There is keen interest worldwide in how to write for television. In this recent interview I did with Télérama in France, the high quality of questions allowed me to talk about some of the most important techniques and challenges in sitcom writing today.
–People often say there is nothing harder to write than a comedy. Why is this so?
Comedy, like drama, has to hit all the rules of good storytelling. But comedy has one extra requirement, and it’s very hard: you have to make people laugh.
Also, comedy has more sub-forms than any other genre. And each sub-form has a completely different set of story beats.
–Isn’t comedy a very codified genre, even the most codified genre, at least when we talk about network comedies?
Yes, the traditional sitcom is one of the most precise of all story forms. This is why the sitcom is highly underrated, maybe the most underrated of all genres. Very few writers can execute it well, which is why those who can are paid so much money.
–Comedy on TV 90% of the time is a half-hour. How does the format influence the writing?
Actually the traditional network sitcom is around 22 minutes. Which means that the structure is very tight. For example, you must introduce the desire of the main character almost immediately in the episode, and it should be a desire that gets the hero into a bad predicament.
If it is multi-strand story, you have to establish the desire of all major characters in the first couple of minutes. Plus you have to give the hero(es) a big setback before each commercial. These are just a few of the many structural requirements this streamlined form requires.
–It seems that comedies have pretty stereotypical characters. Why can’t we have original, surprising characters from the beginning?
The traditional sitcom is designed to be a joke machine; you’re trying to create as many laughs as possible in 22 minutes. So a network sitcom character tends to have a single trait and weakness that causes him or her to screw up every week.
Also, network sitcom characters tend to be comic types, like the “dummy” or the “princess.” The show is designed to force them to play out their basic flaw in a different situation every week.
–Does that mean that if I want to write a comedy I need to start from a cultural or societal point, something everybody can relate to? Can’t I write a personal story?
If you want to appeal to the biggest audience, yes. That’s why there’s such an emphasis on recognizable character types found in any society.
But that’s also the main reason why the serious sitcom was developed: it’s almost always a personal vision. For example, Louie, Girls, Transparent, Orange Is the New Black. These shows are artistically more satisfying, but they are not nearly as popular worldwide as a good traditional sitcom.
–How do you write a comedy character that is also complex and sensitive?
This is a big subject, on which I spend a lot of time in the Sitcom Class. A complex character comes from two major story elements: 1. having multiple flaws, not a single flaw, and these flaws must be moral as well as psychological, and 2. not being a type but an individual.
Of course, the challenge is how to execute these two elements in 22 minutes while making the audience laugh. That’s craft.
–Why is comedy the only genre where networks in the US are still competing with the cable channels, and win Emmy’s and Golden Globes?
In fact, network comedies can’t compete with cable comedies, any more than network dramas do. The serious comedies on cable get all the critical praise, because they don’t have to appeal to the mass audience the way network comedies do.
The exception, and it’s a big one, is Modern Family. But it flipped the family sitcom, the first of the 5 major sitcom sub-genres, on its head. It gave the audience 3 versions of a non-nuclear family, which immediately made it unique in sitcom history and raised its status in the critical community.
It must also be admitted that Modern Family has gone way down hill, and is not the critical darling it once was.
–Why is The Big Bang Theory still funny after 8 years? What’s the trick to writing a sitcom that lasts?
The immediate and long-term success of a show depends almost totally on its original construction, especially in how the writers set up the comic opposition. But even when the set up is great, over time this comic opposition often wears down, so the show is simply not as funny.
In The Big Bang Theory, the main comic opposition is between Sheldon, Leonard and Penny, and it still works. But this opposition has worn down over the years, which is why for me the show is not as funny as it used to be.
–What’s the strongest sitcom ever?
I don’t think there’s any question that Seinfeld holds the number one position in the history of sitcoms. And in spite of some other great shows, there’s nothing else that’s even close.
In the Sitcom Class I explore in some detail the structural elements that made this show a work of genius for nine seasons. Let me mention just a few. First it used the technique of the classic 4-point opposition. This not only increased the density of comic conflict in each episode, it meant that every major character could drive a story.
Seinfeld was revolutionary in character. These were not nice people. All four major characters were unlikeable, in the normal sense of that term, with serious moral flaws that often had devastating effects on others.
It was also revolutionary in plot. This was the Karma show, cosmic justice delivered in an extremely roundabout way. The plot work in Seinfeld was nothing short of astounding, with the most complex and funniest plots in the history of television.
–And the best comedy currently on the air – again, “best” as most flawless in its writing?
I’d have to go with Veep, for several reasons. The comedy comes out of the characters who all have serious psychological and moral flaws. It has an excellent comic opposition. The stories are always politically incorrect in the extreme. It’s funny but it doesn’t hit the joke too hard, so it doesn’t come across as a joke machine. Veep is probably the smartest sitcom right now, as well.
–How do you explain the tremendous success of some writers like Chuck Lorre who’s got 3 comedies working well these days, The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly and Mom? Is he a genius or does he have a recipe?
He is a genius and he does use a recipe. Chuck Lorre is the master of the traditional sitcom, which, as I have said, is a machine designed to produce jokes. His sitcoms are always very funny, and that has become rare in the sitcom world these days.
But there is a recipe as well. His shows tend to come out of a deeply flawed character, specifically, some version of a man who is really a child.
–Do you think you can teach comedy to writers who don’t necessarily share your sense of humor? Isn’t comedy the least universal genre?
That’s the biggest misconception of both my Comedy and Sitcom Classes: that I teach someone what is funny. That’s content, and especially when the comedy is based primarily on dialogue, what’s funny is different in every country, and even in every region of a country.
No, what I teach is comic structure: how to write a great comedy story, so the jokes come out of the characters and the situation. That’s the craft part. Then each writer brings their original vision of what is funny.
–Isn’t comedy, much more than drama, a matter of rhythm?
Rhythm of lines and words is very important for success, though not nearly as important as the structure of a comedy. A good joke is like poetry; it’s extremely dense language. The simple rule: the tighter the punchline, the bigger the laugh. But that is also true of a good line in drama.
–Isn’t comedy also a matter of being provocative, of being politically incorrect? Can you do that on US network TV where censorship is so strong?
You won’t get politically incorrect on network TV. Network comedy is based on relationships and sex.
–Classic sitcoms with laugh tracks are still working. It seems to be the math of writing, something that leaves little space for spontaneity and surprise?
Actually, classic sitcoms are not working. There’s a big crisis in TV comedy on the networks, and this has been true for a few yeas now. In classic sitcoms, you basically have Chuck Lorre shows and that’s about it. Everyone is looking for the next new sitcom form. Ironically, classic sitcoms have been failing because they have gotten away from what they are designed to do: create laughs.
–Comedy is also about breaking the rules. When you look at shows like Louie, it seems it doesn’t respect any rules. And it’s brilliant. There is nothing you can teach here, right?
On the contrary, Louie respects the rules of the serious comedy. The serious comedy, also known as the “dramedy,” is one of the 5 major sitcom sub-genres. I go into this relatively new form in great detail in the Sitcom Class. In general, serious comedy flips the traditional sitcom on its head. Louie, like other serious comedies, is much closer to the rules of drama, with complex characters, playing out difficult emotional and moral issues.
–The borders between comedy and drama are almost gone. Transparent, which won the Golden Globes for best comedy, is as much a drama as a comedy. So is Orange Is the New Black. So will you soon have to teach “dramedy” as a complete, separate genre?
I already do. It’s one of the 5 forms of sitcom, and it’s quite complex.
–I remember talking with Matthew Weiner from Mad Men, and he said he doesn’t know when he writes comedy and when he writes drama. He said some of his funniest scenes he wrote to be tragic, and some he thought were funny were not funny at all. I started this interview by asking if comedy is the most codified genre. But isn’t it also the freest genre, the one with no boundaries, the one you can find everywhere?
It’s free only if it has been constructed that way from the beginning. For example, the traditional sitcom is not free at all. But serious comedies, like Louie and Girls, or a comedic drama like Mad Men, were constructed from the beginning to allow much greater freedom of what the typical episode could do.
Historically, the dramas that have won Emmy’s have had strong comedy woven in. And the comedies that have won Emmy’s usually pivot around big, serious, life-changing moments. This mix is clearly the way of the future for the best TV shows.
To listen to John’s interview with Télérama, click here:
(NOTE: It’s in French; the woman’s voice is translating John’s answers.)