A Sitcom Progression Framework

A more structured plan for getting better at narrative comedy?

I’m still working through the second draft of my sitcom pilot, Karthik. Progress is steady, but I’m now at that wonderful stage that can only be described as: “Oh man this is a pile of crap why did I think this would be any good maybe I should cut my losses and move onto a shiny new project and hope that it’ll be magically better somehow even though that strategy has never worked before!”1

I know that’s par for the course, and I’ve promised myself that I’ll keep going.

But as someone who loves a good plan, I wonder if there’s a more structured way to approach rewrites — and improving as a sitcom writer in general — instead of just… hoping for the best.

A lot of tech companies solve this problem using progression frameworks — a tool which helps people “understand their expectations of their role, and how to progress and grow at work”. They’re basically the same as how RPGs / martial arts / cults work, in that there are a series of levels, and a list of skills you need to demonstrate before you can move to the next level.

For example, Artsy have a relatively simple one: a level one engineer can do things like “complete well-defined and subdivided tasks”, while a level five engineer must “consistently deliver large systems involving one or more teams’ contributions”. More complex frameworks — such as the original Monzo one — often split up the levels into categories such as ‘impact’ and ‘leadership’.

So as a thought experiment: what might such a thing look like for sitcom writing? What level am I at? And hence: what can I do to improve, and make Karthik better?2

A Prototype Framework

Premise

  1. ✅ Can come up with a basic group or location-based sitcom premise.
  2. ✅ Can come up with a sitcom premise with built-in conflict and set glue.
  3. Can come up with a sitcom premise that is fresh or has a unique perspective.
  4. Can summarise their sitcom premise into a logline or elevator pitch.
  5. Can summarise their sitcom premise into a logline or elevator pitch that piques interest (i.e. makes people say I would totally watch that when they hear it).

I think I’m at level two. As I wrote previously, I’m not sure my current premise is inherently fresh or strong enough to reach the higher levels. (That said, all the main characters are Sri Lankan — which technically provides some base-level freshness even if I’m not doing anything special…)

Characters

  1. ✅ Can write 1D characters that are broadly distinct from each other.
  2. Can write 1D characters that are well designed to compliment/contrast each other.
  3. Can write characters with depth, e.g. contradict themselves, wear different masks.
  4. Can write characters that can be identified by dialogue and their actions alone.
  5. Can write classic characters that are memorable and root-worthy.

This is by far my weakest skill: I’m still at level one. I tried focusing on this last summer, working through books like Creating Unforgettable Characters (which is great, by the way) and even diving into things like Myers-Briggs personality types. But without an actual project to work on, it was all too theoretical. I should probably spend a few drafts focusing on just this.

Story and Structure

  1. ✅ Can write a story with a rough beginning, middle and end.
  2. ✅ Can write a story where characters have clear goals and obstacles.
  3. ✅ Can write a story with some kind of structure, and multiple, interweaving storylines.
  4. Can write a story where scenes are efficient and propulsive (drive the story forward).
  5. Can write a story that is built around testing the main character’s flaw (and/or a theme).

In contrast, this is probably my strongest skill: I think I’ve moved up to level three since last year. (Side note: I’ve spent most of my second-draft efforts fixing story problems, but I’m literally just realising that I probably should’ve started with the weaker elements first…)

Comedy: Structural

  1. ✅ Can come up with basic storylines.
  2. ✅ Can come up with storylines that are inherently funny. (I rewatched some Brooklyn Nine-Nine recently, and thought they were especially good at this.)
  3. Can come up with storylines that escalate and have a satisfying payoff.
  4. Can write episodes where most scenes have a ‘game’.
  5. Can write episodes with colliding storylines and strong, laugh-out-loud set pieces.

I thought I might be at level four here, but on closer inspection, my current draft still has lots of scenes with characters talking to each other in purely expositional or ‘dramatic’ ways. And the subplots don’t escalate as much as they should. So I’m probably only at level two.

Comedy: Character and Dialogue

  1. ✅ Can incorporate amusing lines into dialogue.
  2. ✅ Can incorporate funny lines into dialogue.
  3. Can incorporate funny lines into dialogue in a natural way.
  4. Can incorporate funny lines into dialogue in a natural way, uniquely for each character.
  5. Can incorporate funny lines into dialogue — where characters do not try to be funny / are not aware that they are funny, unless that is part of their personality. (I would say The Simpsons and Arrested Development are the gold standard for this.)

Another one of my weaknesses, as my characters often deliver jokes in an unnatural way.

Unquantifiable Magic

  1. Everything comes together in such a magical, wonderful way that even though you know what happens, you can watch it dozens of times and not get bored (e.g. that Dinner Party episode).

LOL, not even close.

Conclusion

So where are you? And do you think there’s anything I’ve missed?

That turned out to be an even more useful exercise than I expected, because it made me realise just how far I have to go to reach the level of comedy writing that I aspire to. So I probably should ride this wave of motivation and self doubt and crack on with that second draft…


  1. In fact, it was that exact same strategy that led me to abandon my previous project and start working on Karthik in the first place. I’m not falling for that again! (But on a positive note, at least I now know how to convincingly write a sitcom character with the flaw of perfectionism.)
  2. Before we begin, I’ll add the usual dilettante disclaimer here: I’m still an amateur, so this is all based on my limited experience. If you have any thoughts or feedback, I’d be more than happy to listen!

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