8 Characters of Comedy
When I work with anyone developing a half-hour pilot, I always recommend Scott Sedita’s book The Eight Characters of Comedy. Written primarily for actors (Sedita is an acting coach in Los Angeles), it can also greatly help writers. It presents eight archetypes found in virtually every comedy series (or comedy feature, for that matter).
I have used these types in my own half hour writing (like my pilot Community Property, which I developed with ABC Studios in 2011). I think they really help to make sure each of your characters has an innate source of conflict with their world, as well as characteristics that make them funny to watch.
Many early drafts of comedy scripts I read (or have written) have characters that are either too “straight” (i.e. not consistently funny), or else wacky to the point of unbelievability. I think that using this book’s approach helps to make sure that your characters are grounded in recognizable human behavior — while at the same time, exaggerating certain characteristics for comedic effect.
The book is really necessary to get the full breakdown, but here’s my quick take on the eight types, starting with the one I think is most commonly seen on series today, and ending with the least common (a highly subjective ranking):
1. Lovable Loser
2. Logical Smart One
5. The Dumb One
6. In Their Own Universe
8. Materialistic One
Sedita points out that most married couples on sitcoms have historically been the pairing of a “Lovable Loser” with a “Logical Smart One.” The Lovable Loser pursues endless ill-advised schemes that don’t work out, whereas the Logical Smart One is grounded, sarcastic, critical, and is always there to pick up the pieces. On I Love Lucy, it’s the wife who’s the Lovable Loser, but it’s much more common for it to be the husband, as on The Honeymooners, Everybody Loves Raymond, Home Improvement and, more recently, Modern Family — in the form of Phil and Claire Dunphy.
I think Phil Dunphy really typifies this character today, and demonstrates the eternal optimism and enthusiasm of this type. It’s not fun to watch someone always lose, if they are down on themselves and want to give up. What’s fun (and lovable) is to watch someone who always has a new hope, a new idea, a new plan, a new belief that they’re going to be victorious in some way — but it always goes wrong. That’s Phil. (And also Manny, on the same series, in his dealing with girls.)
In the early days of the show, I think Claire more consistently played the Logical Smart One to Phil’s Lovable Loser, but lately, I think they’ve written her more as a Neurotic, which helps her to have her own stories separate from Phil. The Logical Smart One tends to need one of the other, more “wacky” types to play off of. Left alone, they can be a little too grounded to get into comedic difficulties.
But for Neurotics, that’s not a problem. This type is in their own head a lot, always trying to figure out and control everything, with fears, irritations and insecurities that keep them on edge. Both Claire and her brother Mitch (and his husband Cam) exhibit Neurotic attributes — as do classic half hour characters like George on Seinfeld, Frasier on Frasier, and Monica on Friends. Or Rebecca Bunch on my new favorite show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
The cool thing about these types is that you don’t have to just pick one for each character, and make sure they always and only behave according to that type. Like the Save the Cat beat sheet, it’s more an underlying language or palette to work from, that has flexibility to it. Characters can take on a different type depending on who they’re interacting with, or whether it’s a scene that is part of “their” story for the episode (versus someone else’s), or whether or not they are meant to be the primary source of comedy in the scene.
For instance, Jim on The Office would definitely be the Logical Smart One when dealing with Michael or Dwight, but in his interactions with Pam (who he secretly loved) in the first couple seasons, he would play more as a Lovable Loser. Haley on Modern Family might come off as anything from The Dumb One, The Manizer or The Materialistic One, to The Bitch (in dealing with sister Alex, who is usually a Logical Smart One). Haley also even plays the Logical Smart One role, at times (like when her parents took her out to dinner, worried about her future, only for it to turn out that she has a nice business going, and ends up picking up the check). Like her mother, she is evolving somewhat in terms of how she’s used on the show — but there are certain innate qualities which are always there. That’s the luxury of a hit show that lasts many seasons. In an original pilot, it really helps if each character has a pretty clear type, as their comedic starting point.
The Bitch/Bastard characteristic, as I see it, takes the Logical Smart One a step further. These characters are just kind of mean to people, in ways that get laughs — like Carla on Cheers. Or virtually everyone on Veep (aside from Lovable Losers Gary and Mike).
But as with all these types, it’s more interesting and believable if they are three-dimensional, and at times come off softer, especially in stories that are really about their problems, desires and vulnerabilities. Take Jay on Modern Family vs. Frank on Everybody Loves Raymond. Both are gruff patriarchs, “Bastards,” if you will, who are overly tough on others. The difference is that Frank almost never got his own stories, so was mostly there to insult everyone. Whereas Jay does get his own stories, in which he can seem more like a more sympathetic Lovable Loser.
Similarly, a lot of shows these days don’t have a character who is just a straight up “Dumb One” (like Joey on Friends, Woody or Coach on Cheers or Derek Zoolander in the Zoolander movies). Rather, certain characters can seem like they don’t understand things at times, but at other moments are sly, clever and on top of it all. (Like Gloria on Modern Family.)
A couple steps removed from that “Dumb One” is the “In Their Own Universe” character — who is just sort of “out there,” with a worldview that is significantly skewed from everyone else, but makes sense to them. Often these characters have a sweet innocence to them, and the bizarre things they say are a go-to source of laughs. Phoebe on Friends fits this type, as does Reverend Jim on Taxi, and French Stewart’s character on 3rd Rock from the Sun. But again, in their own stories, they might come off more relatable and a little less wacky — only to return to their old weird selves when they show up as comic relief in someone else’s story or scene.
The Womanizer/Manizer trait refers to a character who is sex-obsessed — but not necessarily always successful at it. Barney on How I Met Your Mother fits this type, as does Vince Vaughan’s character in Wedding Crashers. But if it always went really well for these guys, the audience would tend to not like them or want to follow them. Instead, things need to come crashing down on them. (Actually, this is true of all characters — they need to be mostly failing, as they passionately pursue goals that mostly don’t work out.) But the desire to seduce gives them a focus which leads to endless stories, conflicts, problems… and comedy.
Sedita talks about the Materialistic One as a usually female character who is focused on status, shopping, money, and being kind of above (or oblivious to) others who don’t have their high lifestyle focus — like the sister character on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. With the recent advent of single camera comedies and a more layered, three-dimensional approach, I think this characteristic (like being Dumb, a Bitch/Bastard or Womanizer) tends to more be part of the stew for a character who also has other things going on. Not as many shows today have characters whose sole purpose is to just say things that make the audience laugh. But the characters do need to approach life in ways that are funny for us to watch, for one reason or another.
That is my main point: these types — or characteristics — can help ensure that you’re creating people on your show who will be consistently comedic — and who will have desires, problems and conflicts that lead to lots of good story. Not every series has one of each of these types, and some shows have more than one of the same type. But virtually every good comedic character (on television or in movies) is made up of one or more of these elements at their core, which are driving them in their stories, and creating both humorous situations, and conflict with the other characters. I strongly suggest using this book as a foundational element in your comedy writing.
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.