When you are creating a sitcom the characters and their relationships to each other are the key thing. Situation is secondary. When Graham Linehan was penning the IT Crowd his starting point, inspired by Seinfeld, was wanting to create a two guys and a girl sitcom. So more than just characters he started with relationships. He initially had the characters in a travel agents only later switching them to a context that he had more affinity with; as a self-professed geek, writing about an IT department suited him much better.
Seinfeld and the IT Crowd also exhibit a very common, largely unremarked and very fertile dynamic between the central trio in a sitcom. I term it the boss, striver, fool dynamic.
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 though is that they are dysfunctional boss figures. At the opposite end is the self-explanatory fool and stuck in the middle is the striver. Being stuck in the middle is the plight of scores of sitcom characters. They are sitcom’s dreamers. Aspiring to a better life, free of their bookends.
So we have an striver sandwiched between an boss and a fool. This sounds rather too specific, given the great diversity of sitcoms. But so many are based around this dynamic, including countless classics. In a huge range of sitcoms you’ll find this sandwich:
The boss is the head of the family, an actual boss, or a leader, or simply the alpha character. The fool is at the bottom of the pile and can range from cartoon stupidity, to actually being intelligent but naive and socially awkward. Trapped between them is the striver who dreams of being free. The company they keep is beneath them. They feel they could break away but those around them are stuck and haven’t a clue. They may want a relationship or a career, or money, or just freedom... But somehow they are trapped with the other pair. This is the character the audience relate to and they see the sitcom world through their eyes.
So many sitcoms have this dynamic at their heart, or as part of a wider ensemble. In the first series of the Mighty Boosh we find Bob Fossil, Howard Moon and Vince Noir. In Porridge it’s Mackay, Fletcher and Godber. It’s so fertile that it crops up over and over again. Father Ted? Father Jack/Bishop Brennan, Ted, Dougal. Think through any sitcom you’d care to name. It’s rare to find one that doesn’t have an aspiring striver character having to deal with an absurd boss figure and a fool. So when you’re creating the characters for your own show, keep this potent structure in mind.
Looking across the Atlantic, Frasier breaks down neatly into Martin Crane, Frasier and Niles. And returning to Seinfeld mentioned at the outset, Jerry and Elaine are a pair of strivers at the heart of the show (with Newman as an intermittent antagonistic striver) with Kramer as a fool. For authorities we perhaps need to look outside the apartment at the likes of Elaine’s boss, Jerry’s mother or the landlord.
Back home, Blackadder is an interesting case to consider with it's shifting cast of characters from series-to-series:
- In the first Blackadder, he himself was the fool which is unusual for a central character.
- Tellingly he was shifted to (in my terms) striver for series two, with the boss Queen Elizabeth I and the fool Baldrick (and Percy). Note that this show replicates the dynamic in the court with Melchett as a second striver, the queen again as the boss and Nursey as the fool.
- In Blackadder the third the boss became the Prince Regent. Blackadder is of course the striver and again Baldrick is the fool.
- Blackadder Goes Forth doubles up all the slots with Melchett and Field Marshall Haig as bosses. In the striver slot we have Blackadder and his antagonist Captain Darling. Fools double up with Baldrick and George, one working class and one upper class. Here's a clip where Blackadder the striver is stuck between dysfunctional authorities and fools:
Having worked with this model for some time, it struck me that it can be further refined to include the idea of a PROTAGONIST and a FOIL. The main character in your sitcom will be a STRIVER. It is that central striver’s character, behaviour and attitudes that create comic problems for those around them. They are the comic PROTAGONIST. It is a common strategy to have a FOIL for who is a normal, reasonable person. They are the one the audience can relate to and we see the world more through their eyes. Often the foil is a more secondary character to the protagonist or sometimes they are more evenly balanced double act. Looked at this way, the model then becomes:
BOSS – A character with power over the striver/ protagonist and others
STRIVER/ PROTAGONIST – The main comic character with all their flaws and failings
STRIVER/ FOIL – The more reasonable normal one who has to deal with the other striver.
FOOL - The fool!
Often protagonist and foil are basically on the same side but they can be rivals (the foil is then an antagonist). Usually the foil is the one the audience can identify with but sometimes they are less obviously likeable. Looked at this way, here are some examples:
BOSS – Cybil
STRIVER/ PROTAGONIST – Basil
STRIVER/ FOIL – Polly
FOOL – Manuel
There are other fools around like the Major and also at times other bosses like the doctor
or the American guest but this is the central ensemble.
BOSS – Neil Godwin (Series 2)/ Chris Finch; a social status boss who has authority
STRIVER/ PROTAGONIST – David Brent
STRIVER/ FOIL – Tim (and Dawn)
FOOL – Gareth (and others – eg Keith)
BOSS – Queen Elizabeth I
STRIVER/ PROTAGONIST – Blackadder
STRIVER/ FOIL – Lord Melchett
FOOL – Baldrick**
** Also Percy/Nursey
BOSS – General Melchett
STRIVER/ PROTAGONIST – Blackadder
STRIVER/ FOIL – Captain Darling (also a rival) and Percy
FOOL – Baldrick & George*
* One working class/ one upper-middle class. One uneducated/ one educated; but both
Only Fools & Horses
BOSS – The dead mother! (And Boycey)
STRIVER/PROTAGONIST – Del Boy
STRIVER/ FOIL – Rodney
FOOL – Uncle Albert (and Trigger)
Friends is an ensemble sitcom and so has a larger group of central characters and their roles slightly shift according to who they’re around. (eg sometimes Chandler is a fool, but in the context of Joey he is more a Striver.) It could it be something like this:
BOSS – Monica
STRIVER/ PROTAGONIST – Ross/ Rachel
STRIVER/ FOIL – Chandler
FOOL – Joey/ Phoebe
Not every sitcom will absolute slot neatly into this model of course. I can't decide it the IT Crowd is this:
BOSS: Mr Renholm
STRIVER/ PROTAGONIST – Jen
STRIVER/ FOIL – Roy
FOOL – Moss
BOSS: Mr Renholm
STRIVER/ PROTAGONIST – Roy
STRIVER/ FOIL – Jen
FOOL – Moss
Maybe it's both,or it depends on who you identify with. But don't get hung up on the model - the creators of these sitcoms were unlikely to have been thinking in exactly these terms. But having used this model with many new writers and students I have found it to be a very useful framework to use when creating your own ensemble of sitcom characters.
Chris Head consults one-to-one on sitcom writing and runs a sitcom course at City Lit in London.