Monday, March 2, 2015

Checklist for a sitcom pilot script.

As expected, this 2014-2015 season wasn't good at all for new sitcom pilots. Most of these shows have already been cancelled and mid-season replacements like The Odd Couple almost certainly won't be renewed for another season.

So why were all these new shows so bad? In order to give a decent answer to that, let's take a look at what one should expect from a new comedy show. I believe that these are some of the basic ingredients that shouldn't ever be ignored when it comes to your pilot: 

1) Family concept:

It's not exactly a secret that Modern Family has one of the strongest concepts of current comedy shows on tv. So, whenever I watch a pilot, I immediately start to pay attention to whether there are characters that together might form a cohesive 'family' unit.

This seems like such a simple idea but writers still seem to overlook it and think that a (semi)-traditional 'family' isn't a cool or a hip concept. They think it's an old-fashioned way of seeing life through and that today it's all about individualism. (for example, New Girl)

Conversely they might think that having a sort of a family is good enough - meaning that you create four or five characters that live together and your show is good to go. The writers don't pay attention to the mechanics that make families function. (again, New Girl)

In short, you need to get the basics right. The reason that Everybody Loves Raymond is one of the best sitcoms of all time is because it perfected family dynamics. Every cast member had tangible strengths and weakness compared to each other. 

2) Relatable characters:

This is one of the simplest things to pull off. Nothing is dumber than making the audience resent the characters. For some reason many writers tend to think that unlike in real life, when it comes to television, we'd like to spend time with unlikable jack-asses.

First impressions count the most, so why do writers think that their characters shouldn't be likable? Perhaps they think that in today's postmodern society everyone's in it for themselves and being good to others is not cool at all.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that if the first thing that the main characters do is something that makes me hate them, I'm pretty much done with the show. After all, there are other options too than to watch that specific television program.

On a plus side, it really does pay off to be a relatable main character on a show. Let's not forget that Liz Lemon in the pilot of 30 Rock - if I'm not completely wrong - bought donuts for everyone who was in the cafeteria. I thought that was - ahem - pretty hip and cool.

3) Simple, effective storylines:

Storylines are pretty much derived from the first two examples. If you have failed at coming up with a creative family concept or if you don't have relatable characters, then I don't think it's possible to come up with a simple, effective storyline.

Indeed, this was a common problem with just about every new pilot script that premiered this season. I don't think there were any pilots that had even a decent storyline with a beginning, middle and an end. All we had were random scenes that didn't add up.

For example Odd Couple, that was one of the most highly rated of those new pilots, had a rushed episode that wasted pages on scenes that were redundant. At no point were they telling a story. It was just pointless exposition that went too fast nowhere.

Coming up with a good pilot is not easy but it's possible. Six years ago Modern Family proved that you can write an amazing pilot where you successfully introduce the characters and also tell a good, entertaining story - in just 22 minutes. 

4) Premise:

What is the show about and where does it take place at? Is it a workplace comedy - doctors, advertisement, office work? Does it exclusively happen in someone's home (almost guaranteed to be a multicam sitcom)?

In almost all cases it's best to make sure that the show is about something. The quickly cancelled Mulaney - a series that tried to copy Seinfeld's format  - was truly a show about nothing.  'Selfie' didn't do any better - a show based on an embarrassing viral video!

A good show like South Park gives the writers a chance to write just about anything they want. It's the only series on tv where there's social commentary in almost every episode. It helps that the show is a cartoon about kids that behave like adults.

Modern Family also works because it manages to combine many aspects of life into a twenty-one minute episode. There's well integrated family stuff, there's workplace stuff, there are cultural clashes and even a relatively safe gay couple on the show.

5) Multicam or a singlecam:

Should you choose a multicam (in front of an audience) or single cam as your format? Multicams are shows like Friends, Seinfeld and Two and a Half Men. Single cams are shows like Modern Family, Silicon Valley and Scrubs.

Currently everyone agrees that multicam sitcoms aren't doing well. In my opinion the last time that multicam sitcoms managed to be consistently funny was in 2010 when The Big Bang Theory had its third season. After that it's been very quiet on that front.

The last time that a multicamera sitcom won best comedy series Emmy was in 2005 with Everybody Loves Raymond. It's a pretty safe bet that singlecam shows like Modern Family - five wins in a row - are going to dominate in the future too.

It's not completely out of question that multicams could make an Emmy comeback at some point, but it's not likely going to happen in the near future. As a writer, I'd rather not write a laugh track pilot. It's doesn't seem like a smart move currently.


To learn more, don't forget to check the good pilots. I'd recommend  to watch at least The Simpsons (a cartoon), The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family and Everybody Loves Raymond. At least Raymond you can find from youtube too. 

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