TRANSCRIPT: Sit Com Structure

 

Welcome to HowToWrite TV, the podcast that aims to give you tools you’ll need to create your own original Television content. I’m Thom Bray.

 

Pants on fire. George Jefferson’s foot licked by the bear. The one with the monkey.

 

All these phrases have been used to describe perhaps the most important part of the classic sit com structure. And today, I’m going to explain that structure to you.

 

First, let’s go back a bit in time.

 

Back at the dawn of TV— and believe it or not, I’m close in age to the dawn of TV– the situation comedy–or sitcom–came out of the sketch comedy variety tradition. Back then, shows like Your Show of Shows, The Texaco Hour, and all of those wonderful sitcoms we heard on radio even before TV was born–shows like The Jack Benny Show, The Aldridge Family, Fibber McGee and Molly–and so many more served as a model for what was coming with the advent of shows like I Love Lucy, which set a standard for sitcoms that in many ways still exists today.

 

To begin our discussion of TV Sitcom Structure, you’ll need to be familiar with three concepts: a story beat, story scenes, and ACTS.

 

A story beat–is a movement in the your story. It is when the story moves along the structure from point A to point B–one beat to another.

 

But a beat is not a SCENE. A scene is a unit of storytelling. It consists of a time and a location. Whenever, in a script the time or location changes–as, for example, when you move from one, set location in a script to another, or when time changes from, present day to a few minutes later, or tomorrow, or ten years later or ten years in the past–you have a new scene. 

 

An act is like a storage box: each act holds scenes, and each act has to hold the kinds of scenes that fit inside that act. It would be like having a couple of storage boxes, one say, for shoes, and one for sweaters. You would not put shoes in with sweaters or sweaters in with shoes, because they would be in the wrong box.

 

It’s the same with SitCom structure.

 

So, let’s begin, with those basic definitions in mind, and I’ll show you how these parts fit together.

 

This classic two act sitcom structure is based upon the commercial broadcast TV model, where shows are interrupted to sell products using commercials. You’ve seen, I’m sure, this model so many times before. This is why the structure consists of four parts: A short Teaser, which tempts and grabs the audience in, ACT ONE, then an act one which contains commercials , ACT TWO, where the story builds to its high point, and then a TAG, where the story has a wrap up. So, there are four storage boxes in the classic two act sit com form: teaser, act i, ii and tag, and just like in our storage boxes for shoes and sweaters, these story boxes hold specific kinds of beats and scenes in each box.

 

Now with streaming platforms, many shows don’t have these commercial interruptions. And yet, many shows still follow at least parts of this structure.

 

Here are the kinds of things that should be in each story box. Here is the classic Two Act Sit Com structure:

 

It consists of SIX story beats.

 

Beat 1: The Problem is introduced.

Beat 2: The Problem Becomes Complicated

Beat Three: The problem Explodes!

Act Break–lots of commercials.

Beat Four–The WHAT TO DO BEAT, where a plan to FIX the exploded problem is hatched, and brought into

Beat Five–The High Comedy Scene. And if you haven’t already guessed, here’s where pants catch on fire. Here’s where–as my mentor and creator of the classic sitcom DESIGNING WOMEN, Linda Bloodworth always called it– George Jefferson’s Foot Gets Licked by the Bear–Here’s where the writer’s of the sitcom Friends would name the episode after the high scene–as in, “The One With The Monkey.” It’s the moment that everyone remembers from the show. It’s the moment where Lucy and Ethel are working in the candy factory, and the conveyer belt gets faster, and they can’t keep up with it and wind up stuffing candy in their mouths. hilariously.

 

The high comedy scene.

 

Beat Six is the resolution, where the problem gets fixed and characters learn, but they don’t learn too much, since audiences of sitcoms enjoy seeing their favorite sit com characters make the same kind of mistakes over and over again. There’s not a lot of personal growth in the characters of a sitcom. You only have to look at the over ten years of seasons of Always Sunny in Philadelphia to understand that those characters are pretty much the same flawed and hilarious people they were in season one. And we, the audience, wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Now, remember when I told you that Each beat, or measurement of the story structure can take several scenes to accomplish? Well,look at an example

 

Let’s take for example, an  imaginary episode of The Flinstones. And by the way, if you don’t know the Flintstones, seek it out–it is an important part of TV history.

 

Let’s imagine that your imaginary episodic logline is this: Fred and Barney are excited to bowl in the big tournament–until their wives, Betty and Wilma, remind them that they promised to take them dancing.

 

Your next step would be to take this episodic logline and start to plug it into the six beat structure.

 

So, the first beat is: The Problem is introduced.

 

One of the good things about this episodic logline is that it expresses a story problem: the guys want to bowl and the girls want to dance–so that makes this first story beat really easy to write. It is simply your episodic logline, where we introduce the problem.

 

The second beat might be: The guys invent a lie that they have to visit their boss in the hospital and can’t go dancing. That’s the problem, complicated

 

The third beat, where it explodes, might be, after coming out of the bowling ally pleased with themselves for having pulled one over on their wifes, the guys suddenly see Wilm and Betty drive by the bowling Ally! Did the girls see them when they are supposed to be at the hospital visiting their boss. Uh-oh–problem explodes.

 

Beat four is what to do: Here the boys may think of further lies to tell, until they finally realize they don’t even really know whether the girls even SAW them. So, their plan is to sneak back home to find out.

 

Beat Five, the high scene, might be when the boys get home, peak through Fred’s window to see their wives talking by the fireplace–but the can’t hear what’s being said. The solution is simple–get a ladder, climb to the roof, and listen down the chimney. All goes well until Barney falls off the roof onto Fred, breaking both their arms.

 

Beat Six, the resolution: The boys are in the hospital. The wives visit, and point out that while their arms are broken their legs are not–so they’ll be expecting a night of dancing soon.

 

There you have it: Six beats. Those beats are stored inside the different storage boxes we mentioned.

 

For example, in the first BOX TEASER BOX, you put Beat one–The problem gets introduced.

 

In the next box, ACT one, you put the next two beats: The problem gets complicated, and the problem explodes.

 

In the ACT TWO BOX, you place the What to do beat, and the High Comedy beat.

 

And in the TAG box, you place the resolution.

But again, the beats are not scenes. Those are only the story beats.

 

Let’s take the Teaser, and the first beat, problem introduced: The boys want to go bowling and the girls dancing. We could see several scenes for this one beat: both guys waking up in each of their houses, the guys talking excitedly on the phone about bowling, each guy sitting down to breakfast, and the scene where each wife tells them she is excited to go dancing.

 

You will create as many scenes from a story beat as you will need to fill out your script count pages in each section.

 

For example, in a Teaser, you should expect one to three pages of script. That could mean one to 3 or 4 scenes, depending.

 

Act I traditionally has ten or so pages, and scenes tend to be short in sitcomes, so for the two beats in the Act One box, you may wind up writing 5-7 scenes of one to two script pages each.

 

Act II traditionally has about 9-10 pages, and a tag about 1-2.

 

See how this works?

 

Now, in conclusion, I want to point out that these script page counts are for shows filmed in the single camera tradition–shows that usually do not have a live audience. Shows that shoot multiple camera in front of a live audience have a different script format. They are the same length in time, but the multiple camera format on the page is different, meaning there’s as many as 42 or so pages in a half hour multiple camera script rather than 25 pages for a single camera.

 

But the structure is the same: six story beats.

 

Also, based on what time you are in TV history, sitcoms can half two or maybe three acts. When lucy was on, it was two acts, when I was acting in the original version of ONE DAY AT A TIME in the 70s, it was three Acts. When I was writing Designing Women in the 90s, we were bcak to do. At the present, some shows write to two acts and some sitcoms to three. It depends.

 

But if you know this traditional two act structure, you’ll be able to handle anything.

 

From here going forward, I’d encourage you to watch your favorite shows and see if you can’t reverse engineer and beat out the six beat structure for that show. While different showrunners have different structure ideas, I believe you will find at least some elements of the structure I’ve taught you today–everywhere.

 

This classic form was taught to me by a wonderful friend and witer, the late Don Ryhmer. Don learned it from some old sitcom guy, who probably learned it from another old sit com writer. Thus it is with this info: we pass it on where we can. Thank you Don.

I’ve heard from you and am making changes to this podcast. Going forward, There will be fewer writing party episodes, and new episodes will drop every other week–about twice monthly.

 

Also, I’m in the process of consolidating all my podcasts into one website–braycast,.com. Look for show notes there.

 

And please, leave a rating and review for this podcast,m and please tell your friends who might be interested.

 

Above all–keep writing. And be alive instead of perfect.

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