A situation comedy is a comic television series composed of episodes or scenes involving similar group of characters dealing with an issue, abnormal situation and many other scenes that may arise1. The short form of situation comedy is sitcom. This is usually accompanied by jokes as part of a conversation. A successful situation comedy is one that has high frequency of laughter.
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The frequency can be three to four times in a minute. Therefore, situation comedies make us fulfill our desires to be happy. It is also concerned with the way we often lose the desire to be happy and lose our direction because of unreasonable fears and desires that are misled. They show how the central conflict of human life is played out by between people.
Situation comedies give its audience several kinds of satisfactions2. Several ingredients make a successful situation comedy. These important components must all be present in any situation comedy that can be termed as successful.
The ingredients are character creation, titles themes, situations and locations, pace, irregular expressions and epilogue. The strength or clarity of these ingredients may vary from one comedy to another3. These ingredients can be discussed as follows:
This is the most important factor in a successful situation comedy. Development of the way in which a given character behaves and relates with other characters and their environment is called character creation (characterization)4. In a situation comedy, there are many, several facets of characterization. This comprise of:
An individual character
Each character is given different attributes describing their past and present behavior. In a situation comedy, the future behavior of a character is not clearly developed. However, the knowledge of the future attributes of the character is very important in order for one to guess what is to come next. This knowledge may vary on the level of “most probable” to “most unlikely.”
It is important to develop a list of attributes of the characters, but one should be cautious enough not to exaggerate. In this case, people are not interested in the internal personality of a character but the external persona.
In this kind of comedy, the author briefly highlights character even if the author has a thorough knowledge of the character. It is also necessary to consider a favourable character in this kind of comedy for instance Tony Hancock whose background was briefly highlighted in the comedy Hancock’s Half Hour.5
It is not mandatory for characters in this kind of comedy to fit best into situations concerned appropriately. This is because the outcome may be funnier due to the misfit of the character into the situation. For instance, the 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam was sometimes understood being the property of the council, but in many occasions a private landlord was in-charge6.
The relationship of a character with other characters
A successful situation comedy deals with more than one character operating in any environment. The presence of more than one character is the main vehicle to cause humour. This enables one to see how a character interacts with another character and the response of other characters. This response of other characters may be verbal or through action7.
A successful situation comedy must also have varying status. These statuses may be imaginary or real. There may also be state of conflict and its resolution.
There is usually a tendency of those characters who seek status to be rude, insulting or unpleasant. However, this may not be the case in all situation comedies that are successful.
Each one of the audience during a successful situation comedy will try to identify with at least some part of these characters, their behavior or problems they pass through, even though such behaviors may be considered awkward in real life situations. The insults in this kind of comedy will always come out spontaneous and amusing. The insults may also result into a nervous laugh8.
Responding to insults
The manner in which a character responds to insults determines the quality of a situation comedy. In a successful sitcom, the receiver does not take the insult as a personal affront. For instance, a receiver of an insult may respond by hitting the issuer like in the comedy Fawlty Towers series Sybil was overwhelmed by the diatribes of Basil.9
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Another important ingredient under characterization is the temperament characters. This is where the author tells of how the character behaves most of the time. It does not describe the character’s intelligence, beliefs, social position, physical attributes and such like things. The temperament characteristics of a given character may be ranked as strong, medium or weak.
In a situation comedy, one needs to ensure that the specific character posses a mixture of attributes with varying degrees10. For instance in the case of a strong attributes we can talk of a character who is childish, grasping, talkative, and unscrupulous. While, in the case of weakness, we can talk of a character that is resigned, secretive, touchy, and talkative.
This method should be able to produce characters suitable for a particular situation. A situation comedy dominated by characters of almost the same character will not be interesting to the audience11. For instance in the comedy Hancock’s Half Hour there is only one Sid type and one Hancock type. The comedy should have at least one strong type, more than two weak types, and a few normal types of characters.
The laughter usually comes from the antics of the strong types as they try to interact with other characters. In most cases, the author tries to develop strong characters that experience frustrating, childish, pointless, off-beam, and depressing relationships.
The type of speech and mannerism portrayed by a character also determines the quality of a situation comedy. The characters rarely laugh regardless of how hilariously they are found by the audience. This means that, in a good situation comedy, the characters will find no true enjoyment in the situations they face.
In this case, you will find that the situation under consideration is one that the audience will have no difficulty dealing with but one character will be portrayed as being unable to deal with12. The character leading to inappropriate, stupid, delayed, or no action will misunderstand the nature of the problem.
Things will always become worse before they are better in the sense that the character does not learn from experiences. This means that the character does not carry new life experiences forward to the next. Therefore, the audience is found laughing most of the time because they are able to predict accurately how worse the situation will become from simple beginnings of situations.
The choice of the title in a situation comedy determines how successful it will be. The title should represent something that is obvious and clear in the very first episode. In the comedy, Hancock’s Half Hour, it is clear from the title that whatever is under discussion is about time.
Another ingredient of a successful comedy is the theme of the comedy. The theme describes well what the comedy is all about. For a situation comedy, designed to have many series the theme should be able to support a good number of humorous situations.
If it cannot achieve such then, the theme might best fit a single comedy play. The description of the theme has little to tell about the humor of the work. A successful situation comedy cannot be made up of a theme that hints at improbable characters in situations that are unlikely.
Choice of situations also makes a good situation comedy. Situations are which characters face. Each situation stands for some kind of problem. These problems may be tough or trivial. Regardless of the situations, they create the need for taking a specific action.
The characters take the best action possible to that situation even if it means ignoring the situations then that would mean that it is the best solution at that time. It is necessary for these situations to be funny13.
In a situation comedy, situations are made funny when one of the characters is made to respond to them in a way that will seem inappropriate to the audience. The situation element snowballs and the characters become more and more troubled when the first action taken is inappropriate. This causes the characters to remain in trouble for most of the time or the rest of the episode.
The author exploits several situations within an episode. Each situation in this case involves a subset of character. Multiple situations are made to start and end at different times in an episode. The author plays some elements of a situation as sequences of dreams, flash-forwards or flashbacks.
For instance in the comedy Fawlty Towers, the last page of this comedy shows that the problems that Basil faced cropped from the fact that he under stood in his mind that the pianist in the concert was the important guest14. However, it later turned to be the roll musician and the pink-haired rock.
These attributes in the hotel clientele were unacceptable according to Basil. Then Sybil overrides Basil even though he wants to refuse a booking. The stress on Basil increased until he went pop. In a situation comedy, very few situations go deeper than the above.
Choice of location is critical to any situation comedy. A location is where characters are put. A successful situation comedy is set within four walls of the sitting room. This can be seen in the case of the palaces of the Sultan of Brunei. There should be a reason for changing characters from one location to another. Economic use of the location can be seen in Fawlty Towers.
In this comedy, an episode kicks with the Sybil lobbing with Basil. The audience knows very little about the other part of the hotel. The audience only knows about the exterior in this case. The audiences can occasional see Sybil and Basil’s room, but they cannot exactly pinpoint the location of the room.
Successful situation comedies have interior sets. When an interior set turns into an exterior set, then the audience can only view events in the absence of dialogue. The only thing that can be heard in an exterior situation is background music and some sound effects.
Every successful situation comedy must operate at a considerable pace. Pace is a recipe for generating a substantial number of laughs in a successful comedy15. It is not easy to create humor in the event of prolonged silence and idleness (characters sitting about doing nothing) of the characters. For there to exist laughs in the comedy there must be something is in progress or that is being said.
Pace implies speed, but it is important to spread evenly the available elements of humor through the entire period of each humor. A successful situation comedy does not need humor to be bunched at the beginning or at the end16. Such a scenario does not hold the attention of the audience.
A successful sitcom will always have same pace in all its episodes. Any consideration of a serious series idea must stand up well to the question on whether such sidesplitting material can be produced in three hours in the case of the six half hour episodes of the orthodox British format. Hancock proved himself as master of comic timing, instinctively knowing how long a pause should take there to be a maximum effect.
The dialogue lines spoken by improbable characters working their way through difficult situations is not the only source of humor in a situation comedy but, a combination of it with other elements.
Most of the giggling in a situation comedy may arise from the gestures made by characters, verbal tics, and facial expressions, unexpected noises off together with other things to do with the manner in which dialogue is delivered or the physical action. These are called irregular expressions.
They include breeding, double take, hypochondria, and phobias, jumping the gun, malapropism, and mispronunciation, noises off, quick thinking, silly laughs, speech impediments, slow dawning, and tics.
Breeding comprises such elements as ‘one of this’, ‘Yah,’ ‘Yah’ plus many other high level vocalizations achieved by mispronouncing some English like ‘ou’ sounds like ‘doubt’, ‘about’ will become ‘a bite,’ and ‘clout’ becomes ‘clite’ and so on. People with breeding wear their clothes in a funny way like rolling up sleeves. Double take is a kind of quick dawning that is very useful in a situation comedy.
A hypochondrium is where people are worried of some aspects of their health, with a substantial reason. This may result into amusement because of doing it at different times. Watching another person removes our own fears. Phobias represent fear of doing something in a character. This may be fear of insects, flying, darkness, boarding a speedy vehicle, and elevators.
These result into nervous laughter when watched. Incorrect anticipation of what someone is going to say is known as jumping the gun. This may happen in such a way that you rush to say something or attempt unsuccessfully to act in a certain manner before it is necessary or the right time reaches.
This makes a situation comedy to be more interesting. Malapropism is the use of muddled speech. It is used in characters that are intended to appear to be drunk. It can also be used on characters that have a high status and their status needs to be lowered17.
Mispronunciation can be used to lower self-esteem of a character. This is used when the author wants to convey a good education. When used in the right situation noises off can be used to cause laughing.
Noises off may be in the form of revving of engines, shouts, the crash of a falling crockery, tires screeching, footsteps, bed room sounds, announcements from public address systems, barking doors, closing and opening of distant doors, foghorn of a ship, blaring Hi-fi, and many other sounds.
Silly laughs can be interesting and infectious. Hasty and not well thought kind of thinking can be referred to as quick thinking. A quick thinker can in most cases find himself or herself making a silly mistake that can stir up laughter. Slow dawning is displayed by varying facial expressions.
It is mainly used when some event or fact is familiar to the audience. The act of doing things out of conscious when one is talking is known as tics18. These things may include rubbing the nose, scratching the nose, twitching, pulling the ears, looking at the ceiling while rolling the eyeball, or jangling key or money.
Depending on the character’s social background, pictures can be expressed in term of words and phrases such as ‘yeah,’ ‘I say’ and so on. In Hancock’s Half Hour, a marvelous talent for facial comedy was displayed by Hancock on the TV screen through the rolling of his eyes, lip sucking, concentrated increasing his brow, puffing of cheeks, suggested the magnitude of internal wrangling.
This discussion has touched on many issues as far as production of very successful situation comedy is concerned. It is good to understand that although, in the section under pace, it was noted that prolonged silence and inactivity would not introduce the aspect of fun to the audience, there are several situations in comedies, which have chuckled their way through such.
This discussion has also focused more on Hancock’s half hour and Fawlty Tower to draw various aspects. The main reason here is that the two contained everything that makes a comedy successful.
Such things included a superb contained location, character mix, wide appeal for audience, easy to follow situations, enough humor, pathos, status, pace, slapstick, human interactions that can be recognized, caricature, and life struggles that have no resolutions. These make a series of episodes more interesting and one can be able to watch them more than one time.
The title of Fawlty Towers comedy set out the objective of a situation comedy. This was achieved through identifying what makes a situation comedy very successful. Therefore, the way a comedy has been successful done before is just a road map of how one might approach it in later days.
Asplin, Richard. Gagged – A Thriller With Jokes. London: Arrow books, 2004.
Goddard, P. ‘Hancock’s Half Hour: A Watershed in British Television Comedy’, in John Corner (ed.), Popular Television in Britain. BFI, 1991, pp. 75 – 87.
Lewisohn, M. Radio Times’ Guide to TV Comedy. 2nd Ed. Revised. London: BBC Consumer Publishing, 2003.
McCann, G. Fawlty Towers. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007.
1 Goddard, P. ‘Hancock’s Half Hour: A Watershed in British Television Comedy’, in John Corner (ed.), Popular Television in Britain. BFI, 1991, p. 75.
2 Ibid., p. 76
3 Ibid., p.77.
4 Lewisohn, Mark “Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy”. (London: BBC Worldwide Ltd, 2003), p. 30.
5 Ibid., 33
6 Ibid., p.37.
7 Ibid., p.38
8 Ibid., p.41.
9 Peter Goddard, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour: A Watershed in British Television Comedy’, in John Corner (ed.), Popular Television in Britain. BFI, 1991, p. 82.
10 Ibid., p.83.
11 Ibid., 87.
12 Asplin, Richard. Gagged – A Thriller With Jokes.( London: Arrow books, 2004), p. 69.
13 Ibid., p.72.
14 Ibid., p.74.
15 McCann, Graham. Fawlty Towers. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007), p.46.
16 Ibid., p.49.
17 Ibid., p. 52.
18 Ibid., p. 54.