All in a days work – how to write a perfect comedy pilot…
Do you have an idea for the next knee-slapping sitcom sensation and don’t know where to start? Well, we've got the guide to show you how to write a hilarious 30-minute comedy pilot step by step.
If you’re ready to get people laughing with an off-the-wall new sitcom pilot — keep reading!
Before we start…
All TV Comedies can be split into two types: multi-camera and single-camera.
A multi-camera comedy is one that will be filmed on a sound stage, very often with a live studio audience, and will involve an environment with a few fixed set pieces and static cameras that can catch the action from multiple angles.
Multi-camera set-ups are easier, and often cheaper, to shoot because they are filmed from multiple angles (i.e. shot–reverse) in one take and use a controlled indoor environment.
However, they can be limiting as they force the story to take place in specific “pre-existing” locations. Examples of this style are Friends, Frasier, The Big Bang Theory, Cheers, etc.
A single-camera comedy is filmed on location and will usually not have fixed locations, although they will often reuse a focal location, such as character homes or workplaces. They usually do not include a live audience or a laugh track.
Single-camera set-ups are more flexible in terms of story, but are logistically more difficult and expensive as scenes require multiple takes, and can be impacted by weather, etc. Examples of this style are Arrested Development, The Office, Modern Family, The Mindy Project, etc.
Animated shows may fall under the “single-camera” category due to the appearance of the final product, but are not affected by the same limitations as a live action comedies.
However, they can be quite work intensive due to requirements of animation. Examples of this style are The Simpsons, Archer, Bojack Horseman, etc.
It is important to consider what kind of format you want for your show, as this will have an impact on what you’re able to achieve once it gets the green light.
A comedy script will usually use a 5-Act structure, which includes the Cold Open, Acts 1–3, then the Tag scene, which occurs during or post-credits.
The Cold Open is designed to warm up the audience with an initial joke, which will sometimes set up or hint to the dilemma of the episode. Acts 1–3 are the meat of the story, while the Tag is a the wave goodbye. It’s a reward for sticking around until the end.
In comedies, the aim is to resolve the central dilemma and return to the status quo by the end of the episode. Very few straight comedies will focus on a continuing storyline. In most comedies, the audience will not lose the thread of the story if they miss an episode.
However, a show that blends genres, such as Bojack Horseman, may have a continuing story but the central dilemma of an episode should still always be resolved. (i.e. the assistant strike appears and is resolved in the same episode, but alters the status quo of future episodes).
It’s best to treat the information below as a rule of thumb more than a requirement.
TEASER / COLD OPEN
This is the scene that usually occurs before the opening credits. This scene can literally be anything you want.
It can show a character doing something ‘highly in character’ (i.e. Phil and Luke Dunphy engaging in some shenanigans that are bound to annoy Claire (Modern Family)) or it can be used to set up the episode.
For example, in the Friends episode “The One with the Jam”, the cold open preps the audience for the fact Joey (Matt LeBlanc) has broken his arm. This scene doesn’t need to be related to the topic of the episode, it is merely a device to set the tone and get the audience in the right mindset.
In a pilot, this scene is especially important because it is needed to hook the audience as quickly as possible. For this to be effective you’ll want a Cold Open that tells the audience “what is this show about” and “what kind of humour is this” in a creative manner.
It needs to be a joke or scenario that is highly typical of the world we are entering but, more than anything, it needs to be funny and engaging. If you don’t catch a viewer in this first 30–60 seconds, the odds are they’ll switch off. Particularly now in the age of streaming saturation.
Catch an audience quickly or you’re dead in the water.
As with any Act One, this section is used to establish who will be the main players of the episode and what they are up against.
This can be a continuation of what happened in the Teaser or it can be the starting point of the week’s episode. Here is where you establish the main plot and subplots and set up a punch lines for later in the episode (known as call back jokes).
Most comedy pilots are “non-premise”, which mean they throw the audience into the action with very little set up. However, it is important to find creative ways to feed exposition to the audience so they don’t get lost.
This can be done using a semi-typical but not everyday occurrence that serves as both a means of introduction as well as the central dilemma for the episode.
For example, a mother gets a call about a misbehaving child:
“Claire Dunphy speaking”
“Mrs Dunphy, your son Luke set fire to the gym”
“Not again, how will I balance my errands today while dealing with my typically wayward child?”
This kind of scene gives context to the character relationships and their daily lives, but without slowing down the action. This mother’s goal is to run her (time sensitive) errands and the world, particularly her crazy family, is determined to prevent this.
Act Two is where characters begin trying to solve the problems established in the first Act and usually fail.
This can be due to incompetence, a misunderstanding, or an antagonising force standing in their way. Act two will usually have the main plot and subplots running in parallel, with not much cross over at this point.
However, sometimes it will be the intersect of the subplot into the main plot that causes the mishaps in both plots:
Parent A needs to collect the naughty child from school…
But Parent B has gone to run an errand that Parent A told them to do and has taken the car…
Now Parent A doesn’t have the car and has to borrow Parent B’s prized vintage sports car … and crashes it!
In a pilot, Act Two may also help us expand on the characters and their wider universe such as running into a nosy neighbour, a school friend, or a particular nuisance the characters will deal with on a daily basis.
Whatever happens the main characters will have failed to solve their problem, and in all likelihood made it much, much worse.
Act Three will be where the characters try to tackle their problem once again, but with the added problem of having to correct the mess they made trying to solve the original problem. Usually all of the subplots will convalesce and mayhem will ensue.
By the end of this Act, the dilemma will be resolved in some respect, either problem is solved or other characters find out about what happened and everyone apologies for causing havoc.
Whatever happens, we will return to the original status quo with characters having learned a lesson in the process.
TAG / FINAL JOKE / AFTERMATH
Similar to the Cold Open, this final scene is a wildcard. This can be a final scene showing another typical shenanigan, showing the aftermath of what happened in the episode, or a final set-up and punchline to wave the audience goodbye.
The point of this section is to give one final laugh and show that life continues in a similar fashion for each of the important characters. In essence, this scene says “thanks for joining us, see you next time!”
To enhance your understanding of how this pilot structure works in practice, please stay tuned for my upcoming series Pilot Analysis… which will break down different pilots to show how they operate.
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