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Column: Is there an algorithm for a successful sitcom? Does ‘Friends’ have a protégé?


By Shelby Rizzi



“Friends” is one of the best television shows ever produced. That’s not an opinion. I’m just telling you the truth.

Just to name a few accomplishments, the sitcom was nominated for 63 Primetime Emmy Awards, 52.5 million viewers watched the last episode and the show lasted 10 seasons. The show is also listed on TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time” and “100 Best Episodes of All Time.”

“Friends” is great in the sense that all the cast members got along and were stable enough to work together for several years. “Seinfeld” couldn’t even do that. Having a show that is watched by a wide audience for a decade is hard to find today, especially in the era of the Internet, Netflix and Hulu.

But lately, “How I Met Your Mother” has reminded me of the success of “Friends.” “How I Met Your Mother” is a sitcom about a guy who tells his children the story of how he met his wife.

I didn’t think this show would be that successful because I thought the writers could only drag on a love story for so long. But I was wrong. It turns out that since lead character Ted Mosby’s love life is so messed up, it’s enough to fuel a successful show for eight seasons.

Why is “How I Met Your Mother” so successful?

Obviously, because it’s hilarious and we can relate to the epic fails and successes of relationships, which “Friends” accomplishes with viewers as well.

However, the two shows are different in the sense that “How I Met Your Mother” is a narrative in the past tense, whereas “Friends” is a story about the present-day lives of long-time friends who have different characters with different plots.

But there are many similarities between the two sitcoms.

In the pilot for each series, a hopeless romantic guy falls for a girl way out of his league. During the next season for each show, the guy and girl finally get together, date for a year and then break up.

Then, the couple sporadically hooks up. There is also the lady’s man, the stable, mature couple that dates for a long time and then gets married, and so on.

One might think these similarities aren’t significant, but they play a key role in setting up the plots, making the two shows mirror each other. These similarities had me thinking: Is there a formula that produces a successful sitcom?

Technically, all sitcoms are similar in nature. The trick is that the writers need to find a balance between the extreme and more grounded characters. For example, the more grounded characters in “Friends” are Ross and  Monica Geller, Rachel Green and Chandler Bing.

In “How I Met Your Mother,” the more grounded characters are Mosby, Lily Aldrin, Marshall Eriksen and Robin Scherbatsky. The extreme characters, the characters who provide us with amusement and entertainment, include Phoebe Buffay and Joey Tribbiani from “Friends” and Barney Stinson from “How I Met Your Mother.”

This balance keeps the audience entertained and allows them to connect emotionally with the characters. Also, TV shows always include love. We are attracted to love, so love stories, especially unstable ones, capture our attention and keep us hooked. With these elements, there is balance between serious and not-so-serious moments.

So, here lies the question: Is “How I Met Your Mother” following the pattern of a successful sitcom, or are writers just running out of ideas and copying other TV shows?

I have no idea. All I know is that the two shows are strangely similar, and the three longest stories known to man are the Bible, “In Search of Lost Time” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

­— sarizzi@indiana.edu

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