How lifelike are comedy characters?
Where do we get our characters from? When I started writing, I had a simple, confident answer: life. If the population of our sitcoms or sketches weren’t lifted directly from the people we met around us, there was something suspiciously untruthful about them.
I once met Maurice Gran (half of Marks & Gran, writers of “The New Statesman” and “Birds of a Feather”) and asked him how much they took their characters from “real life”. “If any of them had been,” he retorted, “They’d have been locked up in a mental home”. I withdrew into my shell. My question had been viciously trampled over.
That was then. Now I know Maurice was right. Characters in sitcoms don’t behave like real humans - even those in ostensibly naturalistic shows like “The Office”. They run through tangled loops of repetitive behaviour with people who, after a week or two, would avoid them, scream at them, hit them or have them locked up. “The Office” ’s David Brent wouldn’t have lasted a month in a real office. He’d have been sacked, demoted or moved sideways.
We keep watching a sitcom, though, because we somehow feel the characters are real. There’s a vitality to them. We recognise many of their emotions as our own. They ring bells. “I’ve met people just like that” is a frequent comment when people discuss David Brent. What they mean is that they’ve come across managers who sometimes spout meaningless office jargon, who can be embarrassingly matey, who at times can be excruciatingly insensitive.
But none of these real people would interrupt a team building meeting by accompanying themselves on the guitar to their own bad pop song, or give a motivation lecture by rapping throughout with a baseball cap on backwards, and next week leave a person in a wheelchair stranded on the stairs in a fire practice. Brent will commit several similar gaffes every episode.
When we’re writing a sitcom character, they’re a composite of people we’ve met, images dredged from our imagination, ideas springing from our own attitudes, and a calculated need to create conflict with other characters. We’re not copying behaviour from life. We’re doing something much better: we’re creating a completely new entity.