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10 Tips on Writing a Sitcom

January 21, 2012

Photo by Oliver Hammond

While many of the sitcoms you’ve seen look like they could have been written by a monkey with a typewriter, it goes to show that sitcom writing may actually be the most difficult writing style in existence. Why? Well, not only do you have to know how to write a script which means you need to understand plot, but you need to be funny, concise, and do it all with a sense for where the commercial breaks come.

So before you start cranking out your masterpiece, here are a few basic rules to keep in mind.

1. Follow proper formatting. A sitcom script is formatted differently than a screenplay or stage play and even an hour long television drama. The formatting also depends on whether you plan for you sitcom to be shot single camera or multi-camera (and yes it matters). A sure sign that you don’t know what you’re doing is to use improper formatting. Find your favorite show, get a copy of that script, and follow the formatting. It’s just that easy.

2. Never have a misspelled word or major grammatical error on your first page. You want to make a good first impression. Rarely will you find a script with no misspellings. Everybody makes mistakes, but to do it on your first page tells the reader that you didn’t pay attention to detail and they can expect several errors on the following pages… even if it isn’t true. So read, reread, and re-reread that first page. Then do that for the rest of your script.

3. Puns are not funny. Try to avoid them at all costs.

4. Sitcoms are about characters. These characters have a way of getting into situations that allow the comedy to come out. That’s why they are called “situation comedies”.

5. Sitcoms are about story. So once you have believably flawed characters, you need to develop a storyline that has all the essential elements of good storytelling. Sitcoms are not just sketches or gags. They are real stories that are infused with comedy.

6. Don’t try too hard to be funny. The funny will come if you’ve created excellent characters and put them in compelling situations.

7. Be willing to cut your funniest joke. Usually, you’ve written that one for yourself. Enjoy it. Laugh at it. Then cut it.

8. Learn to accept criticism. Writing is a torturous business. Writing is meant to be read (at least initially with scripts). So once we’ve written something, we usually ask someone we respect to read it and share their opinion. Of course, what we really want is for someone to say how great it is and tell us we’ve created the next “Friends” or “Cheers”, but if someone tells you that, they’re a liar. The person that says that just doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. Instead you need to get a thick skin, find a person who will tell you the hard truth and then take the advice and begin rewriting.

9. Rewrite. Any kind of writing is about rewriting. Don’t fall in love with your first draft. The first draft is just the tip of the iceberg. There is always room for improvement.

10. Know how long a sitcom script should be. If you are writing a multi-camera script it will be longer than a single camera script. A multi-camera script will be around 45 pages long. Think two pages per minute of screen time. Sitcoms (especially multi-camera) are dialogue intensive so the pages can turn fast. A single camera script will be closer to 30 pages. Both scripts have the same amount of words. They are just formatted differently. The best thing to do is get a sample script of the type of show you are writing. This way you will see why one type of script is longer than another.


11. Only use two brass brads. When binding your script, use three hole punched paper, but put brads only in the top and bottom holes. Why? First, that’s what they do in Hollywood. Second, it saves you money. Third, it’s good for the environment and people in Hollywood love to look like they support that cause. In Hollywood, appearance is half the battle, so even your script needs to look the part.

While rules were¬† made to be broken, as a new sitcom writer trying to break in, you’re better off following them for the time being.¬† Once you’re running your own show then you can risk the fate of your show by breaking the rules.

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