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This topic sheet was originally devised for the Exciting Sitcom Writing course. There is a table of links to other teaching resources towards the bottom of this page.

 

At first sight, the idea of situation comedy being rich in subtext may seem laughable: situation comedy is pure entertainment, after all.

And yet subtext is present, at least subliminally, in all creative writing, insofar as subtext is information invented by the listener in order to fill gaps in both writing and production. For example, when a character hints at an a relationship without making the circumstances fully clear to the audience, the members of the audience instinctively hypothesise, each in his/her own terms, about the nature of that relationship: the more vague the hint, the greater the subtext. Subtext need not be deeply intellectual, but it is inevitable.

When writing situation comedy, the characters and their situation may be made more interesting and credible by creating subtextual links to events that have a bearing upon the action, but that never actually impinge on it.

Note that this does not mean direct links, which would conflict with the "show don't tell" principle (click on the link to see the relevant topic sheet in the Exciting Writing for Theatre course). For example, if a character needs to say "I've never forgiven you for that time you...", the "show don't tell" principle dictates that the past event must actually be acted out for the audience.

Subtextual links are more subtle, even uncertain. The writer might hint repeatedly at the fact that Character A has never forgiven Character B for something without ever mentioning the "something", and perhaps without ever explicitly stating the lack of forgiveness. This make the characters more interesting for the audience. The comedy will probably arise from the conflict between the unforgiving and the unforgiven, and the way in which it shapes their actions, so that the characters will earn their places in the programme on comic merit alone. But the insoluble mystery of their relationship will be a further hook that draws audiences back time and again to laugh at their antics and to puzzle, perhaps subconsciously, over the subtextual questions.

Writers can never hope to be in complete control of subtext which is, after all, created exclusively in the minds of the audience and informed by each individual's unique mindset and portfolio of memories. However there is much that the writer can do to ensure richness of subtext, and the characters and their situation are likely to be greatly enhanced through this work.

Specifically, the writer can create, or at least visualise, significant, perhaps life-changing past events,that have shaped the situation and/or the relationships that help to define it.

Whether or not such events are ever written out in full, they can never be included within the comedy.

  • Included events cease to be subtextual anyway, so their inclusion rather defeats the object.
  • But another reason for their exclusion is that their life-changing effects would jeopardise the stability that is the essence of good situation comedy: that we must be able to visit the episodes of the sitcom in any order without any sense of disorientation. Life-changing events are unacceptable because the change would render past episodes unusable in view of the changed circumstances.

Perhaps the best route to controlled subtext is raising and answering loaded questions about the characters. The reason for "loading" the questions is that the answers must provide grist for the comedy: conflicts, faults, embarrassment, insecurity, etc. Simple questions such as "Where did A first meet B?" may provide mildly interesting narrative subtext, but the most powerful subtext will almost certainly come from questions that deliberately seek to expose raw wounds.

For example:

  • If one wishes to create a general feeling of unease that constantly grips the characters, one might ask: What unspeakable event happened in this very room ten years ago that everyone remembers vividly but no one dares to mention?
  • If the comedy is inspired by an intriguing relationship between two characters (such as an insecure boss and an incompetent, mutinous secretary), there may be fascinating subtext to be mined by probing the dark depths of their past relationship.
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