Wednesday, 27 January 2016

When Is A Sitcom Not A Sitcom?

When Is A Sitcom Not A Sitcom? When it's a Movie.



At the moment, there's lots of press about the Dad's Army film, which I have not yet seen. I make no comment on that film in particular. The reviews already seem to be very mixed, but that doesn't mean a whole lot.

It is, however, worth thinking about why movies based on sitcoms tend not to work, or at least not satisfy. Clearly they can work, or at least be extremely profitable in the case of The Inbetweeners and Mrs Brown's Boys. But it's a tall order.

To help us think why, let us consider for a moment the Fiat Panda 4 x 4.

Yes. There is a variety of Fiat Panda which is designed to go off-road. See pic.

Yep. And off-road Fiat Panda.
Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that is literally insanity on wheels. The Fiat Panda is a small urban run-around car, perfect for parking in tight spaces and keeping the bills down. And if I'm driving one around Hounslow or Hampstead, I'm not thinking to myself, "I wonder how this thing would cope off road." Nor would I be wondering how to turn this dinky little thing into some kind of Landrover.

But someone did think that. And they worked for Fiat. And they created the Fiat Panda 4x4: The small urban runaround that can hack steep hills and muddy meadows.

I mention this because it reminds me of the sitcom/movie divide.

Sitcoms are not movies. Movies are not sitcoms.

And it's not entirely clear why you would want to turn a sitcom into a movie (eg. Porridge, Rising Damp, On The Buses, Inbetweeners, Bad Education, Alan Partridge with Ab Fab to come). Or a movie into a sitcom (see M*A*S*H, which was originally a book. Or The Odd Couple, which was originally a play).

Okay, I do know the real reason: money. A successful British sitcom makes you comfortably wealthy for a while, but not mega-rich. A runaway box-office smash like the Inbetweeners means that someone could probably buy a nice big house, the type with crunchy stones on the driveway. (That person may or may not be the writer of the movie, but that's a question for another time).

But here's problem: The sitcom and the movie are completely different beasts.

The sitcom is the dependable urban runaround: a recognisable world with regular characters who make the same mistakes every week and always end up back where they started, so you can do it again next week. And every week.

The movie is the weekend off-road adventure: a character leaves their familiar recognisable world to go on a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of discovery, in which they are fundamentally changed and nothing will ever be the same again.

Can you spot the differences is there?

The two do not go hand in hand. They can barely even touch each others' hands, so far apart are they. And it also explains why the standard sitcom movie is 'Our regular characters go on holiday and have an amazing adventure' like you get in The Inbetweeners or On the Buses or Bad Education, or there's a big event like a hostage situation, as in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

You get a similar dynamic with TV sitcom Christmas Specials, which try to scale up, so they normally take the characters away to another place where extraordinary things happen (only made for a quarter of the money and usually watched by more people).

This is also part of the discussion about why 'last ever episodes' are so tricky to get right. And why the last episode of Peep Show was, for me, bang on the money. And the last episode of Seinfeld, my favourite show of all time, was bafflingly misjudged. More on that another time.

I'm not saying the sitcom movie is doomed to failure. It can work. It can bring delight to an audience. (I enjoyed Alpha Papa, especially the second time) It can make money. I'm just saying that turning a sitcom into a movie is like turning a Fiat Panda into an off-road vehicle.

But you know what? It looks like Fiat pulled it off. Top Gear magazine gave this ludicrous machine eight out of ten. But even they acknowledge this success is a surprise.

For slightly more specific, practical of writing on sitcoms, rather than movies, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Why There’s Not ‘Too Much TV’ (And What There's Not Enough Of)

“There’s too much TV” is a phrase we’ve been hearing a lot recently. It was most famously said in August last year by John Landgraf. He is the CEO of the FX networks, which brought us The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, The League and It’s Always Sunny In Philedelphia. And when a big, successful TV exec like that says it, people notice. FX didn’t step back from this statement. They counted up all the scripted shows on TV in America in 2015 and counted “409 dramas, comedies and limited series across broadcast networks, basic and pay cable and OTT services”, according to Deadline.

Now on the various podcasts I listen to and in the media articles I read, again and again comes the refrain from Americans and Brits alike: ‘Argh! There’s Too Much TV!’

It’s a golden era of TV, apparently. It’s too golden. Gold is heavy. And too shiny. It’s getting me down. Stop all this heavy shiny stuff. It’s too much.

As you can probably tell, all this talk of ‘too much TV’ has been bugging me. And it’s also been bugging me that I didn’t know why it was bugging me. But I think I’ve worked it out. The claim that there’s ‘too much TV’ is flawed for a number of reasons.

1. There’s Been Too Much TV For Decades

It’s just lots of it has been cheap, lousy and boring or trying to sell us stuff.

Let’s take a step back. I’m 40. I can just about remember when Channel 4 started. Until then, there were only three channels. But that’s already ‘too much TV’, as you can’t watch more than one thing at a time. The problem was the quality. There was lots of great stuff on, like Civilisation and The Living Planet and Porridge, and hey, let’s include Tenko. But there was lots of dull stuff.

And then came Sky. And Channel 5. And cable. Freeview. Freesat (seriously, who has that?) with hundreds of channels available, pumping out reruns of stuff no-one wanted to watch in the first place, cheap documentaries and infomercials. You couldn’t watch all of it. You wouldn’t want to. But there was already too much of it.

Now the economics have changed. For a variety of reasons, TV has become cheaper to make and distribute. Cheap TV still looks cheap, but you can make £120k go a long way these days. We made Bluestone 42, which looks pretty expensive, for less than £300k an episode. Back in the 1980s it would have cost a lot more and would not have looked half as good.

Plus there is greater investment in TV as Controllers, Commissioners, Bankers and Financiers are realizing that TV can be sold globally and make serious money. So, we can make more TV for less money. But there’s actually more money. And so loads more TV. Now, there may be too much TV for everyone to make money, but that’s a slightly different thing.

2. There’s Been Too Much Decent TV For Decades

And you could always get hold of it if you really wanted to.

The offerings of BBC1, BBC2 and ITV may have been uninspiring on occasions. Or maybe you didn’t like Rumpole of the Bailey or Howards Way. But you had alternatives. Even by the mid-eighties, video recorders were pretty common, and you can record decent TV, or buy TV shows on VHS. Or rent them. There was already lots of choice. Instead of watching what was on TV, you could watch Brideshead Revisited, Blackadder or Jeeves and Wooster.

And then came the DVD and a booming economy. DVD sales were through the roof. And then rentals soared with Netflix, which, in time, became a streaming service. Plus there’s, iTunes, Youtube, Amazon and Hulu.

That’s a lot of TV.

But there was always too much. And there were always options to watch something good. And in the UK, at least, despite the lazy claim that ‘there’s never anything on TV’, most people have had access to too much TV for at least thirty years.

So, what’s new? Not a lot. But why does this feel like a new problem? Why does the ‘There’s Too Much TV’ claim have resonance? It’s partly this, I think:

3. Why Do We Expect To Keep Up With All Decent TV?

How can they both look like Robert Reford?
There’s lots of moaning and groaning from people that they’ve not had time to watch True Detective or The Walking Dead.

But why the groans? It’s bizarre to hope that the world’s media will only produce just enough excellent content for one normal person to be able to watch in their spare time. Why do we have such an unreasonable expectation?

We don’t really apply this way of thinking to any other form of entertainment or culture, do we? I’d love to be able to watch all live Test Cricket involving England, full highlights of Premiership Rugby, Match of the Day, the NFL, IPL, all the major golf and tennis tournaments, plus some Formula One and Darts. But I can’t. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I work. And I have a wife and kids. But it would be odd for me to have a genuine industrial grievance that there’s ‘too much sport on TV’.

I’ve not got round to watching The Wire or Breaking Bad. They both sound brilliant. I’ve not watched them because I’ve got other things to watch (like Line of Duty and Parks & Rec) and a finite amount of watching time. And, you know what? I can live with the fact that I’ve not had time to watch Breaking Bad, allegedly the best TV show of all time.

I can also live with the fact that I’ve not had time to read some of the great books, ancient or modern. Gimme a list of the Top 100 books of all time – I won’t have read most of them. I’d like to. I can read. I love reading. But the fact that I’ve not read certain great books yet, or really good ones that are being currently produced is not a source for major complaint, surely?

But it’s not just that.

4. Maybe We’re Getting Better At Making TV. Is that so hard to believe?

If we accept that there’s always been a lot of TV, and that there’s now a lot of good TV, it might mean that we’ve got better at making TV. It shouldn’t be any big surprise. Every industry improves. Better cars are now made faster for less money. Aeroplanes are better, greener, cheaper to run and safer. Why should this not be the case with TV?

Maybe we’ve learned some lessons, improved our abilities at storytelling and TV production and the stuff that used to be indifferent is now decent. And the stuff that was decent is now excellent.

I'm not saying that we’re so smart that we know whether or not a show is going to be a hit. Of course we don’t. Nobody knows anything. Everyone knows that. But perhaps in the past some shows were cancelled because they sucked. Now maybe shows are being cancelled because nobody really wants to watch them. They were well made, well written and well storylined, well shot and well directed, and well edited and well scored. They don’t suck. They’re good. But nobody wants to watch them. Or at least, not enough people to make them viable, or worth continuing with. (eg. BBC2's brilliant The Hour) But sometimes, foreign sales or the desire for prestige or awards or monthly subscriptions might mean these show rumble along without much of an audience and become part of the ‘too much TV’ problem.

Except it’s not really a problem, is it?

Especially when you consider that in the same year in America that there were 409 scripted shows, there was also room for 750 reality shows. Yes. 750. And 350 of them were brand new. How is that even possible? In America right now, it seems to be increasingly difficult to avoid being on television. But the point is that there’s plenty of TV. There always has been. There always will be. Things might be getting better because TV professionals are, shock horror, improving their skills.

And bear in mind that if you miss a season of The Mindy Project or Hannibal, does it really matter? You didn’t read Hard Times, Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath either. And you only read The Great Gatsby because it was short. Get over it.

Here’s the problem. Or my problem, at least.

Okay, it’s an observation.

5. Most of This Decent TV Isn’t Comedy

How many of those 409 scripted shows were out-and-out comedies or sitcoms (like Brooklyn 99, The Goldbergs and Veep), let alone shows filmed in front of an audience? I’m sure you’ll think of some, but I suspect you won’t get to a hundred. You might not even make it to fifty. (I tried to get a break down of that 409 and failed).

It’s a similar story in the UK. There’s a bit of single-camera comedy that’s doing very well critically, like Catastrophe, The Detectorists and Toast. The mainstream stuff like Birds of a Feather, Still Open All Hours and Mrs Browns Boys is tolerated but largely ignored by the press because they’d rather gush about something much more nuanced, novel and likely to win an award.

But let’s bear in mind what the best performing show is on those channels that do nuanced and novel. BBC2, BBC4 and Channels 4’s highest rated show throughout 2015 has been… Dad’s Army reruns.
Moreover, let’s look at all the Christmas and New Year Specials and new series: Sherlock, And Then There Were None, War and Peace, Dickensian, Endeavour and so on.  Not much comedy unless you include Aardman's The Farmer's Llamas. And a drama about the making of Dad's Army.

So not only would I'd say there's not 'too much TV.' I'd also say there’s not enough sitcom.

But then I’m a sitcom writer looking for work. So I would say that.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Being a Better Writer

Another year clicks round and it’s time to look back.

Done that? Great. Let’s look ahead and consider how to be better writers in the coming year.

I’ve got to be honest (which is a good start to the year ahead). I don’t really know what makes a good writer, or what makes ordinary writers write well. All writers are different. But I do know that it’s very easy to become resentful and annoyed that the whole system seems to be against you. Getting a show on TV or the radio, or working on a show, or getting a foot in the door seems impossible. I feel that sometimes, I’ve had three series of my own show on TV in the last five years.

But these feelings are mostly negative and tend not to get you anywhere. If they spur you on to try harder, that’s fine to a point but don’t write to prove people wrong. Don’t write for the money. Or the vindication. There are lots of bad reasons to be a writer. (There are 8 HERE) Some people just like the idea of being a writer. According to YouGov, that’s the most desirable job. But lots of these people who express this wish don’t actually want to write. They just want to ‘be a writer’. Which is a very different thing.

Write because you want to. In fact, most writers I know write because they have to. If that’s you, the only useful resolution you can make is not ‘get a show on TV’ because you have very little control over that. All you have control over is your writing, your words on your pages expressing your ideas through your characters. So make a resolution to do that better.

So here are some thoughts and suggestions to that end. Maybe one of these ideas will help you raise your game in the following year.

1. Be Curious – Take an interest in the world around you. Decide to research something you’ve always wanted to know more about. Google it to start with. That’s fine. But then read some proper books on the subject. Find an expert and ask them questions. Find someone with experience and talk to them. Ask them to refer you to others. You never know where it could lead.

2. Read More Books – The internet is a false friend. It’s possible to feel well-informed without ever cracking the spine of a book. But there’s no substitute for reading books that tell proper stories, fiction or non-fiction. Or books about culture, sport, history, geography, science… with, you know, facts. One of the reasons I try to listen to Start the Week on Radio 4 is to hear a variety of voices and opinions, and then often I end up tracking down the books by those people I've heard. The last time I did that, I ended up reading Where Do Camels Belong? It was fascinating.

3. Be Older – Wanting to write is fine, but you need something to write about, so live life. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to write that magnum opus. Some people peak in their early 20s. They tend to be athletes and sometimes musicians. Writers tend to take a lot longer. Play the long game. Get married. Have kids. Start a business. Go on a journey. Do jury duty. Execute a will. Track down a relative. Meet your neighbours. Be a school governor. Stand for your Parish Council. Volunteer for a food bank. Then you’ll have something to write about.

4. Write Stuff Down – As you live your life, make a note of things that happen as you go, especially unique experiences or near misses. The very act of writing it down probably means you’ll never need to refer to it again. Then, when you’re trying to think of a sitcom plot in a particular area, you’ve got ready made anecdotes to draw on.

5. Watch Less TV – Life too short for Homes Under The Hammer or Bargain Hunt. Watch one or two. Fine. But don’t watch trash every day. Why would you watch a property show when you haven’t read Brothers Karamazov or The Koran?

6. Watch More TV – When you decide to watch TV, watch good stuff. And then realise how high the bar is. Watch the opening scene of The Newsroom and see how powerful words on the page can be. Be inspired.

7. Make Something Better – Take that script you’ve been working on and think is okay and make it as good as it can possibly be. Print it out. Make notes on it. Cut lines that you don’t need. Refine it. Sift it. And then…

8. Send It Off – Send it to a producer who makes stuff that you like (more HERE). Send it into a script competition. Or to the BBC Writers Room. Have someone read it.

9. Listen Carefully to Notes – If you can get anyone to read your script, think carefully about the notes they give you. They might be right. They might be wrong. But resolve not to be defensive and work out how this comments might make your script better.

10. Start Something New – While you polish up that existing script, starts something new. Something exciting. Something you simply can’t wait to write. And hopefully, that script you've sent out will get you a meeting, and then you've got something else to talk about.

11. Think Big – TV is more ambitious now that ever. Look at the scale of Game of Thrones or The Man in the High Castle. It’s always tempting to think of noodly little ideas in which you have just two characters and it’s all in one place and in real time, or something, but why limit yourself like that? I know you want to prove what a great writer you are, but those small situations are plays, not TV shows. You can go anywhere or do anything. Have some ambition.

12. Do Some Research – And once you have an idea, pursue it. Read about it. Talk to people. Be curious. See above.

There’s nothing here that’s terribly profound or clever. Sorry about. The big secret is that there are no secrets. It’s all about the imagination: thinking then reading then writing then re-writing until they tell you to stop.

For slightly more specific information of writing sitcoms, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

13 Rules of Sitcom

What are the golden rules of sitcom?

I’ve been asking myself this, because, well, I’ve been asked this recently. I’ve been working with some folk from a country where sitcom is not really a thing, apart from American and British imports. So I’ve been re-evaluating what a sitcom is and how they tend work. I made a list. I checked it twice (but I’ll bet there are still typos). But I thought it might make a good last blog post of the 2015.

These are not golden rules.

They’re not even silver rules. Maybe somewhere between silver and bronze. (Brilver?)

And some of them aren’t even rules, but merely ‘things that tend to work’. So this is Thirteen Brilver Things that Tend to Work.

It’s a bit of amalgam of stuff I’ve been writing about on this blog for ages. And some new stuff. And they’re in no particular order.

There are exceptions to these rules. Of course there are. The exceptions are  often good episodes because they go against the convention, but you couldn’t do it every week. Sometimes, however, they really don't work.

Oh, and I’m taking for granted that we all know my patented sitcom formula, that Character + Conflict + Confinement = Comedy.

Enough already! Let’s just start the list.

Rule 1: Your Characters and Situation Don’t Change

A sitcom is, to some extent, the same show every week. The same characters make the same mistakes. They don’t learn. They don’t change. Your character is not moving to Nepal, even if they talk about it for the whole episode. Your character won’t start listening to advice, even if the moral of the story is that the character should listen to advice. And even if though they do ‘learn their lesson’, they’ve forgotten by next week. In one sense, it’s more true to life than any art form.

Rule 2: You’ve Got 48 Hours!

Execs hated the idea of this episode
Sitcoms normally take place in a 24 to 48 hour time span. For some reason, three days feels too long, even if it’s a bit more plausible. It means that people end up throwing parties and giving people a few hours notice and they still turn up. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The audience implicit understand the compression of time because they're smart. And they've watched a lot of TV. The glaring exceptions to this timeframe are the episodes that are ‘real time’, like Miranda at the psychiatrist or Seinfeld, Elaine and George waiting for a table at a Chinese Restaurant.

Rule 3: Start Your Story ASAP

Given you’ve only got 48 hours, and about 32 pages, start your story as soon as possible. It’s amazing how many scripts I read which have the characters talk and talk and talk, but not actually do anything or even threaten to do anything until about page 14.  Give your main characters achievable goals as early as possible. Show who they are by having them do stuff.

Rule 4: Give your Characters HELL

Having given your characters achievable goals, make their lives an utter misery. Make the goals suddenly seem very far away or impossible. But don’t just throw your characters under a bus. Give your characters good reasons to go in completely the wrong direction - or step into the path of a bus. Give your main character characters conflicting goals. Ask yourself why this day of all days is the worst possible day to pursue that goal. And read THIS on the subject. And also read THIS brilliant blogpost by Chuck Wendig.

Rule 5: Keep it Simple

Stories can get very complicated very easily. Remember you’re writing comedy, not complex boxed-set drama. You want the audience to laugh. And if they don’t know what’s happening, or are struggling to keep up with the plot, they won’t laugh. And one of the mantras of this blog is that Confusion is the enemy of comedy. If you want brilliant clear plotting, watch The Goldbergs.

Rule 6: Don’t Get Caught by the Logic Police

Make sure every action taken by your characters has a good reason, rather just being a convenient contrivance. Everything must make sense to your characters at least. It undermines the alternative reality you're trying to build if the audience are saying 'No-one would ever do that'. Read more on that HERE. Having said that:

Rule 7: Go Big at the End

At the very end of the script, it’s surprising how far you can push things, even if they overstep the bounds of logic for a moment. This probably isn't your character doing something unbelievable, but more of a sequence of events which act as a topper to the main story. Your main character could walk into their living room after the big moment and find it full of mini-wind-up robots that were mention a while ago. How the robots were unpacked and wound up, we don't know but it's right at the end so it's probably fine. In the last two minutes, you can get away with an awful lot. Having said that:

Rule 8: No Coincidences

A chance event cannot solve your character’s big problem. It has to be something they or another character does, ideally at great cost to themselves, that gives you the resolution. You don’t want any new information in the last third of the show. Often, a good plot is resolved by having a regular character do something that was staring them in the face all along, but they – and the audience – just couldn’t see it at the time.

Rule 9: Avoid Outside Characters

Outside characters feel like they can be very exciting and funny, but the audience really don’t want to know about them. They just love the regular characters, so the only point in having outside characters is to make your regular character do funny things. Where possible, use your regulars. If your character wants to get fit, and hire a personal trainer, have someone we already know volunteer. It’s almost certainly going to be funnier. Sure you can build a big family of characters over time, but think about that on Series 3. In the meantime, there's more on this subject HERE.

Rule 10: Avoid Outside Locations

If you’re a studio sitcom, keep your location shooting to a minimum. You want as much of the action, and especially the denouement, to take place in front of the audience. You're filming a play, not a movie.

Rule 11: Make those First Lines Count

If you’re writing a pilot script, make sure the first line spoken by each of the main characters is really significant for that character, or tells us a lot about them. Given them a prop, or something to wear as well to reinforce that. How we first encounter them makes a deep impression, so make sure it’s the right impression. More on that HERE.

Rule 12: Be Brutal

Don't just be brutal on your characters. Be just as brutal on your script. Every line of your script should either be a joke, a character line or a plot development. Ideally it should be at least two of those three. Either way, once you’ve written your script, forget about it for a couple of days, then print it out and go through it with a pen, and cross every single line that isn’t a joke, a character line or plot development. You just don’t have room for those lines. And you’re better off with a tight 29-page script than a baggy 40-pager. I learned that the hard way HERE. Also there's more on polishing your script HERE.

Rule 13: Do What You Want

You can write about anything you like. Anything. This especially applies if you’re not a writer-performer. Your acting ability and persona are not integral to the piece so you can write about anyone, anywhere at any stage of their life and at any point in time. Make the most of that (more on that HERE) And don’t be persuaded by stories of what commissioners are looking for. Ultimately they’re looking for a show that’s funny. And that’s more likely to be the case if your write in your original voice about things you’re passionate about, rather something cynical and hacky.

Write the show YOU want to write, rather than a show you think you can sell. More on that HERE.

Maybe there should be rules on dealing with exposition (more on that HERE), story lining (HERE), and what to do with your script when you've written it (HERE and HERE). But 13 Brilver Things that Tend to Work is probably enough.

For lengthier explanations of all of the above, and more, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Why You Should Consider Writing for Radio

There is no doubt that TV is where it’s at. Every new TV sitcom that comes out is reviewed by all and sundry, generates a thousand tweets and opinions. The aspiring comedy writer could be forgiven for overlooking radio. But they’d be missing out on acres of opportunity.

The industry talks about radio shows being a testing ground for ideas. Quite a few began life on radio or were tried out there: Miranda, Little Britain, People Like Us, Goodness Gracious Me, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well as the old classics like Hancock. This is true, but in the first instance, I would urge people to see it as a great place to learn their comedy trade regardless of the future of any particular show or idea. Loads of writers spent many years in radio writing for shows like Weekending and The News Huddlines before going on to television.

I started writing as Weekending was drawing to close. That led to my writing the occasional sketch on The Way It Is, sharing a table with likes of Simon Blackwell, who’s gone on to write for The Thick of It, Peep Show and Emmy-winning Veep. We’re all trying to catch him up, but it’s not a competition (unless you make it one). Ideally, these shows give you friends and colleagues who work in the industry and you all go through it together. Some have found writing partners on these shows.

Then there’s the experience of getting some jokes on the show. Nothing can beat the buzz of hearing your material being broadcast to the nation – especially if you wrote the joke that week. And especially if the joke is actually funny. When you’re struggling to make an impact in the industry and scrape a living, you need all the boosts you can get.

A Great Place to Write
All the above is true enough. Radio is a great place to start. But I see radio as an end in itself. It’s a great place to work and write. It’s interesting that a number of writers come back to radio because of the creative freedom it affords. One notable example is Andy Hamilton – who wrote the wonderful Million Pound Radio Show with Nick Revell from 1985-1992. Then he had his monster Channel 4 hit Drop the Dead Donkey with Guy Jenkin – but came back to radio to do Old Harry’s Game and Revolting People, two shows that couldn’t really happen on television. And he did these while writing another monster hit for TV in Outnumbered.

What is it about radio that gets writers coming back to it? The medium itself is certainly intimate. If TV is like being yelled at, radio is like a pleasant side-by-side conversation. It’s more like reading a novel, where the pictures are in your head – and the special effects are so much better, and far more memorable for it.

The attraction may also be the business of writing for radio compared to television – where there are so many people in the way. In radio, it’s mostly you, the producer and a broadcast assistant. There aren’t too many execs or suchlike floating around making your life more complicated than it needs to be. The audience of two hundred or so will keep you honest on that front. And then there’s the cast.

A note here about casting, which is so much easier for radio, since radio recordings requires comparatively little rehearsal, no make-up and no line-learning. Assembling a really good cast is comparatively easy. Through radio, I’ve had the thrill of working with some superb actors who have significant profile. Apart from that, they have real experience and talent and can really lift the script with their performance.

The Script is King
Because the process is so pared back in radio, the script is everything. In television, the writer can feel like a small part in a big machine – and this can tempt one into thinking that the script is only part of the process. It isn’t. The script is king. Radio teaches you that in a hurry. There’s no hiding in radio – and so as a radio sitcom writer, you learn fast. If the show misfires, it's unlikely to have been a technical fault. Most likely, it's a script error, a string of duff jokes, a confusing plot turn or a badly defined character. In other words, it’s your fault.

In radio the scripting has to be so rigorous, because you can’t rely on cinematography or clever tricks to hide poor writing. So you should improve really quickly, standing you in good stead for when you do get that opportunity in TV. By the time Bluestone 42 was commissioned, I’d been writing half-hour script for radio for ten years, so I wasn’t over-awed by the task in hand. I was ready.

Land of Opportunity
BBC Radio 4 puts out comedy every week night at 6.30pm, and often at 11pm, and 11.30am. It’s at least 12 half hour slots a week, 52 weeks a year – to say nothing of the 200+ afternoon plays that are on every year, some of which you could write. It’s not like television where there might be two or three sitcoms on per week across all TV Channels, if you’re lucky. And everyone is scrapping for those few slots and budgets. On the radio, it always feels like you’re in with a chance if you have a decent script.

A Great Place to Fail
It sounds odd, but the fact that radio is lower in profile, as we said at the start of the chapter, is a good thing. It makes it a great place to fail. We all fail as writers – and even if the scripts seem funny and the cast seem right, the show might turn out to be a soupy mess. Success is all very fine and large, but failure is your friend. You learn through failure – humility as much as anything else, and that is no bad thing.

A while ago, I had a nice show running on Radio 4 called Think The Unthinkable, starring Marcus Brigstocke and David Mitchell, among others. I tried to get a new show up on its feet called The Pits, set in the fictional British Opera Company. It starred Paula Wilcox, Phil Cornwell, Lucy Montgomery and John Oliver. Yes. That John Oliver. I thought it was okay and could have developed into something – but Radio 4 didn’t like it. The press completely ignored it and it vanished without trace. Google it. You won’t find it. It’s not even on Wikipedia. But on TV the press, I’m sure, would have torn it to shreds.

Then again, it would never have happened on TV because there probably weren’t any slots, especially not for an elitist show about posh music.

So my advice is to think seriously about radio. Listen to it. There are loads of sitcoms on Radio 4 Extra HERE. At the time of writing, and given what's there at the moment, I'd especially recommend: Cabin Pressure, The Music Teacher, Old Harry's Game, Giles Wembley-Hogg and the truly joyous Bleak Expectations. But there's loads more.

This blogpost is drawn from my book about writing sitcom, cleverly entitled Writing That Sitcom - which in turn is based on this blog. You can buy Writing That Sitcom for the Kindle and Kindle App here.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Make the Most of Your Freedom

Blogging is easy. You write. You post. And it’s there for all the world to see, should they choose to. Access to the audience is free. There are no barriers. For some, this direct, open connection feels like the norm, and the way things should be.

But this arrangement is because blogs don’t really cost anything. The blogging software is free. I have a laptop and broadband. The only thing that this blog post is costing me is time, and possibly a little sleep. (It’s 11pm as type, and I should go to bed, really. I have meetings tomorrow).

Sitcoms, however, are not blogposts.

They cost money.

Lots and lots of money.

Round about £300k an episode if they’re being shot properly. You might be able to get that down if you’re creative or clever – or you don’t care if it’s badly shot or not funny – but sitcom is an expensive medium. If you’re making six episodes, that’s at least £1.5m being poneyed up right there. So people think hard before spending that kind of money.

Getting a sitcom on TV, then, is difficult.

This is exacerbated by the number of people trying to do it. And therefore failure isn’t just an option. It’s almost a certainty. Some sitcoms get through and get made. Of those that do, many don’t last. Either way, the chances of getting your sitcom on air are slender.

And so it seems frustrating that, for lowly writers, it doesn’t seem to be a level playing field. The latest crop of successful sitcoms are almost entirely by writer-performers. Peep Show, by Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong, is the exception. Although the stars are themselves writer-performers. But let’s just take the nominees for the Broadcast awards just announced: Car Share; Catastrophe; Detectorists; Inside No. 9; The Keith Lemon Sketch Show; People Just Do Nothing. All of these shows are by writer-performers. And on TV tonight as I type, is Josh, and Toast of London. Channel 4 also has Chewing Gum. And you can see reruns of Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Not Going Out on other channels.

If you’re not a performer, then, it can seem that odds are stacked against you getting your own sitcom on air. On the latest episode of the Sitcom Geeks podcast this week, we talk about the rise of the Writer Performer sitcom.

I’ve written about it before (HERE and HERE), so there’s no point in repeating myself. But to summarise, I’m not saying that commissioners shouldn’t have commissioned those shows. All those ones I’ve mentioned are loved, respected and enjoyed by enough people to tick the boxes. And you can see how a show with a strong, tried and tested central performance would appeal to a commissioner. Stand-up comedians who can play large venues have a following and give you an audience, at least at the start. They can go on the radio and Graham Norton and promote the show. And they're probably very good at comedy. It all makes complete sense.

I have also point out these shows still often need writers. Look at the credits and you’ll see lots of famous comedians regularly collaborate with other writers, and once a series gets going, there might be three or four other writers. Maybe more. So there’s work to be had, and a job to be done, even if there might not be a format to be owned.

Freedom. You get the idea.
But here’s the one advantage the writer has over the writer-performer. The writer can write about anything. Anything at all. Any one. Any time. Any place. Any where. You have freedom. FREEDOM! A stand-up comedian with persona built up over five years, or twenty years, of gigs and panel games is largely hostage to that persona. And that’s the persona the commissioner wants. They really don’t want to see that persona playing against type. Not initially, anyway. But as a writer, you should make the most of that advantage. You can write with ambition and passion, rather than your own acting ability or alter-ego.

Plus you have the freedom – FREEDOM! – to work on other people’s shows. And those shows don’t even all have to be comedy. You could write a drama.  There are no writer-performers in drama. And writers seem afforded greater respect, and more creative control. But then again, the grass is always greener. And I just love jokes. I suspect you do too.

Listen to the podcast HERE. Buy my book HERE. And for more information on the First Ten Pages challenge, go HERE.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Inside Information

A few times a year, there are panels and interviews with Heads of Comedy or Channel Controllers and Genre Commissioners who are routinely asked what they’re looking for. I understand why they are asked this question. The organisation charging money for the panel has to appear to be offering special access or an inside track. And, crucially, we all want to know the answer.

But the particular question “What kind of sitcoms are you looking for?” is surely redundant? Because there’s only one real answer:

Funny ones.

Really. That’s it. They are looking for funny sitcoms.

Or at least sitcoms that they think will be funny because, to be honest, you really can't tell until you've written it, cast it, shot it, edited it and watched it in your own living room.

The problem is that "We're looking for funny sitcoms" doesn’t sound like a very helpful or professional answer, so usually you get answers that include the words ‘smart’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘warm’ or ‘a twist on x’ or ‘a y for the 21st Century’. (The word ‘edgy’ has, I’m pleased to say, been humanely destroyed.) Sometimes you get ‘laugh out loud’, which is the closest to the honest answer of ‘funny ones’. And the mainstream channels are always looking for pre-watershed family comedies because they always have and always will. Because families watch TV and like laughing.

Let's think about this.

Comedy is, by nature, surprising. You, as a writer, are noticing things about the way we live today that not been noticed by others – and then writing about them. How, then, could anyone predict what writers want to write about and can turn into a half-hour repetitive comedy format? It’s not logically possible.

Did BBC1 say, “We’d like a sitcom about a tall well-to-do woman who runs a gift shop with her short friend and is ideally in love with a chef from the restaurant next door.” Did they even say “We’d like a show about a fairly posh woman?” No! And it wasn’t even BBC1 who commissioned the smash-hit Miranda. It was BBC2 who saw a central character and world that might be funny and gave it a shot. Good on them. (I was not involved in the pitching of the show so can claim not credit for that whatsoever)

Sitcoms are not made to order, because nobody knows that they want. And nobody has any way of knowing what they want. Because the audience doesn’t know what it wants. Until it sees it.

The folk that work high up in comedy know all this but they have to say something or it looks like they’re being bolshy or reductionist or not playing the game. They could say what Bob Hope said when he was asked what he wanted on his gravestone. He said, ‘Surprise me.’

What comedy commissioners and channel controllers would say, if pressed, is that they want a sitcom that has passion, and distinctiveness, and ‘opens a window on a world we haven’t seen before’ or feels fresh or modern in some way. Those shows can only be created by writers following their passions. So that is what we must do.

Getting a sitcom on TV is so hard. I’ve managed to get three sitcoms onto the radio, but only got one of my own onto TV in fifteen years (Bluestone 42 which I co-created with Richard Hurst). Each attempt involves an idea, characters, plotting, choosing a pilot, writing and rewriting it again and again, based on notes which are sometimes helpful and sometimes hopeless – and they are almost impossible to distinguish. Then you’ve got to think of who’s going to be in the show, and who will ‘sell it’ to the channel and the audience, and be brilliantly funny it. Then there are more notes. Then probably some terrifying readthrough that will make you feel sick. Maybe even a pilot recorded in front of an audience which might make you actually throw up with nerves. It's hard.

If you’re not in completely love with the idea and passionate about the characters, all of the above is just too hard.

Apart from all this, the current rate of comedy musical chairs means this whole game is redundant. That commissioner who is idiotic enough to say that they’re looking for ‘a sitcom set on a submarine, or possibly an underwater kingdom’ probably won’t be doing that job by the time your script arrives on their desk, given the length of time it takes to develop and write a script worth sending to anyone. So this whole approach is flawed.

The Tactful Turndown
But here’s the thing that makes us question all of the above. It’s the tactful turndown that undoes all the logic that I have just laid out. Here’s how it goes:

Pic by Victoria Padevit Brown
You’ve sweated for months over an idea, about, say, a paintball park, and the dysfunctional characters therein. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, you've produced a script with all the torturous angst that a panda in captivity produces a baby panda. And this creation has been handed over to a commissioner who sits on it for some weeks, possibly months. In the unlikely event they are still in that job a few months later, the verdict comes back. It's a 'no'.

What? No?! You ask why. WHY?! Why did they turn it down?!

You demand answers. They don’t want to give answers. Your producer tries to shield you from the answers.

But you insist. So you get answers. And you hate the answers.

“Thank you for this script, which had some really great moments it, but we’re looking for comedies that have a slightly more contemporary feel than places like paintball parks.”

You’re angry because the idea you wrote was about the very fact that times have moved on and paintball parks are no longer a big deal and that’s the point of the show. Idiot. But your anger subsides, and you’ll start thinking to yourself ‘They want a more contemporary place than paintball. Okay. How about a… pop up restaurant? Or a social networking company? Or… a new political party? Yeah!" and of you go, pouring hours, or days - even weeks - into an idea that you think has a great chance of being commissioned.


You’ve misinterpreted the feedback. You’ve failed to read between the lines. Come on, you're a writer. You should be able to understand subtext. Why didn’t they want to make your show?

They didn’t like it.

They didn’t find it funny. It didn’t jump off the page. It didn’t leap through the screen, if you were lucky enough to have made a pilot. They didn’t think their audience would find it funny in sufficient numbers. That really is all there is too it.

But, just as they have to answer the question about what they’re looking for, they have to answer the question about why they turn stuff down. And usually, the only honest answer is:

They didn’t think it was funny.

That’s all there is to it.

This is why I never ask for much feedback on a show that I’ve submitted. It’s not that I have nothing to learn. Far from it. If they pointed out technical flaws in what I’ve written, I could fix those. But they don’t want to do that, because even if I fix the flaws, they’d be left with a show that they still don’t like. It’s just a slightly better show they don’t like.

A while back, I submitted an idea for a sitcom that was set during World War Two. There were some comments of various degrees of logic but the final verdict was “We’re not looking for historical sitcoms at the moment”.

This is not really true, because if a knock-out idea came in that was about The Spanish Armada, or something, and it felt right, or fresh or special, they’d do it. They shouldn't not do it because they didn't do mine. And I should stop moaning that life is unfair. Maybe it is, but they just didn't like my show, so I need to get over it.

Likewise if Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon wanted to do a historical sitcom, they’d at least think about it very hard. And, to be honest, if they didn’t like Coogan and Brydon’s idea, they may well turn it down. Commissioners are not so star struck that they just accept any idea from someone from the comedy A-List. I’ve heard of numerous shows from award winning comedians turned down. So, it’s not even that the stars get special treatment. Although sometimes they do. Because if they're stars, they are special.

So what now?

Write your sitcom. The one you really want to write. Make sure you write it with passion. Make sure it's distinctive. And yes, it's painful and time-consuming and may well come to nothing, but that, unfortunately, is the only way. If they absolutely love it, they’ll break any rule they made up in the last two years to make it. And find the money to make it happen. If they quite like it, or can see the merit it, or just 'admire the writing', it’s not going to happen. Sorry.

It’s painful, but the alternative of creating a sitcom that even you aren’t passionate about is even more painful.


For more on the pain of writing your sitcom, read Writing That Sitcom, available for the Kindle and Kindle App here. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.