Top 10 Perfect Sitcom Pilots that every screenwriter should watch and learn from.
For those of you new to the biz who don’t get the term “Pilot” as it regards to television, it’s not referring to the type of pilot that flies a plane or for sci fi fans a starship, it’s referring to the official first episode, or really a test episode for a new series. If the pilot tests well with the network executives, the focus groups that they use to screen pilots and most of all the television viewers that advertisers and networks hope will watch faithfully every week and spend their hard earned money on the products that are commercialized during the breaks of these shows.
This article specifically focuses on comedy\half hour sitcom pilots, and like everything there are good and bad pilots, most are bad(LOVE Seinfeld, but their pilot was one of the worst I’ve ever seen, it took a while for the show to become the icon it became), and a handful are good but what’s the most rare is a perfect pilot of any genre, especially comedy because comedy depends heavily on the audience relating to and laughing at or with the characters because they know them, but, with a pilot we don’t know these people yet so it takes a very skilled writer to craft a comedy pilot that is actually funny as well as deliver on introducing the characters and the situation to the audience without boring them to tears with loads of exposition. A perfect pilot is a rare beast that combines all the elements of strong intros for the characters and the relationships between them, a strong story that perfectly illustrates the premise of the series and most importantly is actually FUNNY, so funny that people will come back week after week to hang out with these people who make them laugh and laugh hard. The comedy pilots I chose for this article are ones I feel any aspiring sitcom writer NEEDS to not only watch but study repeatedly in order to learn how to craft a well made, well structured and funny sitcom pilot. There are many perfectly funny sitcom pilots that have been out there that I recommend as well like pilots for The Parkers, Newsradio, Married with Children, That 70’s Show, Living Single, The Addams Family, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Golden Girls, Green Acres, Hogan’s Heroes, MASH, The Middle, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, Blackish and Everybody Hates Chris etc. All perfectly funny and well made sitcom pilots, but the ones I chose were pilots I felt were just perfect structurally: The characters were perfectly established, the dynamics already felt somewhat developed and they were just so funny off the bat that you just know you have to come back to hang out with these people.
Let’s begin, shall we?
10. King of The Hill “Pilot” written by Mike Judge and Greg Daniels.
As an animated sitcom, King of The Hill and others like it still categorize as sitcoms so it’s earned a spot on the list. The pilot of King of The Hill is a simple story about Patriarch Hank Hill trying to connect with his oddball son Bobby, when Bobby accidentally gets hurt and social services suspects Hank abuses Bobby, Hank has to keep his temper at bay or else he could get into deep trouble. It’s as low key, subtle and rich with quirky characters and their even more quirky relationships as the rest of the series would become and was a new type of animated sitcom to grace the air: Mostly realistic, dry and character driven. Also, anyone whose interested in animation could really get a lot from watching this pilot with Judge’s basic animating for the show is simplistic yet rich enough for a newbie to take something away from it.
9. Scrubs “My First Day” written by Bill Lawrence.
When Scrubs premiered there was nothing like it on the air, not only was it one of three sitcoms(Malcolm in The Middle and The Bernie Mac Show) that dared to go with the single camera format but also left out the laugh track completely, it also blended wacky comedy with heart and dramatic storylines in the medical field which hadn’t been done since MASH. It was ER meets Seinfeld, a very unique concept for the time and the Pilot does an excellent job of introducing all of these elements to the audience for the first time as we follow new medical intern Dr. John Dorian aka “JD” through his first day at Sacred Heart hospital and meet all the quirky characters that we get to know for 8 years.
8. The Bernie Mac Show “Pilot” written by Larry Wilmore.
The Bernie Mac Show’s pilot was one of three single camera half hour comedies that the new millennium brought to the world and had all the right elements that made The Bernie Mac Show a great series: Heart, edge, colorful characters, a loving and relatable family and hilariously funny. The unique camera style, text across the screen used for comic effect and the blend of heart and edgier humor all helped this episode win Larry Wilmore the Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series.
7. Roseanne “Life and Stuff” written by Matt Williams.
The original Roseanne’s pilot was as slice of life as the rest of the series (until season 9) would be. It introduced The Conner family as a blue collar, ordinary clan that bickered, laughed and loved each other just like every other family in the world. It also was the first sitcom to have a mother like Roseanne Conner who wasn’t exactly June Cleaver but was the Queen of her castle and loathed housework, cooking and slaving away for her family but still did it because she cared. The greatest part of the pilot was near the end where Roseanne and Dan have a huge fight that is both hilariously funny and real in a way most tv couples weren’t shown before. A stellar pilot that wasn’t flashy or all thrills but focused on laughs coming from the characters and a story so simple and mundane that feels more like real life than most sitcoms ever attempted.
6. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air “The Fresh Prince Project” written by Andy and Susan Borowitz.
The Fresh Prince’s pilot had a lot going for it with Platinum rapper Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith as its star, a perfectly assembled cast, veteran sitcom writers, direction by the legendary Debbie Allen and produced by icon Quincy Jones. This pilot was lightening in a bottle and birthed a series that would become one ofthe most popular of the 1990’s and today still admired and beloved. The story executed its premise quite well: Philly born and raised troublemaker Will being sent by his mother to live with his wealthy Aunt and Uncle in Bel Air. The pilot focuses on Will’s personality clashing with The Bankses world. But where the pilot really shines is the final scene between Will and Uncle Phil demonstrating the type of powerful dramatic encounter that the series would serve up time and again over the next six years.
5. Becker “Pilot” written by Dave Hackel.
Becker was the second sitcom outing for Cheers alum Ted Danson and although Cheers far exceeded Becker in ratings and its place in television history, Becker was a fantastic show in its own right. The show was about cranky, loud mouthed and irritable Dr. John Becker who ran a small practice in The Bronx and drove everyone crazy from his nurse and assistant at work to his blind friend Jake and the beautiful sarcastic Reggie at Reggie’s diner. Despite his gruff exterior lied a huge heart that cared for his friends and especially his patients who he wasn’t afraid to dish out some tough love like in the pilot where he chews out an overweight patient who refused to take his advice and go on a diet. Becker tells him that he likes him and more importantly his family loves him so he should remember one simple word: Salad. The pilot perfectly sets up Becker’s world and the characters in his life, as well as the thoughtful, heartfelt tone mixed in with the laughs. Becker even had a kid with HIV in a sitcom pilot. It was very much a show not afraid to be honest in its humor or the not so easy parts of real life.
4. Martin “Beauty and The Beast” written by John Bowman.
The Martin show is still the gold standard for black sitcoms and in just hilariously funny sitcoms in general and it all started with its pilot “Beauty and The Beast” which perfectly introduces Detroit Radio DJ Martin Payne and the love of his life the lovely and forever patient Gina Waters. The strength, heart and soul of Martin was the relationship between Martin and Gina and the pilot perfectly introduces that to the audience and makes us fall in love with their relationship as well as Tommy, Pam, Cole and the first two characters Martin played Mama Payne and Sheneneh Jenkins. The pilot was very well paced and the chemistry among the cast was already perfect from the jump. A must watch.
3. Everybody Loves Raymond “Pilot” written by Phil Rosenthal.
Everybody Loves Raymond’s pilot may not be as strong and as hilarious as it would become later on, but it’s one of the best structured pilots in sitcom history in my humble opinion. The pacing is sharp and the character introductions perfectly illustrate the personalities and roles of the characters as well as the relationships that would become a cornerstone for the show such as Ray and Debra’s marriage, Marie and Debra’s rivalry, Robert’s jealousy of his younger more beloved brother Raymond “Ehhhhverybody loves Raymond”, and Ray’s having to put up with two psychos as parents. The Fruit of the Month scene is one of the most popular scenes in the series and certainly the most memorable and beloved scene of the pilot.
Jeremy Stevens, a writer on Raymond summed up the Raymond pilot better than I ever could:
2. Cheers “Give me a ring sometime” written by Glen and Les Charles.
The Cheers pilot is considered by many to be the greatest sitcom pilot of all time and it’s hard to argue when you watch it and see how perfectly the characters and premise are executed. The show’s premise was simple: An educated snooty girl walks into a bar and meets a suave, good looking bar tender and the funny, off the wall staff and regulars and after her fiancee leaves her for his ex wife that bar tender offers her a job which she has no choice but to accept. That’s it. It’s as simple as that but Cheers as a series isn’t as simple, it’s a series that has been revered for almost 40 years and holds up beautifully, and it all started with that pilot that introduced us to a place where everybody knows your name and always glad you came, and the lovable losers who inhabited it. A must watch for writers hoping to execute a perfectly structured pilot that introduces characters expertly and sets up the dynamics of the series in 22 minutes without feeling like you’re watching it for 102 minutes.
- Frasier “The Good Son” written by David Lee, Peter Casey and David Angell.
This is certainly in my opinion the number 1 most perfectly structured and must study sitcom pilot of all time. Frasier, the spin off of Cheers that ran 11 seasons and won a record 5 outstanding comedy series emmys and 37 emmys total (more than any other show in history until Games of Thrones beat them out by 1) making it a landmark sitcom that is just as popular today as it was when it aired from 1993 to 2004. The pilot’s story was of course executing the premise of new Radio Psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane moving back to his hometown of Seattle, Washington after his divorce trying to start a new life for himself but end up taking in his crusty ex cop father who was shot in the hip, a zany English physical therapist and his father’s dog that stares at him without fail, though Frasier is lucky to have his brother Niles to vent to, who also happens to be a psychiatrist and after he meets Daphne, the physical therapist he falls hopelessly in love with her. At work Frasier has Roz Doyle, his producer and closest friend who isn’t afraid to burst his bubble as well as many other quirky co workers at the station. The pilot of Frasier was written without an outline by Cheers alums Angell\Casey\Lee. You’d never know it with how perfectly the pilot is played out from beginning to end. The pilot isn’t only structured perfectly but unlike most pilots it seems like everything gelled right away: The cast already seemed to just know their characters and how to get laughs from them, the audience was already on board and actually applauded quite a few times which is rare for any sitcom pilot. The writers also seemed to already know how to balance poignancy, humor, pathos and intelligence right off the bat. Frasier had the right ingredients from the start to become a modern classic sitcom which it is. It’s a pilot I recommend for anyone wanting to learn how to craft a perfect sitcom pilot.
You can find all of these on various streaming services or rerun stations, or better yet just buy the Dvds, they’re worth the buy. Next time we’ll be digging into the top ten perfect dramat pilots which will be a treat for all you big time one hour drama fans. ’Til next time, folks!