Quantifying comedy and the science of sitcoms

Comedy, like politics and religion, can be a big joke, or no laughing matter, depending on your point of view. And like political and religious views, it’s near impossible to convert doubters that your chosen path is the true one.

Knowing what makes a comedy ‘good’ is a dark art – you may have seen the Importance of Being Earnest more times than a maiden aunt but your favourite comedy is American Pie.

Likewise you love Monty Python’s Life of Brian as the greatest comedy ever made but find the troupe’sThe Meaning of Life turgid, yet both are rated as four out of five stars on IMDB.

What then makes a comedy great – how can a writer know what they write is funny, how can you argue your favourite comedy is ‘the best’ when another swears that you’re wrong?

But is it funny?

Sitcom and studies

Comedy, like anthropology, is a study of human behaviour. While the sitcom is scripted, it still sits within the social parameters of the society it’s made in, it’s the microcosm of its society.

It’s why some comedies date as social norms have progressed, while others are timeless and appeal to supposed universal values. It’s why The Office has been made even for similar linguistic similar but work-culture different markets such as the UK and US, or France and Quebec.

Divided by a common language

If then anthropology is the study and data of social interactions, why can’t a sitcom be subject to data collection in itself?

Continuing the theme of writing as a science, I want to know if comedy can be quantified. To do this, I’m going to take existing ‘rule of thumb’ methods and see if by combining them I can create something greater.

Count the funnies

In comedy laughter settles all arguments – Robert McKee, Story

Comedy writers are already urged to ‘count the funnies’. John Byrne said in The Stage: “If at all possible get hold of original sitcom scripts and count the laughs on each page to give yourself a target.”

Although I’ve seen some writers argue for a quota of laughs per page, I prefer John’s method as it’s more rule-of-thumb and personal to you and the scripts you admire.

It’s also highly subjective – as I said, you know what makes you laugh is rarely what makes everyone else laugh (even if it is the way you tell ’em).

There must be a simpler way

The universal

This can lead to problems. Rumours are that The Simpsons screenwriters write to a quota of jokes per page, and this would account for why it’s become worse – technically it is funny, but without reversals it’s a stream of one-liners and not a story.

As ‘funnies’ are subjective, I need a universal.

“You twist and turn like a … twisty-turny thing”

Reversals are a ‘rule’ of good screenwriting (okay you McKee devotees, ‘principle’) and in the Scriptwriters Network Newsletter William Martel wrote:

“The key to good action scenes is reversals…It’s like a good news/bad news joke. The bad news is that you get thrown out of an airplane. The good news is you’re wearing your parachute. The bad news is the rip cord breaks. The good news is you have a backup chute. The bad news is you can’t reach the cord. Back and forth like that until the character reaches the ground.”

A reversal can be anything from a major plot change, unexpected event or phrase, to a one-liner with a twist. For example, this from Family Guy, a show that normally lives on one-liners.

Peter runs to picketers bearing signs that say "Free Tibet": "Free Tibet! I'll take it!" Runs to phone booth. "Hello, China? I think I have something you may want, but it's gonna cost you... that's right - all the tea."

See it coming?

Adding reversals works as a check because a one-liner is a simple way to up the funny count without adding anything to a story, a junk food diet for comedy.

Better still, reversals can vary in scale from simple laughs. They range from the one-liner in Family Guy gag the to major plot points – think anti-authoritarian Brian becoming messiah, or just how different Bandcamp Girl’s final anecdote was in American Pie.

Is that it?

Sounds simple. And when something sounds simple it’s worth digging a little deeper.

We have two quantities and as with any measure there  should be a ‘checksum‘, do the two quantities of funnies and reversals add up?

This means that the story should, in general, be in the universe’s rules. I don’t mean the real rules of physics but the ones created in the story. This means no magical wand for part-man, part-machine RoboCop and no mutant superhumans save the wizards in the final battle of Harry Potter.

Even then there are exceptions – like when Brian is saved by aliens – but then I say the Rule of Funny applies.

What’s missing?

No theory attempts to explain everything (well apart from the Grand Unified Theory) and this has two notable exceptions – characters and structure. As someone who believes these are two of the most important things in any story, it may seem odd.

I want to focus on one area, and an area that is measurable. Character and structure, for now, are too hard to measure and I want a simple test.

The end…?

We have a theory – a good comedy will have a series of jokes and reversals per page that are, in general, in keeping with the story’s universe. There will be exceptions, in fact I expect to be surprised by the results.

The aim is not to find what makes the ‘best’ comedy, instead I suspect I will end up creating Budweiser – a beer made not because it tasted the best but because it offended the least. This theory may help produce well-received comedies. It’s a theory.

But what good is a theory without a test?

The test

Let’s test ‘good’ comedies to start with – for who wants to test bad ones? Let’s look at sitcoms rather than films as sitcoms have many episodes to choose from, and will prove if the thoery can ever lead to the best rated within a series, or when, if ever, it ‘jumped the shark‘.

Luckily we know which British sitcoms are the best. In 2004 the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 had a vote and the winners were Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers.

In theory the average rate of jokes and reversals per minute should be higher the better the comedy is rated, with the top rated episodes as IMDB or fan sites ‘the best’.

Now we know what’s funny let’s test it together.

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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