Do you have an idea for a workplace comedy but are struggling to get it off the ground? Understanding the key aspects and structures of some of your favourite workplace comedies is essential to making sure your script hits all the right notes.
So in this article, we will provide a step-by-step guide to the fundamental characteristics that every great workplace comedy shares. What makes a truly good workplace comedy tick?
The guiding principle of every sitcom is that its characters are forced together because they occupy a shared environment.
In a workplace sitcom, a medley of people from all walks of life are united by the common necessity of earning a living. Whatever the setting, be it The Office‘s Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Scrubs‘ Sacred Heart Hospital, or Abbott Elementary‘s school, all workplace sitcoms are about the same thing: people who might otherwise have never met interacting with each other.
It’s these interactions that generate the comedy of every good workplace sitcom. And luckily, whilst it sometimes feels that every workplace has been covered, each workplace offers its own unique dynamics and world, even if the trappings seem wholly familiar.
The global success of shows like The Office demonstrates the eternal appetite for workplace comedies. But what is it about this show that made it so popular? Admittedly, each viewer will connect with The Office in their own unique way. But some broad factors can be discerned.
Undoubtedly, many people like stories of epic proportions. Game of Thrones or Westworld are popular because they transport audiences to a world of tantalizing action. Programmes such as these are a form of escapism – a respite from the monotony of everyday life.
The Office, meanwhile, holds a magnifying glass up to this monotony. It turns the humdrum into a tummy tickler. And it does this by exaggerating the types of people and scenarios you might encounter whilst at work. In doing so, the show’s creators tapped into the zeitgeist that many people don’t like their jobs. They work to live, rather than live to work.
Laughing at the ridiculous antics of the show’s ensemble is cathartic. It puts things into perspective, confirming that we are all alone in this together. Ultimately, being able to laugh at this potentially bleak existence is in itself an antidote, a way of offloading the daily stresses of working life.
So it is the very similitude of the show’s characters that resonates most clearly with viewers. We all know a Dwight Schrute, for example. Such characters exist in every working environment and have a comforting familiarity.
Here lies a key reason for the show’s success: its relatability. Audiences like to see aspects of their own life portrayed on the small screen; it connects them to the action, giving them a reason to keep coming back. And it’s often through this relatability that you can make audiences laugh, cry or just keep them hooked.
If one thing is worth stressing it’s: character, character, character. This is the bedrock of every good workplace comedy. It’s the force that drives such shows from episode to episode. Many acclaimed films or TV programmes are premise driven, based on an intriguing concept.
Workplace comedies, however, are all about characters. In essence, they’re a collection of funny people in a fixed location. The characters are where the workplace comedy will find continual storylines and essentially elevate a mundane, familiar and repetitive setting into one that contains within it many different arcs, struggles and sources of humor.
Once again, a character’s relatability is crucial. In view of this fact, most workplace sitcoms use similar archetypes for the foundations of their characters. They serve as universal symbols that viewers can apply to their own colleagues (or themselves). Of course, these archetypes should ideally be expanded upon and made idiosyncratic in some way. But they allow for a template to be put in place, on which your own writing can build.
Furthermore, the comedy of the workplace sitcom tends to revolve around human behavior. And archetypes provide a useful framework for such behavior. They can also help to clarify the dynamics of the ensemble and their relationships with one another.
Below is a breakdown of some of the most common archetypes found in workplace comedies…
These categories are not an instant substitute for success. Nor are they fixed. In fact, many of the most memorable characters combine traits from a number of different archetypes. However, these archetypes can help populate your cast at the start of your writing process.
Ultimately, the shape that your characters take must be in tune with your chosen setting. Whilst the characters and situations of a workplace sitcom are often exaggerated for comedic effect, they must be grounded in some sort of relatable realism.
Basically, do your research. Ricky Gervais describes how he got many of the ideas for the original version of The Office from observations he’d made whilst working in offices himself.
“When we started working on ideas for our show we literally sat around and just talked about the offices we worked in and the kinds of people that we’d worked with. And quite quickly we felt like there was a crossover of types.”Ricky Gervais
Thus, when creating the characters of your workplace comedy, it’s helpful to have some real-world experience. If your setting is a factory or an airport, for example, you shouldn’t be totally unfamiliar with the ins and outs of these workplaces.
You don’t necessarily have to have worked in these environments (although that helps massively). But you do have to have some reference point, whether that’s working in a similar environment or by doing copious research.
A workplace comedy isn’t a documentary. However, rooting it in something real, tangible and specific will only help it connect with audiences as well as garner more meaning and resonance.
In a workplace sitcom, comedy lies in the boundaries between ‘situation’ and ‘character’.
The comedy of all good workplace sitcoms is driven by two interconnected factors: situation and character. A workplace comedy’s various plot lines should be rooted in the situations that arise within its setting. This provides an opportunity to explore the dynamics within a show’s ensemble. It’s here that conflict is created.
Every episode of every sitcom needs conflict. Famously, without conflict, there’s no drama. And if there’s no drama there’s no comedy.
Conflict is generated by clashing personalities. As explained above, the ensemble of every workplace sitcom is made up of a wide variety of larger-than-life characters. The very nature of these personality types entails contrasting attitudes and opinions.
This, in turn, will generate conflicting responses to any given scenario. It is here that comedy is created. This is because it provides an opportunity for physical humour such as pranks, witty one-liners, satire, or sarcasm. Comedy and drama act as two sides of a coin, pushing each other and relying on one another.
In this episode, the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin is in competition with the Utica branch for a major account. This situation creates conflict between the two branches. The desire to defeat Utica leads to various responses from some of the show’s key players.
This example demonstrates that combining a high-stakes situation with a series of embellished personalities can create a rich environment for comedy.
Obviously, a workplace sitcom needs to be funny. But it must also have emotional depth. Without this, a show can quickly fall flat. And without layers, your characters will seem disingenuous.
Every character in a good workplace comedy will have both humor and heart.
Alternatively, in Superstore, Mateo Santos’s comedic moments derive from his wittiness.
Emotional depth, therefore, entails exploring a character’s intimate struggles which transcend the comedic situations they find themselves in. When constructing your characters it’s vital you think not only about how they’re funny but also about what they feel deep inside.
These are just a few examples of the endless number of questions you might ask yourself when creating a character’s backstory. Whatever they may be, it’s important you ask them and, equally so, that they’re expressed within both the drama and comedy.
Emotional complexity is what allows the audience to connect with your characters on a deeper, more meaningful level. Being exposed to their different shades makes possible a fully-fledged relationship with them. This is why we keep watching – because we care.
Moreover, finding a character funny is as much about understanding them as it is about the quality of their jokes. If we don’t understand them, their jokes will quickly wear thin. But if we can see where these jokes stem from, they’ll not only be funny but also have a pathos to them.
A workplace comedy in sitcom form will typically (in TV) match traditional sitcom structure. Whilst writers can often grate against structure, a sitcom structure can be vital in creating space and pacing for character, story and comedic bits to hit successfully.
So what does this structure look like?
Even if you intend to veer away from a traditional sitcom structure, these beats can help shape your story. Returning to the same setting every episode can make it hard to generate fresh, interesting and funny plots. But using this structure can help ignite your imagination, forcing characters within this setting into action by enforcing a pattern of change upon them.
Writing a good workplace comedy is sometimes seen as the holy grail of TV writing. It’s format that can generate multiple series, plenty of storylines, interesting environments and a host of varying, vibrant characters. Moreover, a workplace setting and all that comes with it is something that most audiences can relate to, whatever the specific context.
Finding a good idea for your own workplace comedy, however, is no easy feat. And the workplace comedies that fail prove this. You need that magic combination of an interesting setting, a fresh take on that setting, entertaining characters, good jokes and series-long storylines that can keep an audience genuinely engaged.
Discovering that magic formula though can be somewhat of a golden ticket for budding TV writers. And using the above steps is the first stepping stone to trying to find the winning combination that will make a great workplace comedy.
Pretty much all workplace comedies have a combination of key ingredients to make them work. They will, however, be seasoned with that extra special ingredient that only you as the writer can bring and that will ultimately make your workplace comedy stand out. Tap into your own experiences and perspective as a way of trying to source this extra something special and combine it with the tried and tested patterns of workplace comedies gone by.
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This article was written by Theo Collins and edited by IS Staff.
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Is the multi-cam workplace sitcom dead? It sure seems that way. I'm tired of the "mockumentary" format.