by Ellen Buikema
In this last in the series, we have Situational comedy—the sitcom—referring to comedic situations that are inescapable, awkward, and generally lighthearted. Look for Part1 on Physical Comedy/Slapstick and Part 2 on Verbal Comedy.
Sitcoms include a series of events meant to make readers or viewers laugh. The characters in sitcoms are often forced to deal with a weird situation that challenges their relationships and sometimes their understanding of the world, all while keeping the story’s tone light.
This type of comedy is usually used in television shows. However, there are novels that wield situational comedy too.
The earliest situational comedies were radio programs. Beginning in the 1920s “song and patter” comedy routines were popular. Radio actors told jokes interspersed with music—some of the instruments were most unusual. Here’s an example from the 1930s.
Musical comedies began much earlier—ancient Greece and Rome. We’ve always needed a good laugh!
A radio program from the 1920s named The Amos ‘n Andy Show, was launched as a TV show in the 1950s. This program was modeled after a minstrel show, therefore based on racial stereotypes. Shortly after the program aired, protests were launched because of the negative stereotypes. The show was cancelled a few years later but remained in syndication until the mid-60s.
The Fibber McGee and Molly program originated when husband-and-wife vaudevillians Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns began their third year as Chicago-area radio performers. Two of the shows they did for station WENR (WLS AM radio) beginning in 1927, both written by Harry Lawrence, bore traces of situational comedy.
Mary Kay and Johnny went on to perform the first sitcom to be broadcast on national TV in the United States in the 1940s—Mary Kay and Johnny.
Some of the situational comedies from the 1950s are still watched today. The I Love Lucy show, groundbreaking in many ways, is considered one of the best situational comedies of all time. Here’s a colorized version of Lucy and Ethel at the Chocolate Factory.
Real stories come from real voices and places. Finding the truth in your subject is a big part of writing comedy.
Plan your backstory, your characters’ histories and their personalities, and plot points in advance. This will save you time and aggravation as you develop your stories. The pantser in me squirms at this, but planning makes a difference.
The story has to matter to the main character, or it won’t matter to the readers. The plot must be important to the protagonist.
Remember watching a show or reading a story and figuring out what happens next? Wasn’t that irritating? Creating surprising twists isn't easy, but those plot twists keep the readers hooked.
Think of several ways a situation could play out. Your mind will wander to places it didn't know existed. You'll be amazed by what you've invented. It’s a process. Surprise yourself and you'll surprise your readers.
Step away from your desk if you are stuck and can’t think. Staring at your screen won’t help and can make things worse. The physical act of leaving your desk, removing yourself from the current dilemma (this works for more than writing), and doing something else like going for a walk or petting the fur babies often sets your conscious mind at ease and helps you solve the problem. Naps work too!
The process of taking a break and doing something completely different, preferably mindless, is great for rebooting the brain.
Throughout literature, there are many examples of situational humor that leave readers laughing.
This form of humor is often based on perspective like in this example from The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.
“Ever consider what pets must think of us? I mean, here we come back from a grocery store with the most amazing haul - chicken, pork, half a cow. They must think we're the greatest hunters on earth!”
When described properly, a situation can be hilarious. Real or imaginary, it’s just funny.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
In How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the novel weaves science fiction with situational comedy. The main character, Charles Yu, is a time travel tech. He spends much of the story trying to figure out where his father—the inventor of time travel—disappeared.
“Sometimes when I’m brushing my teeth, I’ll look at the mirror and I swear my reflection seems kind of disappointed. I realized a couple of years ago that not only am I not super-skilled at anything, I’m not even particularly good at being myself.”
A situational comedy is supposed to be funny. That doesn’t mean your story should be full of jokes. Your goal is to create a world filled with interesting, distinct, and flawed characters. Each of whom have a clear point of view of the world. Have your characters react off each other in humorous, but truthful ways.
Why do you think that truth is important in situational comedy? Do you have a favorite sitcom? What makes for a good situational humor?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works in Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and The Crystal Key, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi, a glaze of time travel.
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