The sitcom is the bread-and-butter of TV comedy in many countries. A sitcom is a "situation comedy". It's a comedy program involving a reasonably consistent set of characters and a reasonably consistent setting, and follows their actions in their everyday life. That's what sets it apart from a Sketch Show.
Other than that, the definition of a sitcom has become blurry. Although most people associate the term with live action, cartoons like The Simpsons and The Flintstones are sometimes counted too. Some types of show, like Dramedy, will blur the line between being a sitcom and another genre.
The standard episode length for a sitcom is 22 minutes in the United States and 25 minutes in the United Kingdom, with the sitcom and its ad breaks filling a half-hour slot. For reasons explained further below, the number of episodes in a season (called a 'series' in some countries) can vary considerably by country.
Necessary TropesFirst off, you need characters. Like most television shows (and, indeed, most stories), a sitcom focuses on a consistent set of characters. You need to figure out who they are, what they want, and how they react to things. So brush up on your Characterization Tropes.
Also, you need to be able to tell funny jokes. Do not attempt to write a comedy if you are unable to be comedic.
Choices, ChoicesThe most important decision is coming up with a premise. Firstly, there's the setting. It does not have to be original; loads of sitcoms have been made about ordinary family life. Nor does the setting have to be interesting. In fact, many sitcoms revel in portraying boring everyday life, and any actual drama is a distraction from the comedy.
Secondly, there are the characters. These will make or break the sitcom. The characters will have a mix of personalities that can be used to generate funny situations. One might be a hyperactive idiot, but it is unlikely that all of them would be. They do not have to all be overt clowns, and sometimes it pays to have a "straight man" in the mix. Although the setting itself doesn't have to be original, the combination of characters should be different from any recent show. So if your sitcom is about a Dysfunctional Family, it probably should use a different set of characters than The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle.
A sitcom may or may not have a Laugh Track. It was once almost compulsory for live-action sitcoms to have them, the idea being that the sound of laughter would get audiences at home in the mood for laughing. Many sitcoms were filmed in front of a live audience to supply the laughter. This isn't possible for on-location shots, so another alternative would be to play the recording to an audience later. Others really did add recorded laughter, a practice that is now frowned on today. Since the 1980s, many successful sitcoms have not had any background laughter at all. Within the sitcom, however, characters seldom laugh at the jokes themselves.
Related to this is the question of your setup. I Love Lucy pioneered the Three Cameras setup that remains the standard to this day, as this allows for efficient filming and editing. Your actors only have to do something once — which, as the presence of bloopers and corpsing remind us, can be a huge advantage to actually getting the job done. However, single-camera setups, like those used for most motion pictures, have also begun to make an impact on the sitcom landscape, particularly in conjunction with "cinema verité" and Mockumentary techniques seen in shows like The Office (US), Parks and Recreation and Arrested Development.
Finally, you should give some thought to your narrative structure. While the traditional sitcom approach is to tell the story roughly chronologically, the Mockumentary style allows a different type of set-up: namely, cutting away to explain a context that will make the scene, once revisited, funny. Flashbacks can be used for the same purpose, as can a narrator. The latter two techniques were used extensively by How I Met Your Mother, and in doing so practically invented a new subgenre of comedy that mixes cutaway juxtapositions, rapid set-up and Anachronic Order into the traditional linear structure. Only a few other shows, most notably Jane the Virgin, have really started digging into this space, but that means there's plenty of room for you to play around in it, too!
Sitcom subgenres include:
- Awful Wedded Life
- Black Sitcom
- Dom Com
- Fantastic Comedy
- Kid Com
- Odd Couple
- Roommate Com
- Sit Comic
- Work Com
PitfallsThe biggest possible pitfall for a sitcom would be for it to not be funny in the first place. This can sometimes be an unpredictable business. What might be funny to you might fly over the heads of the audience; conversely, a gag you rejected might turn out to be a crowd-pleaser. This is partly why sitcoms are sometimes taped before a live audience: it provides instant feedback as to how well the script is working. Stand-up comedians who write sitcoms sometimes test material in their stand-up shows.
If a series doesn't quite gel at first, the problem can sometimes be solved by Growing the Beard. This is usually the result of the mix of characters finally 'clicking' into a combination that can consistently produce the humour. Sometimes it means making changes to the personalities of characters. Other times it could mean changing their prominence, with a Breakout Character rising to the foreground and a less interesting or appealing character being Demoted to Extra. It could even mean adding or removing characters altogether. If the writers listen to feedback and see which bits were working and which weren't, there is a chance this can happen naturally.
Because they're supposed to be 'slice of life' comedy, people expect a degree of realism. They might exaggerate things a bit, and some even have fantasy settings or elements, but only up to a limit. If a sitcom isn't fully realistic, people should at least be able to relate to the characters. A high-school drama can get away with having teenagers talk like adults or even with Totally Radical slang, but in a high-school sitcom they would have to talk like teenagers. Some even make the dialogue sound realistic, either through tight scripting or through ad-libbing.
If a series runs for too long, it may undergo Seasonal Rot or even Jumping the Shark. Storytelling might be compromised in attempts to wring out some remaining laughs. Having increasingly bizarre plots and the Flanderization of characters is not always bad, but it can be if it goes against the original spirit of the show. Conversely, while Character Development is good storytelling, it can also mean that characters are stripped of what makes them funny.
Potential SubversionsActual parodies of a sitcom are rare, for obvious reasons.
Writers' LoungeThere is a marked difference between American and British practice when it comes to writing sitcoms. American sitcoms tend to be "written by committee", having commercial incentives to produce a large number of episodes. A producer and maybe a few other writers will create some pilot scripts as they get the sitcom green-lit. Once this is done, the producer will assemble a panel of writers to write the episodes. The Office (US) had over 30 writers during its entire run, not including one-off contributions. A producer, head writer or show-runner will work to make sure that the characters and plot arcs stay consistent. That's how they manage to produce 2224 episodes a year; no writer on his own could produce material at that rate.
By contrast, British Brevity dominates on the other side of the pond. It's a similar practice in most other countries, including continental Europe and Latin America. It's the writers, not the producers, who create sitcoms. Usually it's a duo, although it is possible for just one writer to do it, as Steven Moffat did with Coupling. A sitcom season (or 'series' in British English) normally has six episodes a year. Since the writers are in control, they also have a tendency to wrap it up after two or three seasons/series, having run out of ideas or decided to move on to something new.
The two approaches have their fairly obvious advantages and disadvantages. However, unless you're in a position to hire writers, you'll probably be stuck writing a small number of episodes. There is no pressure to write 20 or more episodes.
Suggested Themes and AesopsEpisodes require some adventure and characters require some motives, but the sitcom format states that Status Quo Is God. Gains that characters make in an episode tend to be erased by the end of it. Therefore, some of the most common themes are unfulfilled dreams and the frustrations of a mediocre life. This means that sitcoms aren't at the cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, but closer to the middle. Life in a sitcom is rarely great, often irritating but never outright depressing.
Sitcom episodes can have An Aesop, but it's best that this doesn't overshadow the comedy. After all, the comedy is why the audience came. Still, it's quite easy to incorporate a moral message into a sitcom episode. An episode can have an aesop against dishonesty by having a character tell a lie and then having to deal with the negative and comic consequences, a la "Fawlty Towers" Plot. At no point does the show have to say, "And the moral of the story is..."
Suggested PlotsIt is often said that writers should Write What You Know and this is true for sitcoms. Remember an experience in your life that was funny or embarrassing? It would likely make a good storyline for one episode.
A common sitcom plot might be formed around characters trying to escape from the setting or improve their status. In a Work Com, this might mean that an office drone is trying to get a promotion. In a sitcom about show business, this might be that a B-list actor is trying to make it big. In a prison, this might meaning escaping. It holds that Failure Is the Only Option because Status Quo Is God. The end of a sitcom episode often has two parts, a "resolution" where the character gets what they want, and a "comedown" in which the good fortune evaporates and the status quo is restored.
There should be some logic and structure to the main plot, so that it does not just feel like a series of random or silly scenes. Sitcom episodes often have a subplot running alongside the main plot, and many have two subplots. The subplots can serve several roles. They can be used to provide extra comedy, to provide some 'breathing space' instead of comedy, to explore the minor characters of the series, to set up (or continue) new plot arcs and many other reasons.
Set DesignerSitcoms tend to be relatively inexpensive the produce. Most commonly they will be filmed with a few regular sets that feature in almost every episode. In a Dom Com, this might be the lounge, kitchen and dining room, for instance. In a Work Com, this might be the main office, the cafeteria and a conference room. A Bottle Episode might be set entirely on just one set.
Casting DirectorWhatever characters they play, actors need to be good at comic timing. Even the wittiest lines need good delivery in order to work. They must be able to stay straight-faced in absurd and funny situations.
Do not stint on casting. As Tom Hanks Syndrome reminds us, comedy requires better actors than drama.