Here I offer a model to help you get a strong, funny dynamic between the central characters in your sitcom or comedy drama script.
The relationships between your characters is absolutely central to your sitcom or comedy drama script. Get the dynamic between your central characters right and they will naturally be an engine for comedic situations and stories.
There are many models of comedy characters that you can draw on, and I have one of my own to offer. I’ve used it for years with writers I’m coaching and mentoring – and it works! My starting point when creating this model was noticing that there is a particular dynamic between characters that occurs over and over again in comedy; it’s close to being ubiquitous. Having seen this dynamic so often, I gave each of the key character types a name and arrived at this model. At heart of a comedy show we find this group of characters:
A boss, a striver, a fool – and a foil.
There can be multitudes of different personalities within these slots, but here we’re looking at the big picture. The striver, the protagonist, is stuck in the middle - between the boss, a dysfunctional authority figure, and a fool. I like to use the word ‘striver’ rather than ‘protagonist’ as it reminds you of what they should be doing – striving. The role of the ‘foil’ is key too. They are the more normal, grounded characters who react to and have to deal with the antics of the striver.
For example, the central trio of Frasier breaks down neatly into Martin Crane as the boss, Frasier as the striver and Niles as the fool. Note: most fools are stupid but you can also have a character who is intelligent (as Niles is) but is a fool by dint of their social awkwardness and clumsiness. Daphne joins the central trio and, as a down-to-earth character who is exasperated by Frasier’s pretension and snobbery, she is a foil (as well as being a funny character in her own right).
Let’s look at some more classic examples of bosses, strivers, fools - and foils. I’m going to reference some all time classic shows – The Office, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and, bringing it up to date and taking it into comedy drama, Succession. But I could have drawn on any number of shows and I give more examples in my book Creating Comedy Narratives for Stage & Screen, where I also show how this way of looking at comedy characters can work with other models like Scott Sedita’s ‘Eight Characters of Comedy’.
Starting with the UK/US The Office, David Brent/Michael Scott is the central character – in my terms the striver. He may be a manager in the office hierarchy but he is not a ‘boss’ in status. The person who has power over your central character is the boss of the show. In The Office we have Neil Godwin / Josh Porter (and latterly Ryan Howard and Charles Miner in the US Office). Godwin / Porter is a classic example of a character who is too good to be true and winds up the flawed central striver. Another boss – who has social power over the striver, Brent/Scott - is Chris Finch/Todd Packer.
At the bottom of the heap is the fool. In the Office we find Gareth/Dwight as our central fools. There are other fools around too, like Keith/ Kevin whose character grew in the second series of the UK Office when viewers enjoyed the originally minor character’s hopeless, lumpen presence.
In terms of the foil to react to the absurd behaviour that’s going on around them, in the UK/US The Office, who is the more normal character the audience relate to? It’s Tim/Jim. The relatable everyman, the voice-of-reason. The role of ‘foil’ can be a roving brief in that any character can become the reasonable character for a particular scene. For example, the striver David Brent in The Office often becomes foil to the fool Big Keith. In these moments – like the wonderful appraisal scene – Brent has to park all of his comic mannerisms to become an effective foil.
But as we’ve seen you can also have a character on the team whose main job is to be a normal reasonable foil and in The Office it’s Tim/Jim. Also Tim/Jim’s beloved Dawn/Pam is a foil/voice-of-reason. Here’s how it looks:
The UK/ US Office
BOSS – Neil Godwin/ Josh
Porter. Chris Finch/
STRIVER – David Brent/
FOOL – Gareth/ Dwight
FOIL – Tim/ Jim
In Fawlty Towers, Polly is the foil, the normal, reasonable grounded character who heightens the comedy by her reactions - and often the guests are foils too. Polly also gets embroiled in Basil’s schemes as a reluctant co-conspirator. Here’s how Fawlty Towers breaks down - and note here that the central boss, striver, fool and foil can be supplemented by characters in the wider ensemble who also fall into these slots.
BOSS – Sybil (and often guests too and also hotel inspector/ reviewer/ public health official).
STRIVER – Basil
FOOL – Manuel (and others – eg the Major)
FOIL – Polly
In a more recent hotel based comedy drama, in the first season of White Lotus, among the ensemble, Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya is our main fool – she is the Manuel/ Baldrick of the piece. Among the strivers are Shane and Quinn. And we have a crucial foil – a character who is often at one remove and reacts to the craziness – in the form of Shane’s new wife Rachel. A boss is Nicole, the successful executive, and interestingly the ostensible servant of the guests Armond, is actually a boss due to the power he has over them all. And here’s how another hour long comedy drama about the super rich, Succession, breaks down:
BOSS: Logan Roy
STRIVERS: Kendall, Roman, Shiv, Connor
FOOLS: Greg, Connor
Tom is definitely a brilliant dysfunctional comic character, but he does come from a more normal background and is a Polly-like character in that he gets embroiled in the schemes of the others, hence me seeing him as a foil. All characters need to be driven by some kind of goal, and where a foil is so central to the narrative as Tom is, you might usefully think of them as a striver-foil. Sometimes your main protagonist is a striver-foil. Donald Glover's character Earn in Atlanta, for example, is the protagonist but he is also the more normal, grounded one reacting to and having to deal with all the crazy people around him, so I look on him as a striver-foil.
Earn of course has a great double-act with the rapper he manages, Paper Boi. Similarly in Succesion Tom has a wonderful double act with Greg. And Greg is another great example of fool who isn’t stupid. It’s his naivete and awkwardness that make him so. And really with his drive to succeed despite all his limitations, he is something of a fool-striver as is Connor with his totally unrealistic goal of becoming president. Certainly in a bigger ensemble it can be helpful to hyphenate in this way.
Returning to the world of classic sitcom, here’s how the second Blackadder series breaks down:
BOSS – Queen Elizabeth I
FOOL: Baldrick/ Percy
FOIL: Lord Melchett (also striving for preferment at court and a rival for Blackadder)
Baldrick of course is an absolute classic ‘fool’ and Greg is the ‘Baldrick’ in Succession. And funnily enough, Roman is a Blackadder: the smart, cynical one who is totally uncensored and is happy to upset people. Let’s try and extend this parallel with Blackadder II. Of the other main characters, Kendall is Melchett and Shiv is Kate, but without the sexual attraction to Blackadder/Roman of course – although Roman creepily plays with the possibility. Back in the fool territory Connor is Percy and the boss, Logan Roy, is Queen Elizabeth I! If we jump to Blackadder Goes Forth, Tom is Darling! We’ve either discovered a hidden inspiration here, or more likely this simply illustrates how fundamental this dynamic is.
As you develop your own sitcom characters ask yourself: Who is the big comic character at the heart of the show? The absurd or badly behaved or eccentric focus of it all. This is your main character, the striver.
Then ask yourself who is the boss? The boss is the one who is in charge by dint of their role, position in the family or simply because they are the alpha figure. The key to the comedy is that they are dysfunctional authority figures. At the opposite end is the fool. You can also look at the wider ensemble of characters in the same way (for example all the ghosts in Ghosts are either bosses, strivers or fools) and you might even find it useful to hyphenate – for example, striver-foil.
And once your characters are set up, you can forget about these categories and just engage with them as characters. If at some point, the relationships between the characters have stopped working you can return to this as a model to diagnose what might be wrong.