A Character Study: Sitcoms Characters! They’re Just Like Us!

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!

Archetypes in Written Comedy

written by Sarah McLean

Have you watched The Carmichael Show? You may have missed it. Their 6 episode run quietly debuted over 3 weeks at the end of last summer on NBC, just before the new Fall season. If it somehow escaped your live viewing schedule or DVR recording, I suggest you go watch it.

To be quite honest, I had no idea who Jerrod Carmichael was until I saw him on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore the night before his show debuted (smart marketing!). I had seen, and probably fast-forwarded past, commercials for The Carmichael Show so I recognized his name. As panelists go, he was fine. I couldn’t tell you anything he said or what the night’s topic was, but I do remember thinking that he was intelligent, funny, and normal. Seeing him on The Nightly Show actually made me more interested in watching his show, a show where I knew next to nothing about the lead actor, except for the 5 minutes I had just watched. I still had no clue as to the premise of his sitcom (having watched a lot of TV I could take an educated guess – his crazy life with his crazy family!) but now I could at least put a face to the name, and a point of view with both.

Turns out I enjoyed The Carmichael Show pretty early on and because I spent a childhood doing nothing but watch TV, I very quickly knew why: after watching only the pilot, it felt liked I’d already seen 10 episodes. I knew who these characters were. I knew their archetypes. Their points of view. Their shared histories. I knew what made them tick and how each character would react in certain situations.

To the untrained ear this may sound like an insult but it’s not. In fact, it’s a huge compliment. In one episode, the writers were able to clearly and concisely share this world with their audience. I understood these characters because they were very clearly drawn and very precisely written. There was no hemming or hawing. We learned their family dynamic, the tone of the show, their style of humor, the type of topics they’d cover – everything. All in roughly 20 minutes. That’s hard.

For most shows it takes a while to find their footing. By no means was the pilot of The Carmichael Show perfect, but it wasn’t clunky either. It knew what it wanted to be before the first episode. There was no “figuring it out” as they progressed from episode one to six. This was going to be a sitcom that dealt with controversial, topical issues in a clever
and funny way.

Shows that come with backstories, shared histories, and clear characters hit the ground running a lot sooner than sitcoms that are based on just a funny idea or interesting concept but with no real substance to stand on. You need to have your show’s foundation set and your shit together before you get started or it will be a lot harder and take more
time to get there.

This is especially huge right now since we’re in a world where most networks don’t even give shows a chance to succeed. Looking back, 2015 was a kind year but in recent history some shows were cancelled after only one episode (or even before the pilot aired). Yes. Every show needs a learning curve, and some (most) don’t really hit their stride until season two (30 Rock). For those shows that do all the work beforehand, they’re more likely to succeed a lot sooner and be given the time to get even better.

After you catch up on season 1 make sure to check out season 2 of The Carmichael Show starting March 13th. What shows have you liked right off the bat? Which ones took a while to find their footing? Are there any shows you stopped watching and then gave a second chance? Let us know by posting in the comment box below!