How to Structure Sitcom Scenes

Friends. Image shows from L to R: Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer

In my Creating Comedy Narratives for Stage & Screen book and on my BCG sitcom and comedy drama online courses (Essential Writing Tools and Writing Your TV Comedy Script), I talk about how my SREP model can guide you in writing and structuring scenes.

SREP is short for: SET-UP / REVEAL / ESCALATION / PAYOFF. For an explanation of how this model works in sketches, sitcom scenes and stand-up. BCG Pro has an excerpt from my book with bonus video clips.

In that book excerpt, I write about single sitcom scenes, but while the individual scenes can function like sketches, they also have the bigger job of advancing the narrative of the episode. So here I break down the SREP in some consecutive Friends scenes to show you how SREP works in a longer narrative. These scenes were chosen by some recent students of mine, so thanks to them and also thanks to the Friends fans who originally transcribed the scenes!

By the way, if you have a very short scene in the narrative, say about half-a-page of script, it may well just be SET-UP / PAYOFF as you find in a quick sketch. Here we are looking at full length scenes that feature the entire SREP. I also make some comments along the way about the value of a character flipping from positive to negative, and also how a couple of classic sketch devices can play out in sitcom scenes.

Scenes from Season 5, Episode 11: The One With All the Resolutions

These are scenes where Ross is wearing leather pants (or 'trousers' as we'd say in the UK). Note: in the actual script (rather than the fan transcription) there will be 'action' describing the who, where, what of it all... a key part of the set up.

Friends. David Schwimmer

SET-UP:

Ross: (entering, with Ben) Hi!

Ben: Hi!

Monica: Hi Ben!

Ben: Auntie Monica!! (He runs to hug her.)

REVEAL:

Chandler: (notices something) Ross is wearing leather pants! Does nobody else see that Ross is wearing leather pants? (Pause, no one speaks.) Someone comment on the pants!

ESCALATION:

Rachel: I think they're very nice.

Monica: I like 'em.

Joey: Yeah! (Chandler bangs the table in frustration.)

Monica: I like them a lot.

Chandler: That's not what I had in mind! See, people like Ross don't generally wear these types of pants. You see, they're very tight. (Motions to Ross's buttock.) Maybe there's something in that area.

(They all speak at once in general approval of his pants selection; Joey asks where he got them. I can't pick out the rest of it.)

Ross: Oh see, I-I needed a new thing for today and there's this leather store that always smells so good and I thought to myself, "Wow, (To Chandler) I never really owned a good smelling pair of pants before."

(No one says anything.)

Chandler: Oh come on!! (Storms out.)

PAYOFF:

Ross: (after he's left) Okay, seriously, what do you think?

Joey: You look like a freak.

Rachel: Awful, absolutely awful. (Plus other negative comments from Phoebe and Monica.)

So that is the SREP in that scene. This is also an example of a scene where there is reasonable and unreasonable behaviour. This is the classic comedy dynamic - reasonable characters having to deal with unreasonable behaviour. In sketch comedy, it's a classic device for the payoff of a sketch to have the reasonable character take on the behaviour of the unreasonable one.

For example, a reasonable librarian is dealing with an unreasonable reader who is making loads of noise. She fails to shut him up and then suddenly shouts herself in fury and gets 'shushed' by everyone. (So she has taken on his noisy behaviour).

Here Chandler is behaving unreasonably - shouting about the oddity of Ross's trouser choice. The others all behave reasonably. Chandler has enough and leaves - at which point, the previously reasonable characters (Rachel, Monica, Joey) now take on the unreasonable behaviour and also criticise the trousers. Where you have this kind of unreasonable / reasonable dynamic then, it is a very common payoff to a scene or sketch for the reasonable side to take on the unreasonable behaviour. (What I term a 'reversal'). There are many, many examples. And in fact we have another one coming up below.

When the Ross' leather 'pants' narrative continues we get a new SREP. Often the set-up to a scene is entirely straight (it establishes the baseline reality) but here is an example where there are laughs in the set-up - where Ross is happily cooling off his overheated legs. But there is a clear moment when the 'game' of the scene is revealed - the fact that Ross can't pull up the trousers. Also he starts off positively so giving him somewhere to fall from. It'd be less funny if he was already stressed out about the trousers.

Friends. David Schwimmer

SET-UP:

[Cut to Elizabeth Hornswoggle's bathroom, Ross frantically pulls his shirt out and drops his pants. He exhales in sheer ecstasy as the coolness of the bathroom envelops his legs. He sits on the cast iron bathtub, again gasping in pleasure. He next grabs a magazine and starts to blow air on his exposed legs, but that doesn't work the way he wants it to. So he throws the magazine down, looks around for another idea, and finds one. He jumps up and hops to the sink. He turns on the water and starts to splash some on his legs, cooling them further.]

Ross: (in ecstasy) Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh..........

Elizabeth: (yelling from outside) Hey, my favorite part is coming up!

Ross: 'Kay!

REVEAL:

(He goes to pull up his pants, but can't seem to get them past his knees. He frantically tries to pull them up to no avail. Panic sets in.)

Ross: Oh my God!

ESCALATION:

[CUT TO Chandler, Joey, and Ross's, The phone rings and Joey answers it.]

Joey: (answering phone) Hello?

Ross: (calling from Elizabeth's bathroom) Joey, it's Ross! I need some help!

Joey: Uhh, Chandler's not here.

Ross: Well, you can help me!

Joey: Okay.

Ross: Listen, I'm in Elizabeth's bathroom...

Joey: Nice!

Ross: No, I-I got really hot in my leather pants so I took them off but they must have shrunk from the-the sweat or-or-or my legs expanded from the heat. Look, I-I can't put them back on. I can't!

Joey: Oh. That is quite a situation. Uh, do you see any like, powder?

Ross: Powder! Yeah! Yeah, I have powder! (Grabs some of her shelf.)

Joey: Good-good, okay, sprinkle some of that on your legs, it'll absorb some of the moisture and then you can get your pants back up.

Ross: Yeah, okay, hold on! (He puts the phone down and proceeds to spread a large amount of powder on his legs and makes another attempt at pulling up his pants. It doesn't work, and without picking up the phone leans down to it.) (Almost in tears.) They're not coming on man.

Joey: Umm, do you see any - oh, Vaseline?

Ross: Ohh, I-I see lotion, I have lotion! Will that work?

Joey: Yeah, sure, spread some of that on there.

Ross: Hold on.

(Ross proceeds to apply copious amounts of the lotion on his legs. He literally starts spraying the back of his legs with the lotion, and as he applies some to his butt he makes a happy face like he enjoyed that sensation. After using about half the bottle he again tries to pull up his pants, but at the first sign of resistance, his hand slips off of the pants and hits him in the forehead.)

Joey: Ross? You okay?

Ross: They're still, they're still not coming on man and the lotion and the powder have made a paste!

Joey: Really?! Uhh, what color is it?

Ross: What difference does that make?!

Joey: Well, I'm just--if the paste matches the pants, you can make yourself a pair of paste pants and she won't know the difference!

Rachel: (entering) Joey, do you have a minute?

Ross: Dude, what am I gonna...

Joey: (To Ross) Uh, Rachel's here, so good luck man, let me know how it works out. (He hangs up the phone and strands Ross in the bathroom.)

[Scene: Elizabeth's apartment; Elizabeth is inquiring as to the delay in Ross's exit from her bathroom.]

Elizabeth: Ross, umm, you've been in there for a long time. I'm starting to get kinda freaked out.

Ross: All right, I'm coming out. Hey, can you turn the lights off.

Elizabeth: No, let's just leave the lights on.

PAYOFF:

(Ross opens the door and steps into the living room. He has fully removed his pants and holds them wrapped into a ball in front of his crotch. His legs are covered in the powder and lotion paste. He looks terrible.)

Elizabeth: Oh my God!

Ross: I had a problem.

Turning to another episode, note here that you can still have a SREP even with just one character speaking:

SCENES FROM: Season 9, Episode 7, The One with Ross's Inappropriate Song

These are the scenes where Ross and Rachel sing "Baby Got Back" to baby Emma.

Friends. David Schwimmer

SET-UP:

[Scene: Ross and Rachel's apartment. Ross is playing with Emma on the couch after just changing her diaper.]

Ross: And that's why, no matter what mommy says, we really were on a break. (baby talk) Yes we were! Yes we were! (picks Emma up) Come here gorgeous. (puts her on his knees and talks to her) Oh! Look at you! You are the cutest little baby ever! You're just a... a little bitty baby, you know that? But you've got... (in a softer voice) You've got big, beautiful eyes... Yes you do... and a... and a big round belly.

REVEAL:

(emphasizes the B's) Big baby butt! I like big butts.

ESCALATION:

(raps) I like big butts and I cannot lie / you other brothers can't deny / when a girl walks in with an itty, bitty, waist / and a round thing in your face you get...(Emma laughs) Oh my God, Emma... you're laughing! Oh my God, you've never done that before, have you? You never done that before... Daddy made you laugh, huh? Well, daddy and Sir Mix Alot...

PAYOFF:

What? What? You... you wanna hear some more? Uhm...(raps) My anaconda don't want none / unless you got buns hon... (Emma laughs again and Ross looks worried) I'm a terrible father!

Notice again how in the above he flips from being positive to negative. He goes from enjoying the moment with the baby to beating himself up.

And in the next scene it again starts positively - Rachel is delighted to hear that Ross made the baby laugh - and then it flips to negative when she finds out how. Find moments in your script where characters start out positive and suddenly flip to negative - it's a great way to create a strong, funny moment.

SET-UP:

[Scene: Ross and Rachel's apartment. Rachel enters the apartment.]

Rachel: Hi.

Ross: Hi.

Rachel: I just finished getting Phoebe all dressed to meet Mike's parents. She's so nervous, it's so sweet!

Ross: Guess what? I made Emma laugh today.

Rachel: (in disbelief) You WHAT? And I missed it? Because I was giving a makeover to that stupid hippie?

Ross: Yeah, and it was uhm... it was like a real little person laugh too. It was... it was like uhm... (Ross tries to impersonate Emma's laugh, but it comes out very squeaky, very high pitched. He laughs about himself but then looks at Rachel, realises that it sounded weird and straightens his face.) Only... only not creepy.

Rachel: Well... well, what did you do to make her laugh? (excited)

REVEAL:

Ross: I uhm... Well, I sang... (Rachel gasps) well actually I rapped... Baby Got Back... (Rachel's face changes from excited to angry)

Rachel: You WHAT? You sang... to our baby daughter... a song about a guy who likes to have sex with women with giant asses?

ESCALATION:

Ross: But you know what, if you think about it, it actually promotes a healthy uhm... body image... because... even big butts or uhm... juicy doubles.

Rachel: (disgusted) owwwww...

PAYOFF:

Ross: Please don't take her away from me!

Here, in the next scene of the narrative, we see Rachel taking on the unreasonable behaviour she has just been angered by (the exact same device we discussed above, where the hitherto reasonable character takes on the unreasonable behaviour - a real classic comedy device. Use it if you're not doing so already!).

Friends. Image shows from L to R: Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer

SET-UP:

[Scene: Ross and Rachel's apartment. Emma is sitting in her chair on the apothecary table and Rachel is trying to make her laugh.]

Rachel: Okay... aahhh... Please laugh for mommy... Please? Please laugh for mommy... (Rachel makes a funny face, sticking her tongue out, making a farting noise and using her hands as antlers, wiggling her fingers... No response from Emma...) Not funny huh?

REVEAL:

Oh so, is it... only offensive novelty rap? Or maybe just, you know, rap in general? 'Cause mommy can rap...

ESCALATION:

(Rachel tries to rap and makes weird movements with her arms in the process.) My name is mommy and I'm here to say / that all the babies are... Oh, I can't rap... Allright sweetheart... This is only because I love you so much, and I know that you're not gonna tell anybody... (Rachel's face is telling "Oh what am I doing? The things I have to go through... and she starts to rap) I like... big butts and I cannot lie... / You other brothers can't deny... / when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a round thing in your face... (Emma starts to laugh) Yes! Yes! Yes! YES! Oohhhhh! Oh! (Rachel now really gets into it, and her insecure movements start getting better) I like big butts and I cannot lie... / You other brothers can't deny... Oh Emma you're laughing! Oh you are, you really do like big butts, don't you. Oh you beautiful little weirdo... (Rachel picks up Emma and Ross now enters)
Note here how they create dramatic irony - we know what Rachel has been doing but Ross doesn't. (It's also a classic sketch comedy device to bring a new character in to escalate and/or payoff a sketch).

Ross: Hey!

Rachel: Oh you missed it. She was laughing. Oh it was amazing. It was amazing. It was the most beautiful, beautiful sound that...

Ross: Oh I know, isn't it? Ooh... what'd you do to get her to laugh?

Rachel: Oh! You know, I just... couple of things I tried ... I just sang a little doo... Itsy Bitsy Spider...

PAYOFF:

Ross: You sang Baby Got Back didn't you?

Rachel: Nothing else worked. That girl is all about the ass...

So there you have SREP as it's used in sitcom scenes that unfold a bigger narrative. Remember SREP when structuring your own scenes. And find those moments of flipping from positive to negative too. Finally, when you write those scenes where reasonable people are dealing with unreasonable people, try ending the scene with the reasonable side taking on the unreasonable behaviour as a payoff.

More insight & advice