Comedy Writing

As any screenwriter will tell you, all television and film are all structured in the same way. Mainstream TV shows have three acts separated by two plot points. These features are rigorously structured. There are almost no shows that are aired that deviate from this idea.

Fig. 4 - Jeff and Abed from Community

If you look closely, comedy shows share many common features, too. However these are culturally structured. There is no one setting the rules for how a comedy show should be aside from the basic TV show structure. There are simply things that we find funny.

Suggestions and explanations of this structure are not meant to make your show boring, or run-of-the-mill, or trite. This information is merely exposing the underlying commonalities already present in TV today. Understanding these ideas will allow you to conceptualize what you already like in shows today, and see what you can learn about where you want your own show to go.

The Dumb Character

Pierce: He thinks all dogs are boys and all cats are girls. Troy: There's no way to disprove that. Have you ever seen a cat penis?

Fig. 1 - Troy from Community

The Dumb Character is the most important inclusion into any comedy show. Because most comedies are not heavily plot focused, the Dumb Character breaks up the dialog with lack of understanding.

  • Joey from Friends
  • Caboose from Red vs. Blue
  • Alex from Happy Endings
  • Charlie from It's Always Sunny
  • Tracy Jordan from 30 Rock
  • Dhalia from Suburgatory
  • Many shows feature multiple dumb characters. Such as Phil Dunphy, Luke Dunphy, and Haley Dunphy from Modern family.

Ideally all of your characters will be a little "dumb" to put them in humorous situations. NBC's Community characterizes each person as dumb in a certain way that relates to their obsessions.
  • Troy is innocent and doesn't understand a lot of things
  • Pierce is old and doesn't understand new things (in a way, Pierce and Troy are mirrors of each other)
  • Britta is an exaggerated activist who is ignorant about the world
  • Jeff is overly concerned with his looks
  • Abed looks at everything through the lens of TV
  • Annie is an overachiever who cannot comprehend failing
  • Shirley is religious and a mother who often tries to guilt people

Each of these obsessions become character types that expose their character weaknesses. These weaknesses show themselves in the form of saying or doing dumb things. This is the best example of the dumb character in use, because each character is constantly making a fool of themselves. This trading of pointed looks highlights character traits, which allows the viewer to become emotionally invested while laughing at the situation and dialog.

The Dumb Character does not necessarily need to be dumb! This sounds counterintuitive, but consider Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. The show constantly depicts him as the most intellectual of the group. Each of the other characters take turns being the straight man, and the overall Straight Man to the group is Penny! Penny is the least intellectual (which is actually a little insulting, Tumblr user butmyopinionisright puts it better than I can).

Sheldon is "dumb" because he's socially awkward. This makes him the most clueless, allowing him to be incredulous in normal situations.

This is Caboose's Greatest Moments from the webseries Red vs. Blue. Caboose is a great example of the dumb character.

Fig. 8 - Red vs. Blue - Caboose's Greatest Moments Part 1

The Straight Man

Liz Lemon folds an entire pizza in half and shoves it in her mouth.

Fig. 5 - Liz Lemon from 30 Rock
The Straight Man is extremely common, but should be avoided. The straight man never gets to have any fun, they are a representative of the audience in the face of the dumb character. Every other character is doing silly things while the straight man is left to look aghast at the insanity.

  • Liz from 30 Rock
  • Michael Bluth from Arrested Development
  • Penny from Big Bang Theory
  • Jeff from Community
  • Annie from Community

The problem with the straight man is because they represent the audience, reality, and common sense, they are often a party-pooper. The other characters don't have the restrictive bounds of intelligence and are able to be dumb and get into shenanigans. The straight man can only look on disapprovingly.

The straight man can be a useful character type when they are eventually allowed to join in on the fun. Liz is often the normal character in 30 Rock, but sometimes she gives in and goes a little crazy. This personality change can be incredibly funny because the audience knows that Liz should know better but she's temporarily impaired due to an obsession.

Community constantly changes the straight man in each situation, just how they trade off the dumb character. Jeff might be sarcastically mocking the crazy thing a character is doing until he recognizes something he wants. Then he joins in completely. Annie may understand that the situation is dumb until a failing grade is threatened; then she is in as well.

The Girly Man

The Girly Man is a man who likes to do traditionally girly things.

  • Donut from Red vs. Blue
  • Brad from Happy Endings

This can be an interesting character because he will reverse expectations of gender. In Happy Endings Brad is a straight, married man who enjoys being pampered, dancing, and spending time in the spa.

Fig. 2 - Brad and Max from Happy Endings

The problem with this character type is that gender is defined by our culture, and cultural definitions of gender are constantly being tested. Depending on how you choose to represent gender in your show, you may want to shy away from this. Both Donut and Brad like to indulge in lotions, baths, candles and other spa treatments. This is relatively harmless, but it can also sink into serious stereotypes of women or of homosexuality. If you're sensitive to these issues like I am, then it is important to tread softly with this type.

Other Types and Multiples

Fig. 6 - Charlie from It's Always Sunny

Characters may appear in more than one character category. That's because combining these personalities can have excellent results. One example is when you allow the dumb character to not just be innocent, but make him or her sarcastic too. Charlie from It's Always Sunny is a good example of this.

There are many other character types and remixes of old types that become new. I have included some here, but something you'll notice is that all ensemble comedies are unique in many ways. These character types are structures that become apparent under direct study, but that doesn't invalidate the creativity that goes into each of these characters.

The Sarcastic Character

  • Chandler from Friends
  • Grif from Red vs. Blue
  • Jeff from Community

The Sexually Inappropriate Character

  • Pierce from Community
  • Tucker from Red vs. Blue
  • George from Suburgatory

The Rich Character

  • Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock
  • Pierce from Community

The Depressed Character

  • Ross from Friends

The Racist But That's Okay Character*

  • Pierce from Community
  • Michael from The Office

*Note: I don't think it's okay.


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