written by Sarah McLean
When we think of sitcom characters our minds automatically head toward the words broad, one-dimensional, generalized and unrealistic. With this default thinking we fail to recognize that these characters are reflections of ourselves and therefore have a variety of emotions, thoughts, feelings, traits and intentions that are always happening under the surface.
In comedy, writers have a tendency to pinpoint and focus on one (or a few) major aspects or defining traits of a character and continue to heighten them to a point that’s, for lack of a better term, a few stops short of crazy town (more overtly in sketch; more subtly in sitcoms). How far can we push this one thing while still making the character believable? Think of it as the live action equivalent of an artist’s caricature: Jay Leno’s elongated chin, David Letterman’s tooth gap, or President Obama’s large ears. All are exaggerated and all stop short of going too far to be believable (or recognizable).
This doesn’t mean their plethora of other characteristics have fallen by the wayside, they’re just not as prevalent. And what we think of as the “uncharacteristic” characteristics usually come out to play for specific (comedic) reasons, e.g., a one-off story arc, to set up or pay off a joke. The longer a sitcom is on the air the more we get to see these “other sides” of a character on a more frequent basis.
Let’s use the cast of Friends as an example. Considered one of the best comedies of all time, the writers deftly crafted six layered yet unique characters that still felt like real people, but not only that, real people that were identifiable in our own lives. Certain traits resonate more with an individual than others but all are a part of every person. In Ross we see our super nerdy, dorky, neurotic side; in Monica, our hyper neurotic, perfectionist, controlling side; in Joey, our sweet, jovial, innocent side; in Rachel, or narcissistic, shallow, vain side; in Phoebe, our offbeat, shameless, unconventional side; and in Chandler, our charming, self-deprecating, sarcastic side.
I can hear you now, “But wait! You said Ross and Monica are both neurotic! So that means they’re the same, not different!” Not exactly. Yes, they are both neurotic, siblings from the same family tend to have similar characteristics (Frasier and Niles Crane, Bo and Luke Duke) but, like diamonds and snowflakes, no two are alike.
While each Friend is known for their one “thing”, that’s not all they are. If Rachel is only self-involved the show and her character would get boring very quickly because she’d be a one-note, uninteresting-to-watch-after-one-episode character. We would know everything she’s going to do and say before it happened. There would be no fun, comedic surprises to engage and entertain us. Her moments of generosity, sincerity, and playfulness are what add to a well-rounded character and are what makes her more likeable and real.
This extends to any sitcom character we’ve seen (especially those that have lasted more than one season). Yes, we can quickly describe them in one word or phrase to efficiently sum up who they are or to make a point, but that wouldn’t be doing them justice. Saying, “Joey is the dumb one on Friends” negates his pure sense of joy, his love of women, his nurturing side, his optimism, or his sense of wonder – all of which are still alive inside of him while he’s being truly naïve. Sitcom characters, just like real people, are complex, unpredictable and more than just broad, sweeping generalizations. So, the next time you’re about to play a “What ‘Friend’ are you?”-type game on Facebook you can save your time and respond, “All of them.”
What other sitcoms have multi-layered characters that feel like real people? Who’s your favorite sitcom character? Why? Let us know in the comment box below!