Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Who is Geoff?

If you’ve just tuned in, I’m developing a sitcom on this blog, walking through the process, and showing how I go about things (have a look here and here). My way may not be the best way, and shouldn’t necessarily be your way, but it seems that people are finding this process useful. In some way or other.

The show is called Third Time Lucky, about a couple called Lynette and Geoff, who are marrying for the third time – and the second time to each other. This time, they reckon, it’s going to be different. They’re older. And wiser. And both hoping against hope that the other one can change. We know, or at least strongly suspect, that they are doomed.

They’ve probably got kids from their first marriage – and at least one of them from their second marriage. Who are they? How old are they? What stage are they at? I’ve no idea. Right now, the important players are Geoff and Lynette. Who are they?

One thing to bear in mind, even at the start, that you don’t want characters who are ‘sometimes a bit this’ or ‘occasionally a bit that’. No. We want clear simple characters at first. We need to work out what the engine of each characters is. What drives them forward? Maybe we want a bit of back story in our heads at least – and this show, given it’s about being married for the third time could easily be stuffed full of past moments, call-backs, regrets and recriminations. But we need forward momentum. Stories, not histories.

Rough Scenarios
But there are a few questions that need answers and we need a rough age for our lead characters. Or at least paint a couple of scenarios:

Let’s say they first married when they were both 25. Had a child at 27. Kept things together for the sake of their child. When the child went to uni at 18, they divorced. So they divorced at 45. I’ve just read online that if people remarry after a divorce, it tends to be after three years. So, let’s say Geoff remarries at 48. Maybe to someone younger. Or unsuitable in some way. But the marriage is a disaster. They divorce when Geoff is 53. He meets Lynette again 55. And they remarry. So that puts Geoff at mid-to-late fifties.

When does the show start? When is the first ep set? When they meet again? When they remarry? Two years into the remarriage? No idea. Maybe their wedding day would be a good place to start.

So Geoff could be 55 and thinking about early retirement. He could be an ex-copper and already retired (now doing private consultancy/security work). This doesn’t feel like a work-place sitcom, so he should either be retired from work – and active in some other way, eg. Social club, neighbourhood watch, parish council – or all of the above. Or he should be working from home, ideally from his kitchen table. Or he’s still a plumber, and he goes out and does that. And we never see it. But something tells me Geoff is not a plumber. He might be an ex-copper.

The good thing about this scenario is there are lots of brilliant, established, funny actors in their 50s. Especially actors or comedians who would work well in front of a studio audience, which is what I hope this show will be. Casting an exciting Lynette or a Geoff will not be very hard.

What’s more, any children they have will be in their 20s, so there’s scope for a really decent casting there and you might end up with another Kris Marshall on your hands. That'd be good.

The alternative scenario, which on the surface is less attractive, is that Geoff and Lynette married at 18. Maybe Lynette was pregnant and it was a bit of a shotgun wedding. Although is that a thing these days? People don’t care about that stuff any more do they. Either way, they marry at 18. Divorce at 28. Remarry at 32. Divorce again at 40. And then remarry each other at 45. For some reason, I just don’t buy that sequence of events. It actually feels rather sad. There may be a way of making that work, but I’m not sure what it is.

Also, the show is about people set in their ways, and how people are overly optimistic that other people will change – and that they’ll be Third Time Lucky. So I’m going with the first scenario and that rough timeline. Geoff and Lynette are mid-to-late fifties.

So Who Is Geoff?
To be honest, I haven’t really been thinking about him specifically, but after a while I realised that subconsciously I have been.  A few different things have triggered a thought about Geoff being a technophile. An early adopter.
Yes. Minidiscs were very nearly a thing.
Geoff has one of these. Obvs.

Let’s think about what that looks like for a man born in about 1960. No VCRs, no mobile phones, no answering machines – let alone internet. Therefore, we’ve got a guy who was entering the job market in the 1980s, when large top-loading VCRs were available at considerable expense. He bought an early enormous video camera. He probably bought a laserdisc player, and a minidisc player. Now he has a Blueray DVD player gathering dust because he’s all about the set-top boxes and live streaming. He has a massive TV.

Now, a word of caution here. People staring at screens and operating gadgets is not all that funny or televisual. So how does the technology help?

One bonus is that he’ll have grainy video footage of past family events in the 80s, 90s and 00s that might come in handy. And he’ll be constantly wanting to install burglar alarms and security systems that electrocute him and get him arrested. That sort of thing.

It’s also worth asking why has he got all these gadgets – and he’s still got them, and the original boxes and instructions in a loft or a lock-up. Is he a bit of hoarder? There’s been lots of docs about hoarders but no comedies…. Why does he keep buying the latest technology. Is it about status? “I can afford the latest things”?

No, I think the technology is a tangible illustration of his optimism. He thinks that the next gadget, the next device or platform will be the one that really makes his life better – and for those around him. He’s optimistic about the future – and that’s really what the show is about. And we’ve got a central character who’s got tangible objects that embody his optimism (even though they are relics of the past.)

So, get ready for Geoff. He’ll be along soon. Once he’s worked out how to reboot his phone which has his diary on it which tells him when we were meant to be meeting. But when he arrives, you may laugh that his technology has actually made him late, but he had a palm pilot back in the day and he said those things were the future and, in a way, he was right. There’s always just enough evidence that his optimism is not entirely misplaced. Hello, Geoff. I think I'm going to like you.

But what does Geoff see in Lynette? Who is Lynette? We’ll be thinking about her next time.

If this sort of thing is interesting or useful, may I recommend my book, Writing That Sitcom? And you might also enjoy a two-day sitcom-writing workshop with me and Dave Cohen on 5th & 6th Nov 2015. Details on that here.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Third Time Lucky - Refining the Idea

On the last blog post, I kicked off an idea for a new sitcom called Third Time Lucky, a sitcom about a Geoff and Lynette who are getting married for the third time - the second time to each other. Someone left a comment which is quite interesting, which I'm going to comment on here:

Is the sitcom concept a little bit mushy though, to have them both madly in love with each other after having come through failed marriages? That’s a lot of heartache to just come out the other end of and be ready for more surely? Why not have them Geoff and Lynette be more cynical about love and relationships? Maybe they decide that love is unrealistic or not worth the effort. But companionship is something they both crave and, knowing they can enjoy each other’s company without all the expectations a normal marital relationship demands (sigh… :D) Geoff and Lynette should therefore be able to make their marriage of convenience work. They have each other’s company, separate rooms, they know each other’s ways and may even have grown up kids together. Perhaps the only tension is that they might actually start to have feelings for each other. Marriage in reverse? Then the arguments happen because they’re falling in love and don’t want the other to know. Or they are in denial. I imagine it’s been done though. Or it’s been tried and failed. Horribly. Discuss.

Okay, let's discuss that. It's an interesting proposition. A couple living together as a marriage of convenience for companionship. A few things to say about that:

1. Marriage of Convenience
A Marriage of Convenience as a central idea could well work. But that's a different show. And they don't need to have been married three times for that. Or even to each other. It could be that they made a pact that they've been friends for ever and to marry at fifty if they didn't marry anyone else. But overall, it's a quite different show tonally, because it's about boundaries within a marriage of convenience and it feels a bit downbeat to me. In the hands of another, such as the commenter above perhaps, it could be a thing of joy.

2. Is that a Movie?
Couples who live as couples but aren't supposed to fall in love feels like its been done in movies many times over. Lots of romantic comedies are marriages of convenience - a man and women thrown together by circumstance and they're not supposed to fall in love (eg. The Sure Thing) but do. Maybe because it feels like the idea won't sustain for years,and you're so desperate for them to admit their in love that the idea should last 90 minutes, rather than 26 episodes/13 hours or more. Again, I can't prove this - or anything, but that's my gut reaction.

3. Is that a Thing?
Couples who marry for companionship and live separate lives - does that actually happen? Is it a thing? Feels like the sort of thing some people might do, but they'd both be fairly odd fish (and cold fish). In my idea, I'm going for the mainstream audience and trying to create a situation that is identifiable. Again, nothing wrong with unusual situations. I've written sitcoms set in Afghanistan and Bletchley Park. But this time, I'm trying to keep it simple and identifiable.

4. Long-Term Sustainable Chararacters
A couple who are realistic about how hard it is to live together, who draw up boundaries, etc probably have too much self-awareness to be sustainable long term sitcom characters. I'm really drawn to the idea that they re-marry saying 'this time it'll be different', because, sadly, that's what people do. They do the same thing again and again and expect a different result, but don't get it. That seems like a more truthful comic situation to me, and a more fruitful one. So I'm going with it.

So Now What?
Thank you for the comment, though. It helps me define my idea against it. Anything that does that is a good thing. So what's the lesson?

Amusing Picture of Horse Because Pictures Break Things Up
Talk to one or two trusted people about your idea. They will inevitably start to pick holes in it, or pull a face at a certain point that betrays what they really think. And you will leap to defend your idea. In so doing, you may find out what you really do like about the idea, and that's a good thing.

Equally, the idea may fall to bits and prove indefensible or uninteresting. That's a good thing too because you've been spared the labour of flogging a dead horse. Or at least a horse you're not interested in.

Sitcom is so hard, and takes so long to get anywhere, you have to be passionate about the idea. And confident you can write it. That's why writing cynical ideas that you think might get bought is such a bad idea - because they may well get turned down anyway and you've spent all that effort on something you didn't even like.

You will fail. I do, almost all the time. But fail well with something you're prepared to go down clinging too. Too bleak? Well, that's the world we're in folks.

I hope that was useful. Dave Cohen and I talk about stuff like this on our podcast, but also it's much better done in person. So why not consider coming to our sitcom workshop on Thursday 5th and/or Friday 6th November 2015 in London? Dave and I will be there taking you through the stage of creating, plotting and writing sitcoms, and people seem to like it. Go here for more info and reviews.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Developing a Sitcom From Scratch

On this blog – and my book – I’ve written a lot about set-up, characters, story and plot. Whilst I try to provide examples from both my own work and existing shows on TV and Radio, it’s hard not to be wise after the event. So, for the next series of blog posts, that may go on for weeks or months, I’m going to start a sitcom from scratch here on the blog. As I do so, I'll talk about the decisions that I’m making all along the way, and what’s in my mind as I make them.

The big question is what’s the sitcom going to be about? To be honest, what I've outline below is the first idea that popped into my head and it seems as good as any for illustrative purposes. It may turn into a real show one day. Who knows?

I’m not too worried about anyone stealing it for a number of reasons. Firstly, these blogs are timed and dated, so if anything came of it, I wouldn’t struggle to prove it was my idea. Secondly, ideas are not copyrightable, especially not the one I’ve just come up with. It’s all in the execution. And thirdly, and most depressingly, most ideas, even stolen ones, don’t get made into TV shows, so I’m probably not really losing out anyway.

The good thing is I have a title. I always say that if the title doesn’t turn up at the very beginning of your show, you’re never going to think of one you’re happy with. This sitcom is called Third Time Lucky. I like it because it’s a phrase people say (a bit), it trips off the tongue, it describes the show, at least superficially, and it isn’t a pun.

What’s it about?
A married couple. I’ve called them Geoff and Lynette. And this is the third time they’ve been married. They're hoping this will be third time lucky.

But this is the second time they've been married to each other. So they got married in their late twenties, got divorced, then remarried someone else. Then those marriages ended (maybe one divorce, one bereavement), and they got back together and, in a bit of a whirlwind, decided to get married. Again.

At least that’s what I'm thinking, at this early stage. If they’ve been married to each other before, rather than this just being a third marriage, that gives them a lot of shared history, regrets and unresolved rage. Now that could all be backstory and, as I keep saying on this blog, backstory is death. How do we make the show forward looking? That comes in asking the next crucial question:

What’s it really about?
Dave Cohen and I talk about this on our first Sitcom Geeks podcast, so do have a listen to that. But what is Third Time Lucky really about? At this stage, it’s hard to be sure, but I think the fact they’ve been married to each other before is crucial here. Why? Because the marriage didn’t work before. Why do they think it’s going to work now? Are they older and wiser, or just more deeply entrenched in their ways? That's the question.

The reason I write sitcom is because I think it’s an accurate, albeit heightened, representation of real life. And in real life, people don’t change. You end up having the same conversations with the same people over and over again. What do we need to learn? We need to learn to come to terms with the fact that people don’t change. Even our nearest and dearest. They don't change. And we can't change them.

Geoff and Lynette, then, both think they are able to change, and that the other is about to change, and that they can change each other, but each week, they have to come to terms with the fact that they are who they are. And marriage is about accepting each other. Or something.

Bits of Dialogue
At this point, a bit of dialogue can be really useful, just so you start to hear something of the show. You're trying to glimpse a bit of the statue you're carving out of the marble. So when I was thinking of these characters, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor popped into my head. The hottest couple in the world got divorced and then famously remarried each other. I imagined Geoff and Lynette thinking how romantic that was and telling someone about it, possibly one of their sons.

Son: So you’re marrying each other again? 
Geoff: Yep, we’re like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. 
Geoff gives Lynette a squeeze and peck on the cheek. Son winces. 
Lynette: Yes, just like them. Isn’t it romantic? 
Son: Kind of. (beat) You know they also got divorced again? 
Lynette: Ha, ha. No they didn’t? Did they? Well, we’re nothing like that. 
Geoff: No. Nothing like them.
That feels funny to me, and briefly encapsulates their self-delusion. It feels like we’ve made a start. What I need to make sure of, though, is that I don't cling on to that dialogue and formulate the characters around a couple of throwaway jokes. But the point is, I'm now interested which, given this is my sitcom, is rather important.

What’s Next?
Now I have my working hypothesis on what this show could be about. But I need to dig into Lynette and Geoff a lot more before I make any more rash statement about what Third Time Lucky is really about. It’s only when I’ve done that that I can work out where they’re going to live and therefore what the situation in my comedy is. Has one moved in with the other? Is it their original marital home? A new home they’ve just bought together to make a fresh start? It’s much easier to get into the heads of the characters before pinning down where they live and how this reunion came about and, most importantly, what's going to happen every week.

From Constant Hot Water
I need to keep thinking about my two leads rather being distracted too much by kids, step-kids, parents and wacky neighbours. Those all come later. I need to be asking myself if there’s show in Geoff and Lynette.

There are lots of other questions to be answered. How old are they? Are they still working? Do they have kids? Have they started a business together? My worry is that if they have, and they’ve started, say a bed and breakfast, then it looks like a sitcom about a bed and breakfast. Or worse, becomes a sitcom about a bed and breakfast. (And let’s face, Constant Hot Water already nailed that.)

Other Notes at this stage
I nearly called Lynette ‘Sam’, short for Samantha. Here’s why I didn’t. Before this is a TV show, it is going to be a pilot script, which has to be read by someone who is tired, busy and possibly finds reading boring. So I want to make the character names as easy to grab onto as possible. I don’t want any confusion, like thinking Sam is a man. So I’ve called her Lynette, which also begins with a different letter from Geoff which, in turn, is an unmistakably male name.
Watch out. Series 9 has a PG rating...

Also the names indicate they are not in the twenties or thirties, but their fifties, or possibly older.

In my head, this is going to be a mainstream studio audience show because that’s what I can write, have experience of writing, like writing and, crucially, is where the opportunities are.

So, I’m thinking of this in terms of Terry and June for the baby-boomers. Fresh Fields Revisited. George and Mildred Reloaded.  Now there’s something you don’t hear very often. Watch this space.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Why My List of Top Ten American Sitcoms Is A Bit More Complicated Than It Sounds

A few weeks ago, I posted details of my favourite British sitcoms of all time. These are not shows that I necessarily think are technically the best, or most popular, but shows which I love, highly rate and made a lasting impact on me. My favourite is Yes, Prime Minister.

I thought about doing the same with American sitcoms, but realised this isn’t as straightforward as it seems for many reasons. The first is that my list isn’t very original. The shows I like and admire the most, and that have shaped me and my thinking about situation comedy, are pretty much the same as everyone else’s: Friends, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development and my favourite of all American sitcoms, Seinfeld. And what can I say about these shows that hasn’t already been said? Not very much.

The other problem is that my judgment on American sitcoms is very patchy and affected by my circumstances, age and what British TV channels chose to import in the last forty years.

There are loads of classic sitcoms I don’t think we ever got here in the UK, like Murphy Brown, Family Ties and All in the Family. (The latter was based on Til Death Do Us Part, which was a British show anyway). And there are classic sitcoms that were just before my time and may well have been repeated in UK but I never saw them, like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners,The Bob Newhart Show and Soap.

Then there are classics that I first saw when I was too young to fully appreciate them, like M*A*S*H, Cheers and Taxi. And then there were sitcoms that I liked because they were on and I was young and fairly easily pleased, so that would include shows like Perfect Strangers, Head of the Class and Different Strokes. Included in that should be Golden Girls, The Cosby Show and Happy Days, which I’m pretty sure are important shows and classics. But would they make it into my top ten? I’m not sure. Maybe.

Then there are sitcoms that were perfectly enjoyable and I really got into and happened to catch me at time when I watched a lot of TV and a UK channel decided to broadcast it. Like Caroline In The City. Yes. I really got into the will-they/won't-they unrequited love storyline of Caroline in the City. What of it?

Then there are other shows that looked good but I never got into them like Spin City, Mad about You, and My Two Dads.

Then there are the sitcoms I really like now, but have no idea if they’ll stand the test of time and be deemed classics like Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99 and The Goldbergs. I also love Modern Family, which I’m pretty sure is going to be deemed a classic, so should that be on my list? Probably.

Then there are the sitcoms that I liked, but stopped watching when they seemed to lose their way, like Scrubs and Roseanne. And then there are the sitcoms that everyone else seems to rave about but have somehow never done it for me, like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Community. And what about the sitcoms that I enjoyed enough to watch in their entirety, like My Name Is Earl and 30 Rock?

So, what shows remain? One is a comedy drama, which, if we’re being technical about thing probably isn’t a sitcom: The Wonder Years. There was a show that just nailed a stage of life – being a kid in an adult world. All the while I was watching when I was fairly young myself, I was aware that this show was a class act. But it’s not a sitcom. So it's not on the list.

Then there’s The Simpsons. Is that a sitcom? Yes. It must be, but it hardly seems fair putting it on this list because it’s been hailed, for good reason, as the best TV show of the 20th Century. But it’s an animation. And given there are no rules and it’s my blog, I’m excluding it.

So what’s left?

The Phil Silvers Show aka Bilko. Much unloved and overlooked in the USA, but broadcast by BBC2 in the 1980s and 1990s in the daytime. The show is an astonishing mix of great writing, pacey directing and a central performance that may have been equalled, but never better: Phil Silvers as the grasping, gambling, slippery but loveable Sergeant Bilko. So lovable, he became Top Cat. And was this a boutique show? Distilled brilliance that couldn’t be rushed, like the 24 episodes  of Blackadder? (18 great episodes if we’re being honest about Series 1)


They made 142 episodes of Bilko. 142 episodes in 4 years. FOUR YEARS. From 1955 to 1959. (Winning three consecutive Emmys for Best Comedy Series in the process) That’s 60-odd years ago. And it’s still funny. Really funny.

Okay, then. Since we're here, let’s just knock out a top ten of my favourite American shows in no particular order: Friends, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development, Seinfeld, Modern Family, Cheers, MASH, The Phil Silvers Show and, what the hell, Caroline in the City.

Yes. Caroline in the City. Deal with it.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Writing the Pilot

In the latest Sitcom Geeks podcast, we talk about writing the pilot episode. I talk about stuff that I also cover in my book, Writing That Sitcom.

Here's an extract:

Your sitcom pilot is the first episode, and it contains the First Act of your show. The only question is how long you want the set-up to last. There are a number of schools of thought on this whole issue about how ‘set-uppy’ the pilot episode should be. So let’s look briefly at the options available for the ‘set-uppy-ness’ (‘expositionality’?) of your pilot episode:

The Whole Episode Set-Up
A character wakes up one morning and decides he’s going to do something different. He’s going to move to the country. She’s going to quit and start her own business. They’ve lost everything and have volunteered to be the first settlers on the moon. Or, in the case of The Good Life, for example, you turn forty and wonder if you’re just a cog in a machine. In To The Manor Born, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton attends her husband’s funeral and loses her enormous house.

Back in the day, the BBC used to confidently churn out big sitcoms, often committing to eight episodes or more in the first series, so maybe they felt they could take their time setting up. Clearly, The Good Life and To The Manor Born have very watchable first episodes, but they are very set-uppy.

My instinct is that writers, especially inexperienced ones, can easily get hung up on this kind of pilot. They often worry about building the world and setting up characters. But I’m not sure you have time for that these days. You’re under quite a lot of pressure to get on with it. And that may be no bad thing. There are many dangers of a pilot episode that is strong on set up. You may well be establishing characters and settings that we never see again. If you’re a studio show, there might be lots of location shooting. Not ideal. Plus, you’re creating an episode which is going to be unlike all future episodes.

I would suggest two alternatives:

The Quick Set Up
In this kind of pilot, you set up the premise fairly quickly, maybe in the first third of the episode, and then spend the rest of the episode on a regular, but mini-episode. The best example of this I can think of is My Name Is Earl, in which Earl J. Hickey, a small-time thief, wins $100k on a lottery ticket and is immediately hit by a car (four minutes in) and watches the ticket blow away. In hospital, Earl’s wife Joy divorces him, and Earl hears about the concept of karma via the TV (six minutes in). He resolves to try to make up for all the bad things he has done and writes a list of 259 items (seven minutes in). At 07.25 his life quest is clearly stated: “That Karma stuff is clearly gonna kill me unless I make up for everything on that list.” Thirty seconds later, he picks an easy one off the list. Number 64: "Picked on Kenny James." Earl figures he needs to help Kenny to have friends. And we’re off. We’ve now got a 16 minute, mini-episode which will be a taste of the series to come. Brilliant. It hooked me and I watched every single episode (including the lousy prison ones).

The other option is:

The Newcomer
Someone arrives who changes everything. Or at least acts as a window on the world. This is quite useful in that you can explain stuff to the newbie, as Fletcher does to Godber in Porridge. Fletcher’s been transferred from another prison and Godber is new to the whole thing. It’s quite a common trick and can work well. In Ever Decreasing Circles, Martin Brice walks in and Paul is in the kitchen. Nothing will be the same again. In The Vicar of Dibley, a new vicar arrives in, er, Dibley. And it’s a woman. Shock, horror. In Miranda, Gary has returned. In Bluestone 42, a new Padre has arrived. And an American guy is shot in the head. In Hut 33, the Oxford Professor arrives.

You can combine the Quick Set Up and The Newcomer. For example, in Yes, Minister, Jim Hacker, the new Minister, has arrived at the Department of Administrative Affairs, and an episode plays out that beautifully sets the tone for the series.

What’s left? A couple more pilot options for those feeling brave:

The Opening Titles
Every week, the opening titles play – and you can make them work really hard for you. In fact, you can pack your show’s entire premise into the opening titles and forget pilots altogether. In fifteen seconds, you have all you need to know about the main character and situation of Veep. Graphs and headlines show that she ran for president but didn’t make it. So she’s vice president. The audience is smart enough to fill in the gaps, suspecting that it’s a bit of a non-job. Apart from that, there’s very little set-up in that show. Another example of this is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s all in the opening theme, rapped by the hero, Will Smith. Here's the slightly elongated version:

However you set up your premise in the pilot, reminding your audience of the headline idea week after week isn’t a bad idea. Even though the first episode of Arrested Development sets up the demise of the Bluth family, and how Michael ends up taking charge, it doesn’t hurt to remind people of this each week. My Name is Earl has a similar premise recap, as does Porridge.

The Show Title
Who needs explanation, set up and backstory when the title of the show says it all? My Family. It’s a family. Job done. Keeping up Appearances; dinnerladies; Men Behaving Badly. The central idea and theme is clear from the name of the show. The rest is detail.

A wiser and more experienced man than me (Paul Mayhew-Archer, in fact) says that if you want to know how to set up a sitcom, watch the first episode of Cheers. That’s good advice. Watch that. In fact, watch as many first episodes as you can. Shows you loved. Shows you hated. Sometimes, the first episode bares little relation to the show you remember, or came to love (or hate) – but usually all the key ingredients are there. They may just be a little undercooked.

To read the rest of Writing That Sitcom on Kindle or the Kindle App, click here or, if you're in USA, here. To listen to the podcast, click here.

To attend a two-day sitcom-writing course in November with me and Dave Cohen, click here.

My Top Ten Favourite Sitcoms and the Glaring Omissions

Anyone who's been looking at this blog over the last few weeks will know that I've been going through my favourite ten British sitcoms. These are not shows which I think are objectively 'the best', or most technically brilliant, although I'd argue that on some of them. They are shows which I've grown up with, fallen in love with or which have inspired me to start writing, or, more likely, try harder. I explain more here. So here are my ten favourite shows:

1. Yes, Prime Minster
2. Blackadder
3. Porridge
4. One Foot in the Grave
5. Hancock
6. Red Dwarf
7. Mr Don and Mr George
8. Black Books
9. Allo Allo
10. Bread

Yes. Bread. And there have been some glaring omissions. (I know. Glaring Omissions sounds like the kind of band a politician was in during their University days.) But no Fawlty Towers? No Only Fools and Horses? No Spaced? No Young Ones? NO HITCHHIKERS? NO DAD'S ARMY?! What on earth is going on?

I'm not sure which of those would make it into my Top Twenty. I'd certainly take Reggie Perrin, which was a huge hit in my household growing up, and frequently quoted. So sad to see David Nobbs' recent passing. I'd also take Rossiter in Rising Damp, which is majestic, and bears re-watching. Rigsby's pettiness and racism are written with brilliantly by Eric Chappell who also penned Only When I Laugh, which I really enjoyed for its simplicity. But then I also used to love Duty Free, Chance in a Million and Home to Roost but they're probably not Top 20 material, much as I liked at them at the time and can see their virtues.

A show that's improved with hindsight and my own aging is Ever Decreasing Circles, which is just brilliant, deranged and very special. And I've not even mentioned I'm Alan Partridge, which was hugely significant at a time when I was starting to get into comedy writing. And of course Fools and Horses would have to be in the Top 20. I'm not insane.

But Fawlty Towers? There are a couple of episodes I really enjoyed, the one with Mrs Richards most of all ("Is this a piece of your brain?"), and the one with the Germans, obviously. But overall, Fawlty Towers is just too farcical for me. It makes me want to curl up into a ball and block my ears. Also, if we're being mega-critical, the script doesn't serve Polly or Sybil well.

And Dad's Army? I admire it, but never found myself wanting to watch the endless repeats on the BBC. I always preferred It Ain't Half Hot Mum, especially the bits where Windor Davies shouts.

This could last for days, and ultimately won't get us anywhere. (Gah! I'd COMPLETELY forgotten about Dear John!) But what it is worth noting is how important sitcoms are; how dear to our hearts they become; how long we cherish them for; how many times we're able to watch them. TV Commissioners take note. Panel games do not have the same effect, must as I love Would I Lie To You?

One more thing. How many of these great shows are written by writers? Writers rather than writer-performers. Maybe there's nothing in this. Back in the day, writer-performers did sketch shows and variety show, not sitcoms so much. Eric Sykes was a rare exception. As is Fawlty Towers. I make this point here.

Writers don't give you a performance, but maybe they give you a greater chance at longevity or something more elusive and ethereal. Today, the majority of shows are at least co-written by the star: Bad Education, Man Down, Toast, Miranda, Mrs Brown, Not Going Out, Car Share, The Trip, Detectorists, People Just Do Nothing, Yonderland, Brian Pern, The Wrong Mans. I could go on. For a bit longer anyway. The Revs, the Peep Shows and the Uncles are rarer than ever.

As the Edinburgh Fringe get bigger every year and more and more producers attend looking for the next big thing, my worry is the writer-only talent is getting over-looked, but it needs nurturing and encouraging as much, if not more than, the writer-performer talent. That's what I'm taking away from this arbitrary exercise and blast of nostalgia. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

If you'd like to listen to me and Dave Cohen discuss comedy for half an hour as a podcast, I suggest you click here.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 1 - Yes, Prime Minister

The sixteen episodes of Yes, Prime Minister are, to me, perfect situation comedy. Because I’ve always been such a sitcom geek, whenever I watch any sitcom I sometimes get itchy and think that the writers have missed out a joke, or have let a weak scene get through, or there are plot holes that need fixing. I watch Yes, Prime Minister and my sitcom geek alarm never goes off. It powers down and goes into sleep mode. Because Yes Prime Minister is perfect.

I know some think that Yes, Prime Minister is a shadow of the original Yes, Minister series. I don’t see it that way. Yes, Minister is brilliant, but it can be a bit messy and ragged. Too many location scenes, which for some reason I always regard as a failure in studio sitcom writing. Plus Hacker’s original political advisor is really annoying and not funny, sucking energy out of every scene he’s in. The ‘dear lady’ in Yes, Prime Minister is much more fun.

The show has two perfect characters – an odd couple – who lock horns every week. Hacker is the Political Will versus Sir Humphrey, the Administrative Won’t. They both think they’re doing the right thing as they see it, trying to change things for the better, or preserve things as they are. But Hacker is too worried about his popularity. And Sir Humphrey too obsessed with the Civil Service staying big, slow and magisterial. So they are perfectly calibrated for maximum comedy conflict.

Stuck in between is the delightful Bernard, who sees both sides and pulled in both directions, and sometimes has to be set straight by Sir Humphrey. Like this:


And that’s about it. You have other characters, like Arnold or Mrs Hacker, and the occasional guest like one of my favourites, Sir Desmond Glazebrook. But mostly it’s a two hander, where the one with the upper hand changes each week.

The show has characters as strong as Hancock’s Half Hour, is plotted as brilliantly as One Foot in the Grave, has the distilled perfection of Porridge and glories in the English language and has all the set pieces like Blackadder (see below). It’s a masterpiece that continues to inspire me. One day I hope to write something that might even be half as good.

So that's my Top Ten. I'll write another blogpost about glaring omissions like Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army, and Only Fools and Horses. But this is a list of my Ten Favourites, not necessarily the best, most successful or well-respected. It just so happens Yes, Prime Minister is the best.

For help in getting the sitcom from your head into a pilot script, have a look at Writing That Sitcom. To listen to a podcast about all things sitcom, called Sitcom Geeks, go here. And to do a two-day sitcom-writing course with me and Dave Cohen in November (Not Going Out, Horrible Histories), go here.


Oh, alright then. Here are some more clips. Here's one with just the three of them. Wonderful:

And a superb set-piece scene about who reads the different newspapers.