The sitcom formula and its usefulness for writing students

To say that all the sitcoms are orchestrated by a strict and identical plot formula is quite a bold claim indeed. In the article “Cracking the Sitcom Code,” Noah Charney precisely makes such a claim. He analyzes in depth the storyline of one of the episodes of Parks and Rec to prove his point. Watching Seinfeld and Arrested Development (two of my favorite sitcoms) I never could have imagined there’s anything formulaic about them. They always seemed such outliers and nonconformist to the genre expectations. But then what Charney says in the conclusion of his article caught my attention: “Next time you settle in to watch a sitcom, keep this code in mind, and an eye on your stopwatch. You’ll be amazed at how tight and to-the-minute the formula is, yet marvel at the variety that TV writers conjure within this straitjacket literary form.” So to learn that there’s a pattern to all the sitcoms does not drain the fun out of them; instead, how some shows become so remarkable and ingenious within the formulaic constraints should become our focus. For any creative writing teacher like me who believes that writing constraints are not anti-creativity but have a useful role in teaching craft and experimentation, Charney’s article may have some pedagogic value.