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