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Plot Construction # 3: The "ComSit"

Just as I have had a surge in TV drama series at Bang2write, I’ve noticed an increase in spec sitcoms the last couple of years: ie. I got none until about eighteen months or so ago. Whilst I do not get as many as TV dramas, there is still a significant amount of spec sitcoms doing the rounds now it seems and they too appear to have a similar problem uniting them.

First off however, let’s have a look at the situation comedy. Unlike the TV drama series where a profession, job or specific way of life often brings the characters together (CSI, House, Waking The Dead, etc), it seems the situation comedy is what I might term more “every day” in terms of the scenario that kicks everything off. For every Fawlty Towers or ‘Allo ‘Allo where the machinations of the plot revolve directly around the running of a business (or in the case of comedies like Green Wing or M*A*S*H, the running of a hospital or in Father Ted’s case, a vicarage), there’s many others (bad and good) like The Simpsons, Carrie and Barry, Family Guy, All About Me, Frasier, Roseanne, The Good Life, The Upper Hand, Will & Grace, Gimme Gimme Gimme, Game On, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Mad About Alice, One Foot In Grave, After You Were Gone, Keeping Up Appearances, The Cosby Show, Bottom, The Living Colour, Steptoe and Son, Men Behaving Badly, Rising Damp, Spaced, Peep Show, Even Stevens and My Family that revolve around well, families (or in some cases, relationships between husband and wife or flat/work mates) and how dysfunctional these relationships are.

In other words, the scenario that kicks off the plot is *usually* (not always) “ordinary”, but the actual plot itself is EXTRAORDINARY. Even in those less family-orientated sitcoms, we can still relate to what’s going on: who hasn’t stayed in a crappy guest house like Fawlty Towers or worked in an Office and had a boss or colleague a bit like David Brent? Whilst there ARE sitcoms like ‘Allo ‘Allo, Goodnight Sweetheart or Red Dwarf that draw on the historical, supernatural or on science fiction, they still usually draw on things we have experience of yet again – relationships. It’s the same with sitcoms like Cheers, Dear John, Porridge and Dad’s Army where the characters aren’t *technically* related, yet they are still a family (and again, a dysfunctional one at that).

So we have an “ordinary” premise, one we can relate to, to start – and then the “extraordinary” is injected and that’s when the madness and comedy rears its head. Things that happen in sitcom DON’T generally happen in so-called “real life”. We might all know a cantankerous old git like Victor Meldrew, but in real life all he is is a horrid old man who will occasionally leave his house and shout at your children when they play too close to his garden. In the sitcom however, he morphs from being a PASSIVE character into an ACTIVE one: he sets up what will happen to him. I always remember the episode of One Foot In The Grave for example where he tells the delivery man to put his wife’s new yukka plant “in the downstairs toilet.” Moments later, we’re treated to his catchphrase “I don’t believe it!” when he sees the delivery man has actually planted that yukka IN the actual toilet bowl.

It seems to me that plotting in the sitcom is all about set up and pay off: the character does one thing that means another thing happens – and the end result is nearly always something BAD (literal or metaphorical) that they REALLY didn’t want to happen. Sometimes the comedy is farcical, other times ironic, slapstick, witty, or returns to childish word games, associations or the plain daft, “good for a laugh” moments like this:

MARGE: I’m not going to let you weasel out of this.
HOMER: But Marge! Weaselling out of stuff is what separates man from the beasts… Except maybe the weasel.

In the most skilful comedy, I think it’s all these things, in a type of chain reaction: one thing after another happens because of something the protagonist has MADE happen in the offset – usually all bad – which ensures the climax of the episode spells relative doom (whatever that means) for all involved in whatever has happened that week (though crucially not so MUCH doom that the characters can’t return to the status quo for the following week’s episode). We laugh at those less fortunate than ourselves, as the ol’ adage goes.

Looking at the structure of the sitcom then, whether US or UK (I’m afraid I haven’t watched many from other countries, soz), they appear very similar in that most of the time they have the standard two story strands. There appears to be a PLOT A which incorporates that all-important “story of the week”, a specific issue or problem usually, though sometimes it’s a big event where it’s said that everything has to GO PERFECTLY (though we know full well it won’t).

From Plot A we usually are treated to a PLOT B – unsurprising you might think, though this is where it differs from the TV series it seems, for usually Plot B has no serial element AND usually it’s a very small issue or problem that usually (not always) JOINS UP with Plot A at the end (or towards the end) of the episode for that “final laugh”. Think My Family here, in the episode where Susan and Nick audition for parts in the nativity play (Plot A). Of course, the audition goes terribly and much hilarity ensues. In Plot B then, Ben, a dentist, has toothache. Rather than go to his own dentist, he decides he will extract the tooth himself. Of course it all goes horribly wrong and he ends up tying a string round his tooth and connecting it to the doorknob of the kitchen, which Susan and Nick duly open having returned home from their disastrous audition… Only for THAT to go wrong as well and they smack Ben in the face with the door – knocking out the WRONG tooth. Ouch. End of episode as Ben tries to throttle them both.

It’s worth mentioning at this juncture the addition of the “slow burn narrative” element that US sitcoms can have and UK sitcoms generally don’t – the will they/won’t they of Ross and Rachel in Friends or Niles and Daphne in Frasier, etc – seem again to be down to those longer runs American shows have and the fact they need to effectively double content. Unless of course you count elements like pregnancies in UK shows which obviously have to run more than one episode (I don’t). I’m not sure whether you would call these slow burn elements a strand in themselves since they so often form part of EITHER Plot A or or Plot B in any given week – the whole “We were on a break!” thing a case in point re: Ross’ infidelity for example.

Anyway. The fact that Plot B is so wholly subordinate to Plot A in the sitcom and that Plot A & B *can* join up together means that sometimes a sitcom can *appear* to only have one story strand, when in fact it has two. It’s this I think that is why so many spec sitcoms end up what I call “static”. In other words, the protagonist is placed very firmly in the middle of whatever story in these specs, yet everyone else revolves around them. Very often this happens LITERALLY: a main character will be indisposed in some way (often a broken leg) and people will run in and out saying funny (or not so funny) lines. There won’t be any real “story of the week” to speak of, so no real focus to the episode; other characters will seem quite two dimensional since they feel like set ups for the protagonist to say something amusing. It’s like the scribes have considered the COMEDY first and the SITUATION second, whereas I think there’s a reason why it’s called A SITCOM and not a COMSIT.

So, if you’re attempting a sitcom, it’s not the comedy you need to really concentrate on in the first instance I reckon; there’s lots of talented comedy writers out there who can write fantastic dialogue and amusing retorts. But there AREN’T so many talented comedy writers out there who can pull out the bag a SITUATION people can relate to AND the writer can make EXTRAORDINARY plot-wise, before adding the comedy itself.

Whatever you do though, make your sitcom about RELATIONSHIPS, not a professional case/mission/problem/dilemma – else you might as well write TV drama I think.

What about you?

NEXT: Mini Series and Serials

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11 thoughts on “Plot Construction # 3: The "ComSit"”

  1. sitcoms like ‘Allo ‘Allo, Goodnight Sweetheart or Red Dwarf that draw on the historical, supernatural or on science fiction

    ‘Allo ‘Allo draws on historical elements? No it doesn’t.

    ‘Allo ‘Allo was just a stoopid, lame parody of the marvellous Secret Army. It’s just neither David Croft nor Jeremy Lloyd have the balls to admit it.

    Any respect for them… bye-bye!

  2. Sorry GD – my mistake: I thought, ‘Allo, Allo, being set in WW2, made it historical since WW2 was an historical event? Silly me.

    ; )

  3. Secret Army was set during the Second World War and was based on actual events.

    ‘Allo, ‘Allo nicked the idea and recycled the same useless rotten gags again and again and again.

    Secret Army draws on the historical.

    ‘Allo, ‘Allo lazily draws on the earlier drama.

  4. I am unaware of Secret Army so will take your word for it GD (I know, I know: sacrilege! Kill all thopse under 30!)

    My actual point was sitcoms LIKE ‘Allo, ‘Allo, Goodnight Sweetheart etc have a BACKDROP of the past (or in case like Red Dwarf, the future) in comparison to MOST sitcoms that are set very definitively in the so-called present.

  5. I think your assessment is pretty good Lucy, though my pedantic mind throws up the idea of Seinfeld as pretty much an exception to many rules; arguably about ‘nothing’, it usually had several plotlines which would overlap and converge – if you plotted them as lines on a chart, it’d look like a snakes’ orgy, I suspect. And of course this kind of multi-strand plotting is still seen in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the offspring of Seinfeld.
    I was talking to a friend the other day, and we thought it was telling that the writers of Coupling and One Foot In The Grave had gone on to write well-received and well-structured ‘straight(er) drama’ in the forms of Dr Who and Jonathan Creek. I wondered if the discipline and tight plotting necessary for a farce-style comedy is of itself good practice for writing drama with a mystery and need for gradual pay-off and revelations… just a thought.

  6. It’s a good observation John; I think farce is REALLY hard to pull off, so it would seem sensible to suppose that it is a good training ground structure-wise.

    I never really watched Seinfeld unfortunately so can’t comment how that went (I don’t know why I missed out on this now you mention it – perhaps it clashed with something else I was watching at the time?). As I understood it however, all the people around Seinfeld himself weren’t related to him, but were still like family? And didn’t he have a focus on something, however broad, per week?

  7. Lucy,

    Oh, you….. young person!!! I dunno, kids today, they’re getting younger all the time.

    Of course, back in my day…. which was before coal was invented.

    I ended up writing a broadsheet obit for the creator of Secret Army so I get a little touchy about that “comedy”.

    Still, I’ll let you off. (Ain’t that real big of me?)

    Right, Seinfeld… one of the greatest sitcoms ever, of course. If the characters were like a family, they were the biggest dysfunctional family ever.

    Elaine was an ex-girlfriend of Jerry’s; Kramer was the across-the-hall neighbour who would come in and mooch, which George was a total fuck-up who was a school friend of Seinfeld. The great thing was, they hung about together but if there was an opportunity where they could either intentionally or unintentionally screw one of the others they would.

    Really, they quartet are like a bunch of grown-up kids. Best episode ever is probably the one where they see who can go the longest without masturbating.

    While everyone applauds Fawlty Towers for the tight plotting, Seinfeld has it beat.

  8. I think the plotting of Seinfeld is indeed better than Fawlty Towers, as when you can often go several minutes in FT without many laughs (as Basil’s metaphorical house of cards is being constructed, usually), Seinfeld sets up the plot with a goodly number of jokes along the way. Textbook work, even in the weaker episodes.
    You may have missed Seinfeld because it tended to be buried on BBC2 at around midnight, Lucy, but I strongly recommend it – particularly, as GD says, the episode called ‘The Contest’ – rather alarmingly, based on a genuine contest one of the co-creators participated in…

  9. Yes, I’ve heard Seinfeld is great on that basis too boys… Though I’ve always been an early riser so am in my bed in my pink pyjamas around midnight ALWAYS, which must be why I missed it!

  10. I’m very much enjoying these articles, madam. I like structure. Structure is our friend, provided we don’t become handcuffed to it.

  11. I see structure not as a friend so much, but the old grandmother who hangs around with a sour face – we need her, but maybe we don’t like her so much, which accounts for why some scribes believe erroneously that structure is optional and not a neccessity. CRAZINESS.

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