Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

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  • Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

    Hey guys, I hope you are all staying safe and healthy!

    I am in the concept phase for a sitcom and was wondering how many characters are needed to create a beating dramatic heart and how many is too many. If you have experiences please share.


    My reasoning until now on how many characters are needed as a minimum:

    Let's say you do a buddy show about two UPS-drivers or two doctors in a rural clinic. That means you'd need 2 at the minimum to have conflict with one another. Every episode they'd run into outside antagonisms.

    Then you'd probably add a third person so the two others can fight about the third's affection and appreciation, turning that third into a benchmark on who's better than the other. That makes 3.

    Then you'd probably want to turn the external antagonistic forces (in that example either people to whom the UPS-deliveries have to be given or people coming into the doctor's office) into antagonists so you have some recognition for the viewers. I'm guessing you need one at least but I am also guessing that two antagonists can motivate each other into creating more crazy problems for the protags. So that would make 5.

    Now 5 would seem like my minimum for a beating heart. Maybe 4. But 5 is better because it's a less stable construction, I would think.

    From then on I could add others. Parents, children, co-workers, etc. Question is whether this can happen indefinitely and would only be limited by screentime?

    What are your thoughts?

    Why does Parks and Rec have a large ensemble and Seinfeld doesn't?

    Is it because a workplace can feature more characters on screen at the same time than a believable apartment?

    Thank you for your thoughts and stay healthy!
    OS
    Last edited by Done Deal Pro; 10-09-2020, 05:45 PM. Reason: Added tags

  • #2
    Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

    There were many recurring characters on Seinfeld one might consider as having created an ensemble atmosphere to the show.
    "Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.- - Ray Bradbury

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    • #3
      Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

      Originally posted by oskar View Post
      I am in the concept phase for a sitcom and was wondering how many characters are needed to create a beating dramatic heart and how many is too many. If you have experiences please share.

      My reasoning until now on how many characters are needed as a minimum:

      Let's say you do a buddy show about two UPS-drivers or two doctors in a rural clinic. That means you'd need 2 at the minimum to have conflict with one another. Every episode they'd run into outside antagonisms.

      Then you'd probably add a third person so the two others can fight about the third's affection and appreciation, turning that third into a benchmark on who's better than the other. That makes 3.

      Then you'd probably want to turn the external antagonistic forces (in that example either people to whom the UPS-deliveries have to be given or people coming into the doctor's office) into antagonists so you have some recognition for the viewers. I'm guessing you need one at least but I am also guessing that two antagonists can motivate each other into creating more crazy problems for the protags. So that would make 5.
      You're heading in the right direction, but I think the Protagonist/Antagonist model might be throwing you off. A novel or a feature often has a single main character plus helpers here and there, and antagonists opposing him, her or them. TV series are a different animal because a series is the framework for an open-ended collection of episodes each consisting of multiple stories. The cast of characters live/work together in a generally peaceful stasis which gets upset given a new situation that arises in each episode and pits characters against each other in a small stakes but certainly NOT existential way, which gets resolved either by the end of the episode or over the course of a season arc.

      Now 5 would seem like my minimum for a beating heart. Maybe 4. But 5 is better because it's a less stable construction, I would think.

      From then on I could add others. Parents, children, co-workers, etc. Question is whether this can happen indefinitely and would only be limited by screentime?
      I put together a few videos for a class/workshop I occasionally teach, one of which covers cast configurations. It might answer some of your questions, or at least spark some ideas.

      Why does Parks and Rec have a large ensemble and Seinfeld doesn't?

      Is it because a workplace can feature more characters on screen at the same time than a believable apartment?
      I think you're right that most workplace comedies have larger casts because they can more easily accommodate a greater number of characters than a standard family cast, but also the workplace comedy tends to be tied to their primary location more than the domestic comedy. On the other hand THE IT CROWD was a 3-hander, but it had plenty of supporting characters.

      Ultimately it probably depends on your premise, single-cam vs. multi-cam, episodic vs. serialized and other elements of your show.

      Also, given that the modern sitcom tells three stories in 3-4 acts, numerous characters are needed to get into all that trouble.

      HTH,
      Just my 2 cents, your mileage may vary.

      -Steve Trautmann
      3rd & Fairfax: The WGAW Podcast

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

        Thank you, Steve and TigerFang!

        Steve, your text and video helped a lot, for it showed me that the guys from Big Bang eventually moved from a three-hander to an ensemble, therefore probably not knowing in advance how many external friends would be needed for the show.
        I am guessing that I will simply never know whether I should have 3 or 4 accountants in a workplace comedy. This bums me out a little bit because, with features and genre conventions, there's that feeling that something's off once you go above a certain number of characters.

        Concerning your existential stakes warning though, I don't understand it completely. Maybe you could help?

        I'd think that a sitcom has to have the same relationship-status quo at the beginning and end of each episode. But as long as you are able to get back to the relationship-status quo the size of antagonism or obstacle shouldn't matter?

        I mean if I were to pitch an episode for Friends, I'd say that part of the show's premise is that N.Y.C. is a breeding ground for crazies such as Phoebe. So I'd pitch an episode in which their angry neighbor from downstairs, Mr. Heckles, turns out to be a funny, depressed serial killer who wants Chandler's scalp. Through funny things, the friends are able to get him to give himself up to the police.

        If the serial killer is not very threatening, rather a depressed, self-loathing guy but owning a huge knife, wouldn't that be possible? Or would you think that the situation would call for unspeakable acts by one of the Friends, therefore, changing their relationship in a way that's impossible to go back to status quo-wise?

        Am I missing something else?

        Thank you!

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        • #5
          Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

          Originally posted by oskar View Post
          Concerning your existential stakes warning though, I don't understand it completely. Maybe you could help?


          I'd think that a sitcom has to have the same relationship-status quo at the beginning and end of each episode. But as long as you are able to get back to the relationship-status quo the size of antagonism or obstacle shouldn't matter?
          By existential I meant that you can't kill off a main character like you can in a feature, or substantially change their situation. You're absolutely right about getting back to the status quo.

          If the serial killer is not very threatening, rather a depressed, self-loathing guy but owning a huge knife, wouldn't that be possible? Or would you think that the situation would call for unspeakable acts by one of the Friends, therefore, changing their relationship in a way that's impossible to go back to status quo-wise?
          This could be a great pitch for a multi episode arc depending on the show, especially if it's only one or two characters that are convinced the guy is a serial killer.

          I am guessing that I will simply never know whether I should have 3 or 4 accountants in a workplace comedy. This bums me out a little bit because, with features and genre conventions, there's that feeling that something's off once you go above a certain number of characters.
          Don't be bummed. The nature of TV is a focus on the ensemble more than the single main character. Networks and prodcos are usually interested in having a main character that they can cast a star for that they think/hope will draw eyeballs.

          Designing a series that involves 3-4 main characters is awesome for comedy. THE IT CROWD, WILL & GRACE, SEINFELD, and early on BIG BANG all had 3-4 main characters.

          In regards to the difference between features and TV they function two different ways in regards to character:
          • FEATURES - A single main character (unless it's a romance or buddy picture) is seen at the most important moment of their life overcoming the obstacles that turn them into the person they are meant to be, or heal them from past trauma which got them off track.
          • TV - A group of characters (ensemble) are in a situation at the best or most memorable point in their lives/relationships.


          HTH,
          Just my 2 cents, your mileage may vary.

          -Steve Trautmann
          3rd & Fairfax: The WGAW Podcast

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

            I think 2 is the minimum ("Odd Couple" obvious example) and there's almost no upper limit... "Soap" probably had twelve or fourteen regular actors?

            (Actually, I bet you could have a sitcom with one regular. A "Kung Fu" style show with someone moving from adventure to adventure.)

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            • #7
              Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

              Originally posted by JeffLowell View Post
              (Actually, I bet you could have a sitcom with one regular. A "Kung Fu" style show with someone moving from adventure to adventure.)
              Good idea—job to job with bad bosses every time. Almost a new cast every week, except for employment service reps.
              Last edited by TigerFang; 03-26-2020, 03:06 PM.
              "Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.- - Ray Bradbury

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

                More important is the max number of characters. It's 7. That's the amount of information the human brain can hold in easy memory. It's why phone numbers were limited to that seven digits back when we had to remember them.

                A lot of shows have 5 or 6 main characters, with the 7th character being the guests of that episode.

                Cheers: Sam, Diane, Coach, Norm, Carla, Cliff + whoever guest stars.
                Friends had six + one also.

                Modern Family is the only comedy I can think of that juggled more than six regular characters, and I wouldn't try to copy them.

                So at least two, up to seven.

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                • #9
                  Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

                  Not so sure about that.

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                  • #10
                    Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

                    Originally posted by JeffLowell View Post
                    Good one. The Office is another.

                    In general, you won't find many over six.

                    https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/br...ory?id=9189664

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                    • #11
                      Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

                      Thanks, guys!

                      I am guessing that if you're juggling more than six characters it's important to group them into 'families'. Either different neighbors and real distinct families like modern family or teams of accountants, party planning committee etc. as in the office.

                      I am also guessing that from ep to ep the writers have to take a careful look as to regroup their huge casts into certain "teams" for the a-b-c-plots. Such as combining the three youngest kids and giving them the same mission for their c-plot of, I don't know, making the ice cream truck break down right in front of their house or something...

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                      • #12
                        Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

                        Originally posted by oskar View Post
                        Thanks, guys!

                        I am guessing that if you're juggling more than six characters it's important to group them into 'families'. Either different neighbors and real distinct families like modern family or teams of accountants, party planning committee etc. as in the office.

                        I am also guessing that from ep to ep the writers have to take a careful look as to regroup their huge casts into certain "teams" for the a-b-c-plots. Such as combining the three youngest kids and giving them the same mission for their c-plot of, I don't know, making the ice cream truck break down right in front of their house or something...
                        Oksar, you make a point I was going to try to make but didn't think I could do it here without confusing everything more. I've analyzed Modern Family (in the past) and I think you don't get confused because yes, they are on teams and so you really have three silos. (Also six adults.)

                        You can do anything you want. There was that show that only had one character for a few episodes - The Last Man on Earth with Will Forte. And I watched! Then they started bringing in other characters. And you can have more than 6 or 7 main characters, in workplace and family comedies.

                        But in general, for half-hour comedy, the sweet spot is 2-6. Even the shows with two (a couple, a pair of detectives) will have a couple of supporting characters. (Like, You're the Worst, The Wrong Mans, etc.)

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                        • #13
                          Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

                          Originally posted by oskar View Post
                          I am guessing that if you're juggling more than six characters it's important to group them into 'families'. Either different neighbors and real distinct families like modern family or teams of accountants, party planning committee etc. as in the office.

                          I am also guessing that from ep to ep the writers have to take a careful look as to regroup their huge casts into certain "teams" for the a-b-c-plots. Such as combining the three youngest kids and giving them the same mission for their c-plot of, I don't know, making the ice cream truck break down right in front of their house or something...
                          You're way overthinking this. There's no right answer or formula to this. When you have a great concept, use the number of characters you need to tell the story. The number of important characters also can swell and fall during a series depending on the stories you're telling.

                          For example, on "The Ranch," we started out with four main characters: two brothers and their mother and father. Then we added two love interests for one of the brothers. Then the mother stopped being a regular, and appeared in fewer than half the episodes. Then we added a new love interest for the father. Then we added a love interest for the other brother. Then he left. Then we added a cousin. Then the cousin started dating the woman the departed brother used to date, which made her a regular again. We also had a barfly who appeared in every episode. And a best friend for the father who appeared in 3/4 of the episodes.

                          There was no calculation of "how many do we need in what configuration?" It was "what's the story we want to tell, and who do we need to do it?"

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                          • #14
                            Re: Amount of characters for Sitcom - Minimum / Maximum?

                            Originally posted by JeffLowell View Post
                            You're way overthinking this.
                            You should probably listen to the professional. (I'm saying this to OP, not Jeff.)

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                            • #15
                              Odd Couple Analysis

                              Jeff's mention of THE ODD COUPLE (the original) got me thinking and I looked into the show on IMDB. Here are some basic stats:
                              • 1970-1975
                              • ABC
                              • 114 Episodes
                              • Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were in every episode
                              • Al Molinaro (Murray The Cop) was only in 73 episodes
                              • Randall and Klugman both won Emmys

                              I decided to watch a few episodes (Hulu) to see if it holds up and what conventions they used. I remember watching The Odd Couple in syndication and liking it. As was standard for the time it was a two-act show with a teaser (cold open) and oftentimes a tag. The real difference that I noticed is that the episodes are primarily A-stories with either weak B-stories or runners that act as bookends or framing devices for the A-story. The stories centered on situations that were exclusively between Oscar and Felix. Hulu only has the first season so I don't know if this changed as the series went on.

                              The other interesting thing to me was that there wasn't much of a supporting cast on an episode-to-episode basis, at least in the first season. It was also a slower paced show. Lots of lead time into a scene and interstitials. The pace of a typical episode is quite a bit slower than what we're used to today. The average season 1 episode ran 26 minutes with roughly an A-story and a runner, whereas the standard sitcom today tells three stories over twenty-one and half minutes.

                              Other 2-handers offer an interesting contrast:
                              • Dharma & Greg (1997-2002) - Seven scharacters appeared in all 119 episodes.
                              • Bosom Buddies (1980-1982) - Six characters appeared in all 37 episodes.
                              • Perfect Strangers (1986-1993) - Four characters appeard in most of the 151 episodes with a total of 281 credited cast members.
                              • Will & Grace - Originally conceived as a 2-hander, but quickly became a 4-hander/ensemble with those primary four characters appearing in all 244 episodes.


                              The thing that sets The Odd Couple apart IMO is the brilliance of Neil Simon for creating characters and a situation that easily generates fun and compelling stories. The other element is that it came at a time where a slower/more leisurely form of story telling was the norm.

                              Based on all of this info I think that it would be a tough slog to create a true 2-hander in the mold of The Odd Couple, and it would probably be smarter to think in terms of Dharma & Greg and Will & Grace these days. Of course these calculations are about half-hour sitcoms, if you're writing a web/digital series, then all of that goes out the window.

                              HTH,
                              Just my 2 cents, your mileage may vary.

                              -Steve Trautmann
                              3rd & Fairfax: The WGAW Podcast

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