The secret formula behind most hit sitcoms | How characters fit four key archetypes

The secret formula behind most hit sitcoms

How characters fit four key archetypes

There’s a secret formula at the heart of almost every successful sitcom, aspiring comedy writers have been told.

The four central characters of most hit series can be classified in terms of a nuclear family of: matriarch, patriarch, craftsman and clown.

It’s a theory popularised by Arrested Development writer Mitch Hurwitz – though he makes no claim to have originated it – and shared with delegates at yesterday’s Craft Of Comedy conference by Sarah Morgan, who has written for Crackanory, Dave Gorman and Not Going Out.

She explained that the ‘paradigm’ requires the key personalities:

  • The patriarch: the driving force of the group, usually behind the big idea at a story’s core.
  • The matriarch: more emotional, possibly a voice of reason against rash action, and a ‘soft place to land’ for the other characters  that assures viewers ‘everything going to be OK’. Such characters are said to be hard to write for.
  • The craftsman:  a self-aware, self-improver, perhaps an awkward weirdo dissatisfied with their lot and dreaming of escape:
  • The clown: driven only by impetuous urges, an idiot who doesn’t care they’re an idiot and best experienced  in small doses.

Morgan explained that the ‘energies’ of the four archetypes meant there were inherent differences between them, producing conflict and therefore jokes, while a family is  ‘the best form of trap’ for characters.

She was also keen to stress the matriarch and patriarch roles were non-gendered – for example, Roseanne was the patriarch in her sitcom and Elenor is the patriarch in The Good Place (Chidi is the matriarch, Tahani the craftsman and Jianyu the clown. Ted Danson’s Michael was described as a ‘bonus dad')

In most sitcoms the roles were clear, with The Simpsons given as the archetype with Bart the clown and Lisa  the craftsman. In Fawlty Towers Polly is the matriarch and Sybil the craftsman. While in Sex And The City, Carrie is the patriarch, Charlotte the matriarch, Samantha the clown and Miranda the craftsman;

The formula even extends beyond sitcom. In the Beatles, John is the patriarch, Paul the matriarch, George the craftsman and Ringo the clown.

Not all comedies fit the pattern, and Morgan suggested that the reason Catastrophe felt so dark was because there was no matriarch offering a ‘soft place to land’. Both Sharon and Rob are essentially patriarchs, looking out for No 1, without having each other’s backs. ‘That’s why it feels different and unsettling,’ Morgan said.

Often shows have more than one of a particular archetype, and the role can evolve especially as characters become better established and more rounded. 

Morgan added that knowing the formula helped her in her own writing.

She created a largely autobiographical pilot called Bump for America’s FX network, about a former party girl who becomes pregnant and decides to clean up her act to become the perfect mother before he child is born.

Although it was based on her own experiences, Morgan said her initial script ‘felt too edgy,  relentlessly gritty and dark’ and she realised - ironically - that the show was missing a ‘mum’ to offer emotional support to the protagonist.

Published: 16 Jun 2018

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