Posts Tagged ‘how to write a sitcom’

An Excerpt From My New Sitcom Book

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

world premiering here and now…

What is Comedy?

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to say it, but comedy is cruelty. A thing isn’t funny to the person it’s happening to. It’s funny to the rest of us watching. Tell me you haven’t been funny a thousand times by making yourself the butt of your own joke. “I’m so stupid I couldn’t pass a blood test.” That’s you being cruel to you for the benefit of others. Seriously, that’s really all you need to know about writing comedy. Find a character. Put him in a bad situation. And then make the bad situation worse. So then –

Wait, wait, hang on. I’m just sitting here wondering why comedy is cruelty and you know, I can’t think of a good reason. I did, though, think of a joke.

In the years before World War II, in a little Polish village, a learned rabbi used to teach his students, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One young student was particularly taken with this philosophy, and he carried it with him through the long years of the war, which he barely survived. Later becoming a rabbi in his own right, he moved to Philadelphia, and taught all his eager young students, “Life is like the ocean.” Year after year, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One year, though, a student asked, “But Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” And the rabbi had no answer. Why is life like the ocean? The question haunted him. It plagued him so much that eventually he returned to his home village, hoping against hope to find his teacher still alive. Incredibly, the rabbi had survived the war, though now was quite old and in fact lay on his death bed when the young man arrived. He knelt by the old rabbi’s side and entreated, “Rabbi, Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” The old man looked at him through watery eyes and replied, “Okay, so life isn’t like the ocean.”

Now, who’s getting the cruelty here? Is it the hapless young rabbi who invests his life’s work in an empty premise? Or is it the reader, who expects some sort of significant payoff and gets a smirky slap in the face instead? Actually, it’s both. They’re two sides of a certain coin. The young rabbi gets an unpleasant surprise, while the audience gets a startling defeat of expectation.

I’ll tell you one more joke to illustrate the point.

These three ducks walk into a bar. They go up to the bartender and order drinks. The bartender says to the first duck, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Huey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Huey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Huey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes to the second duck and says, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Dewey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Dewey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Dewey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes down to the third duck and says, “I suppose you’re Louie.”

“No,” says the duck, “I’m Puddles.”

I’ll bet you did not see that coming. So the punchline defeated your expectation, but that’s not why the joke works. The joke works because of poor Puddles. We feel his pain. And since it’s his pain, not our pain, we can go ahead and laugh. Poor Puddles.

Now here’s how this plays out in sitcom. (Notice I still haven’t said why comedy is cruelty. Maybe I’m hoping you’ll just let that slide.) To delight our audience, we consistently make our characters miserable, and to make our characters miserable, we just invent other characters designed to give them the worst possible time. Let’s have a peek at Big Bang Theory’s Leonard. Who makes his life hell? For sure you’re going to say Sheldon, whose idiosyncrasies, phobias and Roommate Agreement daily drive Leonard up the wall. You should also say Penny, for while she’s never intentionally cruel to Leonard, she is the object of his unrequited love, and her very presence in his world gives him grief of the deepest kind, because it destabilizes his worldview that “the nerds are alright.” I don’t think Howard really makes Leonard miserable – but look who makes Howard miserable: that’s right, his unseen mom. You could profitably go around from character to character in that sitcom, or any successful sitcom, and make a list of who makes them miserable and how.

Notice that these lines of cruelty run in much the same directions as the lines of conflict we discussed earlier. That’s not by accident. The same things that drive the narrative drive the comedy. If you have a story with lots and lots of problems for your main character, you also have a story with lots and lots of jokes, because each one of those problems will make that character suffer and comedy is cruelty, so there you go.

I don’t want to go too deep into this (I’m well over my head already) but not only do comedy and story line up together here, so does theme. This is because the truth is revealed under pressure, and no character will move from denial to acceptance of the theme – admit the truth, that is – without sufficient pressure forcing him to do so. That pressure moves the story along. And it generates the jokes. And it drives the character to new understanding. That’s some triple-duty pressure there. It’s pretty marvelous stuff.

Are you worried about being cruel to your characters? Don’t be. They’re characters in a story. They don’t really exist and you can’t really hurt them. If you ever find yourself holding back, it could be a case of conflict avoidance. Many writers are conflict avoiders in their real lives. I am. You might be, too. I can’t say from here, and sure don’t want to get in a fight over it, but I do know that to make real people laugh, you have to make fake people ache. So if you’re averse to cruelty, you’d better get over that, or you’ll never be sufficiently funny on the page. Comedy is cruelty. If you want to be funny, you’d better be cruel.

So, are you still waiting for me to tell you why comedy is cruelty? Hey, I’m a knowledgeable guy, I should be able to pull that off. Maybe I’ve studied the world’s great humorists: Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Twain. Maybe I’ve peered into the depths of my own soul and sought the answer there. Maybe I have found out why life is like the ocean. But you know what?

The exercise is left to the reader, ha!

More later,  -jv