Friday, 16 November 2018

5 Mistakes In The First Ten Pages Of Your Sitcom Script: Mistake 1

It always seems unfair that new sitcom writers have to do the hardest things first. Creating a new sitcom that feels original, but identifiable, fresh, but somehow familiar, is really difficult. Plotting and writing the pilot script is fraught with pitfalls.

Let's assume that your sitcom idea is not the problem. You have the characters. You have a story. You've written a script. Those first ten pages are crucial in selling that script and, more importantly, selling you as a writer.

On the Sitcom Geeks podcast, Dave Cohen and I encounter quite a few scripts. (If you join the Patreon scheme, we will read the first ten pages of your script and do a podcast about it for subscribers.) In reading such scripts, and numerous others over the last few years, I've noticed five ways in which newer writers tend to fall off the horse in their first ten pages of their sitcom script.

Here's Mistake #1.

Mistake 1: You’re Basically Writing A Movie, Not a Sitcom

Movies have their own way of starting. Or at least they used to. (I only watch half a dozen movies a year, and most of them are family movies which can be a bit crash-bang-wallop at the beginning.) But the general idea is that in grown-up movies, you establish some normality and build the world before dropping a bombshell.

So people drive around listening to the radio, or walk through corridors greeting people, or get home from work, throw keys on tables and go out into the garden to play with their kids. Or they clock on to their dead end job in a video store and mutter and murmur and pour themselves coffee.

That’s all fine in a movie. We are establishing where are we, and who the characters are before the inciting incident which will send at least one of them on a journey of self-discovery and, crucially, change.

In movies people change. In sitcoms, they don't. They mustn't. They cannot. (In that sense, sitcoms are probably more true to life, but we can have that discussion another time). It’s why sitcom movies don’t work.

Movies have a beginning, middle and end. Sitcoms are all middle.

The point here is that in a movie, you’ve got 90-120 pages to play with. So you have at least ten pages to set up your world and your characters. The credits are rolling. The scene is being set. The audience has paid their money and booked a babysitter to watch your movie. They’re not going to walk out after 9 minutes because they’re a bit bored.

In TV, it's all different. There are hundreds of channels, streaming services and remote controls. Your viewer might well turn over after three minutes if they’re bored. More likely, the producer reading your spec script is going to give up and move on to the next one. (They have a pile of fifteen scripts that they are trying to get through) How are you going to grab their attention and keep it?

Remember you've only got 30 pages to introduce your characters, start your story, put in some twists and some jokes and get it all wrapped. Thirty pages. GET ON WITH IT. Tell a story. Lead the viewer through it.

This is most common mistake when Dave and I read the first ten pages of a script. Nothing happens until page ten. It's all set up and scene setting. People are talking - often with decent jokes. But ten minutes of screen time are being wasted.

Start your story on Page 1. Okay, do some set-up and jokes on page 1 if you must. But get the characters moving, not just talking or driving around. By page 10, your character should have established their quest, tried, failed and ideally made it worse

You're writing a sitcom. Not a movie. Make sure you don't fall off the horse on this side.

In an attempting to avoid this first mistake you might fall off the horse on the other side, which is the mistake of writing a murder mystery, not a sitcom. And we will look at that next time.

In the meantime, why not book tickets to come and see Dave and I record the 100th Episode of Sitcom Geeks at the Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury? We'll be talking to Marcus Brigstocke and Sarah Morgan, who know a thing or three about sitcom. And you'll also meet other writers when we all hang out for drinks in the bar afterwards. See you there.

Have you written a sitcom script? Would you like me to read the whole thing and give you some notes? That can be arranged here.

Or you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Where Do Sitcom Characters Come From?

It’s a good question, especially if you’re in the business of writing and creating sitcom. A sitcom isn’t really a situation, but a place where characters interact and generally get on each other's nerves.

Situations are fairly easy to think up, including ones that haven’t really be done before. Here we go:

Oil Rig
Betting Shop
17th Century Padua
Garden Centre

That wasn’t hard, was it? But why are we in these situations? Who is there? Why are we watching? Who are the characters? And where do they come from? How do we think them up?

Way back when Dave Cohen and I started the Sitcom Geeks podcast, we talked about characters being ‘Larger than Life’, like Alf Garnett or Edina from Ab Fab. It’s still a good place to start. But the rise of single camera shows and fly-on-the-wall docs may beguile us into thinking that modern sitcom characters should be less cartoonish, more moderate and realistic. Hopefully, a few episodes of Brooklyn 99 or The Goldbergs should dispel that notion.

Here’s the thing: Beverley Goldberg is not even a fictional character. Real people are often ‘larger than life’. See also Brian Clough and Gordon Ramsay. I’ve written more about them here. But what if you’re seeking to create a character, or you don’t have an insanely protective Jewish mother to drop into your sitcom?

No problem. Just think of a comedy character. Make one up. Invent one.

But this is easier said than done. Much as writers like to think these characters can be plucked from the deepest recesses of their imaginations and dropped, fully-formed, into their sitcoms, the reality is that they can take a very long time to develop.

The way to increase your chances is to think of lots of characters.

And the way to do that is to write sketches.

On Twitter the other day, some of us were musing on the number of sitcoms that were based around characters that originally began life as a sketch. Edina from Ab Fab began as a sketch in French and Saunders. This is not an usual situation. We also noted how characters like Alan Partridge, Rab C Nesbitt, Dave Lister (Red Dwarf) began life as sketch characters. See also The Detectives, Still Game, Mr Don & Mr George, Grass and Pixelface. UK Gold's The Rebel was a cartoon strip, as was BBC Radio 4's Clare in the Community.

Let us not forget one of the greatest TV shows of all time, The Simpsons, began life as filler on The Tracey Ullman Show.

But, when one thinks about, all recent BBC1 mainstream sitcom hits have not merely come from a writer’s imagination and spun immediately into comedy gold. They all had a serious head start.

Mrs Brown began life as a radio character, before becoming books and, yes, a movie starring Anjelica Huston (yes. seriously) and then a stage show.

Mr Khan, from Citizen Khan, had appeared in BBC2’s Bellamy’s People and it’s precursor, BBC Radio 4’s Down the Line.

One might also argue that the sitcom personae of both Miranda Hart and Lee Mack had come through years of live performances, Edinburgh shows and radio sketch shows before becoming the characters in Miranda and Not Going Out.

So What Now?
Take action. Write sketches. Create characters with strong voices that will sustain comedy sketches, and are very easy for the audience to get a handle on. Who knows? One of these creations might turn into a TV sitcom in 2-15 years time (after the Hollywood movie or spoof radio show appearance).

Writing sketches is worthwhile anyway. Sketches are not only a great place for writers to learn their craft. They are also like comedy lego bricks that build bigger things like sitcoms and movies.

But here’s the bad news.

You’ll probably have to do it yourself. Make your own audio and video. Put on your own stage shows. Draw your own cartoons. TV channels, for whatever reason, have essentially turned their backs on this form of comedy. (It's usually money - and second guessing audience tastes.)

It’s a triple disaster since writers are losing out on places to learn their craft, but also to make a living to keep them in the game. And the TV landscape is being robbed of places where comedy characters are being incubated before growing into fully fledged sitcom charaters.

Tracey Ullman’s BBC1 shows are the notable exception. But let’s also remember where she got her break? In a sketch show called Three of a Kind.

Maybe the execs are just hoping lightening strikes twice and that some cheap, badly drawn insert in Tracy Ullman's show becomes a multi-billion-dollar juggernaut that runs for 26 years longer than the show it started in. Maybe it will, but that’s still only one show. BBC1 needs three or four. And ITV would like a couple.

Where will these tried and tested sitcom characters come from? I honestly don’t know. Maybe you?


Have you written a sitcom script? Would you like me to have a look and give you some notes? That can be arranged.

Or you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

When Is A Scene Not A Scene?

Writing outlines for sitcoms is hard. One might think it’s hard because jokes are hard. If you’re a comedy writer, you probably don’t find jokes all that hard. Finding the right jokes that fit a situation and a character can be harder. Letting go of jokes that don’t fit the situation orcharacter is even harder. 

All of the above can make it difficult to see whether the action and dialogue you have allotted to a scene is adequate. In reading scripts and outlines over the last few years, I’ve noticed a few ways in which a scene appears to be a scene but is not, in fact, a scene.

A Scene With Just Jokes Is Not A Scene

But when plotting a sitcom, jokes can get in the way and lull you into a false sense of security. A really funny bit, or a run of jokes, or physical business can lead you to think that you have a scene, when you don’t. You just have jokes. Not a scene. Go back to the original story. What are the characters trying to do? How does this scene drive that story? What goes wrong? And what are the consequences?

A Scene With Just Conflict Is Not A Scene

We know that comedy is conflict. That’s one of my three C’s (Character, Conflict and Confinement). But two characters arguing in a confined situation doesn’t give you a scene. Although it’s a good start.

Aaron Sorkin is the master of writing scenes in which two people clash – and he gives the appearance of action by having them walk along at the same time. But he also gives the scene an ending which leads to the next scene, and furthers the plot. As your characters go their separate ways at the end of the scene, how has their quest been altered? What is the new problem that has to be overcome?

A Scene With Just Backstory or Revelation Is Not A Scene

Sometimes, a scene can contain some big piece of backstory or revelation. And that reveal could feel like it changes everything. And maybe it does. But exactly how does it change everything, and what are the characters going to do a result of this? We need to hear and see their freshly made plans, before they then go awry.

A Scene Where Someone Just Tries And Fails Is Not A Scene

Okay, maybe that’s not quite true, but it can feels very disappointing plot-wise when our hero has a quest. He tries to achieve his objective, but fails. And he’s back he’s started. In terms of the story, that’s not as dynamic as having the failure create new problems that also have to be dealt with. Or the problem could be fixed, but present a fresher, bigger, harder problem. Does your scene make it worse? It probably should.

It seems obvious to point these things out, but it’s surprising how easy it is to go wrong – and I make that mistake in my own scene breakdowns and outlines too. In fact, in Bluestone 42, it was only in an edit that we realised a scene was entirely redundant and could be cut. But it’s clearly easier to see in the work of other people!

When I’m script editing, sometimes I read scripts, or story outlines, that essentially come to a halt half way through the story. It feels like the plot has been resolved – and even though there’s a second half to come. But the audience don’t know that, and the story feels uninvolving.

I’ve never written for commercial television, but many writers who have can testify to the fact that ad breaks can be your friend. They force you to move the story on, and provide cliff-hanger,  tension and unfolding drama. It’s a really good discipline to get into. (Market forces do have their benefits, even to writers.) It is worth going through your outline and making sure that there’s no scene which could end with the audience saying ‘So what?’ It's hard work, but you'd rather find out your scene is not a scene before it's written, or even shot, before realising that it has to go.


For more of this sort of thing, and more information about the Character, Conflict and Confinement, you might want to get my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.

Friday, 12 January 2018

How Long Should My Sitcom Script Be?

The question of script length comes up from time to time. And it's tricky to know how to respond for various reasons. Some measure sitcom scripts in pages. That's probably the industry standard, not least because when you're filming on location, pages get broken down into eighths and shooting time is allotted accordingly.

Scripts filmed in a studio in front of an audience have to be carefully monitored for length too. Most sitcoms I've filmed have started shooting at 7.30pm and you really have to be done by 10pm for two main reasons. Firstly, the cost of overrunning in terms of overtime, studio time and wages can get out of hand quite quickly.

Pic by Emily Tan via Flickr
But secondly, by 10pm, even with a jolly warm-up guy, the audience really has had enough. They probably arrived at 6.30pm and have been herded about. The magic of television has worn off and, to be honest, they're done by 9.30pm, but if you've got a strong ending to film in front of them with a big pay-off, you're probably going to be fine. 

Until 10pm. At which point the audience turn into pumpkins or mice or something that isn't known for laughing much. And you can't really stop them from leaving either. And some do. And it gets embarrassing.

A decent producer has a pretty good running time clock in their heads and your page count on the night should be about right. And if it's not, it's their problem far more than yours.

If you're looking for a rule of thumb for a pilot script that you're sending out, bear in mind you're trying to sell an idea and a set of characters, not a shooting script. I'd urge you to make your TV script as tight as possible. Something between 30 and 35 pages. Cut anything that doesn't belong. Cut jokes that are just there for the sake of it, especially in the second half of the show when you need to crack on. Be ruthless. I've written about that here and here and here and in my book here.

The Glory of Radio

It's tempting to think that in radio, where everything is much easier to record, all bets are off. There's no 'location' stuff to be pre-shot, no big reveals or stage management to work out. No props, no set and know make. Plus the actors don't have to learn lines. They just read them off the script. Which partly explains why actors love doing radio and you can often pull in bigger names than you think. It's all the fun of the show without all the drag of TV production. (But way less money, obviously.)

A typical radio studio sitcom episode might record at 32-34 minutes. Then there a few retakes. Then an interval. And you record another episode. Yes, you can record two shows in one night, and still be done by 9.30pm.

Twice Nightly
In fact, recording two episodes in one night is a blessing because the audience, who might not be very familiar with the show, especially if it's brand new, will be up to speed by the second show and be looking out for their favourite characters and catchphrases. They're not worried about knowing who everyone is. The cast might be more relaxed. As a result, the second episode tends to record better and the audience laugh more. (One day, I expect a note from an exec suggesting we record both episodes second.)

However, there are laws of diminishing returns here too. The plusses can become minuses. In the second episode, the actors might start to get tired, the studio can get a hot making the audience flag and dry up. You'll want to stick to a 32-34 minute recording. Any less, you've got little room for manoeuvre in the edit. Page formats vary in radio where there are fewer script standards and protocols (every single radio script I've done has been in Word, not Final Draft) so a page count isn't helpful. But in words, for me, that's usually around the 5500 mark.

It might be tempting to get away with a script of 6500 words. Or longer but if you listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast with Graham Linehan, you'll hear why it's not a good idea.

Don't Forget Paris

In their first show, Paris, Linehan and Mathews learnt a few lessons the hard way. One is that if you write a script that's too long, and film all of it, it makes editing almost impossible.

The only way to produce a coherent 24-28 minutes is to cut jokes. Disaster. The story has to make sense. There has to be continuity. There's a lot you can't cut or the entire programme disintegrates and seems random, disjointed and unprofessional.

That's not an option.

What your producer and director and editor will cut are funny routines, gags and throwaway lines (which are literally thrown away).

It's always tempting to write long - and I've done so and regretted it for other reasons (when I wrote a 9000 word draft) - but writer beware. And if there's one thing you shouldn't do, it's Forget Paris.


For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.

Monday, 11 December 2017

5 Ways To Get Your Characters Talking

Developing characters is really difficult. It's easy enough in theory. You could start with contrasting personality types, drawn from a Meyers-Briggs chart, or by bootlegging a Shakespeare play and plonking them in 2017. But so much of what a character is - or could be - comes from how they talk. I've written a bit about this before here.

It would be very easy to carefully plot and plan an entire pilot episode of a brand new sitcom, and immediately hit the buffers because you just don't know how the characters sound.

First scenes are really hard to write as it is. First episodes are even harder. First episodes of shows that don't even exist yet are the hardest of all. So you need to do everything you can in order to make your life as easy as possible. Here are some tips to prime the pump.

Let's say we've got an optimistic young mum character called Ruth. In the first scene, she's at a check-out of a supermarket. Baby in trolley. Let's try and write that.

Okay, erm. So.

Scene 1. Int. Supemarket. Day. 10.00am
RUTH is piling groceries onto the conveyor belt. She's hassled. She's getting cross with the baby for no good reason. The check-out lady is tutting. Ruth gives the baby something sweet to eat. The check-out lady is tutting again. Ruth looks defensive. The check-out lady doesn't say anything. No-one says anything. Because I CAN'T THINK OF ANYTHING FOR THEM TO SAY.

Nothing's occurred to me as I write those lines of action. And I'm not excited about it as the scene sound pretty negative and charmless. What's the joke? Who is Ruth? How does she talk? How can she talk in a way that is truthful to her character as well as funny? In short, think about your character from all angles. Interrogate them - and listen. Eventually, they'll start talking.

1. What's Your Name And Where Do you Come From?
Firstly, you need to know roughly whether the character is from. Where is the show set? Are we in Birmingham? Are they from that part of the world, or were they brought up elsewhere? Do they belong there? Did this young mum move from Leeds? Or Edinburgh? To be with someone, and it's all gone wrong, and now she's raising a child alone? That will affect they way she talks. She can still be an optimist - but Ruth's situation will make her sound a bit more desperate. Or in denial. Or super-determined to make a go of it.

2. Where Do You Think You're Going?
Backstory is normally toxic to pilot episodes. I've written on this before. Think, where is the character going? What do they want? Is she determined to set up her own business? Or under-estimate how much time and energy a baby will need? This, again, will inform the way she speaks. Suddenly, she's not just a character in the moment buying groceries. She's got a past, and more importantly, a future. In her head, at least. We don't want to hear the details - and the neither does the cashier she is buying the groceries from. But she does at least have an attitude which should make her easier to write.

3. Is it Someone You Know?
It may be this character isn't just dreamed up out of your head -  although it is in my case as I just plucked an example from the air because this is blog. Maybe this is your sister, or your cousin. Or your best friend. Or a teacher you knew at school. How would they talk in this situation? Channel that. Use it.

4. Who Would Your Dream Cast Be?
You could think about who is likely to play this part - most likely someone from another sitcom already on TV. Or a drama or soap. That might give you a clear sense of how they talk. It might be hard to make your character distinctive from that other sitcom. So you could think of some super A-Lister from Hollywood and imagine how they'd play the part. What if this character were played by Reese Witherspoon? (who is 41, but that's Hollywood 41, so 30-something to normal people). Same goes for Amy Poehler, but pick someone, and that might help at least with the sensibility of the character.

5. Have You Seasoned Your Outline?
When writing your outline for you pilot script, drop in lines and bits of dialogue as they occur to you. Sometimes a line crystallises very early on and becomes pivotal. There was one character in my first sitcom on BBC Radio 4 I wrote called Think The Unthinkable. At one point, in an early brainstormed outline, in response to being asked to think of solutions to get more people cycling in London, he said, without joking, "Could we get London to be mostly downhill?" It was a key line for the character because it said everything about him. A free-thinking idiot. In the end, that line was used in the final episode of the first series.

Any lines you can drop into your outline are really helpful. If none occur to you as you're writing the outline, maybe you just don't know the character well enough to start writing

With that in mind, let's have another crack at that opening scene with Ruth, our single mum optimist with shades of Reese Witherspoon, Amy Poehler and one of my sisters (I won't say which). And why should the check-out person be female. Let's make it a young man. Might be fun. Here we go.

Scene 1. Int. Supemarket. Day. 10.00am
RUTH is purposefully piling groceries onto the conveyor belt. HARRY, the baby (c. 9 months old) is in the trolley seat. The cashier, KYLE, is about to start running the items through till.

Need any help packing?

Yes. Dairy in the blue bag. Veg in the green.

RUTH throws her tote bags at KYLE's face. KYLE presses a button to get assistance. RUTH freezes.


RUTH pulls out a long shopping list and examines it closely.


Excuse me, but I have a right to do my job without harassment-

What? No, cotton balls! For Harry.

RUTH points at the baby and gestures bottom wiping. RUTH grabs some carrot batons in a bag open opens them. She hands them to KYLE.

Erm, no thanks.

They're not for you! If he screams give him a baton. I'll be back in a minute.

RUTH charges off muttering 'balls', leaving KYLE looking at HARRY.

Your mum's scary.

KYLE eats a carrot baton.

And... scene.

Okay, it's not hilarious. But it's a start. Ruth already seems funnier and more motivated. Try your own version. Hope that helps.


For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Death by Ratings

A recent Twitter exchange prompted me to share a thought about the sitcom industry. It may well apply to shows other than sitcoms, but that's outside my field of expertise.

Here's the thought, posed as a question:

Do ratings matter?

Does it actually make any difference whether people turn up in great numbers to watch your TV show, or doesn't it? In terms of getting a second series.

These days, you get a blizzard of numbers about your show. There are the 'Overnights' which measure roughly how many people watched it live, with various segments within that. Then there are the 'Consolidated Figures' which add on catch-up TV over a specific period. And various blends of the number in-between over longer and shorter periods with different demographics. But do these numbers matter?

Ratings do matter. A bit. But no way near as much as you'd think.

I'm sure some TV commissioners and controllers would disagree and would like to think they apply the same criteria to measure each show's success and failure. But they don't, and there's no real reason why they should other than being seen to be scrupulously fair. But fairness is somewhat overrated, especially in the brutally competitive world of television.

How have I reached my conclusion? Because there are plenty of shows written by plenty of writers, some of whom I know personally, that drew a certain number of eyeballs - and were cancelled, because that number was not deemed to be high enough. And other shows which started with modest/dismal numbers and continued with said numbers for two, three or more largely unwatched series.


Because there's more to a show than the numbers. There's brand management of the channel - both to the viewing public and the industry. There's professional pride in the form of critical acclaim and awards. And there's the gut instinct or emotional investment of the commissioner or controller, who might see a show as 'their baby', or see another as an unloved orphan.

You easily get two scenarios different scenarios around roughly the same numbers.

Scenario 1
Producer: So are we getting a second series? The show averaged about 1 million viewers so it's not clear whether-
Commissioner: It is clear! It's a great show. I've always loved it. And I'm very proud of it. And this is exactly the kind of show we should be doing. And we should be backing talent. Let's do another series!
Producer: Great. (Leaves office. Pumps fist/does dance).
(Oh, BTW the writer is NEVER in meetings like this. Not in the UK anyway. Writers are just an embarrassment to the industry).

Scenario 2
Producer: So are we getting a second series? The show averaged about 1.1 million viewers so it's not clear whether-
Commissioner: Hmm. It's pretty clear to me. Sorry, but you're inheriting a good audience from Gardener's World and not keeping them. The slot average is 1.7 million, so I'm a bit disappointed to be honest.
Producer: I'm sure a second series could build on the-
Commissioner: I really don't think so. I mean, I love the show. If it were up to me, I'd recommission it.
Producer: Isn't it up to you?
Commissioner: Well, yes. Kind of. But it's complicated. Sorry, but I don't think that this show is coming back.
Producer: Fine. (Leaves office. Ponders on calling the writer, but decides to leave it 'til tomorrow.)

That stuff happens all the time. It's not a numbers game. There's much more too it than that. And that because there are a lot of issues at play. It's painful, and unnannoying, and our God-given insistence that everything is fair is frustrated. But life isn't fair. TV isn't fair. And if they don't like your show, or aren't invested in it, they ain't backing it.

This is all another reason why you should write for yourself - and not anyone else. Write what you think is funny, because whether the show gets on TV and stays on TV is completely out of your hands.


For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Don't Know Whether to Laugh or Scream

Horror-Comedy cross-over, or 'Homedy', seems to be very popular at the moment. And it's obviously going to be popular in the next week or so, since Halloween seems to be a big thing now.

It just wasn't like that when I was growing up in the 80s in England. In this regard, at least, the 80s were simpler times. Overall, society seemed to think it was reasonable not to scare children out of their wits, so that they wouldn't spend the following months unable to sleep.

In those days, Halloween was a bit naff or camp, and was a warm-up to the more exciting Bonfire Night, a few days later: a celebration of the attempted-mass-murder of MPs with hot dogs, fireworks, sparklers and the possibility of a trip to A&E. What's not to like?

Halloween was no big deal, and if you wanted suspense, the incessant adverts about the dangers of fireworks were the most frightening thing you could see on TV in late October.

You can probably tell I'm not a fan of halloween. It's partly because I'm a full-on God-botherer (and, as usual, I'll be cheerfully celebrating Reformation Day on 31st October). It's also because I've never seen any horror films. None of the Freddie films, or the Jason ones or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I have to say the title put me off the last one.

As far as suspense and mystery goes, my upper limit is early episodes of the X-Files. Yes, if horror was a curry, I'd be sweating over the Chicken Korma and wishing I'd ordered the Butter Chicken instead. (Oddly, on curry, I'm at the other end of the spectrum).

Horror and Comedy

I mention this because I'm interested between the interplay between Horror and Comedy. In some ways, they are very different genres and in others they are very similar. I thought it might be interesting to dig into this for a moment. (If it isn't interesting, here's a picture of a cat dressed as the pope).

The reason I'm nervous about mixing the genres is because they are trying to do totally separate things. Horror is trying to get you to jump in fear. Comedy is (or should be) trying to get you to laugh out loud.

Horror is giving you as little information as possible to keep you in suspense, wondering what's going to happen next. It's trying to confuse you and create mystery. Readers of this blog and my book will know I always say that confusion is the enemy of comedy. If an audience is confused, it can't laugh. One of the reasons I dislike horror, apart from the obvious, is the feeling of continually being confused and wrong-footed.

And yet, comedy relies on wrong-footing your audience. It involves giving them limited information, or sending them in one direction, before pulling them into another. Both are like magic, telling the audience to look in one place, before surprising them in another. Comedy and horror both rely on surprise. Except in horror, it's more of a shock, than a surprise. (I'm hoping to pick this up in a forthcoming book I'm writing on the ethics of comedy and jokes).

Do these similarities in construction mean that horror and comedy go well together? Or are they oil and water? At the moment, I'm not sure.

What It All Comes Down To

However, for me, the main problem with Homedy is not the mechanics, but the execution. It's the fact that the jokes and plotting often lean heavily on referencing specific horror films - films that I haven't seen and will almost certainly never see. This is where the League of Gentlemen began to lose me. To me, Series 1 is one of the funniest TV series that has ever been. It was out-and-out funny. (Remember: there was an audience laugh track.) But then the show drifted away from dark eccentricity and grotesque and closer and closer to horror, and I began to drift in the other direction.

There is nothing intrinsically funny about recreating a scene from a horror film in a comedy. I see this a lot in sitcom scripts that I sometimes get sent and have to script edit or provide notes. Quite often the writer has to perform implausible leaps to get to that spot, and then spend too long once they are there. And I have to ask the awkward question: What's the joke? Why is it funny that our regular characters are re-enacting a scene from The Shining (which I've not seen), The Omen (which I've not seen), or Poltergeist (not seen) or IT, Amityville, Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave (also not seen, not seen, not seen and not seen). As I say, I like laughing. And sleeping well.

These things can be funny for a beat or a moment, but they are not, what I call, load-bearing jokes. Echoes of other genres are fine. Homage to classic film moments can be satisfying. But they're not actually funny. We had a couple of Casablanca references in one episode of Bluestone 42 which, I think, were jokes in their own right. But less is very much more on this.

The Paucity of Parody

Most comedy writers my age probably started out writing a sketch for their friends or colleagues that was a parody of Blind Date. Fifteen years later, it was all Big Brother Sketches. Then is was X-Factor sketches. These work fine but they are ultimately derivative. The format is clear so the jokes work well. And parody is a great place to start, but it's not aspirational comedically. And yet Comedy-Horror seems to be a genre in which lots of people seem to aspire to, and it is often little more than parody. This might be why I find it even more unsatisfactory.

But each to their own. I've no problem with people like horror. I don't understand the fascination or the appeal, but then I don't understand the appeal of horse-racing, ballet or fishing. But that's okay. It takes all sorts to make a world go round. Perhaps that's what Halloween really teaches us. (It doesn't. It really doesn't. But I needed a neat-sounding ending)


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