Formulas? We’re sitcom writers. We don’t need no steenkin’ formulas.
Or do we?
by Noah Charney
As happens to so many of us, I was asked to write a sitcom for Croatian television. I’m an American ex-pat living in Slovenia, and I know next to nothing about Croatia, besides the fact that it’s Slovenia’s southern neighbor, a fellow ex-Yugoslav republic, and that the language resembles Slovene except with a lot more “js” in it. I am a writer of books and articles, and I used to write a lot of plays, but I’ve never written for television. So I immediately said, “Sure, of course I can do that,” before rushing off to Google “How to write a sitcom.”
In addition to much Googling, I spent a good deal of time watching sitcoms. I was after tips on how they are constructed, and watched actively, looking to crack open their laugh-tracked shiny exterior to get at the goopy mechanism within, to see how they functioned. What I found out surprised me, and changed the way that I watch television.
From The Simpsons to Seinfeld, from Everybody Loves Raymond to Everybody Hates Chris, fromTaxi to Arrested Development to Parks & Recreation, there is a highly-specific, minute-by-minute recipe used to write the vast majority of sitcoms out there. And once you know the formula, it makes it much easier to write them, and much harder to watch them without seeing that formula—the “sitcom code”—everywhere you look.
My giddy-panicked Googling actually produced fruitful results. With little idea as to where I should begin, I turned to the confidence-inspiring blog, Wise Sloth (whose author, like me, has no TV writing experience), which provided a 15-page breakdown of sitcom formats that I used as a point of departure for my own study. And by study, I mean hopping into my pajamas, cuddling up to my Peruvian Hairless, and watching TV with a notebook in hand. Talib Visram recently wrote in The Atlantic about his experience counting jokes per minute in popular TV shows. My approach was more deconstructionist, and directly applicable to my new gig. I had to figure out how such shows were built, and fast.
Fortunately, the answer presented itself very quickly.
First of all, word-processing programs often come with screenwriting templates. FinalDraft, the most popular software for those penning scripts, even has a Sitcom Template, which of course makes life much easier. But as for how to construct an episode, various bloggers, from the Wise Sloth to helpful folks at the BBC, noted a basic structure that I immediately recognized in every sitcom episode I tested. This structure is so formulaic that you’d think it would suck the fun out of writing and watching such shows, but it does nothing of the sort. While knowing the code it changes the way I watch TV, it only increases my admiration for the good writers who do so much within relatively strict confines.
To demonstrate how this formula works, I’ve chosen an episode of a favorite show, somewhat at random, because it ideally exemplifies the template: episode 4 of season 1 of Parks & Recreation.