didn’t?
Of course the obvious answer is, it was funny – every line was a gag, or at the very least the set-up for a gag. But more than that, it was brilliantly crafted and the characters were pitched spot on. Many of the pieces that night fell down because the characters were either so ordinary as to be impossible to laugh at or so big and monstrous that they didn’t feel real. Great sitcom characters sit somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. They are almost always monstrous and ridiculous but only every slightly so. Get it right and you’ve got Miranda, get it wrong and you’ve got Eric Slatt from Chalk (sorry Steven Moffat and David Bamber).
We want to believe that our sitcom characters could exist in the real world, could actually get by and function. They should be characters we recognise, although never as ourselves, only ever as other people we know – ask any comedy writer and they’ll tell you that the people they’ve based characters on never recognised themselves! But if they are too ordinary they just aren’t funny. They need to be slightly larger than life (David Brent, Basil Fawlty, Hyacinth Bucket, Father Jack or Maurice Moss) with traits that we recognise but that are exaggerated for comic effect.
I recently observed at a great sit-com workshop led by Green Green Grass writer Keith R Lindsay. Everyone loved creating new comedy characters but to begin with no-one was thinking big enough, their characters were believable but just too nice. It took the group a while to get the hang of just how exaggerated the characters needed to be in order to get any comedy out of them.
Of course, there will always be the more understated comedy styles, exemplified currently by the brilliant Outnumbered, but for a studio sit-com the characters need to be exaggerated for comic effect and the gags need to come thick and fast.
So when you’re creating your comedy character make sure you’ve pitched them just right so we want to spend time in their company, but just not too much time or they’d drive us mad!