SCHITT’S CREEK swept the 2020 Emmy Awards with a record-breaking nine wins in a single season, including Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, and all four acting categories. It began as an unknown zany character sitcom and evolved into one of the most heartfelt series of our time.
Studying what made it excel is a practice in understanding character development, storytelling, and, above all, comedy. Not only that, but it was done in a feel-good way, a delightful trend in modern comedies (think THE GOOD PLACE or TED LASSO). People turn to comedy to feel happy, and SCHITT’S CREEK really delivered.
Here are a few techniques that helped make the show so exceptional.
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Throwaways are a sly form of humor involving a joke told in passing, without being the punchline of a joke. They’re blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kinds of jokes that require a rapt and clever audience, which is partially what makes them so satisfying.
SCHITT’S CREEK excelled at throwaway jokes, whether in the form of creator Dan Levy’s David giving judgmental commentary on a situation or Annie Murphy’s Alexis providing a deadpan delivery of her past experiences. Take this line for example:
“I once dated this Sultan’s nephew who was forbidden to talk to me or even look at me, and we made it work for like, half a regime change.”
This was in the middle of a speech where Alexis was giving advice on love. There’s no pause for a laugh track. There are no follow-up questions. The scene moves on quickly while the audience is left amused over the implications of her line: How did she meet the Sultan’s nephew? What was the political climate like during the regime change?
The point isn’t to dwell on the jokes. They flare up with surprise and then you’re already moving on to the next joke.
Truth in Pain
An age-old comedic device is to torment your characters. Their pain, embarrassment, or discomfort is relatable to the human experience — but how they react to these obstacles is an invitation for creativity and entertainment. Take this scene in which Alexis learns she has lice:
This is a classic example of truth in pain. It is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and maybe even a little embarrassing to have head lice, so the audience can sympathize with Alexis’ mortification while laughing at the stakes. In a comedy, we know that the writers will deliver Alexis from this evil to a satisfying conclusion, so even though she is suffering, she’s safe — and therefore we have permission to laugh at her and commiserate with her.
Give your characters obstacles, heighten the absurdity, and carry them through the fire — your audience will love you for it.
Characters in a comedy are rarely role models. Instead, they are the embodiment of our lost inhibitions. No character owns her truth more than Moira Rose, played by Catherine O’Hara. Take this scene in which her daughter, Alexis, is sick (and do note Alexis’ throwaway joke about Jared Leto):
The expectation of a mother is to care for her sick child. Instead, Moira reveals her revulsion toward illness and desire to remain uninfected. In every moment of this scene, Moira behaves contrary to how a decent human would, and she ups the ante all the way to my favorite moment at the end when she locks the door on her family.
Allowing your characters to respond in ways that are discordant with what society demands of us will provide opportunities for humor, amusement, and increasing stakes as the other characters figure out how to respond.
A well-told joke is funny because it creates surprise. Anytime you can offer an unforeseen twist or an unexpected statement or reaction, you give your audience a little jolt of shock and excitement. SCHITT’S CREEK, especially the final seasons, is a masterclass in unexpected situations and dialogue.
It pays to brainstorm multiple lines of dialogue or alternate reactions from your characters in your writing. You will surprise even yourself if you give yourself the freedom to explore the most unexpected options and your comedy will start to light up with humor.
Curious if the jokes in your script are landing? Get feedback from WeScreenplay’s professional readers!
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Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!