Here’s an FQ that became a whole post. It’s from Jeff ☺
I have a question in regards to characters in sitcoms. How important do you feel it is to make your characters "realistic"? For example, let's say your character is a pilot. Fairly boring profession. But what if you made them legally blind. It would certainly open up the door for comedic plot points, but at the same time would be completely unrealistic that a airline would have hired said person in the first place.
I’m a huge believer that characters have to be real. They can be weird and eccentric and quirky and larger-than-life, but they must be grounded in reality. If not, then they’re just a cartoon and you run the risk that the audience won’t give a shit. Viewers want to be invested in the characters they follow every week. The more they can hook into them emotionally, the more loyal to your show they’ll become. A character being “funny” just isn’t enough.
So how do you make an outrageous character “real?” By justifying his position in the world.
And it was taken from a real character. When I was a disc jockey on KYA, San Francisco in the ‘70s, I was first working the all-night shift. Back then (because of strong unions) I could only turn my mic on and off. All of the records and commercials and jingles had to be played by a union engineer. My engineer was named Pinky. He must’ve been 116 and he was legally blind. He wore giant Coke bottle glasses that were sheer magnifying lens and would hold the music cartridges right up to his face to read them. The station couldn’t fire him so he was banished to the graveyard shift. But he still had his job. (His hearing wasn't all that great either.)
On CHEERS we explained the Coach’s dumbness by saying as a former baseball player he took too many fastballs to the head.
So how do you find these rich characters from real life to put in your pilot or series?
One way is research.
I rarely see research stressed in writing classes and it should be. Get to really know the world you’re writing about. Spend the time. Interview people, read books on the subject, just be a fly on the wall and observe for several days or weeks. Characters you never thought of will appear.
Again, I go back to TAXI. The producers spent some time interviewing New York cabbies and watching what goes on at a typical garage. They were interviewing the dispatcher when they saw a cabbie bribe him for a good cab. Boom! That was Louie DePalma.
Research served us very well on MASH. We spent many hours interviewing doctors, nurses, corpsman, and soldiers who had served in Korea. And some of our most outlandish stories (like everybody dying their hair and uniforms red) came from real life.
Research can be tedious, but it’s worth the effort. And it’s not always tedious. For eleven years whenever I went into a bar I wrote off my tab as research for CHEERS. And stickler-for-detail that I am, I spent a lot of time in bars. Hey, it was for “for my art.”
Bottom line: your show needs to be grounded in reality. The characters can be bizarre as long as they’re believable in that world. SILICON VALLEY is a perfect example. Filled with quirky characters but I believe every single one of them.
And when we live in a world where Donald Trump is actually running for President of the United States and has blithering idiots who would vote for him, you have a lot of leeway in justifying completely absurd over-the-top characters.