Episode 3 of Hut 33 is called ‘Yellow’ (at time of writing being here). And it starts with one my favourite scenes of the series. It throws the character into a simple game of Monopoly.
Our regular three characters, Archie, Gordon and Charles, plus Mrs Best, play this relatively new game and it should be no big deal. But it’s a great opportunity to express character, prejudice, snobbery and general anger. It was useful to the plot of that episode because it highlighted what a terrible Christmas they were having. And therefore the prospect of having to spend New Year’s Eve together in Quarantine would simply too much to bear. (This is what happens by the way. They are Quarantined with suspected Yellow Fever, which gives rise to tunnelling and escape plans.) In the first scene, though, the game of monopoly turns into a large political dispute about the ownership of property which was true to the characters. And the audience seemed to enjoy it – because they were starting to know the characters as well as I did.
In essence, one of the main tricks of sitcom is taking characters out of their comfort zone – without it seeming contrived or ridiculous. (It’s up to you to decide whether I’ve been successful in that.)
Mistakes in Writing Sitcom
Along the way, then, we can note that this is an area where many first-time writers fall down. New writers are tempted to make their characters sit around and say ‘funny things’ rather than get up, move around and ‘be’ funny. Witty characters swapping jokes and witticisms is okay for three pages – Hut 33 attempts to have our characters in the Hut for the first three or four pages talking about stuff to set up the episode and reintroduce the characters – but it doesn’t sustain for forty pages, which is what you need. Plus, they're not swapping straight jokes but revealing amusing character traits.
It's a good test of how well you know your characters. When I was setting up Think the Unthinkable, I tried to work out what sort of coffee each of the characters would order at Starbucks. I didn't actually have them order coffee in Starbucks until Series 3, I think, but you need to know everything about your characters, or at least be able to work it out. Where do they shop? What newspaper do the read, if any? How would they go about organising a hen/stage night? What would happen if they woke up in Narnia or Alice's Wonderland?
This is why my current practice is to think up storylines quite early in setting up a new sitcom. Once I have my characters in some rough shape or another - sometimes it only needs three adjectives - it's worth thinking up scenarios, scenes and sketches, and then combining these characters with other characters in the show. After some time spend doing this, one often finds that one character has nothing to say, or little to add, or just isn't very funny. This character is normally expendable. If your show is focussed around this character, you've got a problem (and no show).
Doing this also avoids falling into the trap of backstory and background which is often irrelevant. You have no hope of conveying in a script and is therefore pointless. Characters need to be straining forwards, not harking back (unless their main characteristic is being nostalgic/reactionary). Remember, what did Geraldine do before she became the Vicar of Dibley? We don't know. We never really find out. Only very late on do we meet one or two people from her past. What drives our characters forward in any given situation? That's what we all need to know for all our characters.