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(c) Andrew Barclay, 2007

(or "Why sketch writers have to start thinking like sit-com writers!")

Few writers, producers, script editors or commissioning heads will disagree that the single, most important ingredient in any comedy or drama in any given media (known or yet to be discovered) is character. Character, and not situation. So much so, that a ‘situation comedy’ should be described more properly as a ‘character comedy’.

This is because where a police station, army barracks, hospital, veterinary surgery, radio station, bar, space ship, office or tower block in Peckham may be interesting in themselves, they are in no way as interesting as the characters who inhabit them.

Consider any successful sit-com, and it becomes clear that the characters and not the situations are the winning ingredient. Del Boy, David Brent, Blackadder – it is the psychological make up of their characters that leads them into action, not simply a response to their immediate surroundings, no matter how visually amusing those surroundings may be. In other words, they are highly pro-active, and not just reactive.

The chaos at the end of an episode of Fawlty Towers, The Brittas Empire or Dad’s Army, for instance, leave an audience in stitches not simply because of the visual elements, but mainly because of the character decisions that have led to the inevitable disaster. Fawlty can’t help but say and do the wrong thing; Gordon Brittas tries to do the right thing, but always fails; Captain Mainwearing wants to do the right thing but his natural pomposity and vanity always get in the way.

Okay, but what does this mean for the sketch writer who has just a couple of minutes to create and motivate a character? Is it really possible to compete with the power of a character created over several years and half-hour series? And surely the whole point of a sketch show is to see a variety of different situations, anyway?

In my view, it is the sketch writer’s role to try to create highly-memorable characters. Even in a sketch set in a mad location, it will be the motivations of the character that will usually be the best fuel for the routine. For example, Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse have developed a broad range of wonderful individuals who make us laugh primarily because of their behaviour rather than because of their presence in a particular location.

Perhaps just as importantly, if you are writing scripts for a live comedy show, or for a low-budget TV production, there may not be the financial resources to set your sketches in exotic or unusual locations. The comedy will rest firmly on the strength of the characters. Therefore, it is essential to prioritise character development above everything else. Plus, if you plan to progress to longer-form comedy writing, it will be your character creation skills that really count in the long run.

So, where do you start..? [top]  [back to handbook home]


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