What Makes a Sitcom Funny?
I've analyzed three popular sitcoms and found common elements and scenarios that make up most of the episodes.
Sitcoms are great!
They're the perfect choice of entertainment if you need to watch something short and funny. You can start or leave the show pretty much at any point and you'll still end up having a great time.
And, if you're from the Eastern part of the world, sitcoms are a great way to learn a thing or two about the western culture, especially American.
Sitcoms helped me a great deal in learning spoken English when I was in college. I even wrote a blog post a couple of years back where I talked about how watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S landed me a job in writing.
After watching a lot of sitcoms, I can't help but see a common pattern among the shows. The way they've written, the type of characters, the theme behind episodes, and so on.
When I started thinking about this, I asked myself "Are sitcoms formula-driven?"
And, after digging around for a bit, and making observations from some of my favorite sitcom shows, I would say that the answer is "yes".
Sitcoms follow a formula to keep us entertained.
How Sitcoms are Written?
According to an article in the Atlantic, a sitcom follows a template, and every episode is written based on that. It is similar to the 'three-act' structure that is commonly used while writing a novel or a screenplay.
According to the sitcom template, each episode will comprise of the following sections:
To explain each section of this template, let me take an example. I'm taking Season 5, Episode 11 of F.R.I.E.N.D.S (‘The One With All the Resolutions’)
This makes up the portion that comes before the title, i.e. the first 2-3 minutes in an episode. This section usually sets precedence for the theme of the episode or sometimes can also be a series of events/conversations among the characters written to evoke laughter.
In the Friends episode, the teaser shows Chandler and Monica telling Joey that they would want to kiss each at midnight of the New Year's Eve. So, Joey makes arrangements in such a way that he kisses Rachael and Ross kisses Phoebe and Chandler kiss Monica and they wish each other a happy new year. The intro comes on after this part.
From minute 3-8, we get to see trouble or challenge faced by one of the lead characters. This can be anything from a long queue at the mall where a mom has gone to pick up a birthday present, a teenager being grounded but badly wants to go to a party, or a young man struggling to ask a girl out on a date. This portion also features subplots involving other characters.
In the Friends episode, everyone comes up with their new year resolution. Ross says that he will try one new thing every day. That causes a series of incidents later in the episode. This forms the main plot of the episode. Subplots include Chandler keeping himself from not making fun of anybody, Phoebe teaching Joey the guitar, and Rachael trying her best to refrain from gossiping.
But, the actual trouble that highlights the episode is when Ross buys a new pair of leather pants and goes for a date.
This is where whatever plan the character had in mind, goes for a toss. This usually happens between minutes 9 to 13.
In this specific episode, Ross is on a date and realizes that the pants are hot and makes him uncomfortable. When he goes to the bathroom, he can't put his pants back. He calls Joey for ideas and it further messes things for him.
From minutes 13-18, the lead character(s) either succeed or fail in overcoming their obstacle. In this particular episode of Friends, Ross, Rachael, and Joey fail to stick to their new year's resolution
The small funny portion after the credits. This is where Chandler comes to Central Perk and says every comment he's been holding up. The episode ends there.
Common elements across sitcoms
For this section, I've analyzed three sitcoms: F.R.I.E.N.D.S, The Big Bang Theory, and Modern Family, and tried to find common elements among them.
The 'Holiday' Episodes
These episodes make 25% of an entire sitcom
No matter what genre a series belongs to, sitcom or otherwise, they will have episodes based on famous days and public holidays in the US. They are,
Fourth of July
New Year's Eve
Episodes based on these holidays are part of every season. If a sitcom has 240 episodes (10 seasons, 24 episodes each), roughly 60 episodes are written based on these days. That makes up 25% of an entire sitcom.
The 'Less Common' Episodes
Here is a list of less common episodes that you come across at least once in every sitcom. They feature scenarios,
Parents visiting the lead characters
Car breaking down somewhere
Trip to a cabin or a beach (Miami, Vegas, or some cabin)
Trying on wedding dresses
Trip to Vegas
Hearing a baby say 'mama' or 'dada'
Now, let's get down to the fun part. Scenarios that are common across sitcoms. I'm taking F.R.I.E.N.D.S, The Big Bang Theory, and Modern Family as examples.
Somebody shaves their head
By accident or purpose, somebody shaves their head or other characters' head.
Bonnie, Ross's girlfriend shaves off her head after listening to Rachael. This happens when they all stay up at the beach house. (F.R.I.E.N.D.S)
Penny accidentally shaves off a part of Sheldon's head when she is giving him a haircut. (The Big Bang Theory)
Gloria shaves off Luke's head in an episode where Luke wants to try on a Mohawk (Modern Family)
Bonus: Marshal shaves off his head on the day of his wedding! (How I met Your Mother)
Grand wedding turning to a simple one
Another common theme among these sitcoms is, the characters spend so much time planning their wedding (for some reason they all want a wedding on a cliff overlooking the sunset. Is that a thing?).
They fight for the wedding dress, do an insane amount of thinking to choose between Roses, Tulips, and lilies; Think too much while choosing the best man and the bridesmaids; And, have a huge discussion about where to seat their parents at the reception. But, at some point, all of this would go to dust! They'll be broken and miserable and later realize that wedding is not about the place or the grandeur, but about the person, they're getting married to. This is every sitcom wedding ever!
Here are some examples:
Emily wants a wedding at this old place, but the authorities tear it down and their whole plan goes for a ross (I mean toss!). But, they somehow manage to get married in what's left of the place. Another example is Phoebe getting married in front of Central Perk. (F.R.I.E.N.D.S)
Howard and Bernadette have big plans, but they get married on the terrace of Leonard’s apartment before Howard leaves for the International Space Station (The Big Bang Theory)
Cam and Mitch have big plans, but they constantly run between wedding venues as they face several issues. Finally, they get married at Jay's club! (Modern Family)
I think Sitcom creators have a thing for birds. There's always an episode where the lead character(s) have a friendly/fearful encounter with birds.
Chandler and Joey have the 'Chick and the duck' which spans across several episodes. There is an episode where a pigeon flies into Monica's apartment when Rachael is alone. (F.R.I.E.N.D.S)
A Blue Jay flies into Sheldon's apartment. He's afraid of it, but later loves the bird and takes a picture with it. (The Big Bang Theory)
Phil brings home three duck eggs and they hatch in one of the episodes. (Modern Family)
The Prom Connection
Prom plays a major part in Sitcoms. The lead characters either attend prom or asked for one later in their lives (when Mitch asks Cam to be his prom date on Modern Family); Organize prom when they're grown (The Big Bang Theory) or think about their prom which is shown as a flashback (F.R.I.E.N.D.S).
There are a ton of other similarities like one of the lead characters get married or find out about their pregnancy in a season finale, they stand in line for hours to watch their favorite movie, have an issue with a newly moved-in neighbor in the apartment, one where there is a blackout, etc.
I could’ve found more, but I don’t want this post to get super-lengthy. The point I’m trying to make here is sitcoms have a lot more in common than you could think.
But, despite their similarities, sitcoms always make us forget everything and laugh our hearts out. If that's based on a formula, I am happy somebody had cracked it!
Cracking the Sitcom Code -https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/12/cracking-the-sitcom-code/384068/
How to Write a Sitcom That Sells - https://nofilmschool.com/how-to-write-a-sitcom
A Basic Sitcom Episode Plot Template For TV Screenwriters - https://thewisesloth.com/2017/09/29/a-basic-sitcom-episode-plot-template-for-tv-screenwriters/