These tips for writing comedy come from Andrew Ellard, an English comedy writer and script editor who has worked on hugely popular British TV sitcoms such as “Red Dwarf” and “The IT crowd”. In the video below, he’s giving advice about writing sitcom – but much of what he says will help us writing comedy of any type – whether in books, plays or for large or small screen.
Here’s a brief, non-executive non-summary of the main points in the video:
1. What makes a good sitcom character?
The main character should have a central flaw, a problem, of which they’re unaware. This is going to cause problems (otherwise called DRama!) and thus storylines. These faults can be explored in stories and will trigger events.
Feeble sitcom characters keep cropping up in weak sitcom scripts which cross Andrew’s desk – the main character is passive, everything goes wrong – but in a way which is not caused by them. Instead, the real fun in strong comedy comes from the link between the main character’s fatal flaw – they bring their own problems upon their heads.
2. Structure is Vital
Whether in a joke or sitcom script, you’ve justified everything that happens but the reveal is still a surprise. The example he often uses is a very well known few seconds in British Comedy, in “Only Fools and Horses”, where Del boy and his pal are trying to impress some women in a pub.
As Andrew explains, there is a build up – Del Boy is trying to act as the rich, successful businessman he always strives to be (his central flaw), he’s distracted by the beautiful girls, and misses the fact that the barman has moved the counter-top to leave the bar….. and so he falls down. It’s all logical, we see all the elements – but the moment it happens is still a delightful comedic surprise.
3. Sitcoms have no first act
You should jump right into the action of what will be happening in this episode. If the audience need to know some key information, American shows get to put it in the piece even earlier, before the opening credits.
4. What’s the most common problem with scripts?
The main character is passive (see tip 1). There are plenty of jokes, but no driven protagonist.
Probable cause: most writers and standup comics are excellent at observation – they see comedy in the ordinary. Their main gift is noticing, observing what’s going on – witness the world and see the oddities. So they are used to telling stories as a witness rather than an active participant. So their stories tend to begin with “Have you ever noticed….”
In contrast, with an active participant (as in successful sitcoms) something happens with the main character at the start – and because they focus on it and how they react to it, it sets up a chain reaction where everything gets worse.
5. Current trends for sitcoms are….
Very loud volume, less subtlety, single camera, no laughter track (Andrew himself doesn’t like these). “The Office” was a turning point for this kind of style. Before this, back in the 1990s, there was exciting experimentation with split screen, subtitles, monsters (on Red Dwarf) – but the office changed that. And not necessarily for the better, as far as Andrews Ellard is concerned.
6. Top tip?
Know the universe you’re creating onscreen. Use a joke which fits within that. e.g. There was a knockabout physical comedy show called “Bottom” in which a character would be hit in the face with a frying pan repeatedly and there was never any damage – it was cartoon type violence (think “Tom and Jerry” the cat and mouse cartoons). But in a political satire programme, just one face smack with a frying pan would have realistic consequences and the character would probably have concussion for the rest of the programme – and the physical humour joke just wouldn’t be funny in that context.
This video was found at Writersroom, BBC, where UK based writers can find many podcasts, articles and calls for scripts for TV, radio and stage, even as a new writer.