Only fools and sitcoms

Can you help discover why some sitcoms are funnier than others?

In a previous post I wrote about my reasons why some sitcoms are funnier than others and developed a theory to test – that the best comedies have more laughs per page and more reversals overall.

Every theory needs a test and I’m testing it on the top five British Sitcoms as voted for in 2004, not to find ‘the best’ comedy but to find which episodes are the greatest.

Yet to test it I need your help. I need you to read the scripts, count the funnies and reversals and enter them into the database below. I’ll let you know the results when they’re in – subscribe and follow me on Twitter to do so.


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?

Professional Writing

Dissecting people

The pleasure of dissecting people is only matched by the knowledge it brings.

Not the sharp surgeon’s scalpel but blunt books have let me dissect human behaviour and made me be a better writer.

More importantly, it has helped (much) greater writers than me to create characters and stories we have enjoyed and respected.

Focused groups

If writing is the study of people, as I argued in a previous essay, then we should study them thoroughly, dissecting human nature and its whys, whats and hows.

I’m not the first to say this – the anthropologists, psychologists and journalists got there long before me. Even politicians want to know what people think, even if it has resulted in ‘focus group politics’ under Tony Blair (though he does deny it).

Autopsy by Scurzuzu
A tight operation

More significantly, dissection leads to more surprising discoveries than anything others could make up. Much like Renaissance science saw the shift from classical ideas that everything could be proved by deduction to that of empirical research, research into a subject will turn up more than could be ‘deduced’ from prior knowledge.

There are more things in heaven and Earth

I’ve written a script about an exorcist, Personal Demons. Researching exorcisms turned up more strange characters and alleged events than even my 30-years of pop-culture and Hollywood could have imagined, let alone claimed to be real.

For example, there’s Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo – an exorcist who in 2001 married a Korean nearly 30 years his junior in a ceremony presided over by Sun Myung Moon, better known as the leader of the ‘Moonies’. It was then down to Cardinal Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI, to go and drag a protesting Milingo away from his wife.

The charismatic Milingo, who was later excommunicated, cheerfully held daily exorcisms and had a compound complete with nuns, the possessed, and armed guards, as well as got into disputes with other, ‘lesser’, exorcists.

Greater than fiction

If I were to write a script about a future pope, the head of the Moonies and a married exorcist bishop who lives under armed guards I’d be lucky to sell it as a B-movie, although I’d probably be too embarrassed to tell anyone about it.

Likewise, I discovered priests who have set up help lines for former Satanists, people who believe they are possessed due to curses by their exes, and glamorous dustbin ladies who take a daily exorcism in the middle of their rounds.

Perhaps I’m limited in my imagination, but I wouldn’t have discovered any of this had I not took apart the area I was researching and studied its people.

Showing the body of research

Dissecting also serves another purposes – showing over telling. I can tell you ad projectile nauseum that I am interested in exorcists, but it is only by research and doing the work that I can show it.

Dissecting people shows that you’ve found your passion and that you want to explore.

As writing is for and by people, the least you can do is dissect them.

Next time, I’ll write about the great surgeons, those who have dissected people and reassembled them to suit their audience.