Paul Chato’s Rules for Writing a Sitcom

Canadian writer, comedian, and “Former Network Executive” Paul Chato recently released a video about how to write his favorite form of television – the Classic Sitcom. It’s a fascinating video because it’s one born from experience and not theory. Also, I think there’s a lot to unpack here that I’ll talk about in some other follow-up posts, but before I do, here is the video, followed by my summary of his rules.

 

Paul’s “Rules”:

(See the video for details and examples.)

  1. Location – Have an interesting home base or “container” where the story happens.
    • Can you easily imagine and list story opportunities coming from this location? To what degree does the location enable and generate story ideas and character situations?
    • Start at the core location from the very beginning of the story, don’t “work your way there”
  2. Premise – Have a clear, strong, and interesting “dilemma vector.”
    • In other words, the premise of the show must naturally create dilemmas and conflicts that the characters have to deal with.
  3. Distinct CharactersEvery character has to be strikingly unique.
    • Each character should be easily recognizable and capable of generating dialogue that is unique to them. (And if possible, unique to the show.)
    • Dialogue should not be interchangeable between the characters.
    • If multiple characters can convey the same idea, then give it to the character for whom you can construct the best and most interesting wording.
    • Dialog and character are inseparable.
    • If you’ve created a character and you still can’t come up with funny things for them to say- you don’t have a character.
    • What you need is a character flaw that the character conflates with their ego and will do anything and everything possible to avoid having brought out into the light or confessing to it.
    • Characters not wanting to say things gives you lots more to say.
  4. Distinct Casting – Make your characters as different from each other as possible.
    • Make your comedy writing life as easy as you possibly can by selecting characters that play off each other physically as well as in personality.
  5. Conflict – Sitcoms are an organism. They are stable at the beginning, then some pathogen enters the organism (through a character or situation), the cast then attacks the pathogen like white blood cells, and deals with it so that the organism can return back to a stable state.
    • All of the cast of characters should be involved in contributing to dealing with this destabilized situation in their own unique ways.
  6. Character Development – There is no character development in a classic sitcom.
    • A sitcom only works if it resets at the end and starts over in the next episode
    • People confuse character expansion with character development, but they are very different from each other
    • Sitcoms are not about change, they are about inviting our favorite people into our living rooms, seeing them get into trouble, and then enjoying how they extract themselves from they’re one or more current dilemmas.
    • In movies, plays, and novels, the main character becomes a changed person in the end – this is not true for sitcoms where the main characters should not significantly change as people.
  7. Learn Your Craft First– Master the basics before you try to do something advanced.
    • Learn to love the rules: total freedom does not make for great work- constraints do.
    • Before you break the rules- follow them first.
  8. Final Notes
    • If you want to learn to write a sitcom- read as many scripts as you can get a hold of.
    • If you want to test your skills or practice- Frazier is the easiest model to write for.
    • His favorite stories come from when characters create their own problems based upon their character flaws and then solve them
    • If your lead character isn’t funny- it’s not a sitcom.
    • If you can’t write a full episode of a sitcom with the main character trapped in an elevator and still make it interesting and funny while they monologue, you don’t have a character or a sitcom.