You’re watching a sitcom on TV. The man says to his wife: “There is absolutely no way that I am going to visit your sister-in-law tomorrow and that’s final.” You know, don’t you, that you have just witnessed the last line in that scene. You also know that the next shot will show the character in close-up and as the camera zooms out, we’ll be aware that he is, indeed, visiting his sister-in-law.
Clichés eh? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. Why do we let so many slip into our scripts? In comedy writing the aim is to get to the joke in the shortest possible time, and we have to be wary of slipping in a few well-worn phrases (like “well-worn phrases”, for example) to speed up the joke delivery process.
There are no excuses for any to be found in a comedy script’s dialogue, but look! Here are FIVE WAYS in which the cliché is our friend.
It’s worth remembering why clichés are clichés. They were, when first heard, fantastic sentences or statements that touched the core of a great truth in the shortest possible time. Shakespeare wrote loads and the Bible have given us plenty more. They become over-used and over-familiar. As a talented and careful writer, which you undoubtedly are, you know not to use any in your scripts. Unless you have a character whose comedy trait is that they talk in clichés.
No one ever sits down to write a cliché. But we always hope that a line or joke from our script will become a catchphrase. As soon as you try too hard, the magic disappears. The more work you put into the characters, the greater chance you have of finding a catchphrase that fits. It’s rarely a joke, but as soon as you hear “lovely jubbly”, “they don’t like it up ‘em” and “I’m the only gay in the village” you know exactly who we’re talking about.
2. WHAT’S IT REALLY ABOUT?
Before you write a word of script, you want to place your characters in a believable world. Many clichés come up repeatedly to describe the essence of every sitcom. Harper Lee’s “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.” This covers or touches on dozens of sitcoms, not just the obvious ones like Frasier, Modern Family and Steptoe but as a strong element in Miranda, Friends, Not Going Out and loads more.
Other familiar phrases that describe popular sitcoms include “fish out of water”, “the little man against the world”, “square peg in a round hole”, “physician heal thyself”, “methinks the lady doth protest.” Don’t say them out loud, but keep them in your head when you’re starting to create your show.
3. CHALK AND CHEESE
It took me a while to get Seinfeld. I was a non-believer, unable to see beyond the superficially smug collection of selfish New York misanthropes. Put off by the opening and closing credits. After ten years on the stand-up circuit had grown tired of Jerry’s old fashioned observational comedy.
Gradually I warmed to the relationship at the heart of this show between Jerry and George, the oldest comedy cliché. The odd couple. The Odd Couple was, of course, one of Neil Simon’s greatest creations. It began as a stage play in 1965 and became a movie, and then a hugely successful long-running sitcom. In its original form it paired Jack Lemmon’s neurotic control freak Felix with Walter Matthau’s slobby, laid-back Oscar: two guys, forced together, who couldn’t be more different.
It’s a relationship defined by cliché: chalk and cheese, opposites attract, the thin line between love and hate. Simon was not the first exponent. One of Britain’s finest comedy creations, The Likely Lads, featuring the near identical-pairing of serious, stuffy Bob (Rodney Bewes) and womanising, street-wise Terry (James Bolam), first aired in 1964. Going back to the start of the 20th century, you’d have to look hard to find an odder odd couple than Laurel and Hardy.
You can keep going back – James Boswell’s Life of Doctor Johnson brings together two of Britain’s greatest ever literary figures, friends and colleagues who could not have been more different… back to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night pairing of Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek… back, back, back, to the first ever recorded story, Gilgamesh.
4. “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”
This gets a whole chapter in my latest book If Only I Had The Time. I would refine that phrase. What fires you up? What makes you angry? What moves you emotionally? And then you can start to think about how those feelings translate into universal truths, clichés, in fact.
Two of my favourite “fish out of water” sitcoms appeared in the 1970s, both of which captured brilliantly the alienation of working for a large corporation. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and the less well-known It Takes a Worried Man were both about outsiders, characters too self-aware and quirky to fit into the system. You don’t need to know much about the writers, David Nobbs and Peter Tilbury, to guess they must have experienced something similar earlier in their working careers. Tilbury’s more famous creation Shelley is another example of the type.
5. ONCE UPON A TIME
As if there isn’t enough to love about Frasier, every single episode can be summed up in a small but pertinent phrase about human nature. What we blog writers for the purposes of this article might call clichés.
You might not have a little man against the world or a fish out of water in the basic structure of your story, but you can find ways to make each episode about one of these.
What’s your favourite episode of Frasier? I guarantee you will be able to define it with a single phrase such as “You always hurt the one you love,” “Better to have lived and loved than never to have loved at all”, “A friend in need”, and you will have seen that phrase illustrated in the first scene.
My favourite is the pilot, “The Good Son”. It isn’t just the characters who arrive fully-formed from the opening scene: the show is packed with brilliant gags and, more daringly for a first episode, intensely moving pathos.
Without giving away the story, there’s a cliché that is alluded to in the opening scene, which informs the whole of the episode and is finally stated towards the end: “Things don’t always turn out the way you planned.”
Read the best scripts – Seinfeld, Frasier, Yes Minister, Friends – you won’t see a single cliché, but think about the characters, the premise, the stories. That’s where you’ll find them, by the lorry-load.