Although, as I shall in the near future discuss, “What exactly does it mean to be funny?” (And, parenthetically, “Can there be any definition thereof under which a Nineteenth Century German philosopher might remotely be considered to qualify?”)
To the question “When you create a new situation comedy, where exactly do you start?”, the most frequently heard response to that question is…
Or, as the supremely talented Jim Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Simpsons) was heard to discourse, repeating for educational emphasis:
“Charactah! Charactah! Charactah!”
(Because he was from New York.)
Most creators of sitcoms agree. You begin with the characters, and you allow them to grow and develop and interact, hoping they will blossom into full-blown and beloved sitcomical icons. (See: Archie Bunker, The “Fonz”, Kramer, and the hyper-fussy Man-Child on The Big Bang Theory, among a revered handful of others.)
In truth, however – the “truth” being my truth – to blaze the trail to sitcomical immortality, there are other avenues you can pursue (allowing that you can say “trail” and “avenue” in the same sentence without getting drummed out of the “Writers Guild Clarity Fraternity.”)
Alternative Options To Sitcomical Success:
You can start with a star – The Cosby Show. You can start with an enormously gifted but yet to be discovered future star – Michael J. Fox in Family Ties. Or with an enormously talented ensemble – Friends.
You could also start with a cleverly conceived concept – Get Smart or Third Rock from the Sun. Or a fortuitous combination of these elements – (enormously gifted future star) Robin Williams in (a cleverly conceived concept) Mork and Mindy. Or take other avenues to success that do not immediately come to mind. (But feel free to add some.) (I would parenthetically throw in that a great team of writers doesn’t hurt, but that would apply anywhere.)
My personal “Avenue of Preference”, reflected in the M.O.’s of three of the four series I created is:
And therein we encounter the long dead (he was certainly gone before television) and little known (to me) German philosopher, so little known to me, I had to look up his first (second and third) name(s),
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
The “Hegelian Dialectic” harkens back to an ancient Greek method of argument for resolving disagreements. I will eschew the specifics and offer only the superficialities, because I know that is what my readers expect of me.
Here’s how it (superficially) works.
One person takes a side; their disputant takes the opposing side. The two then haggle (or perhaps “Hegel”) until they reach an “in-between” position of substantial agreement…
Is what I think it’s about.
Conflict, for me – although not necessarily for other writers who generate their concepts from character or one of the other above-mentioned options – is a Jim Dandy “Starting Point” for the development of a TV show. In fact, when I can encapsulate that specific element of conflict, I know immediately I have a series. Not one that will unquestionably succeed, but at least one that I am certain I can write. (And cross my fingers that my enthusiasm for those conflictual fireworks will be universally contagious.)
I wrote a failed pilot (it did not advance to series) called Island Guy – When a late Twentieth Century Beverly Hills family adopts a natural “Innocent” from generic “Polynesia”, the conflict between their two cultures challenges (or at least would have challenged if the pilot had been picked up for series) the way of living that family accepts as “business as usual.” (And to an equal degree vice versa.)
Best of the West, which ran for one season, involved the conflict between the West as it actually was – murderously unsavory – and the highly publicized and idealized “West of the Imagination.”
And Major Dad, which pitted the traditional (Read, to those who disagree with them: Rigid) values of a lifer Marine against the flexible (Read, to those who disagree with them: Wishy-washy) perspectives of a female journalist. Based on the wealth of material they could "dialectic" about, it is little wonder to me Major Dad lasted for four seasons.
(My fourth Family Man, like The Cosby Show that inspired it, chronicled the experiences of a particular family, although there was plenty in there to "dialectic" about as well.)
It is clear that the "Conflict Approach" is my personal preference. A funny argument, funny not because the conflict itself is hilarious but because the chosen method of arguing – involving combatants adamantly sticking beyond reason good will and good sense to their guns – provides...well, the fire is already there; all you need to do is throw in more kindling and more wood.
With heat – more specifically unreasonably escalated heat and neither side willing to back down – there is inevitably a rich and fertile environment for comedy.
You got built-in conflict – you got a show.
At least that is what I always believed.