Deciphering the Sitcom Code

I believe you have already noticed similarities between the comedy series, just like me. From Simpsons to Sienfeld, from Arrested Development to Everybody Hates Chris, there’s a specific method, minute to minute, which gives the life to the great success. When you know the method, to write up a script becames a little bit easy; I mean, a little bit, because the creativity comes from your head; it depends on you.

seinfeld-jerry-seinfeld-julia-louis-dreyfus-jason-alexander-michael-richards

A sitcom script has 25-40 pages, each episode has a main plot (story A) as well as one or two subplots (stories B and C). There are three main acts, divided by two commercial breaks (in the most of television) with 3-5 scenes per act. One of the distinguishing characteristics of sitcoms, as opposed to other forms of television, is that the main protagonist(s) barely change from one episode to the next, let alone from season to season. Maggie Simpson has been sucking on a pacifier for nearly thirty years.

Therefore, whatever happens in the episode, the situation must end largely where it began.

The Teaser (Minutes 1-3)

A short, introductory sketch that often runs before the credits.  It’s little more than a set-up, delivery and reaction: a single joke.  It introduces the protagonist and shows some aspect of their personality (for viewers new to the show), and ideally it introduces viewers to the main obstacle to be overcome in the episode. But as often as not, it is simply a quick joke to get the ball rolling.

The Trouble (Minutes 3-8)

We meet the protagonist(s) and see that they’re just where we left them last episode, but a new problem or goal has come to their attention, which forms the main plot (Story A) of the episode. A plan must be made as to how the goal is to be achieved, or the problem overcome. Around the 6th minute we might be introduced to a subplot (Story B). Subplots must be even briefer than the main plots, and feature one of the minor or secondary characters. It’s great if the subplot can somehow link to the ultimate conclusion of the main plot, but this is not necessary. Think of each subplot as a main plot in miniature, likewise with a beginning, a muddle, and the end.

The Muddle (Minutes 8-13)

The plan drawn up a few minutes ago to tackle the main plot is put into action, but it can’t work or the episode would be over already. There must be another obstacle, a spanner in the works that requires an alternative plan or some amusing delay to the success of the initial strategy. The characters must confront these obstacles according to their own personal style.

The Triumph/Failure (Minutes 13-18)

By this time, the protagonist is getting desperate and the stakes are high—they’ve already tried once and failed. They turn to a last resort, put it into play, and it works…or it doesn’t. Remember that failure is frequent and fine in the world of sitcoms, unlike feature films and dramas. Failure is humorous rather than frustrating, because again we don’t want our characters to change. Minutes 13-15 re-establish the action of Story A, but pause before the payoff of whether or not the backup plan will work. Minutes 15-17 conclude Story B: the secondary character either does, or does not, accomplish what they set out to do, and this may, or may not affect the outcome of Story A. Minutes 17-18 show whether the protagonists succeeds or fails in Story A.

The Kicker (Minutes 19-21)

Like the teaser intro segment before the credits, there is usually an “outro” (sometimes while the credits are rolling), which shows the protagonist in the aftermath of that episode’s action. We find it comforting to see that nothing has really changed, and life has reset, back to where it started and primed for the next episode. It might end with a nice punchline at the end that brings back a joke from earlier in the episode.

You may read up some sitcoms screenplays below.

SCREENPLAYS

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