Today for the blog I was lucky to speak with Peter Zale, New 32 co-founder and creator of Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet. I asked him about sitcom writing and his perspective on pilot episodes.
First of all, will you introduce yourself and say a little about your writing?
The first writings I had published were comic strips for my college newspaper. I did a few here
and there as a Junior. Then, during my Senior Year, I started doing a weekly strip which got me
my first fan notice. A guy saw me sketching at one of the school’s canteens and told me he’d
seen my work and it was good. This impacted me so much, I still remember it.
Comic strips are basically perverse little punk things. You gotta have an attitude that no one
really knows the world except you. It can be fun. One of my favorite moments was Caty Wiley
getting pissed at me for one of my cartoons. Her indignation felt like fine wine going down.
I eventually syndicated “Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet” (named after the Byrds’ album:
“Sweetheart of the Rodeo”) in the newspapers after building an audience and getting lots of
media attention online (New York Times, bitches!). In fact, Wikipedia says mine was the first
strip to go from the web to newspapers though I have to admit Aaron McGruder emailed me
that his strip “The Boondocks” had done that earlier. I’ll leave that to the scholars.
How do you personally define a sitcom? What makes it different from just a regular comedy?
(Please note. Jeff Howard, the very fine writer for such hits as ‘Resident Evil’, ‘The Haunting of
Hill House’ and ‘Midnight Mass’ originated many of the ideas I refer to here.)
A sitcom is of course a ‘situation’ which is a settled place, time and group of characters to
whom one returns over and over. In the sitcom ‘I Love Lucy’, for example, Lucy and Desi are
married and live in an apartment in New York City with neighbors Fred and Ethel. That never
really changes. All the action centers on these people and that place.
I’m not sure a sitcom does differ from a regular comedy as such. I think it would be interesting
though to examine how it differs from, say, a movie. A movie (comedic or otherwise) is a story
where characters with personal problems are put through a series of larger world problems that
are so important they must be solved before they can address their personal problems. Once
the larger problems are solved, guess what? So, too, are their personal problems! As Dorothy
says to Glinda at the end of ‘The Wizard of Oz’: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I
won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to
Oddly enough, sitcoms work exactly the same way! The only difference is that an entire two-
three hour movie plot has to be distilled down to whatever is the length of the pilot episode. In
a sitcom pilot, the personal problem of the lead character is solved by them in the process of
solving the larger problem of adapting to their new situation in the sitcom. In ‘The Mary Tyler
Moore Show’ pilot, for example, Mary Richards enters her new situation with a personal
problem of a lack of confidence (did she make the right choice leaving her fiancé?). By the end
of the pilot, having solved the greater problem of adapting to her new situation, she calmly tells
her fiancé, who wants her back, to go home. Her confidence problem is gone.
What is the function of a pilot episode? What needs to happen in the pilot for it to be
effective? With the rise of streaming services, how has the idea of a pilot changed?
As stated above, in a sitcom pilot, the personal problem of the lead character is solved by them
solving the larger problem of adapting to their new situation. All sitcom episodes after the pilot
are basically reenactments of the pilot itself. This is true in any sitcom presented via stream or
What do you think makes for a good sitcom character, or ensemble of characters?
A sitcom lead is the most non-accentuated member of the cast. That is he/she is the least
overtly caricatured character in the show and thus the most like the viewer. The supporting cast
is just that: a cast of far more caricatured characters who support the main character’s
conquest of the personal problem they had in the pilot. As the show progresses, the supporting
cast in effect keeps the lead character’s personal problem from returning, just as it keeps the
audience from having the problem of what to do on the night the show is broadcast since it can
now be entertained by watching its stand-in, the lead character, continually adapt to the
supporting cast. That’s entertainment.
What makes writing a sitcom different from writing a drama?
Let me answer this by talking about the difference between comedy and tragedy. Tragedy
presupposes the dominance of the world, the law, the state, etc. over the individual. Oedipus is
destroyed in spite of being a good man because he has broken the law even though he is
unaware of it. His hubris, his pride, his belief in himself pushes him to discover the cause of the
plague of Thebes which ironically destroys him.
But is hubris really so bad? Comedy says no. In fact, comedy says hubris is the only thing that
lets the individual ever win since the law, the state, etc. is so damned oppressive. If you’ve ever
seen “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” which is based on Plautus’ play ‘The
Pseudelus’, you know that Pseudelus the slave has nothing but his belief in himself (his hubris)
to get what he wants: his freedom. He wins and thus does hubris.
In short, comedy is about the individual beating the world and tragedy is the opposite.
It should be mentioned here that a laugh is basically a brief remembrance humans allow
themselves that reason, rationality and all the structure of an often oppressive world is
something they in fact created. Freud said it, not me.
You’ve adapted a comic strip into a sitcom; what is that adaptation process like?
For me, adapting my comic strip into a sitcom has meant learning how to write a sitcom and
then letting my comic strip sort of seep into it. Since I’m not trying to do “Family Guy” or “The
Simpsons”, i.e., a cartoon, I have to recast my strip concept using far more realistic characters
(while also adapting my comedy “beats” into something different than three panels and a
punch line). They say life is easy but comedy is hard. What I’ve found is comedy is extra hard
when you have to make it more like life.
What are your best tips for people who want to start writing sitcoms?
I think, as with any kind of art or craft, the best thing to do is learn the rules and then either
follow them or break them as you see fit.
What is, in your opinion, the greatest sitcom? Why is it so good, and does it influence your
I’m showing my age by saying ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and ‘MASH’ (years 1-3) are the
shows that have influenced me the most. ‘Frazier’ is astonishing, but those two great 70s work
comedies are in my DNA at this point. ‘MTM’ is great because it’s deceptively sweet and
inoffensive while purveying very adult themes and characters. The world of the show is both
happy and protected like a warm room in a snowstorm. In that room, wit, heart and hope are
cherished while a cold wind – which the show accepts as a reality – howls outdoors. The wind
howls in ‘MASH’, too, but the characters here only have a flimsy army tent to keep it out. It’s a
far more savage comedy, where the jokes cut harder because the world does. It’s wit is
impeccable and made more brilliant by its utter necessity.
How can you make a sitcom emotionally resonant?
Both of the shows I just mentioned did that. Many others do as well. I guess how they do it has
a lot to do with the reality behind the humor. I always felt Larry Gelbart, who wrote a lot of
‘MASH’ as well ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’, had a wit honed by his own
idealism’s disappointment and his heart’s will to go on in spite of it. Further, I felt James Brooks,
maestro of ‘MTM’, thought even broken people could be transformed into good ones by being
with one another.