It's the most commonly stated and in my opinion (so therefore must be true) most correct thing ever said about sitcom. "It's all about the characters". That's it, right there. The secret to writing a good sitcom. The characters. Not the location. Not the amount of laughs per second... It's about characters that an audience will invest in and want to watch whatever they do. The Office isn't really about office life. It's about the characters who inhabit that place and how they interact with each other and deal with that weeks 'story of the week'. Take Dawn, Gareth, Brent or Tim and pop them in the setting for the Royal Family and you'd have an equally funny time watching them. Same could be said of The Royal Family, Open All Hours, Bread, Modern Family and hopefully my show, White Van Man.
But that brings us to the elephant in the room of a question... "How do you make comedy characters that last?" Well, I'm not going to sit here and tell you I have a conclusive, all out, follow this and create the next Basil Fawlty of and answer... I don't. If i did I wouldn't be sat here typing this, I'd be too busy polishing my golden Jet Ski collection (which isn't quite as cool as it sounds. Gold is kinda heavy and tends to sink).
Ollie spots burglars in Emma's Koffee House and gives chase.
What I do know however is this (and this is an opinion I've formed as both a writer and avid viewer of comedy shows). The best comedy characters and the ones that I think have stood the test of time, are the ones that we already know. Now, I don't mean we should just be recycling the same old characters with new actors and new environments. No. But what i do mean is this - look around you. The comedy characters that i think last are already there and you sort of already know them. It's just working out where to put them in a sitcom thats the hard bit.
We've all met a David Brent and smirked at him behind his back. Basil Fawlty represents the rage and frustration inside all of us that we feel day in, day out (but don't necessarily let free). Even someone like Red Dwarfs Dave Lister is someone i think will last because we all sort of already know him. Sure, Lister is the last human being alive and floats around space on a massive mining ship... but that's not who he is really. Lister is actually a curry loving slob with a bit of an attitude, a twinkle in his eye and when needed, a heart of gold. Think about people you know. I bet you could say at least one of them is like Lister. I bet you could even find a Fawlty in your world.
I've never made a secret of the fact that Tony in White Van Man is based on my Dad. Liz is a mix of my friends Amy and Becky, and Darren... well that would be telling. All I'm saying is that i bet you could find people you know who match a lot of characters in shows you love. And perhaps that's why they last.
So, whether I'm right on this or not I don't know (seriously, I'm the guy who dreams of having a gold jet ski!). I just know that if I'm watching a show (weather it's set in a hotel or in space) and I don't feel like I already know some of the characters... then I probably wont like it that much. And if i don't like it, i wont watch. And that's when characters (for me personally) don't stand a chance of lasting.
Adrian Poynton is the creator and writer of BBC Three comedy series, White Van Man. Watch White Van Man on BBC Three at 9.30pm on Thursdays.
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