What makes a great first sitcom episode?

We take a look at what makes the perfect comedy debut

Absolutely Fabulous

Getting the first episode of a sitcom right is very important. Afterall, get it wrong and you'll have viewers reaching for the remote control quicker than you can say Brighton Belles.

As Gold celebrates comedy debuts with a weekend of first episodes (21 and 22 June), we thought we'd pick the brains of sitcom expert Aaron Brown, editor of The British Comedy Guide, to find out the perfect ingredients for a great first episode.

As he explains: "There are many ways to approach the opening episode of a sitcom. All share a few simple, common principles: Introduce the characters and their relationships, set the tone, introduce the underlying conflict from which all of the comedy will arise – and most importantly, be as rip-roaringly funny as possible to drag viewers into the story!"

With this in mind, Aaron reveals some of the most tried and tested ways to start a sitcom and why they worked...

Start with a death

"In The Vicar Of Dibley we see the elderly Vicar ‘Potty’ Pottle die mid-service, thus opening up a wave of change for the village. To The Manor Born also opens with a death, and specifically the funeral of Audrey’s husband, which leaves her near-penniless and forced to sell Grantleigh Estate.

"The 1970s Thora Hird sitcom In Loving Memory opens with the death of an undertaker, no less. His business is left to his widow and nephew Billy. Interestingly, both Dibley and Memory double-up the new start. As they focus on the work of the deceased, each show introduces a replacement: Geraldine, and Billy, respectively."

Introduce the new neighbours/housemates

"The Young Ones begins with a different type of change. The housemates are forced to move when they discover their home is to be demolished. It introduces the characters perfectly: Rick is excited to tune into a “cool” new TV programme aimed at the youth, whilst Neil makes a typically pathetic attempt at suicide.

"In fact, many sitcoms use the theme of moving home – or moving in or out of a flat or house share – to welcome the viewer into the world, and often a new, unsettled period in the characters’ lives.

"Man About The House begins with Chris(sy) and Jo discovering that their new flatmate, Robin, is not in fact a fellow female, and he vice versa. Meanwhile, the now-controversial 1970s ITV sitcom Love Thy Neighbour sees a black Conservative moving in next door to a white socialist – a stark contrast that neither man grows to relish.

"Elsewhere, Waiting For God starts with the irrepressibly joyous Tom Ballard becoming the latest resident of Bayview Retirement Home in Bournemouth, and coming into conflict with his own new next door neighbour, the ill-tempered Diana."

New beginnings

"One Foot In The Grave sets up its central characters in a similar nothing-to-do-anymore scenario with the enforced retirement of Victor Meldrew. Audiences love to wallow in Victor’s misery and celebrate his (few) joys as he attempts to fill his days now that the world of employment has thrown him onto the scrap heap, as he sees it.

"Another huge 1990s hit, Absolutely Fabulous starts with a new beginning – of sorts! The first episode sees Edina challenged by her own daughter to function without alcohol, whilst Eddy’s best friend advocates otherwise. This immediately brings viewers into the hectic Monsoon household and perfectly establishes the relationship between Eddy and Saffy, and negative influence of Patsy.

"Other series mix and match different new beginnings. In Not Going Out, Lee is already living with Kate at the start of series one, but the enforced life change brought about by Tim’s dumping her and Lee moving in as her flatmate, is set up very quickly – as is the hint of romantic tension between Lee and his best mate’s ex.

"In a similar vein, Coupling’s first episode saw Steve struggling to dump the clingy Jane and move on, something made even more complicated when he meets the beautiful and charming Susan. This is another episode that perfectly establishes the tone of humour, the characters’ strained and bizarre personalities and relationships, and the overlying theme of the series (romance and relationships) right from the go."

Hit the ground running

"The Thin Blue Line begins with the 10th anniversary of the main male and female characters in the show. There are no deaths, no marriages or births, nor any job or house moves, but the viewer is immediately taken into the dysfunctional world of Gasforth Police Station.

"Citizen Smith does similar with its first episode: incompetent revolutionary Wolfie is already committed to his Marxist principles, and in a long-term relationship with the lovely Shirley. However, it still takes time to carefully set-up the foibles of each character. Shirley really wants to get married, whilst Wolfie can’t abide the thought of being so bound down in the eyes of the capitalist state; and he’s generally as short-sighted in his personal life as he is in his political activism."

Start at the very beginning

"Finally, we must also consider series with linear storylines that have a very definite beginning – ‘Allo ‘Allo! being the prime example.

Although the German army is already occupying Nouvion, within minutes of the start of the pilot episode, René has had a first visit from Michelle of the Resistance; Captain Geering and the Colonel have stolen The Fallen Madonna (in all her glory); Herr Flick arrives in town to find it; Monsieur LeClerc is sprung from prison; the British airmen have arrived; and Gruber arrives in town for the first time."

Check out the British Comedy Guide's list of the Top 50 British sitcoms. Is your favourite on the list?