This blog post was written by Program Intern Olaya Barr.
With the TV sitcom pilot writing workshop coming up, I’ve been thinking about what makes a TV show funny and worth watching. My conclusion: the best sitcoms make every line of dialogue count.
One of my fiction-writing teachers constantly reminds us: treat your short story as if it’s a play or a TV show where you have to pay each character to say and do what you write. Be precise, and make each deed count. Every action, every gesture, every spoken word has value and should add to the content and worth of the story. No dialogue should be “filler space.” Dialogue should set forth movement in the plot and demonstrate to the reader how a particular character’s personality evolves depending on whom he or she is talking to, or about what.
I find that the funniest sitcoms combine consistency with innovation. Great characters never say the same thing because that would be way too boring. But they say things that are recognizable and match their personality.
To be honest, I have no idea how screenwriters do it. How do you pull off writing in a funny and consistent way without repeating the same gag, the same joke, the same spoof over and over? Sure, trademark catchphrases create consistency, but who these days actually laughs when they hear someone saying the same set of words over and over again? (Yes, I’m talking to you Joey Tribbiani with your How you doin?). The key is to think of new ways to say the same thing.
To seek some inspiration, I’ve been looking at some of the strong females in the industry: there’s Mindy Kaling, who produced and wrote many episodes of the US version of The Office, and created her own show, The Mindy Project; Amy Poehler, who is as hilarious in Parks and Recreation (she has written three episodes) as she was in SNL; but personally, my model of someone who’s created the perfect sitcom is Tina Fey, who produced and wrote much of the satirical 30 Rock (as well as starred as one of the central characters, Liz Lemon). These three shows all rely on quirky and varied characters that solidify their traits in each episode.
In 30 Rock, the writing is tight and each character has his or her own absurdist flaws that transpire through dialogue. Somehow, the jokes don’t get old. Why? Because Fey doesn’t repeat them; she finds new forms for the same bizarre personalities to come out. What I’ve learned from Fey and her lovable Liz Lemon is to really know the characters you create. Establish their personalities and weaknesses from the get-go, so when you put them in strange scenarios, you know exactly how the character’s hilarious deficiencies will surface.
Why is Liz saying “I don’t think you wanna take advice from me on this, I ate a Three Musketeers bar for lunch and this bra is held together by tape,” so funny to me? Because it’s totally expected behavior for Liz –she’s a geeky writer, overworked and awkward, uninterested in stereotypical female interests- but the joke is produced in a new form with vivid details that reflect the strangeness of this woman’s lifestyle. Each line of dialogue is a revealing snippet of Liz’s outlandish behavior.
And…that’s a wrap!