December 15, 2018

"As happens to so many of us, I was asked to write a sitcom for Croatian television. I’m an American ex-pat living in Slovenia..."

Wrote Noah Charney in The Atlantic — back in 2015 — in "Cracking the Sitcom Code/After signing up to write a script for Croatian television, I learned that virtually all TV comedies, from Seinfeld to South Park, follow a simple formula." I'm reading this because I'm in the middle of watching the complete 10 seasons of "Friends," and I'm writing about it episode-by-episode as I go. In the process, I've developed my understanding of the structure of sitcom writing, and this article is right in the zone for me.

Charney had written some plays, but never any television. He took the job, though, and he began by googling "How to write a sitcom." Then he watched a lot of sitcoms, looking for tips. He was looking to crack the code and discover the structure. He found "a highly-specific, minute-by-minute" formula, and he found it — the “sitcom code.” And (most helpfully?) he used a word-processing program that had a "sitcom format."
The Sitcom Code breaks down what needs to happen in each episode, by the minute. As Dan Richter of Demand Media notes, “Sitcoms, minus commercials, are typically 22 minutes long [with] a script of 25-40 pages. Every sitcom episode has a main plot (story A), as well as one or two subplots (stories B and C).” There are three main acts, divided by two commercial breaks (in most American TV), with 3-5 scenes per act. One of the distinguishing characteristics of sitcoms, as opposed to other forms of television, is that the main protagonist(s) barely change from one episode to the next... Therefore whatever happens in the episode, the situation must end largely where it began....

Each episode begins with the protagonist stating a goal or problem that must be solved, and which we understand will be solved by the end of the episode.... When writers sit around and prepare a new episode, many literally map out what will happen, minute-by-minute, in the main storyline and sub-storylines, filling in jokes later.
Charney describes one episode of one sitcom under the headings: "The Teaser (Minutes 1-3).... The Trouble (Minutes 3-8)... The Muddle (Minutes 8-13).... The Triumph/Failure (Minutes 13-18)... The Kicker (Minutes 19-21)...." I found this too boring to read, which taught me something about writing about a sitcom: A plot summary is unreadable. You've got to write interesting sentences. In my "Friends" writing, I do what I do on this blog, write about whatever interests me and only what interests me. (That's the formula for blogging. Feel free to use it!)

Back to Charney:
This deconstructionist approach to sitcoms was truly helpful when it came time to write my own, as I had minute-by-minute slots to fill and a strong idea of this endlessly successful and recycled series of plot arcs. But I still had to write the darn thing. The Croatian public were waiting.

Next time you settle in to watch a sitcom, keep this code in mind, and an eye on your stopwatch. You’ll be amazed at how tight and to-the-minute the formula is, yet marvel at the variety that TV writers conjure within this straitjacket literary form. Now, I better start Googling “what Croatians find funny…”
Charney is in a funny situation himself. But I don't get the last line. Did he write the sitcom or not? Obviously, the magic is in what you put into the structure. But structure is great. It's good to notice things that follow a tight structure. Apparently, even the sitcoms that seem powerfully innovative use this structure. I wonder if the structure has mostly to do with the placement of commericals and whether commercial-free shows stick to the formula. Maybe it's such a good formula that they do.


Temujin said...

Fascinating. I'm going to have to dig into this. Last night I stumbled onto a couple of episodes of the old Dick van Dyke show. They were laugh out loud funny. Just as they were for my dad (when I was a kid) and for me a few years later as a teenager. It still holds up. (van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were so good at their craft). I should not have been surprised at how funny they were, but I was. I mean- the cast was one of the best ever. The writer: Carl Reiner- hello- just one of the funniest writers/conceivers of humor we've ever had.

But funny is timeless. Maybe for some of the young, deep into their indoctrination which removes their sense of humor, it would not be funny. But these episodes would be universally funny to the rest of the world. I wonder- was Carl Reiner aware of the code? Did he write the code before there was a code?

Fernandinande said...

Židov hoda u šank, i barmen kaže "kako si izašao iz bunara?"

Laslo Spatula said...

Sitcom writers are today's version of Tin Pan Alley.

The beats and framework of the episode are not much different than what made a Sixties pop song work on the radio.

Writers with quips instead of hooks.

In this context the actors in "Friends " = the singers in "The Four Seasons." As an example.

I could go on.

But, for now: what sixties pop song would be the equivalent of "Seinfeld"?

Show your work.

I am Laslo.

Ralph L said...

I feel a quip is required here, but my mind is balkin'.

I can't imagine dialogue written by a foreigner would be very good unless it's a parody, which can't be sustained.

If they simply translated an American sitcom and cast it with Croatian actors, they'd save a lot of money and no one would notice. They'd have to change the dialogue a bit to avoid copyright infringement.

MadisonMan said...

Well, you don't mess with success. If it worked for the Dick Van Dyke show -- and it did -- why not keep doing it?

(I will add that my example was written before reading comment #1).

My favorite Kicker moment from Dick Van Dyke is from the episode when Dick thinks they brought the wrong baby Richie home from the hospital. The end of that particular show is perfect for so many reasons.

Eleanor said...

Most TV series, especially the dramas, follow a tight format. If you decide to binge watch one of them, the formula is right there in your face no subtlety involved. I call it the "Perry Mason formula". The new "limited series" genre seems to have less structure, or maybe there just haven't been enough of them made yet for the formula to be so blatant. A few of them do have the "every week a cliffhanger" vibe.

Laslo Spatula said...

I used to really enjoy the Dick Van Dyke show until I understood how Cis-Normative White Patriarchal it was.

That insidious Cis-Normative White Patriarchal stuff really got to me in my formative years.

Through Mary Tyler Moore's sexy pants. Those bastards.

Vanity Fair: "How Mary Tyler Moore Subverted TV Sexism with a Pair of Capris"

I am Laslo.

Temujin said...

One of the Dick van Dyke episodes that had me howling was the one when Laura was pregnant and due. They were in bed and Rob had his robe on in bed, and under the robe he was fully dressed. Had his hat on the counter above the head of the bed, ready to jump out at a second's notice- which he does when the alarm clock falls off the end table. It is a hilarious scene. If you ever get the chance to see'll make you laugh. Not just the lines, but his comically physical humor.

Laslo Spatula said...

From that Vanity Fair article:

...In this way, wearing pants on a popular sitcom “broke new ground,” she told NPR in 1995. At the time, the choice was met with resistance. Sponsors for the show weren't fond of the look, claiming they were, ahem, worried about the fit of her pants. “They used [the] term ‘cupping under.’ And I can only assume that that meant my, you know, my seat—that there was a little too much definition,” she recalled...

And so they allowed me to continue to wear them in one episode—one scene per episode, and only after we checked to make sure that there was as little cupping under as possible . . . But within a few weeks, we were sneaking them into a few other scenes in every episode, and they were definitely cupping under. And everyone thought it was great.”

The Croatians sitcom makers better get that Cupping Under thing. That way, if the jokes don't really work, you still have a reason to watch.

I am Laslo.

tcrosse said...

Through Mary Tyler Moore's sexy pants. Those bastards.

Those pants hid her gams, which were not hard to look at, either.

M Jordan said...

Years ago I took my high school English classes down a road of exploration of Suspense Techniques. They brought in movies set at a suspenseful scene (this was back in the VHS days) which we watched and began analyzing. It was a popular “study” which I continued for several years. The result was a list of about 50 techniques writers used to create suspense. The naming and grouping process was highly useful. I now sometimes write using one of the techniques we identified to create tension, even in essay writing. My favorite technique was ...

(Can you guess it?)

Laslo Spatula said...

"(Can you guess it?)"

Dammit! I'm trying to click through to find out more, but it isn't going anywhere...

I am Laslo.

rhhardin said...

That's what I didn't like about Breaking Bad, still "maybe later" for watching the rest of season 2. TV formats intrude. It goes by the sitcom formula.

Veep avoided it by being about skewering what needs skewering every minute.

tcrosse said...

"(Can you guess it?)"

Have a care. This is a technique Althouse prefers to keep for herself.

Ralph L said...

What I hate about recent sitcoms (not that I watch such drivel) is how nasty and deceitful many characters are to their so-called friends. Lucy at least had her reasons for lying.

Rory said...

Ralph said: "If they simply translated an American sitcom and cast it with Croatian actors, they'd save a lot of money and no one would notice. They'd have to change the dialogue a bit to avoid copyright infringement."

This apparently happened in Belarus with "The Big Bang Theory."

Satellite radio has an old time radio channel, and I listen to a lot of the comedies. It doesn't seem like there's any significant break between the radio and TV writing. I just heard a "Life with Luigi" from 1949 where Luigi where Luigi was terricied by the proslect of an IRS audit. The same basic script would be repeated for years, and I'm guessing it was old in Luigi's time.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Sitcoms are like victory gin except it comes out of the faucet.

Laslo Spatula said...

I am enamored of "The Triumph/Failure (Minutes 13-18)."

Triumph and Failure as perfectly interchangeable.

That strikes me as being vaguely Buddhist, in that way of not really knowing much about Buddhism except for the roly-poly belly. And Western Hippie Cultural Appropriation in the Green Shag Carpet Era.

The only thing that I would disagree with is that Triumph and Failure both have the same time allotment.

My personal experience is that the desolate feelings of Failure last a lot longer than the fleeting highs of Triumph.

Somehow this ties into Laura Petrie's Capri Pants. I'm sure of it.

I am Laslo.

Ralph L said...

Only Dick tied into those Capri slacks.

Laslo Spatula said...

"Only Dick tied into those Capri slacks."

Tying one's dick to wear Capri pants.

Entering the Laura Petrie Drag Queen Contest. evidently.

I am Laslo.

Ann Althouse said...

"But, for now: what sixties pop song would be the equivalent of "Seinfeld"?"

"I Am the Walrus."

"Sitting on a cornflake…"

Seinfeld famously eats cereal.

"waiting for the van to come"

In the "Junk Mail" episode, Jerry rents what turns out to be a van and hijinks ensue.

"Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday…"

Jerry does standup comedy abut a bloody tee-shirt — here.

"Man, you've been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long"

In the episode "The Movie," George describes Jerry as "a guy with like a horse face"

"I am the egg man, they are the egg men
I am the walrus, goo goo g'joob"

2 words: Marine Biologist.

"Boy, you've been a naughty girl you let your knickers down"

You mean the panties your mother laid out for you?

"Don't you think the joker laughs at you?"

Jerry is the joker, laughing at us.

"Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower…"

Semolia = more cereal
pilchard = a fish, so — more marine biology
Eiffel Tower = we all remember the season finale when Jerry and the gang all went to Paris

Laslo Spatula said...

I Googled "best Croatian sitcom", which brought me to the IMDB page "10 Best Croatian TV Series of the Decade (2000-2010)"

Number One is "Bitange i princeze" (2005– ) 30 min | Comedy.

Description: "A comedy about five young adults who happen to live in the same building and gather in a pub called "Bitange i princeze".

Which sounds a lot like Althouse's current viewing, "Friends".

More details:


It's about the lives of five different people who happen to live near each other. Robi is a lady-killer and a sports expert but only in his own head. He often thinks he's better than everyone else and sometimes makes fun of his roommates. He is always arguing with Irena, a hot ex-model who decided she needed a more meaningful life. She is not so bright and often makes stupid statements but she is also resourceful and competitive. They live next-door with their roommates. Kazimir or so called Kazo is a nerdy video game fan who knows everything about movies and video games. He has a very bad and bossy mother and he moves away from her and becomes a roommate of Robi and Teo. Teo is a very successful lawyer. His wife kicked him out of their apartment and filed a divorce after she cheated on him. Lucija is a lost and confused hippie who loves animals. She is also a vegetarian. She is Irena's roommate and they first met in a video store where Lucija works. They all live near each other and ..."

Lucija is Phoebe, Robi is Joey, etc etc.

I think an American writing for that show will probably do fine.

I am Laslo.

tcrosse said...

Two Serbs walk into a bar....

Laslo Spatula said...

Althouse @ 12/15/18, 8:45 AM:

Meaning 'Seinfeld' was to sitcoms what the Beatles were to 60s pop music.

Nice: I can see that.

Jerry = Paul

George = John

Elaine = George

Kramer = Ringo.

I realize people will say, No: Jerry is JOHN.

To which I will reply: Fuck No, Lennon Fan Boys.

John thought he was more clever than he really was: George.

Jerry was a supreme craftsman at his trade: Paul.

Like that.

I am Laslo.

Laslo Spatula said...

"Two Serbs walk into a bar...."

And kill the Croatian bartender.

Hijinks ensue.

I am Laslo.

Laslo Spatula said...

"Two Serbs walk into a bar...."

Is this the place to talk about "A Serbian Film"?

"A Serbian Film" on a double-feature with "The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)" would make for a wonderful evening of losing faith in mankind.

Or give you some new ideas for the Next Step in your life.

I am Laslo.

Ralph L said...

Two Serbs walk into a bar....

A Serb, a Croat, a Bosnian, a Kosovar, a Slovenian, and a Herzegovinian get off their ottomans and squeeze into a austere Yugo because they're hungry.

Mark said...

This largely falls into the NSS category. Almost all creative writing follows a similar structure. And because of this cookie cutter approach, because it all looks the same, a lot of shows are bad.

tcrosse said...

Serbs and Croats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy.

Laslo Spatula said...

"Serbs and Croats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy."

Serbs and Croats and Seals and Crofts.

Blowing like the jasmine in former Yugoslavia.

I am Laslo.

John henry said...

When you have to do the same thing week after week a formula is not just helpful, it is required. This is especially true where multiple people work on it.

I developed and wrote more than 60 kc boxbottom "adventure in packaging" pieces over 4-5 years:

Kc is in the office
Someone comes in with a problem
We go to their plant
Kc declares "fiddlesticks on (problem) here is the solution
Closing sentence

Once I developed the character and got the formula down, I could crank out 4-5 adventures in half an hour.

The hardest part was coming up with ideas but even that wasn't hard. I just kept a running list on my phone. As I remembered or heard or saw something I'd jot it down.

Only kind of writing that pays better is ransom notes (h/t Elmore Leonard)


Ralph L said...

Dennis Quiad starred in the Serbian propaganda film "Savior" in the 90's. Some Bosnian Muslims murdered his family and he joins the Serbian militia. Hijinks and war crimes ensued.

John henry said...

And always 250 words +/- 5

John Henry

reader said...

Song = Wish I Could Fly Like Superman by the Kinks

Ralph L said...

Couldn't they have given you the magic 256?

rcocean said...

Britcoms don't have the same striaght-jacket formula, or least the ones we see.

Amexpat said...

"But, for now: what sixties pop song would be the equivalent of "Seinfeld"?"

Clothes Line Saga. Not quite a pop song, but it's about nothing and is funny.

reader said...

Sorry songs not from 60’s but Seinfeld loves Superman.

Ann Althouse said...

"I Googled "best Croatian sitcom", which brought me to the IMDB page "10 Best Croatian TV Series of the Decade (2000-2010)" Number One is "Bitange i princeze" (2005– ) 30 min | Comedy."


Now, I'm ready to believe there's a "Friends" knockoff in every language. Why not?

William said...

"Your money or your life"........"I'm thinking. I'm thinking"........This was said to be so very funny because there were twenty years of build up leading to the punch line......In the sitcoms, we like to see the characters act in predictable ways in unpredictable circumstances. Sheldon, of Big Bang, is the worthy heir of Jack Benny. No matter how complex and chaotic the circumstances of his life becomes, he remains the same. This is true of the other characters in the sitcom, perhaps of all sitcom characters, but the bas relief is most pronounced with Sheldon,

William said...

I like the Dick Van Dyke Show better than Mts. Maisel. The jokes were funnier, and there was no mediation on the role of comedy in our lives.

DavidD said...

My daughter’s school had an essay formula—she could crank one out like an essay-writing machine; McEssays, we called them.

tcrosse said...

Now, I'm ready to believe there's a "Friends" knockoff in every language. Why not?
In Canada they just dubbed it (poorly) in French.

Wince said...

I'd imagine the structure he lays out is a crutch for newcomers to the biz, where you can piece together all the small jokes in the episode's plot, and especially work as part of a writing committee.

Maybe after "10,000 hours" of practice you'd develop the ability to conceptualize the entire arc of a show in your mind's eye before sitting down to write.

Don Jansen said...

Did he write the sitcom? I think so. On his websit eis a TV, Film, Video which mentions that "He also writes scripts, including the screenplay for a feature-length documentary on the Slovene musician and poet, Vlado Kreslin, and for a new comedy sitcom directed by and starring Branko Djuric."

tcrosse said...

Coupling, the BBC knockoff of Friends, manages to stick to the template, but without the commercials.

tcrosse said...

As happens to so many of us, I was asked to write a sitcom for Croatian television.

I hate when that happens.

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

just do 'Perfect Strangers' in reverse