The Formula for a Successful Sitcom

The Formula for a Successful Sitcom

Zoe Smith


I love sitcoms, mostly because I love to laugh. However, as I watched more and more of them I couldn’t help but notice that there are some pieces of these shows that are universal; tried and true and foolproof ways to pull laughs from audiences. I decided that I wanted to approach these observations like case study. I watched too much TV in the name of research over the past few weeks, and I’ve come up with a semi-comprehensive list of broad categories in which I was able to draw examples from some of my favorite shows. In this particular article, I referenced “New Girl” on FOX, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” on NBC, “The Office” on NBC, and “Friends” on TBS, but these observations can also be applied to several other sitcoms. These are aspects of shows that, if done well, almost guarantee a successful run.


  1. A Signature Setting

One of the things that makes “Friends” such an iconic sitcom is its use of signature settings; Monica and Rachel’s apartment, Joey and Chandler’s apartment right across the hall, and the Central Perk coffee house. These are all familiar settings to the audience, meaning they don’t necessarily have to spend time taking in every detail of the space, allowing quick scenes and elaborate ones alike to shine.

        2. Competition

The most exciting episodes of sitcoms, for me, are the ones that involve competition. Halloween episodes of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” where the squad does a “heist” and tries to steal something from each other and keep it secured until midnight to receive the title of “Ultimate Detective/Genius” are a prime example of this. There are several of these episodes, but they keep them fresh and exciting by making each person’s plan more elaborate than the year before and by having a different character win than the audience was expecting. This livens up the middle of the season and keeps the audience on their toes.


       3. Goofball friend

Every sitcom must have a goofball friend. The goofball friend is funny, but also immature and insecure for varying reasons. For example, Jake Peralta of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is immature and insecure because of his dad’s infidelity. This does not mean he’s irresponsible; he’s a valuable detective and he is able to take accountability when he does something wrong. Chandler Bing from “Friends” is immature and insecure because of his parents’ divorce, but this makes him a great listener and friend. The key to the goofball friend is that they must be a dynamic, multidimensional character, with redeeming qualities as well as flaws, rather than just a childish idiot.


       4. Quirky friend

Alongside the goofball friend, there should also be one quirky friend with a very distinct quality. A good example of the quirky friend is Jessica Day of “New Girl.” She is a multidimensional character; she’s a first-grade teacher, she wears a lot of colorful dresses, and she’s a little weird. But, in my opinion, her most notable quality is that she loves to sing. There are many places where, like a Broadway musical, she just sings instead of talking. The theme song is based on a song that she makes up for herself at the beginning of season 1 and Zooey Deschanel, the actress who plays her, sings it. Another great example of this is Charles Boyle of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and his love for strange, gourmet ethnic cuisine and Monica from “Friends” and her obsession with cleaning. All of these characters have other interests, passions, and hobbies, but they have that one thing that makes them interesting and recognizable.

        5. The F.F.F.

Almost every sitcom I’ve ever watched has had one; a Formerly Fat Friend. The Formerly Fat Friend is exactly what they sound like; a friend who went through a weight loss journey before the show’s timeline began, and now (or in the present timeline of the show) is fit. Terry from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Monica from “Friends,” and Schmidt from “New Girl” are all examples of the Formerly Fat Friend. Personally, I find this plotline to be problematic for a few reasons. One, other than Terry, who eats right and exercises consistently, they never show these characters maintaining their health. Two, especially in “Friends,” why does there need to be so many punchlines at the expense of the Formerly Fat Friend’s past? And three, why does their weight even need to be a part of their character arc? The fact that this category exists is sort of upsetting, but I feel as though it really is a key piece of several shows that I’ve seen.


        6. A Boss Who is Equal Parts Inspirational and Entertaining

In workplace sitcoms, an absolute staple is a boss who is entertaining. This can be seen in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” with Captain Holt and in “The Office” with Michael Scott. These characters are so vastly different, but they have two things in common. They are both insanely funny (in their own ways, of course) and they both unite their teams brilliantly (again, each in their own ways). These characters make the show feel like home, and when they are removed, the show feels uncomfortable and just sort of wrong for a while. These characters are so much more important than they seem; they pull their whole crew together.


        7. Off-set Episode

While signature settings are very important in the creation of a cohesive sitcom, so is a handful of off-set episodes. These episodes, like Jake and Amy’s honeymoon in Mexico in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and the trip to New York in “New Girl” (which had a small “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” crossover), keep the season fresh. It helps audiences, cast, and crew alike avoid getting bored with the story.


        8. A Healthy Amount of One-Liners

Lastly, every sitcom MUST HAVE a healthy amount of one-liners. A one-liner can be described as a short joke, comment, or question that, in only a few words, makes the audience chuckle. In “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the short scene before the theme music almost always sets up a hilarious one-liner. This scene very rarely relates to the rest of the episode at all, but its purpose is to get the audience (especially those who watch it weekly instead of binging it on Hulu like I did) in the mindset of the show.