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Sitcom: Why Audiences Laugh
In this article Mike Corke analyses what it is, in situation comedy, that makes audiences laugh. He uses many examples, particularly drawn from the classic Fawlty Towers series (but including several other popular shows) to describe the numerous comic devices used by sitcom writers...
What should become clear is that what we are not laughing at are 'jokes' in the way we normally recognise and understand them. Jokes, in themselves, can often be very funny, but situation comedy is not just a succession of humorous tales, spoken by the characters.
In fact, jokes don't make very good material for situation comedy at all. A joke lasting one to two minutes comprises of a lead up and a punch line. The lead up is usually listened to in silence and the punch line triggers the laughter. A good stand up comedian may evoke a few titters on the way (he might pull faces, speak in a funny voice, fall over, etc.) but the really worthwhile laugh always comes at the end. He does quite well if he can bring about, on average, just over one significant laugh per minute or tell four, maybe five, good jokes in a six minute spot.
For successful situation comedy the laughter frequency needs to be much higher, at between three or four per minute. Analysis of a 30 minute episode of a well known series revealed 90 points of humour comprising 56 chuckles and 34 extended laughs. 45 of the humour points occurred in each of the fifteen minute halves, an even distribution. Each fifteen minutes ended on an extended laugh. The least humorous (although still funny) part of the episode occurred between minutes 22 and 27.
We are obviously not dealing with something as straightforward as 'jokes' with situation comedy. It is hard to imagine any joke, however imaginative, that can be told over a period of half an hour, get three laughs per minute and effectively contain 34 separate but side-splitting 'punch lines'. Certainly, if someone knows such a joke, I would quite like to hear it!
The 'comedy of situations' appears to come from a whole host of ingredients mixed together in a particular way. When we begin to note down what these components are we find that the most successful situation comedies contain all or nearly all of them. Sometimes a particular component may be low key, in relation to strength of others, but if we look we will find the majority there somewhere. And it is important that many are there, because this brings about balance and provides interest elements catering for wider audiences, allowing a larger number of people, with different views of the world, to identify in their own way with what's going on.
It is generally agreed that characterisation, that is the way in which a character behaves and interacts with other characters and their surroundings, is the most important contributory factor in good situation comedy. It matters far less what the story is about or the location it is played out in. In this section we shall explore the many facets of characterisation as they are brought to bear in situation comedy...
2.1 The Character As An Individual
Hyacinth Bucket - quite a character!
Each character has a set of attributes describing different aspects of what they have been and 'currently' are. They tell us only a little about what they may become or what may befall them in their situation comedy future. But it is important to 'know' these attributes well enough, for each character, to have some feeling about how they might react and what may happen to them, on a scale of 'very unlikely' through 'highly probable', in different situations.
Constructing lists of character attributes is a useful activity but one should be careful not to take it to extremes. It is the external persona we are mainly interested in, not the innermost workings of the character's mind. It can be useful to focus briefly on someone you believe you know very well, if only to highlight how little you really do know about them. Similarly, consider your favourite situation comedy character, Basil Fawlty perhaps, and you will quickly realise how little background information has been revealed in the Fawlty Towers series.
There are no 'rules' in the situation comedy game as far as a 'good fit' of characters to conveniently appropriate situations is concerned. In fact the worse the fit the more funny the outcome is likely to be. One can imagine a series where an East London gang boss inherits a children's home, the inmates of a monastery (sworn to poverty) accidentally win the lottery or a philandering knight of the realm gets entwined as the proposer of a new Morals Act. It is unlikely characters thrust into very unlikely or ambiguous situations, that score.
Very few situation comedies of today deal with a single character operating more or less alone within the environment. Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean, relying almost totally on visual gags, often involving inanimate objects, is a notable exception of course. In some ways Bean harks back to the Chaplin/Keaton comedy of many years ago or, more recently, to parts of Benny Hill's work.
In the main I believe we are interested in more mainstream situation comedy, involving at least two (but often more) characters and their interactions. That is what we shall explore next...
2.2 The Character's Relationships With Others
Once there is more than one character to play with, the way one of these characters interacts with another, and how the other then responds, verbally and/or via action, provides our main vehicle for the delivery of humour.
Status differentials, either real or imagined, and resulting conflicts and attempts at their 'resolution' (although things are never really resolved to the satisfaction of the status seeker) are absolutely fundamental in situation comedy. I cannot think of a single successful series without a status conflict somewhere within it. Let's look at some examples:
Blackadder: Blackadder has a fairly heightened sense of self importance. He is continually rude to Baldrick who takes all the insults and more or less ignores them. Blackadder is, of course, also pretty rude to everybody else, although he wraps it up in a verbal smokescreen if he believes the character he is insulting is higher up the social scale than he is. In all cases there is little satisfaction for Blackadder himself. Depending on the series - insulting the Queen might result in a threat to have Blackadder beheaded; insulting the Prince more often than not results in the insult being taken as a compliment; insulting Melchett leads to, at best, a counter-insult and at worst a word with the Queen who may then decide to have Blackadder beheaded (yet again!).
Fawlty Towers: This is a completely different sort of situation comedy to Blackadder... or is it? Basil has a fairly heightened sense of self importance. He is continually rude to Manuel who takes all the insults (and occasional physical violence) but essentially just gets on with his job. Basil is, of course, also pretty rude to everybody else, although he wraps it up in a verbal smokescreen if he believes the character he is insulting is higher up the social scale than he is. In all cases there is little satisfaction for Basil himself. In addition to the unfortunate Manuel, Basil is surrounded by a few other characters who frustrate him somewhat. Polly is too calm and sensible, Sybil (his wife) is too controlling, the Major (usually to be found in the bar) too up-market. Further characters make appearances but limited to particular episodes. Basil decides (usually wrongly and often based on mis-information or mis-construed information) whether he should be rude or smarmy to them. Episodes follow through the consequences of his attitude and actions.
Red Dwarf: Similar status conflicts occur here with Rimmer exhibiting the 'self important' trait which has little real impact on the other characters. Lister is the Baldrick equivalent although he's rather better at staying out of trouble. Holly, the computer, is always unarguably right. Kryton has a role similar to that of Neil in The Young Ones... gentle and a tiny bit confused. Lastly there is Cat... an interesting and very amusing 'style king' cameo part that is totally 'insult proof'.
Dad's Army: Here the self important central character is, of course, Captain Mainwaring. His ramshackle troops, comprised solely of those left behind when the more fit have gone to fight real battles, do not really provide a satisfactory outlet for the frustrations Mainwaring feels.
Butterflies: This was a much 'softer' situation comedy than more recent examples. The only character one might think of as being concerned with keeping up appearances, of any sort, would be Ria's husband. But he is frustrated by his two son's attitudes to tiresome notions like 'work' and 'earning one's keep' and, like many twentieth century husbands, is frustrated by his wife's frustration. Ria herself adopts either a resigning role, accepting that things will never be different, or, in later episodes, a 'why not me too' position when the boyfriend comes on the scene.
One Foot In The Grave: Here Meldrew is the status seeker although his efforts are almost always thwarted. He knows why... in his own words... "its because I'm too bloody old, I don't know why I even bother, there's no point, I might as well be dead for all the difference it makes". Interestingly, although Meldrew is a status seeker, his character has an extremely low tolerance to failure. Perhaps this is because all supporting characters in this series (the foils) either exhibit blandness or insurmountability. Both are equally frustrating to him.
Till Death Us Do Part: No problem identifying the self-important character here, in bigoted Alf Garnett. Once more all the shouting and opinionating may as well fall on deaf ears; both the 'silly old moo' and the 'scouse git' have heard it all before.
Steptoe and Son: Harold Steptoe, seeking improved status, is continually thwarted by his wily father. Harold's insults ('you dirty old man') have little effect and provide no satisfaction.
Yes, Minister: Jim Hacker seeks improved status in almost everything he does but is no match for the fireproof and devious Sir Humphrey, a master at wriggling out of sticky situations. The Bernard Woolley character acts as an interesting foil between these two combatants.
Last Of The Summer Wine: Foggy is the only one of the three central characters concerned with keeping up appearances despite being encumbered with Clegg and Compo.
Absolutely Fabulous: This series has a strange reversal in that Eddie's daughter is the most adult (and the one most interested in clinging on to a distanced status position) although Eddie herself makes occasional weak attempts to act like a 'parent'. The status position that both Eddie and Patsy strive for is to be seen as 'young and trendy', which is quite difficult, for them, to convincingly achieve.
In all the above cases we find the status seeking character 'trapped' in a position where the recognition they want to achieve is neutralised, either by other characters who refuse to be suitably impressed or the circumstances bound up in the situations they find themselves in. It is this unresolved status seeking that adds to the humour in situation comedy.
Richie and Eddie certainly knew how to insult each other.
Note that, although many of these status seekers are insulting, rude or generally unpleasant, it is not essential that this be the case. What is true, however, is that in a successful series, each of us will find ourselves able to identify with some part of at least one of these characters, the way they behave or the problems they experience, even though their general behaviour, in 'real life' circumstances, would likely be considered outlandish. We would just love to be able to reel off one of those Blackadder or Fawlty put downs, if we just had the courage to do so.
There are two reasons we laugh when the insults start. Firstly, although they have been carefully and cleverly constructed by the author, they come across as both spontaneous and amusing. We laugh because they're funny. Secondly, if we imagine ourselves able to come out with something similar (directed at the boss perhaps) although we would love to do it, it would require, on our parts, a certain amount of bravado. Thus the other reason we are laughing is because its a nervous laugh that the insult brings on.
With situation comedy we can, of course, make a further observation about the way targetted characters react when the insults start to fly: No matter how cruel the insult, the recipient usually either gives as good as he or she gets or ignores it. Never is the insult dwelt upon or used as the reason for some lifelong vendetta. If that were case we would quickly come to a point where none of the characters continued to speak to each other!
2.2.3 Responses to Insults
Mr Bean - totally un-aware
Although the insults themselves usually draw the laughs, we can nevertheless look at the different ways they might be responded to. Remember that, for situation comedy, this will rarely be in the manner normally expected in that the receiver does not take the insult as a personal affront...
Insult not understood: The classic example is Manuel's perplexing 'Que?' following one of Basil Fawlty's put downs.
Insult taken as a compliment: Reactions of the Prince to Blackadder insults provide examples of this. The mis-hearing of an insult, whether it is received as complimentary or as something completely different, also falls into this category.
Insult understood but ignored: Polly, in the Fawlty Towers series, frequently uses this tactic, as does Baldrick in Blackadder.
Insult nullified by following action: An example of this would be where the person delivering an insult such as 'You're so brainless I'm surprised you can cross the room without bumping into things', turns around and collides with a table.
Receiver of insult hits issuer: Used by Sybil, in the Fawlty Towers series, when she has had enough of Basil's diatribes.
Insult nullified by over-the-top counter threat: The Queen deciding to behead Blackadder can be considered as one example.
Receiver of insult responds with better insult: Responses to heckling provide examples of this, as in... heckler: 'Don't you wish you were a man?', response: (by Agnes McPhail) 'Yes. Don't you?'. These 'cleverer than received' interchanges are quite rare in situation comedy.
2.2.4 The Character's Temperament
It is unlikely that writers will be able to choose specific actors and actresses to populate their situation comedy. This will be a matter for the production company to decide, depending on availability, production schedules, cost, and several other factors. There is thus little point in saying that a particular part has been written specifically for Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Rik Mayall, etc. If the producers decide your efforts are appropriate and worthy of an approach to these artistes then they will take the matter up with them when the time arises. For the writer it can be dangerous to identify a character too closely to a portrayal within an existing situation comedy, although to do so may be very tempting. The main problem is that it does not encourage original work and there is likely already to be a team of writers beavering away (and more 'waiting in the wings') to support an existing series or its follow up.
Victor Meldrew - one grumpy temperament
If your work involves the day to day life of an irascible old man, for whom many things go wrong... then you will need to try to introduce factors into the character that are different from those present in Richard Wilson's portrayal of Victor Meldrew.
Nevertheless, we can focus here on different character temperaments, in a general sense, that one may wish to utilise in a new situation comedy series development. Note that 'temperament' says nothing about 'intellect', 'social standing', 'beliefs', 'physical attributes', and so on. It just tells us about how the character behaves for much of the time.
In the table below I have used the very arbitrary working headings 'Weak', 'Medium' and 'Strong' in order to roughly group temperament characteristics. In some cases other headings (for example 'Left', 'Middle', 'Right' or 'Soft', 'Neutral', 'Hard') might be more appropriate, but the headings are not important in themselves.
What is important, for situation comedy, is that when choosing a character's temperament, always try to construct 'mixtures' that are taken from across the columns. For 'strong' types, take two or three words from the right hand column and one word from the left hand column. For 'weak' type take two or three words from the left hand column and one word from the right hand column. The middle column, as it stands, contains a selection of fairly normal temperament types. Use these if your story contains some 'ordinary' characters (hopefully not too many!). Alternatively negate the word concerned (for example 'caring' negates to 'uncaring') and use the result to supplement either the right or left column as appropriate.
Using the method described above some interesting (and rather odd ball) character temperaments should emerge, for example:
It should be possible to generate several characters suitable for a particular situation comedy series using this method. Importantly, take care that there is a good character mix. A series populated by characters all of a similar temperament type will not be particularly interesting. Observe that in all the series so far discussed the characters are very different from one another. There is only one Basil type in Fawlty Towers, only one Blackadder type in Blackadder, and so on. This is not to say these are the only strong types in these series, but the others have very different temperaments.
A well balanced set of characters will likely comprise one or two strong types, two or three weak types and possibly (although this rather depends on the story line) a few normal types. The laughter is most likely to come from the antics of the strong types as they try to cope in interactions with weak and normal types or other strong types exhibiting different temperaments. Whichever the case the strong types will experience relationships that are frustrating, pointless, childish, off-beam, depressing, and generally alien to their way of thinking, but hardly ever as satisfactorily challenging or rewarding in a long term sense.
2.2.5 Character Interactions
Fawlty Towers - many interesting character interactions
Now let us examine how characters interact when put together. A useful tool for analysing character interactions in any existing series (and also developing insight into one's own efforts) is to draw simple relationship diagrams. Characters are represented by small circles, each with a character name written inside, spaced out around the edge of a sheet of paper. Next we draw a line with an arrowhead pointing from one character's circle to another character's circle. On the line we write how the 'pointing' character mostly interacts with the 'pointed at' character. We should also do this the other way around (another line with the arrow going the other way) to show how the originally 'pointed at' character mostly interacts with the original 'pointing' character. We can continue in this way until all character parings have been similarly dealt with. If there are six interacting characters, thirty annotated lines will result.
Before moving on it is suggested that the reader completes a relationship diagram, such as described above, for a popular situation comedy series. On the connecting lines just write how one character appears to be interacting with another. Do not make further interpretations about what you believe they feel about one another. That comes later.
Although diagrams are easy to understand, the connecting lines can become rather jumbled and legends difficult to read if there are many of them. We can achieve much the same sort of analysis by making up shorthand statements that describe the relationships. Take, for example, the relationship between Basil and his wife Sybil, in the Fawlty Towers series. The lines reflecting the apparent relationships might be assigned the legends 'respectful' (how Basil appears towards Sybil) and 'assisting' (how Sybil appears towards Basil). A statement reflecting this would be:
BASIL : respectful --> <-- assisting : SYBIL
The above statement should be read as:
'In Basil and Sybil's interactions, Basil is apparently respectful towards Sybil and Sybil is apparently assisting Basil'.
Now, we know things are not as simple as that. Basil is not truly respectful towards Sybil or, for that matter, towards others. Neither do Sybil's activities particularly assist in what Basil wants to achieve. Both characters are acting in a manner whereby, although to casual onlookers what they are doing may seem to be socially acceptable and normal, their outward behaviour masks how they really feel about one another. We can record these inner feelings by adding a parenthesised note to the existing lines in a relationship diagram (or statement as in the case below):
BASIL : respectful (condescending) --> <-- assisting (weary of) : SYBIL
This augmented statement reads:
'In Basil and Sybil's interactions, Basil is apparently respectful towards Sybil but is really being condescending and Sybil appears to be assisting Basil but is really weary of him'.
We should not feel constrained in developing these statements. Apparent and underlying behaviours need not be restricted to just one word or phrase. Basil is capable of exhibiting a hectoring style of speech and becoming exasperated towards Sybil. Sybil is sometimes nagging towards Basil. Lets add these behaviours and, while we are at it, the statements for all other significant interactions in the series:
BASIL : respectful, hectoring (condescending, exasperated) --> <-- assisting, nagging (weary of) : SYBIL
BASIL : authoritative, violent towards (belittling) --> <-- dominated by, afraid of (uncomprehending) : MANUEL
BASIL : superior to --> <-- subordinated, careful : POLLY
BASIL : obsequious, fawning --> <-- military : THE MAJOR
BASIL : patronising --> <-- nervous : THE TWO OLD LADIES
BASIL : violent towards --> INANIMATE OBJECTS
MANUEL : careful of --> <-- strong : SYBIL
MANUEL : confides in --> <-- friendly towards : POLLY
POLLY : subordinate, confiding --> <-- dominant, sometimes confiding : SYBIL
For the Fawlty Towers series the above covers all the significant interactions. Notice that I have included Basil's relationship with inanimate objects because his occasional bouts of rage towards them adds quite a lot to the comedy.
I have described the Major's relationship with Basil (he rarely has anything to say to anyone else) as 'military'. This highlights his services tendency to only ever use surnames ("I say, Fawlty, old chap") and remain fairly calm almost regardless of what is going on.
Basil's relationships with other characters, who appear in single episodes, depend largely on how they present to him (and the conclusions he comes to) when he first meets them. He usually gets it wrong, insulting characters he should be trying to impress and groveling to those he would be better to treat more normally.
2.2.6 Characters Trapped in Relationships
The more we put a particular situation comedy under the microscope the more it can be seen that the characters are 'trapped' within the relationships and circumstances of the series. There is no escape. Each episode invariably starts from the same position and ends without any significant change in fortune for those involved. In the case of Fawlty Towers it is interesting, but rather difficult, to try to answer the following questions, which include several other 'unknowns':
It doesn't particularly matter if we cannot come up with the answers as long as we are able to acknowledge that the series is about a very closed world inhabited by people with an extremely blinkered (although they, as characters, aren't aware of it) approach to life. All the comedy of Fawlty Towers comes as a result of something or someone arriving through the front door and what subsequently happens. Basil, central to the majority of the comedy situations, is so strongly tied to the interior of the hotel that his occasional excursions outside actually have a slightly disturbing effect on the viewer. We want him back inside so we can watch him create some more mayhem. Other characters in the series have rarely, if ever, been seen outside the hotel's walls.
2.2.7 Character Speech Styles and Mannerisms
Basil - a box of mannerisms
Staying with Fawlty Towers let us now look at the variety of speech styles and other mannerisms of the characters and why these add to the humour.
Basil's 'normal' speech style comes across as almost military although there has been little information presented (a spell in Korea with the Catering Corps hardly counts!) to suggest that was where he acquired it. When not under stress he speaks in an authoritative, precise and articulate way, usually through 'gritted teeth', suggesting there is always an underlying tension. However, because much of the comedy in the series is about Basil attempting to deal with stressful situations, a whole range of behavioural traits are exploited by the authors as they move him from a 'calm' to what is often a 'full rage' state. Depending on which other character Basil is interacting with he may need to 'bite his tongue' and modify his stressed behaviour briefly along the way but because we, the audience, know the full story, we find ourselves laughing at these efforts too.
We can walk through a hypothetical situation, that Basil might experience, just in order to highlight the way Basil's stress builds up and how he deals with it. We shall start at the beginning of a typical episode:
And so it continues. In the above we have identified the Fawlty Towers formula which all episodes follow. Although the situations and lesser characters differ across episodes they each result in Basil being taken from a relatively calm state through to a point where he completely loses control.
What of the other central characters? Well, Sybil comes across as a pretty strong lady, well able to cope with Basil's idiosyncrasies. Polly is fairly laid back and rarely ruffled. The Major part is a caricature of how we believe elderly or retired military gentlemen might behave. The Two Old Ladies (seemingly glued together) are sweet and timid. Last but by no means least is the Manuel character, which we should examine more closely.
Manuel - inspired scripting
Manuel's part represents some fairly inspired scripting. In order for it to work in the way that it does the role needed to be represented by a character type that Basil alone would always feel superior towards. Since Basil exhibits a rather right wing nationalistic character himself, in some of the things he says, it isn't hard to see why the Manuel part encompasses that of a 'foreigner', which to Basil would include anyone not English by birth and first language.
Because the Fawlty Towers series was originally intended to be viewed in the UK, the choice of a suitable nationality for the Manuel role meant selecting from a number of familiar (to UK audiences) stereotypes, particularly from those where added comedy could be derived from the way the character struggled to pronounce and understand the English language. It is a tried and tested formula, already used successfully in, for example, the Pink Panther films and the 'It Ain't 'Alf Hot Mum' and 'Allo 'Allo series.
Several nationalities appear, at first sight, to fit the bill. If Manuel had been cast as French... zen 'e vood av speak like zis! If German like... vee haf vays! Italian... liek-a diss-a or liek-a datt-a! Spanish was a good choice, not overworked in previous comedies, and the Spanish are a fairly happy-go-lucky but excitable people generally. As well as using incorrect verb tenses (which all 'foreigners' do, including the English abroad!) the way Manuel, as a Spaniard, is made to pronounce English is arrived at by inserting a breathy 'h' sound in front of almost all vowels. Thus a sentence such as 'I am going to make an omelette with four eggs' comes out as 'Hi h-am g-h-oh-ing t-hoo m-hake h-an h-omh-elh-ette w-hith f-hor h-eggs'. I have yet to come across a Spaniard who pronounces English in this strange fashion but then I do live rather a long way from Barcelona!
Needless to say, as a very successful series such as Fawlty Towers is sold on to other countries, the nationalities of characters change accordingly. For example, in the Spanish dubbed version of the series the Manuel character is called Paolo and he's become an Italian from Napoli in the voiceover.
We should mention one last humour component of the Fawlty Towers series that particularly involves Basil and Manuel... use of slapstick. In every episode there have been three or four occasions when Basil struck Manuel, often with sufficient force to knock him to the ground. But Manuel never seems to suffer any damage as a result of these attacks.
Slapstick in Fawlty Towers
What we are seeing here is, of course, the basic slapstick of circus clowns. We have all seen the clown who gets bludgeoned with a large mallet by one of his colleagues, gets run over by the exploding car, falls from a ladder into a bath filled with paint, and so on... without ever experiencing anything more that momentary discomfort.
Seen as slapstick, Basil's treatment of Manuel (similarly Blackadder's treatment towards Baldrick) is 'acceptable' and a valid component of situation comedy. If Manuel were to end up in a hospital intensive care ward with multiple fractures, after one of Basil's attacks, then clearly that would be unacceptable. As an aside, Andrew Sachs really did have to go to hospital twice whilst filming the series - he suffered serious concussion after being hit over the head with a saucepan in episode 1.3 and his arms were severely burnt during the fire stunt in episode 1.6 - in the broadcast series the Manuel character is un-harmed by the very same incidents.
2.2.8 The Characters Rarely Laugh
Rick Spleen (Jack Dee) in Lead Balloon - rarely laughs
In the majority of situation comedy, regardless of how hilariously the audience find them, the characters rarely experience any true enjoyment in the situations they encounter. The 'situation' element, of situation comedy usually presents itself as some problem that has to be urgently overcome. The problem is often rather trivial or at least something that the audience would have no difficulty dealing with quickly if they themselves were faced with it. But, for one reason or another, at least one of the characters never quite sees it that way. They will misinterpret the nature of the problem, act inappropriately, stupidly, too early, too late or not at all.
Things usually get worse before they get better. The character does not learn from a similar situation having occurred before, in a previous episode, nor does he or she carry any new life experiences forward to the next. We, the audience, find ourselves laughing just as much because of our ability to predict accurately how bad things will become, from the small beginnings of a situation, as we laugh at specific humour points embedded within.
3. Titles, Themes, Situations, Locations
All situation comedies have a title, a theme, situations in which characters find themselves and locations where the action takes place. Although we have already said that good characterisation is the main factor contributing to a successful series, the items we shall discuss here also play an important part:
A good title in many ways 'makes' a series in much the same way as, in literature, it makes a book. The title is not just a label. It should convey something that, even if not obvious when looked at 'cold', becomes clear early in the first episode. What do the following titles tell us?
The theme describes what a series is broadly about. For a situation comedy it is important that the theme is capable of supporting a sufficient number of humorous situations to make a series of (say) a minimum of six episodes. If it cannot do that then the theme might be considered better for a single comedy play.
Dad's Army - characters and situations bring a theme to life
The theme description itself conveys little about the humour of a work. For example a description such as 'the day to day life in a small hotel in Torquay' could represent a drama, comedy, soap opera, or even (stretching things a bit) a 'who-dunnit'. We need particular types of characters and situations to turn this into a 'Fawlty Towers'. Even a theme that hints at improbable characters in unlikely situations does not lead directly to a situation comedy as the natural outcome. In the characterisation section I mentioned some made up situation comedy themes, but in use they could just as easily become...
"East London gang boss inherits children's home" - a crime drama where the 'boss' is a really nasty character.
"Inmates of monastery win the lottery" - a 'who-dunnit' in which some of the monks mysteriously disappear.
"Philandering knight and new Morals Act" - a political drama with a story line similar to Jeffrey Archer's First Among Equals.
Of course, if we can 'genre shift' in this way, in one direction, we can equally do so in the other. The drama series 'Bouquet of Barbed Wire', screened by LWT in the mid seventies, could never be described as situation comedy in the form that it was shown. But it is not too difficult to imagine how it could be turned into one. A little tinkering with the characters here, and the situations there (although most were already rather improbable!)... and instead of all that nail biting we would find ourselves laughing. Some of the audience emotional reactions to this kind of high drama are, in fact, very similar to those experienced in comedy. If you watched this series how many times did you find yourself thinking 'how is he going to wriggle out of that one?', 'how can she behave like that?' or 'can't he or she see where this will lead?'. Compare the feeling with what happens when you watch your favourite sitcom!
Green Wing writers created this very dramatic situation during the first season
Situations are circumstances that befall characters. Each represent some kind of problem, however trivial, creating a need for 'something to be done', even if the best thing to do would be for the characters to consciously ignore them. Situations are not necessarily funny in their own right. In situation comedy they are made funny when one or more characters responds to them in a way that, for most of us, would be considered inappropriate. Once the first inappropriate action is taken the problem element of the situation snowballs and the characters become more and more entangled, remaining 'locked in' for the duration of most (if not all) of the current episode. Several separate situations can be exploited within an episode, each involving all or a particular subset of the characters.
Multiple situations and their attendant problems do not necessarily start or end at the same time within an episode. Similarly some elements of a situation can be played as flashbacks, flashforwards or dream sequences.
It is useful to analyse situations that arise in popular series, just to highlight how 'straightforward' some of them are. In my hypothetical Fawlty Towers situation on the last page Basil's problems arose because in his mind (alone) the Important Guest was a 'concert' pianist but in due course he turned out to be a pink haired rock and roll musician. Basil (again alone) would consider these attributes most unacceptable in his hotel's clientele. Although he would like to refuse the booking, Sybil overrides him. Basil's stress increases until he eventually goes pop! Very few situations in situation comedy go much deeper than this.
The Brittas Empire - set in a leisure centre
When it comes to selling property Estate Agents are fond of saying that there are only three things that matter... location, location and location! Not so with situation comedy. A situation comedy can be just as successful when set only within the four walls of someone's sitting room as in one of the Sultan of Brunei's palaces. Indeed the former is more likely to be looked at sympathetically by production companies preferring to avoid the considerable cost of reproducing the latter.
Ultimately a location is really just somewhere to put characters. If they need to be moved around a lot then there should be a reasonable justification for doing so. Fawlty Towers is a good example of economic use of location. An episode nearly always starts in the lobby with Basil. How much do we know about the rest of the hotel? Well, not so much really! We know what the exterior looks like. Downstairs, off the lobby, there is a small back office behind the reception desk, the bar, kitchen and dining room. Also from the lobby there is a staircase leading to a first floor landing with at least three guest rooms that have been used in several episodes. Basil and Sybil's room is also occasionally seen but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where it is, as are the rooms occupied by the Major and the Two Old Ladies.
Manuel has a room in the hotel seen in Episode 2.6. Polly also presumably has a room somewhere, if we assume she indeed lives there. Fawlty Towers thus seems to have around six guest rooms (numbers 10, 12, 14 and 16 have been seen on the first floor) and possibly three sets of staff quarters of which we've seen two. To be a going concern there must be more rooms 'somewhere' but how many there are in total is not at all clear. Oddly, Basil and Sybil's un-numbered room is seen to be opposite room 58 in episode 1.3 and one wonders at the tardis-like quality of the building which, although seen to comprise two storeys when viewed from the outside, seems to be rather bigger on the inside!!
The 'open sided box' design of a sitcom set - leaves room for the cameras and audience!
In discussing interiors it is worth remembering the convention that all action takes place in one or more of a series of open sided boxes. The audience view everything through an opening where in fact one would normally expect to find a wall. Characters (Santa Claus excepted!) enter from, and exit to, the back or one of the sides of the box. Characters seated 'around' a table usually only occupy three sides of it. Most dialogue is directed towards the edges of the box where spoken-to characters are conveniently arranged.
The three sided box convention, of course, originates in the theatre, with a stationary audience clearly separated from the action taking place on stage. If the characters did not 'face the front' most of the time it would often be difficult to figure out who was talking or even hear them clearly.
Today, television and film offer far more opportunity to adjust the audience's viewing position (it being much easier to move a camera than a few hundred people!) but for interiors in sitcoms filmed in front of a live audience the convention persists. TV and Film, however, has enabled some settings that the stage continues to find rather difficult. For example, shots from the bonnet of a moving (and apparently window-less) motor car, with driver and passengers in conversation, or the interior of an elevator or aircraft, are all tricky in the theatre but present little problem when using a camera.
Situation comedies with mostly interior sets far outnumber those that are mostly exterior although a notable case of the latter is Last Of The Summer Wine, with its beautiful countryside. Also Mr Bean seemed to spend more time outside than most.
It is worth noting that a mostly-interior shot situation comedy, when it does resort to exteriors, often drops into a 'visual only' mode. For example, in an interior shot, a character might say that he has to go to the bank. With the cut to exterior we see the character leave the house, get in his car, drive to the bank, park, go to a cash machine, have trouble getting the money out, kick the machine when it displays a message such as 'your card has been retained' (which we all know only ever happens on Saturday afternoons!), return to his car, nearly collide with another car when pulling out resulting in some fist waving, and drive back home. All of this is unsupported by dialogue. There may be some background music and possibly sound effects but that is all. Only when the character returns home does normal dialogue recommence. Nevertheless the audience knows exactly what has happened and also the frame of mind the character in now likely to be in.
4. And Last But Not Least
We have explored characterisation and the situations that those characters experience in some detail. Although these are usually considered to be the most important elements to get right we should not overlook several other aspects of situation comedy and the way they can be exploited by writers...
Not Going Out - a blisteringly fast pace with multiple humour points delivered every minute
Generally speaking, in order to generate a considerable number of laughs every situation comedy episode must operate at a considerable pace. Notwithstanding some of the points in the next section, long silences and characters sitting about doing nothing does not lead easily to humour. In order to achieve anything near the number of laughs discussed in the introduction something needs to be happening or being said all of the time. Although the word 'pace' implies velocity, in what I have just said, it is also very important that there is an even spread of available humour elements throughout the entire thirty minutes of each episode. Bunching the humour, at the beginning or end, with lengthy gaps in between, will not hold an audience's attention.
With one episode on paper, it must also be said that the same degree of pace will need to be extended to all other episodes. Any series idea being seriously considered, assuming it is of the orthodox British format of six half hour episodes, must stand up well to the question 'can three whole hours of such side-splitting material be produced?' if it is to stand a good chance of being a 'winner'.
4.2 Irregular Expressions
The humour elements of situation comedy do not only come from witty dialogue lines spoken by improbable characters working their way through difficult situations. This combination and its outcomes may give rise to the major laughs but, in watching any popular series, we find the audience giggling almost continuously. A lot of this giggling comes from the character's gestures, facial expressions, verbal tics, unexpected noises off, the already mentioned slapstick, and a variety of other things either to do with the way dialogue is delivered or based on physical action. Let us examine a few of these...
Brian Sewell - such breeding!
Breeding: Think of Sloanes, people like Lord Lichfield and the UK Royals (particularly HMQ and Prince Charles), the strangulated diction exhibited by the English art critic Brian Sewell (how does he manage to speak like that?) and you have it. Elements of 'Yah', 'Yah', 'one this' and 'one that', etc., plus the many upper class vocalisations one can achieve by mis-pronouncing the English 'ou' sound as in 'doubt' to become the 'i' sound as in 'fight'. Thus 'about' becomes 'a-bite', 'clout' becomes 'clite', 'a mouse' becomes 'a mice', and so on. Physically, people with breeding also wear their clothes differently. Well bred males occasionally roll up their sleeves, but only to just below the elbow, whereas the rest of the world's males roll them up all the way. Aristocratic females can look pretty awful (and get away with it) whereas the rest of the world's females cannot.
Camping it up: The spitefulness of Kenneth Williams, the over-the-top Frankie Howard, John Inman mincing about in 'Are You Being Served', things one can observe from watching Barry Humphrey's portrayal of Edna Everage and stand-up comedians such as Julian Clary. Camp comedians can say almost anything, often in a very cutting way, but they rarely give offence.
Double Entendre: Useful when there is a 'shockable' character amongst the players but beware overdoing it.
Double take: Always a useful effect in situation comedy. A kind of 'quick dawning' as opposed to the slow dawning discussed later.
Hypochondria: We find people who worry about aspects of their health, without any real justification, amusing... probably because we all do it at some time or other. Watching someone else removes our own fears.
Jumping the Gun: Anticipating (often incorrectly) what someone is going to say, then saying it first, or attempting to perform an action (but unsuccessfully) before it is appropriate or necessary to do so.
Life Games: The book Games People Play by Dr Eric Berne, also 'I'm OK - You're OK' by Amy and Thomas Harris, provide a wealth of detail about human interactions, often focussing on the more problematic (thus more 'useful') kind.
Malapropism: This type of muddled speech is useful in characters who are supposed to appear as if they are under the influence of drink or drugs, as well as those having a heightened sense of status who need lowering a bit.
Mispronunciation: Another self esteem lowerer where the character's behaviour is otherwise intended to convey good education.
Noises Off: The crash of falling crockery, revving of engines, screeching of tyres, shouts, screams, footsteps, PA announcements, bedroom sounds (!), distant doors opening and closing, dogs barking, a blaring hi-fi, ship's foghorn, and so on. Any of these can raise a laugh in a situation if used in the right place.
Phobias: Without being unduly cruel (some people have real difficulties with their phobias) fear of flying, heights in general, insects, mice, 'the dark', travelling in a fast car, elevators that stop suddenly between floors, all bring on the nervous laugh when we watch someone else suffer.
Quick Thinking: In comedy situations 'quick thinking' usually means hasty and thus not very well thought through thinking, although its all pretty logical to the character practising it. A really around-the-houses quick thinker can find their way to the sinking of the Titanic from the first cold snap in Balham!
Blakey - a really silly laugh
Silly Laughs: These can be very infectious. Remember the braying Sybil in a certain Fawlty Towers episode, also Blakey in the much earlier On The Buses series. We shouldn't exclude fits of giggles, both the ongoing and 'explosive' kind. The decorative effect of the latter can be enhanced somewhat if the character has just forked in a large mouthful of spaghetti bolognaise.
Slow Dawning: One of the most used comic effects when some fact or event, already known to the audience, is gradually understood by one of the characters. The slow dawning condition is mainly displayed through changing facial expression.
Speech Impediments: Stutters, lisps, inability to pronounce the letter 'r' (sometimes known as Roy Jenkins syndrome!), repetition of certain words within spoken lines, adenoidal speech (Melvyn Bragg), nervously inserted coughs and grunts (Beavis and Butthead) all fall into this general category as does very soft, very loud, monotonic droning and overly sing-song speech.
Techno-speak: Not limited to 'technology' in the IT sense, with examples such as 'a 2314 DASD on a 5108 BUS Controller matrix'. Every profession has its buzz words and phrases usually designed to keep outsiders at bay. Here is a small piece of Sir Humphrey Appleby 'fudge' directed at Jim Hacker from the Yes Minister series:
Tics: Physical things that people unconsciously do when they are talking include twitching, nose rubbing, ear pulling, head scratching, eyeball rolling or looking at the ceiling, 'speaking with hands', playing with fingers and key or money jangling. Verbal tics, depending on the social background of the character, appear when dialogue becomes punctuated with filler words and phrases such as 'right', 'yeah', 'yah', 'yup', 'no', 'no way', 'you know', 'isn't it' (more often 'in-it'), 'I say', 'see', 'blow me', 'fancy', 'know what I mean', 'kind of', 'sort of', 'like', 'really', 'trouble is', 'didn't he' ('din-ee'), 'I told him', 'geddit', 'enough said', 'on my life', 'its the truth', 'really', 'man', 'gosh', 'golly', 'yipes', 'sheesh', 'great', 'super', 'sorry', 'no offence', 'whoops'. We must emphasise that these are only fillers. A character punctuating dialogue with liberal use of 'you know' or 'know what I mean' doesn't expect to receive confirmation of anything. People who use these modes of speech barely know they are doing it.
And so concludes this brief discussion of Situation Comedy. I have, of course, merely scratched the surface of a very complex subject full of ambiguities and exceptions that don't fit into any neat classification. For example, although, in the section on 'pace' I said that an audience would not find long periods of silence and inactivity funny, I can think of several situations, in popular comedies, where they have chuckled their way through just that.
I am also aware that I have focussed a great deal on Fawlty Towers at the expense of further drawing out aspects of other situation comedies. But for me this series had 'everything'. A brilliant character mix, a contained location, easy to follow situations, wide audience appeal, lots of humour (all of the 'laugh at' kind), pace, status, pathos, recognisable human interactions and prejudices, slapstick, caricature, unresolved life struggles... all these make episodes of the series rewatchable over and over again.
The title of this piece set out my early objective: to identify, in situation comedy, what it is that we, as audiences, laugh at. From a whole store house crammed with possible ingredients I have discussed some that can be thrown into the melting pot. This can never be the end of the matter. I have come to the conclusion that just about any situation and bunch of characters, thrust into an arbitrary location, can be made to appear funny... if that is what one is determined to do.
The way situation comedy has been done successfully before should probably be viewed simply as a rough guide to the way one might approach it in the future. There will still be 'mould breakers' that seem to ignore all the text book methods and, despite this, become amazingly successful. When that happens we will be able to add several more ingredients to the ever growing list from which to choose!
Suggested Further Reading
About the Author
Mike Corke, originally from the South of England, has lived with his family in an old restored Spanish farmhouse on the Costa Blanca since 1996 following a 34 year career in computing in the UK. Although now 'early retired' he still pursues strong interests in Music, Painting and Writing. He has written a four-hour drama series about musicians and acted as advisor to a UK SitCom writing team. Mike is particularly interested in the comedy writing process and currently working on the early stages of a new situation comedy series. Mike's Writers Directory Entry
This article is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend the late Robert Campsie Muller of Oxford - it being another fine mess he got me into!
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