Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Notes on Notes

In the last blog post, I mentioned a brilliant edition of UK Scriptwriters podcast with writer and Script editor Andrew Ellard, who tweets interesting writer stuff here. In the podcast, he talks about the three kinds of script editors that are out there. The Conduit, Contributor and Consultant. (More on these here.) He sees his job as the Consultant, that is a script editor work doesn't collate the notes of others or throw in gags, but gives details notes to get the stories and characters working properly. Essentially, this kind of Script Editor is the writer's friend.

Huh. I can already hear you splurting out your fourth coffee of the day. "I'm a writer! It's Me vs The World. No one understands my creative vision! Blah blah blah."

Are you done?

Different shows need different kinds of script editors. I don't plan to addressing that here. But what is worthy of note is the nature of notes of this kind. Andrew said he sees his job as a script editor as trying to help the writer execute their idea in the best way possible. This highlights one of the key issues around note giving and note receiving

My rule of thumb on notes is that the best notes are an articulation of an awful truth you’ve been suppressing all along (which I say here). But the worst kind of note is one appears to be about one thing, but is actually about another. This is why experienced writers advise rookies to think about 'the note behind the note'.

The note behind the note, however, is often  'I hate this idea' or 'I wish this episode were about something else' or 'I've never liked this character'. These notes are profoundly annoying and unhelpful because they're dishonest. Worse, you can't really do anything about them.

If you're giving notes on a script, it’s worth asking yourself ‘Am I trying to help the writer achieve their vision? Or am I trying to change the writer’s vision?’ It may be the latter, and that may be entirely justified and reasonable given the state of the script, but one needs to have an honest conversation about that. In fact, one should probably have had an honest conversation about it earlier at the outline/treatment stage.

But you didn't read the treatment properly, did you?

Because the treatment, or Scene by Scene Outline, was 1500 words of dense text. (See Deadly Sin 1: Skimming here) Okay, maybe I'm being a little harsh here. We're all busy, and outlines are not exciting to look at, or inviting you to read them over and over to get them in your head so you can imagine the episode and respond constructively. But we all have to do things we don't enjoy. And I guess that's why you're paid a decent monthly salary, with job security, serviced office, assistant and a pension. Sorry. But you get the point.

So let's take a silly example.

Your characters go to a theme park in the second act of your episode - and you've written your outline, which has been approved, and now you've written the script. Maybe it's a second draft. And you get a note along the lines of 'Does it have be a theme park? Maybe it could be a zoo. Or a themed hotel?'

What are you meant to make of that note? There could be any number of reasons for it - which could be that the notegiver knows for a fact that theme parks are expensive to film in; or had a bad experience at one as a child and never liked them; or has some hare-braned notion that 'Theme Parks aren't funny'.

To be honest, if an experienced exec producer says that 'Theme Parks aren't funny' and then makes a case for it, I'm all ears. You're a fool to ignore the advice of someone with decades more experience than you. You could make the case, for example, that 'Fashion Shows aren't funny'. The reason for that, you could argue, is that they are already inherently preposterous. It's normally funnier to make something run-of-the-mill preposterous. But the skill of good writing is that it finds new ways to do all kinds of things. I'm sure there's a funny Ab Fab scene or two at a fashion show.

Occasionally, you do get silly arbitrary notes. Writers are always swapping stories of daft notes they've had. (It's a way of the over-educated powerless writers asserting their intellectual superiority. I know. Pathetic, really). If you follow Network Notes on Twitter you'll see some of the most ridiculous examples that I'm not entirely sure I believe (or are ripped out of context but a furious/frustrated writer). eg.

“Maybe instead of an alcoholic, she should be a well-adjusted woman who everyone likes and respects?” – ABC

"We like your dialogues and scenarios very much. But gangsters can't be Chechens. Nazis?" - Canal Plus

“You know what would help this story? Seven high fashion models.” – NBC

"I haven't seen Moneyball, but could you make this more like Moneyball?" - FOX

So, that's the silly extreme stuff.

One more example, which is a little more nuanced. It's also a more common one in which are faults on both sides, so it's a fair fight.

Bottle Episodes
You're writing Series 2 of your sitcom so decide you want to do a ‘bottle’ episode in which all the characters are trapped in one confined place for a whole episode. It’s a fairly standard sitcom trick that makes writers feel like they’re being clever. It’s often a broken lift, but it can be an overnight prison lock-in (Porridge), a psychiatrist’s office (Miranda) or a Chinese Restaurant where a table is never available (Seinfeld). So far so trad.

Initially, producers like episodes like this because they're cheap to produce. If you're in a studio, you probably don't need any location filming at all - and ideally no outside characters. Budget saved. Tick. Line producer happy. Writer happy. And actors normally love this sort of episode too, because it feels like theatre - which everyone respects more than TV - and someone might have an emotional breakdown or a big character revelation. Aah, the sniff of awards.

An exec, however, is probably going to worry that the episode is going to be boring. And, to be honest, that is a real danger. But, rather than say so, the notes make various tactful suggestions about 'opening out the episode' and 'moving things on' - which are the only thing the episode can't do given it's parameters.

It's clear from the subtext of the note that exec/producer/channel has lost confidence in the idea and think that either you don't have the talent or experience to pull off this episode - and that you've written a tiresomely derivative, unfunny Beckett play - or that the audience don't have the attention span. They may well be right about one of more of these things. It may well be that you, the writer, have bitten off more than you can chew in you bottle episode, so you might do well to rethink the whole thing.

So, let's stop being British, tactful and embarrassed. Notes need to be clear. That is the only way they can be constructive. But notes also need to be timely - this conversation about the troubled bottle episode should have been had way earlier, before the writers spent three of weeks sweating over the first two drafts of this script, so don't be surprised if they're not wedded to it and resistant to major changes. Bottle episodes always run into problems like this, so have the conversation at the outline stage - ideally even earlier.

Post Script: Nota Bene
TV is made fast, and there's never enough money (especially with the BBC's ludicrous Delivering Quality First idiocy), which is why it is a collaborative medium. Therefore, trust is essential. Notes which don't say what they mean don't help this. So, if an episode idea, scene or moment has been agreed, let's all try and find a way of making it work, rather than undermining the entire process with oblique comments that don't really help anyone. Or we're honest enough to say 'this isn't working, and isn't going to work. So let's have a new idea'.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Three Kinds of Guest Character

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about guest characters in sitcoms – and the danger of getting too excited about writing them. The audience aren’t as interested in the guest characters as you are. They’re all about the main characters they’ve come to know, understand and, hopefully, love. So don't get carried away.

The one thing that’s been gnawing away at me since posting that is Seinfeld. Mostly this bit (and I know it's bad form to quote oneself):
The successful and memorable ones tended to be completely extraordinary and at least partly based on truth eg. The Soup Nazi or The Bubble Boy. Their names explained exactly who they were so the audience were up to speed straight and we could get on with the jokes. A catchphrase helped that along too ('No soup for you!'') But what we enjoyed the most about these characters is the reactions of the regular cast to them. Seeing George humbly bowing to the Soup Nazi and then being cheated of a bread roll and then being banned is funny - because it's George. And then there was the unpleasant incident with the Bubble Boy... Other characters in Seinfeld weren't funny at all but downright annoying, intentionally so because they put the regular characters into awkward or unpleasant situations, one of the most obvious examples being the infuriating comedy hack Banya. Banya made Jerry funny.
I'm happy with everything I wrote there. But it kind of goes against my case about not getting hung up on guest characters and not bothering to make them funny because the audience don't care. These guest characters are really funny and work brilliant. Why?

Well, I think I might have stumbled across an answer, whilst processing some really interesting podcasts. The first was UK Scriptwriters latest podcast with Andrew Ellard, who’s script edited Miranda, IT Crowd and a bunch of other stuff. I know Andrew a bit, and when it comes to sitcom logic and motivation, this guy is in the Premier League – which may not sound like a compliment, but it really is, especially bearing in mind my last post about The Logic Police.

Vive La Difference
In the podcast, Andrew said something about conflict that struck me and made me thing that sometimes this term is overplayed in sitcom. Andrew said that there doesn’t need to be conflict, necessarily, but ‘difference’.

Now, despite the fact that Nobody Knows Anything and there is no formula to comedy, my general rule of thumb when it comes to sitcom is this:
Characters + Conflict + Confinement + Catastrophe = Comedy*
*except when it doesn’t.
That is to say, you need characters with clear points of view that contrast. And they’re stuck together in a situation and stuff goes wrong. But the conflict is more than tiresomely repetitive arguments from different viewpoints with nothing much actually happening.

Before I could think more about that, I heard the latest episode of Scriptnotes which is all about conflict. Craig Maizin produced an interesting list of six types of conflict, which make the point that the is more to conflict than argument. His six kinds of conflict (with some of my comments added) are:

An Argument – an expressed difference of opinion: either a blazing row or a passive aggression scene between some characters.

Struggle Against Circumstance – our hero has locked their keys in car and has to fight the car to get them back and continue with their quest. So this is Man vs Nature/Object/Corporation (eg. Castaway)

Unfulfilled Desire – a character has a life goal that they want to achieve, but can’t. And in the movie this desire will be fulfilled – ideally in a way they hadn’t expected. But in a sitcom, this is life goal remains unfulfilled in pretty much every episode. Basil Fawlty wants to run a classy hotel, but he’s too much of a snob to see that this is a fools errand. And he’s too lazy to put the work in to make this a reality.

Avoiding a Negative Outcome – I have to do something in a way that doesn’t get me (or someone else) hurt or into trouble.

Huge special DVD boxed set available. Yay!
But not in the UK. Boooo!
Confusion – You’re in conflict with the world around you because you don’t have all the facts. In a movie, this state doesn’t last long (here’s my crazy but literal ‘fish out of water’ example – Splash) In a sitcom, this situation can be an almost permanent state of affairs, especially where aliens are involved. eg. Mork and Mindy, Third Rock from the Sun, My Hero. Or even a ‘coming of age’ ‘how-does-this-crazy-world-work?’ show like The Wonder Years where a child is trying to figure out the world around him.

A Dilemma – Your hero has a choice to make, but all the choices are bad.

I’m sure Craig would be the first to admit this is not exhaustive or exact list. I think some of these categories overlap with each other.  For example, ‘An Argument’ is a subset of all them, rather than a conflict in itself. An argument comes about when someone is struggling against circumstance (represented by a character) or confused in some way and starts to lash out. And as they struggle, they may be left with ‘a dilemma’ in which they can’t avoid a ‘negative outcome’. You get the idea.

But it’s a really interesting list nonetheless. It demonstrates that are many kinds of conflict beyond the verbal disagreement, which is probably the least interesting of them all – and because it’s not all that interesting, it’s very difficult to write.

So, how do we get to Seinfeld Guest Characters from here?

I’m getting to that. Stay with me.

As Craig and John talked on the podcast, they talked about how your characters can want the same thing – but still be in conflict. And here we come back to Andrew Ellard's 'Differences'. The characters go about things differently, or do things to avoid an argument which results in an argument, or different kind of conflict.

This is useful, since this helps explain the success of Friends in which they are, well, friends. The show is not called Enemies. They are friends, trying avoid the negative outcome of hurting each other’s feelings, which makes it quite a huggy, warm, fuzzy show. No harm in that. It’s easily in the list of Top Ten Sitcoms of all time. Somewhere below Seinfeld, which is not huggy at all. Quite the reverse. (We’re getting there, okay?)

Being Reasonable
Then John and Craig talked about keeping the characters likeable and believable. We’re back to the logic police, and it occurred to me that our regular characters may be larger-than-life, but there’s always a reason for what they do.

Basil Fawtly is not angry. People remember him beating that car with a branch, but this isn’t because he’s fundamentally an angry man. He’s driven himself (ha ha. Driven. Sorry) to this. Fawlty gets angry because he’s a snob, and he wants to run a classy hotel so he can be with the higher class people. But he doesn’t belong there and he’s not very good at running at hotel (for various reasons). Everything he does is motivated. He’s reasonable to the point of explosion. Like Victor Meldrew – who only gets angry when he is treated like an irrelevance. His cause is usually just and we’re on his side.

The regular characters, then, are reasonable – even if they’re monsters. Their quests and causes have to make sense. But with guest characters, all bets are off. They can be unreasonable. We don’t have to like them, or even understand why they’re crazy because it’s almost as if they’re from another world. You can have an efficious parking attendant who seems to get pleasure from giving people tickets. This character would probably be tiresome, or not believable, as a regular character. But they might work well for a scene.

So we have at least three kinds of guests character that tend to work:

The Plausibility Person
A character who is needed for the sake of plausibility – ie. It would be odd for there not to be a nurse/teacher/traffic warden in the scene you're writing. Your characters report a crime at a police station. You need a policeman at an incident desk, but the scene is not about them. These are characters who are there because they're essential to the scene.

The Sensible Cypher
Someone who might be in a few scenes and arrives on the scene as a sibling, or a love interest, a temporary neighbour or an inspector. It’s as if they’re representing the real world – the world of the audience.  And they do and say the kind of things we would do and say. Often, they walk in are amazed at what they find. A lot of their action is reaction – but sometimes they make moves that the regulars have to respond to (esp if they’re an inspector or authority figure), if that's part of the their mandate. In Bluestone 42, we’ve had a few characters like this; not least the Vet who ends up being interrogated by the team in Series 1; and the politician whom Nick chases away from Mary in Series 2.

The Unreasonable Sociopath
These are forces of nature who react in bizarre or unexpected ways – and the episode often turns on these characters. We have no idea why they are like this – or even what becomes of them. And Seinfeld’s most memorable guests characters fit into this category: The Soup Nazi, Lt Bookman (the library detective), The Bubble Boy, Jimmy (who always refers to himself as ‘Jimmy’), The Doorman, Izzy Mandelbaum (the octagenarian fitness freak). And even characters who were in a handful of episodes like George Steinbrenner, Jackie Chiles (the lawyer), Jack Klompus (from ‘the pen’ episode), Bania, Mr Peterman and Mr Pitt were all crazy in their own way.

And that’s how they created memorable guests characters on Seinfeld that could be a big part of a plot. Because they weren’t regular, we didn’t need backstory, motivation or moderation. We didn't need to like them. They arrived crazy. They drive out regular characters crazy. And they leave crazy.

I'm sure there are more kinds of Guest Character, so please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.

If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Logic Police

 Actual Police, not Logic Police, but you get the idea.
Pic by Sky Noir via Flickr
I’ve written before about the infuriating feeling you get when a TV comedy or a movie isn’t working when you’re screaming at the screen, shouting ‘You would never do that!’ or ‘You’d just call the police’ (like here), but following a question on a recent edition of Scriptnotes, I thought there were one or two other things to so. So let’s back up.

You’ve plotted your script. Maybe you’ve written a couple of drafts – and then you get a note. ‘This scene is very funny, but would Jennifer really run down the street in a giraffe costume, especially given how self-conscious she is?’ or ‘In the emergency, she calls her brother. Wouldn’t she call her mother/the police/Rentokil?’ You get the idea.

So, does that mean you need to change it? Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s ask the most basic question first.

Is the note right?
The best notes are an articulation of an awful truth you’ve been suppressing all along. So in your heart of hearts, you know Jennifer would never run down the street in the giraffe costume - even though it would be really funny. Or you know in the emergency, she’s the type to call the police. You might be able to address this quickly and easily. How? Let’s address the latter:

Maybe you really need that first call to go the sister, not the police. In which case, maybe she picks up her phone frantically and speed dials her sister – whom she tells to get off the phone because she needs to call the police, and you’re into the conversation to the sister that you needed.

Maybe the sister calls her at exactly the wrong moment – and she’s been calling her throughout the episode at equally inconvenient moments and this is the topper. You might well be able to address the note and keep the order of events you need. In which case, take the note, and make the change and be grateful for a good note. It just made your script better.

Why has this note been given?
It could be that this note feels very unhelpful. Someone is trying to justify their salary by chipping in. They says idiotic stuff like ‘I would never do that’ to which the answer is ‘No, of course you wouldn't because you’re not Jennifer and you’re not the character in the story.' Does this person even understand who Jennifer is? Possibly not. And who's fault is that? Have you written Jennifer as this character, or is this just in your head on not on the page?

The answer to this note might ‘Yes. Jennifer wouldn’t normally. That’s why it’s an interesting story. Events have taken such a terrible turn, and she’s made a series of such bad decisions that she has no choice but to do this thing.’ But is that true? It may be that you’ve left the door open to other options which she could plausibly do, in which case you need to close those, so the note is valid and you have failed as a writer. That happens. Or it could be the person is simply not very good at giving notes, or trying to look clever and they failed as a note-giver. That happens too.

When is this note being given?
Maybe this is draft 7 of a script, and this bit hasn’t really changed since draft 2. Someone says ‘Isn’t it odd that Jack runs out of the door still holding the landline phone?’ And the answer might be ‘Good point. It does feel odd, and we don’t get much out of him still holding the phone, so he could throw it down.’ Or the answer might be ‘I suppose it might be odd, but it’s all a bit hectic and he’s stressed – and he might have forgotten it’s not his mobile, but his cordless landline. And he’s a smart guy. So, I suppose it is odd, but it hasn’t seemed odd ‘til now, and it still doesn’t seem all that odd, so we may well be overthinking this.’ You’re the writer. It’s your script (despite what you’re told). You decide.

There are some illogicalities that don't seem to matter all that much - especially after the climax of the story, and something happens which is nice topper to what's gone before. You've earned that one, and it's probably fine, but it might not be. In general, though, illogicalities cause confusion and uncertainty - and a confused audience doesn't laugh.

Closing Doors
If you spot a logic problem and you have the luxury of time to be able to unpick the whole episode and fix that one problem – that’s great. It’s often just a question of closing off the alternatives so that illogical step for you character is the only realistic or plausible option. Or the option is made by mistake or in haste and is irreversible. Or another character teases this character for being so predictable and an argument ensues, so that your character does what he need them to do – doing the illogical thing, that’s motivated by a desire to prove another character wrong. Or impress someone hot.

Writing Exposition
Sometimes an action by a character seems illogical but isn’t because you've done your groundwork, but it's not immediately obvious. In which case, you could try writing the exposition or explaining it in some way. More on that here and here. Quite often, when you write it and read it through with the cast – or even shoot it on camera, you realise you don’t need it after all, but that’s fine. That’s what an edit is for.

Strike a Light

But if you’re really against the clock and you start pulling on threads, the whole thing can unravel before your eyes. I sometimes worry about addressing a logic issue and thinking that I’m going to replace it with someone brutally logical but less funny or original. So one other way of cheating is to draw attention to the illogicality and own it – what’s frequently called ‘Hanging a Lantern’ on it (they mention this in the podcast). Rather than hide the illogicality in a darkened corner, you light it up. What does this look like? It may be some raised eyebrows, or a comment or a brief exchange – ideally with a joke. After all, it is a sitcom.

If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Writing on Kids' Sitcoms

Children’s sitcoms has often been considered a good ‘way in’ to writing Sitcoms for Grown-ups.  Those who work in children’s tv, however, often do not see it that way, and it’s not hard to understand why. Nine year-old boys and thirteen year-old girls are very different creatures. Your job is to make both of them laugh. That’s not easy – especially if you’re not a nine year old boy or thirteen year old girl. Writing for someone other than yourself is very difficult.

So let’s look at other difficulties and restrictions in writing for Kids first – given that I’m a writer and therefore the glass is not just half-empty, but smeared with fingerprints and lipstick.

Editorial policy
There are certain words you can’t use in Kids TV, and areas best avoided. There are obvious things like swearing and sexual references. But there’s the also the worry about imitation, and doing things that the children may try to replicate at home. It can be frustrating when you think of something brilliant, simple and funny that is so brilliant, so simple and so funny that you’re teaching the nation's children an amusing way of hurting themselves. You’re not supposed to this. I know. Political correctness gone mad, etc.

Child Actors
Children’s comedy often has children in it. It’s understandable. (Sidenote: At one point, CBBC had an insane hard and fast rule that all their comedies had to have children in them. You couldn’t even pitch a show that didn’t have kids in it because it wouldn’t even be considered. I pointed out that this would have meant that Rentaghost, Maid Marian etc, would not have been commissioned – and they seemed weirdly fine about this. I found this very frustrating, because when I was a ten-year old boy, I didn’t want to watch ten year old boys on the telly. I’d spent all day at school with ten year old boys. Ten your old boys are lame and annoying. I wanted proper funnies on my telly to help me forget I was a ten year old boy. The policy mercifully changed and they ended up with insanely popular and brilliantly silly Horrible Histories, so that sort of proves the point. Sidenote over.)

But there’s still a very good chance your children’s show will have some kids in it. That limits you in a couple of ways. The first is that there aren’t as many child actors as grown-up actors. And the really good ones can be quite hard to find. Obviously, a ten year-old actor has less TV experience than a forty-something, and the really good ones end up in movies, so you’re writing for cast who are feeling their way. What they do achieve is really impressive – but it’s not the same as writing for actors with a bit more telly under their belts.

And secondly, child actors can’t work twelve hours days. I know, I know. More political correctness gone mad. Thanks, Lord Shaftesbury. Well done. So filming becomes more complicated, the days are compressed and there is less time to get a scene rehearsed and really fizzing and funny.

And on top of everything else, the budgets are tiny. Really insultingly small. The only upside of Kids shows is that you’re often not paying our tens of thousands of pounds to a big star to show up every week, but you are paying for chaperones for the child actors – and a lot of the other costs are the same or fixed. When you compare budgets with grown-up TV, what is achieved for the money is astonishing.

As a writer you are paid less for kids shows (but it’s still better than radio), but there’s an upside here. And others besides. The small budgets mean that the series are often longer. They tend to make a children’s series in tens or thirteens rather than sixes, so there are more episodes to write and you can make a living that way.

Plus, given one person can’t really write thirteen episodes, there are opportunities to get work on these shows – and write an episode or two and get some experience that way.

What normally happens if you can get through the door is that you’ll go to some writers ideas/pitching day, and maybe go away and write up some ideas and throw in some new ones. On the basis of that, you might well be commissioned to write an episode. You’ll need to a few outlines first – and then a few drafts of the script. Overall, it works a bit like the system I’ve written about here. But it tends to move fairly fast. Faster than Grown-Up TV. On Series 3 of Bluestone 42, we had a couple of readthroughs for each script – and ended up shooting draft six or seven. Sometimes draft nine or ten. One episode this year was draft 12b. And even then there are last minute changes on the day.

Because of budgets, and volume, Kids TV is faster and doesn’t really allow for that. Once the producer/script editor/creator is broadly happy with your draft (probably the third draft), it might be taken off you, tweaked by a Script editor (who knows what can be achieved on the budgets, with the sets and actors, Editorial policy etc) and the next thing you know, they’ve shot it and it’s on TV. And somewhere along the line you get paid.

You tend not to turn up the read-throughs or filming, unless you are the creator of the show. There just isn’t time to fiddle about. It can be frustrating feeling removed from things, especially earlier in your career when this script is a big deal and you want everything about it to be perfect and you feel like you’re never really in control of your episode. You might watch it on TV and shout 'Why did you change that?' or 'You ruined my joke!' but that is the nature of the beast. It's made fast for not much money - and you weren't there, man.

The Cast of Dani's Castle
This is all my experience, anyway, based on writing episodes of Dani’s Castle, Kerching! and, a long time ago, Chucklevision. (I kid you not). I’ve also done quite a lot for CBeebies, but that’s for another time. If you have wildly different experiences to this, do leave a comment and share with the group.

The other upsides

Despite the frustrations and budgets, writing for kids can be great fun. The limitations really force you to be creative. And you’re writing for an audience that can be much more open-minded than adults. You can do some really daft stuff that just wouldn’t sit on BBC2 at 10pm, or E4 at 11pm.

Plus the lack of profile of Kids TV can be a good thing while you find your creative feet and learn your trade. You don’t have AA Gill lying in wait, ready to shred your pathetic attempt to make a smile pass over his cynical, tired cakehole. And that has to be a good thing.

If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Comedy Conference 2014

I've been a little quiet recently. The main reason is that we're shooting Series 3 of Bluestone 42 in South Africa. This usually affords hours of time for sitting around waiting for the lights to be reset. But at the start of shooting there's usually quite a lot of things that require your attention. And access to the internet is patchy, so updating blogs is not high on the list. Plus, one is reluctant to get out a laptop when dust is swirling around the place. Not convinced? Me neither. There will be some new blogs before long. And I have been writing stuff, but mostly material for a sitcomgeek book. (If you'd like to publish this book, please contact my agent.)

Anyway, the reason for this blog is to let you know that those real comedy geeks over at the British Comedy Guide a running another conference on Saturday 29th November 2014. I'm really glad that these guys are running comedy conferences because they just love comedy. And that comes through in everything they do.

The last conference was, by all accounts, great. I was here in South Africa, gadding about playing soldiers, so I missed it. And it's the same again this year. I'm even more annoyed I can't get along, as it looks utterly brilliant. They've got comedy royalty coming along in the form of Simon Nye, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. An hour spent in the room with those guys is time - and money - well spent. Worth the price of the ticket just for that. Then throw in the likes of Pete Sinclair, Mark Burton, Vicki Pepperdine, David Quantick and plenty besides and you've got a day of unalloyed comedy pleasure and insight. Oh, and I think they're about to announced some guy called Graham Linehan is coming too. Yeah. That guy.

I'll be honest. Maybe it's seems a little on the steep side being £169 for the day. But here are some mitigating circumstances: The day is long and packed. These things cost money. They also offer writers money to come and speak. Most conferences do not this, whilst charging even higher ticket prices. I hope we can all agree that writers, even ones that are doing okay, should he paid. Plus lunch and refreshments are thrown in. And, a free one-to-one session with a guru who might be able to give you a nudge in the right direction. And the British Comedy Guide guys aren't doing this for the money. As I say, they just love comedy. The conference is about comedy - and how you can make some, and learn from the real pros.

And here's the kicker: Use the code SGEEK when you book before 17th Nov and you'll get £20 off. So, all that for less that £150. I think that's money you will not regret spending. And I really and truly get nothing out of it. I just think it's a good thing. So go here.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Readthrough

It’s the big day. Well, maybe not the big day, but it’s a day. Judgment day. For you and your script. All the cast are sitting around a big table, along with the producer, director and half a dozen others who do stuff you haven’t quite figured out yet, but they seem to know who you are.

You are ‘the writer’.

Or one of the writers. But are you a good writer?

Is this script any good? Are you funny? Did you make the right choices? Is that stuff you insisted on leaving in the script going to work? Is it going to get a laugh in the room? Is it going to play? Does the script make sense? Will the whole thing judder to a dreadful embarrassing halt as the last ten minutes makes no sense, but they just won’t stop reading it out? Will the actors understand all the subtleties and nuances of your amazing dialogue? Will they trash a key line? Will anyone actually read or notice some vital stage directions that make sense of the whole thing? Do you feel sick? Is it hot in here? Can someone open a window? Is that what you really want to do with your life? Didn’t your mum say you should have gone into teaching? Or the law? Maybe it’s not too late to retrain. Are you naked and everyone's laughing and you're going to wake up...



It’s completely understandable, but if you approach a readthrough like this, it’s will be every bit as suffocatingly awful as you think it is, even it goes quite well.

But a readthrough of a script is not an exercise in pride or vindication. It feels like it is, but it shouldn’t be. A readthrough is just part of the process. A painful part, for sure, but once you’ve accepted that, you’ll have a much nicer time.

Your Script Isn't Perfect
What you need to realise before the readthrough starts is that your script isn’t perfect. It’s probably not awful, since you’ve been writing and rewriting this for a few weeks. Maybe even a few months. It might well work. There or thereabouts. But there’ll be bits in it that don’t work. They might be key moments that need fixing. The question is working out which bits they are.

A readthrough will show up all those weaknesses. So the readthrough is a good thing. Just like a trip to the dentist will show you which teeth need attention. People tend not to sit around and watch while you have your teeth checked, and draw conclusions about you and your talent from the state of your teeth, but you signed up to be a writer, so you know that people are going to look at your craft at some point.

It’s best to find those script flaws now in a badly lit, windowless, basement meeting room – rather than in front of millions of people on TV or radio, or in front of a studio audience, or even in front of three dozen tired production crew while you’re shooting stuff on location and it’s obvious that it isn’t working and it’s just too expensive to take time to fix it. So the readthrough is a good thing, even though it feels a cold shower. Of bleach.

The actors may well be sight-reading the lines, and they might make mistakes on some key bits, but you’ll just know from that readthrough what works, and what doesn’t; what scenes feel strangely long, or even pointless; what jokes you’ve clung onto from the start just aren’t funny, especially as you’ve changed the context of those jokes in the previous rewrites. You might even find the original moment, or motivator for the episode just feels oddly out of place now and should probably be cut. Great. You can now cut it.

What's The Worst That Can Happen?
The episode may fall apart completely in a readthrough. I had that once. It just wasn't funny. We were recording the episode in front of an audience in five days, and already pre-recorded some scenes. It was the worst day of my professional career. But we fixed it – because we all wanted to make a funny show. And it became my favourite episode. So, it doesn’t matter how wrong it goes. You can make it right.

So, once the script has been read, listen, think, consider, review and generally keep an open mind. The notes you’ll get will be a mixture of baffling, truthful, infuriating and infuriatingly truthful. And you’ve got time to fix the script so that it’s funny. Really funny. And that what you all want.

And keep bearing in mind that if you’re script is at this stage and the pressure is on you, at least you’re being paid. This is both what you wanted, and a lot less arduous than working in a factory, a mine or a corn field. So get over yourself. Your life is easy.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - For Real

The last few blogposts (like this one and this one) have about working on other people's sitcoms. And  I thought it might be useful to talk to someone who's been experiencing all these shenanigans for the first time. So I talked to Lucien Young, who's been working on Siblings on BBC3 which is, in some ways, the BBC3 version of Sykes (Google it!). Siblings has just be recommissioned for a second series. I first met Lucien when he was recommended by a producer as someone who'd be good to take part in a gag pass for Series 2 of Bluestone 42. He was great to have in the room, and introduced me to the idea of writing '(Google it!)' into scripts. For which I thank him. Here goes. My questions in italics, obviously.

Hello, Lucien. How have you ended up working in situation comedy - rather than starting your own Youtube channel, doing stand-up or writing on panel games?  Were there particular shows growing up that influenced this?

I've been obsessed with sitcoms since before I could understand most of the jokes. I think it was Frasier repeats on Channel 4 that got me hooked -- when I was thirteen, I wrote my own Frasier spec script and posted it to NBC. No reply. Still bitter about that. And The Simpsons was huge for me. As long as I can remember, I've been watching films like The Godfather, Cape Fear and The Shining, and realising I already knew the four-fingered, yellow version.

What is it about the form that attracts you to it?
I guess what's exciting is that sitcom is infinitely elastic, but also has a strong underlying structure to guide you. Broadly speaking, you know that your characters are going to enter a strange situation, which will build and build in craziness, before some sort of resolution that takes them back to (roughly) their original state. But how that situation develops and resolves is completely up to you. So a really good sitcom can manage to be comfortingly familiar and thrillingly weird at the same time.

How did you end up working on Siblings? What was your involvement initially? How did you generate story ideas? Did you pitch into other episodes?

Siblings was created by the exceptional writer Keith Akushie, who I've known since university and worked with on sketches, and in Edinburgh. I'd also had meetings with Bwark, the production company who make Siblings and The Inbetweeners, so they'd read some of my scripts. When BBC Three commissioned the show, based on Keith's pilot, Bwark brought in Daran Johnson, Joe Parham and me to help with ideas for the remaining five episodes.

During these writing days, we operated a lot like a US team-written show, with Keith as Head Writer. We would all come along with rough premises and talk them though as a group. Then, if one seemed particularly exciting, we'd flesh it out, getting more and more specific and coming up with scenes and then the beats within those scenes. Because we had Keith's pilot script in front of us, we had a strong idea of what the main characters (Dan and Hannah) were like, and the general tone of the show.

I'd argue massively in favour of the team-written approach. Aside from the obvious advantage of having more minds on any problem, you also find yourself collectively coming up with ideas that none of you would've had individually. And, as Head Writer, Keith was able to guide the creative process and make sure the results had his own distinctive tone.

Plus, it's way more fun being in a room with funny people and going for burritos at lunch than it is writing on your own, wrestling with a sense of inadequacy and trying not to look at Facebook every five minutes.

I guess you had to produce (or co-write) a detailed outline of an episode. How was that? Had you done it much before? What was harder or easier than expected about this bit of the process?

By the end of our team-writing weeks, we had five detailed 'beat sheets' from which to develop outlines for each episode. Keith took two of them and the remaining three were split between Joe Parham, Daran Johnson and me. The outlines (which came to roughly 20 pages) were then sent to BBC Three for notes before we started our first drafts.

The time we'd spent talking the stories through as a room meant that, producing your outline, you had a heap of material to draw upon, which was ideal. The trickiest part of writing an outline is it's tough to explain, in theory, why something's going to be funny. That's also the best thing about outlines: you can't hide behind gags when a scene doesn't justify itself structurally. If you can make a fairly straightforward description of what's going to happen in each scene entertaining, you know you're going to have a better time writing that first draft. I'll always do a pretty detailed outline before starting my own pilot scripts.

What was it like writing the first draft? How long did it take? Did you find some scenes or beats just didn’t work when you came to write them? What did you do to fix them?

By the time I did my first draft, I'd already produced a detailed outline, and had our ideas from the room to work with. So I'd say I spent about a week on it. I generally find it's best to devote a lot of time to planning, then come up with the actual draft as quickly as possible. It helps keep things fairly natural and fresh, and often the first idea to pop into your head is the funniest. Then you can go back and polish.

The stuff that needed fixing was mainly structural -- for instance, when there were two scenes doing the work of one. If I feel uneasy reading a scene back, that's usually because it's not pushing the story forward, and I've tried to paper over the cracks with jokes/weirdness. Most of the time, the solution is to return to the outline and make sure every part justifies its place in the wider story.

What was it like getting notes?
I guess, deep down, every writer wants to be told they're a beautiful genius who can do no wrong and should be working less hard, if anything. Notes inevitably go against this, so you never exactly relish them.

That said, the ones we got on Siblings were really useful and attuned to the show's sensibility. You're going to want to do a second draft anyway, so obviously it's better to do that with feedback from smart people who spend all their time thinking about comedy. Writing for TV is collaborative and notes are a vital part of that collaboration.

And even if you disagree with a specific note, it can still raise questions that end up being massively helpful to the script.

Did you have to cut favourite jokes/beats/moments?
I don't remember having to lose anything particularly painful at the scripting stage, though a bunch of stuff went during editing (which sort of functions as a final redraft).

They made absolutely the right calls -- pace is 100x more important than preserving every punchline you're proud of -- but there are certain lines I miss. When three minutes need to be cut, you can't get around the fact that exposition is necessary and individual jokes aren't. I guess the solution is to make your exposition as funny as possible.

How many drafts did you do?
Once I'd submitted my first draft, it was sent to Keith to do his pass. We then went over it together a few times to arrive at the final shooting script. Which was fun and a great way to avoid comedy writer tunnel-vision.

Were you around much for the filming?
I spent an unjustifiable amount of time on set -- tried to be there on most of the days they were filming my episode, and on special occasions like the wheelchair basketball match. The experience was genuinely thrilling to me. It's so surreal to see some weird idea you and your mates blurted out a few months ago has been brought to life by a team of exceptionally talented professionals. I felt this most profoundly when they brought in the hydraulic dildo machine for episode four.

Also, I was able to help with a couple of on-set line tweaks, though obviously you can't go crazy with that, given the colossal time pressure everyone's under.

Overall, how has this experience changed you as a writer? Essentially, what did you learn - and what do you feel you still need to learn?
Being in the Siblings writers' room has definitely affected my approach. We're constantly discussing tone, characterisation, what makes jokes work, and examining story structure from every angle. So I've learned a lot from that. Most of all, it impressed upon me how helpful it is to have a really solid outline before you start Draft One. Also, going on set and finding out more about the technical side of making TV has been really useful.

What I love about writing sitcom is that it's an endless challenge -- every time you learn something, it makes you realise how much more there is to know. One thing I want to focus on in future is how to build a small story into something crazy, while keeping every step believable and taking the audience with you.

Lucien, thank you. When you are wealthy and successful with your own hit show, please offer me work.