If you're looking to write a sitcom pilot that has the potential to become a real TV series, there is one fundamental element you need to focus on above all the others.
And it's not characters, or dialogue, or funny jokes (although those things are obviously important).
This fundamental element is so basic you're going to feel silly for not prioritizing it earlier.
how to build a tV sitcom with staying power
If that potential isn't abundantly clear in your pilot, you're going to get a lot of "I like it, but I'm not sure where I see it going," from reps or producers.
On a basic level, most writers already fundamentally understand that concept.
"My pilot has to have the potential to become a series? No kidding."
But they misunderstand what exactly it means...
An amazing, hysterical pilot does not necessarily equate to an amazing, hysterical series.
Truly great pilots are driven by a one-of-a-kind STORY ENGINE, that demonstrates the potential for lots of episodes right out of the gate.
What is a Story Engine, exactly? It's a central conflict that is unique to your pilot, that will be used to generate future episodes of the series long into the future.
Let's look at some examples to get into this a little deeper...
The neighbors, scrubs and Frasier
In The Neighbors, the central conflict is: Normal family copes with life in a community of aliens.
In Scrubs, the central conflict is: Vulnerable young doctor is thrown into the deep end at a run-down hospital.
In Frasier, the central conflict is: Uppity psychiatrist has his home and personal life uprooted by his blue collar Dad.
In each of these shows, that central conflict propels tons of episodes. It's a deep well that the writers can always turn back to in order to furnish ideas for new episodes.
Obviously there are tons of other factors at hand, but without this central conflict in place, you are going to run into an issue.
how to build a sitcom story engine (character + setting = Series)
But how exactly did they do that?
Of course it all starts with a great idea, but the show's creators did a lot of seemingly invisible work to make those story engines as strong as possible.
None of the shows above are JUST about the characters or JUST about a unique world... They are all a combination of both characters and setting.
Because if characters and setting are chosen well, that's all you need to fuel good stories.
Take Frasier as an example.
On first glance, it seems like this show is just about one character versus another. But the show also creates a very unique world that provides another huge source of conflict... Frasier and Niles are almost aristocratic in the lives they lead, and the world they inhabit they reflect that. The arrival of Frasier's Dad thus upsets the entire world, in addition to just Frasier as a person. The combination of these two elements creates a legendary story engine that fueled one of the more successful sitcoms of the 90s.
The same is true with Scrubs. "Sitcom set in a hospital" is a fine enough idea, but what really fuels the show is when that world is juxtaposed against the vulnerable J.D.
The stories generated by adding that 'insecure doctor' character to 'sitcom set in a hospital' are what fuel the show. And the rest of the characters are further optimized with this conflict in mind. Like Frasier and his Dad, J.D. is diametrically opposed to Dr. Cox (a man who has been ridiculously hardened by the difficulties of work in a hospital).
But what about...
Friends is a pretty good example (and it's a great show, with a strong pilot, and even they do this to a certain extent, with the introduction of Rachel into the group...)
But if you're a new writer trying to get your foot in the door, writing a sitcom without a strong story engine is making an uphill battle even...up-hillier.
So take the path of least resistance, and figure out your story engine before you start writing. Then, when you write your pilot, make sure you make the most of all that built in conflict.
In the pilot episode of Frasier, the Dad moves in, throws away Frasier's fancy furniture, makes Frasier's office into a bedroom, and invites a brash nurse to come be the third roommate. But if Frasier had a nice bedroom all made up for his Dad, and the Dad didn't need any medical care, there would be no way to really hammer home the promise of the show's premise. And that's what you need to do.
"This did not test well." - James L. Brooks
I thought it was interesting for a few reasons...
1) This show was the first to feature a working, single woman in her thirties. Very controversial at the time, and that's likely what Brooks could have been referring to.
2) Even if the pilot didn't test well, it lasted for a million seasons because it's got such a strong story engine. At that time in America, there was a ton of conflict to come from a single woman in the workplace, especially someone like Mary, who was stubborn, opinionated, and progressive.
This pilot had the added momentum of being extremely relevant socially at the time it was written - - always another good angle to consider when you're coming up with ideas to write.