13 Feb 2014
basac's picture

There's a character in every sitcom that rarely gets a mention, yet has the potential to be one of the most useful members of your cast. Every sitcom has them, but most writers don't bother to give them the attention they deserve and require. I'm referring to: the room.

It’s not just any old room, it’s your ‘sit’. That’s already half of what you’re trying to write, so you should give it a good deal of thought.

In the pilot episode of 'Frasier', the writers introduce us to his stunning, arty, European-style flat in the second scene. Martin, Frasier’s working-class former cop dad, comes round for the first time and is unimpressed. 'Nothing matches' is all he can say. 'It's eclectic!' is Frasier's defensive response.

Within a few minutes, not only are all the characters perfectly established, but we find out that Martin will be moving in with Frasier. And with no prior warning, Frasier has to watch, horrified, as Martin's hideous easy chair is wheeled into the centre of the room. 'It's eclectic' he tells his furious son.

And there the chair stays, for the next 200 or so episodes, a visual representation of so much of the comedy of that show - an inconvenient and garish carbuncle plonked in the middle of Frasier’s perfect world, the physical representation of Martin so even when he's not in the room that chair is a constant reminder of Frasier's seemingly ideal life, forever intruded on by his father.

It's a wonderful example of how you can add layers of meaning to your sitcom without having to write any more words. And it's a great way for drawing you back to the sitcom every week. One of the things you're always trying to do as a sitcom writer is create a universe that audiences want to return to over and over. There's something comforting and grand about Frasier's flat, it's always interesting to look at - but that bloody chair is always centre stage, a funny reminder of Frasier's relationship with his dad.

We tend not to think too much about the 'sit' because it doesn't seem as important as characters or plots or jokes - but I'd argue that in the early stages of defining your sitcom, it can help you establish some of those characters and jokes, as well as the world you want people to come back to.

This is especially true with audience sitcoms, which are limited to two or three main sets. This is what your audience will see week in, week out. Jerry Seinfeld's flat is another great example of a room that is part of the show. There's nothing unusual about it, but it's the place where everything begins and ends. The ordinariness and lack of clutter is actually what's so important. Jerry is the host, 'master of his domain', and each of the three regulars is given a large free space to shine, gesticulate and stomp around the room.

By complete contrast, in the other main set of the show, the cafe, everyone is cramped round a tiny table. This is where the rudeness is often at its funniest, when the four of them are literally within spitting distance of each other.

Meanwhile the cafe as social space, which in 'Seinfeld' felt like a familiar and universal representation of what a cafe was like, was about to be transformed by 'Friends', which I always thought of as 'Seinfeld' with the ugliness and cruelty taken out. That show established the coffee shop as a happening place for young pretty people to meet. When I was their age you went to a cafe for nothing more romantic than a fry up. You certainly didn't go to hang out, or heaven forbid, drink their disgusting instant coffee.

Without 'Friends', the Starbucks culture may never have happened. I'm not asking whether that's a good thing, you decide, I'm merely pointing out the enormous impact of Central Perk, and how that 'sit' added one more layer of meaning to one of the most successful sitcoms ever.

When I'm watching a British audience sitcom my attention sometimes wanders, but even if it happened during an episode of 'Frasier' (although I doubt that it did), my attention will have been drawn to something relevant to what I was watching - a stunning work of art, a beautiful table, oh, Martin's hideous chair.

In British sitcoms the distraction might get me annoyed. Why is that living room the same as every living room I've looked at in every audience sitcom since 1973? What is this room telling me about the people who inhabit it? Nothing, that's what. But I could still describe to you the Steptoe household, what an amazing set, a surreal yet totally believable representation of what an old rag and bone man's house might look like. They frequently spent entire episodes in that one room.

Why does your character act in a certain way – is there too much clutter in her life, so she misses something important? You can show that in a room. A big pile of unopened mail in a corner would do it, occasionally looked at, then run away from.

Is everything in place, perfectly, too perfectly? Is this person a control freak? Again, as the attention of the audience wanders it can suddenly be brought back in to focus by a tiny movement from our main character, to correct something slightly out of place.

Next time you watch an audience sitcom, look at the room it’s set in. If it’s a British show, I bet you’ll come up with half a dozen ways of improving it.