The strongest comedy stems from character. Sure, it’s fun to write a witty joke or devise a spectacular slapstick set piece, but for half-hour comedies, the thing that keeps audiences coming back episode to episode (and season to season) are the characters. If you can get the audience to care about what happens to the fictional humans on screen, then the hardest part is over.
What is a character, if not their traits? Take Only Murders in the Building (written and created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman) as an example. After a brief flashforward teaser, the story starts in earnest and wastes no time in establishing the show’s core trio: semi-retired actor Charles-Haden Savage (Martin), struggling Broadway producer Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), and young artist Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), who all share little in common, save for an obsession with the same true crime podcast. But the way the show introduces them is subtly brilliant. Each is living a typical day, walking through the streets of New York, while they narrate their outlooks on the city as well as life in general. It’s not a big or flashy sequence, but its strength is its efficiency. In a few short minutes (or pages, if you’re reading), we know who the the characters are, how they contrast from one another, and what they have in common. They’re funny, they’re unique, they’re relatable. They’re the sort of characters you want to watch.
But characters can’t exist in a vacuum; they need some sort of narrative to explore. For Only Murders in the Building, it’s (appropriately) a murder in the building. The three dissimilar characters turn their podcast obsession into a show of their own as they work to uncover the killer. The result is a murder mystery, though heavy on the comedy like Knives Out or Clue. Their personalities clash, secrets are unveiled, and twists and turns pile up. But even as the plot trudges on, Hoffman and Martin never lose sight of the characters at the center. Since mystery is such an oversaturated genre (in TV, in film, in fiction in general), that’s the thing that makes new ones stand out: compelling characters with compelling relationships. You might be able to predict who the killer is well before the season’s end, but the fun is in watching Charles and Oliver and Mabel bicker and grow together. Which brings us back to my initial point: The strongest comedies stem from character. You can have all the jokes and all the plot you want, but any story will feel empty if there aren’t compelling characters at the center.
So if you haven’t done so already, be sure read the script below and check out the show. The third season premieres later this year, and we’ll certainly be watching.