Thursday, 23 June 2022

Sitcom Plotting: The Nitty Gritty

Have you written a pilot sitcom script? 

There’s a very good chance that your first ten pages contains at least three of the following:

  1. Introductions
  2. Explanations
  3. Exposition
  4. Tracking shots / specified camera angles
  5. A montage
  6. Backstory
  7. Detailed explanations of what we're looking at.
  8. Specific tracks of music we're hearing.
  9. Lots of dialogue for non-regular characters.
  10. Lots of action in a location that we never see again.

How did you do? Marks out of ten?

A high score is bad.

I say this because having read literally hundreds of scripts in the last year, the majority of scripts contain an opening scene that runs for at least seven pages - normally nine - and includes every main character.

And there’s usually a pretext for introducing someone to everyone eg. it’s often the first day at work. (I’ve written a lot about this and made a video.)

Everyone’s standing around waiting for the story to start.

Don’t do this.

Start your story.

Give your main character a quest by the end of Page 3. Even better, by the end of page 2.

Give another character a quest by the end of page 5. Even better, by the of page 4.

Even better, have your main character decide to go on a quest, rather than have one thrust upon them.

Up a Tree

There’s a saying that in a comedy you should chase your character up a tree and then throw sticks at them.

This is wrong.

Or at least sub-optimal. Your character is being passive.

Give you character a clear reason to want to climb a tree. And then have them invite people to throw sticks at them. That way, your character is being active – and their own worst enemy.

And then give another character a good reason to cut the tree down.

Now it's getting funny.

Want more? Want to get into the nitty gritty?

Come to my pay-what-you-like webinar at 6pm (UK Time) on Tuesday 28th June where you’ll get 90-minutes of hands-on writers room experience with me and whoever else turns up.

We’ve done it twice before, and it’s both fun and useful. In fact, you get access to the replays if you sign up. Find out more over here.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

The Feeling That Never Goes Away

The writing world is full of it – not least because the real world is full of it.

If you’re in the business of writing sitcom scripts, you’ll feel it a lot. The feeling is this:

Why are other people doing better than me?

Why was my script not shortlisted in that competition?

Why did that other writer getting representation?

How did that half-arsed, average comedianhack end up with their own sitcom?

In my case, it is more like when someone you used to work with writes a big show which is critically acclaimed and recommissioned. In your head, you’re saying:

Hang on. I used to be in a writers room with that bozo. And I was more experienced than them. And now they have an highly-acclaimed streaming series? In fact, I think I once paid for their lunch. They owe me money…

and so on.

Naming It

You could call the feeling Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. Or you could just call it what it is: the green-eyed monster of envy.

It’s not a pleasant vice to own up to because it so bitter. A line attributed to Gore Vidal, but not original to him, sums up this sentiment: 

It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.

You experience envy. I experience envy.

So, here’s are two bits of advice for those experiencing envy, so this is for me as much as for you:

Knock It Off

Stop it. This constant feeling of bitterness and envy is going to eat you up, like some creepy, soul-sucking Gary Gygax creation from Stranger Things. Resentment and envy might make you productive for a while. The whole 'I'll show them!' feeling might give you a burst of creative energy. But the feeling will never go away, especially if you feed it. So take action. And here's one way you can do that:

Take Control

You have control over what you write, and over how you improve your craft. Focus on that.

You have to focus on that because you don’t have control over anything else, like what’s fashionable, what networks say they are looking for (something like last year's show that worked), what networks are actually looking for (a funny show that just works) and how producers are going to second guess what networks are thinking the audience might want to watch next year. Chasing all those variables is a mug's game.

You are in a boat being tossed around by the wind, waves and currents. You just control your rigging, rudder, sail, outboard motor or whatetver. (I’m obviously not a sailor.)

But take control of the controls in front of you: your keyboard; what you're reading; what you're developing and writing; what you're rewriting and what you're sending out.

Focus on your craft, your ideas and your scripts. And if you want to do that, I can help you with a really clear and simple 12 Lesson video course. And it's even better if you take action before 4th July - like a couple of session with me.

So go on over and have a look and how you can write a sitcom script you’re actually proud of.


Thursday, 16 June 2022

How to Write A Sitcom Script That Doesn’t Suck

The road is long. And the way is hard. But we’ve established that you don’t need qualifications or specialist expensive equipment – but because of that, everyone’s a writer and it’s competitive.

But a good script is hard to find and will get you noticed. Honestly.

So how do you write one? One that doesn't suck?

I figured it out by watching sitcoms.

That's because they're just weren’t any courses back in the late 1990s. If there were, I would have done one. But I had no way of finding out about them. I was raised on a farm, had no contacts in the industry, the internet was all dial-up, and there was no Google, so you couldn't find anything anyway.

So I figured it out.

I watched Porridge, Fawlty Towers, Yes Prime Minister, Ever Decreasing Circles, Red Dwarf, Blackadder, MASH, Cheers, Caroline in the City (seriously) and The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sergeant Bilko).

If you want to do the same, I’d recommend watching three shows:

Frasier is a masterclass in comedy writing, and it’s just crystal clear the whole time what the characters are trying to do – and it’s not too complicated. They make it look simple. Which is hard. Watch it for free on TV.

The Goldbergs is another show that’s shows the emotional journeys of the characters really clearly and loads of scripts I read get this wrong. Or don't have emotional journeys at all.

For pace, characters and jokes, you could learn a lot from Brooklyn 99.

Watch those episodes with a pad of paper, making notes, breaking down the scenes and figuring out what's going on - and you'll learn. Eventually.

Warning: Avoid Modern Family

Don’t watch the first three series of Modern Family.

Those episodes are just TOO good. They’re incredible. They're perfect.

The number of characters and the speed of the plotting and how it all comes together is just so amazing that trying to learn how to write a sitcom from Modern Family is like trying to learn how to drive by watching Formula 1.

Not the best place to start.  

Watching those early season of Modern Family almost made me want to give up. But that’s a story for another time.

How Save Months Of Time

So you could do what I did and figure it out how to write a sitcom that doesn't suck by watching sitcoms for hours, days, weeks and months.

Or you could save your saves months, and probably years, by doing my 12 Lesson video course, Writing Your Sitcom.

In the course, I tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it. And I don’t bombard you with stuff you don’t need to know. Why not find out more over here?


Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Can You Write A Sitcom? YES, but careful now...

Last time, I looked at four reasons why you could write a sitcom.

Here are two things to bear in mind. I said there was money in it, but...

Reason to be Careful #1 There’s no money in it for a long time

Starting out takes ages and writers have to do a lot of leg work in those early stages.

And it takes a long time to learn your craft and find your feet.

My first years of earning were REALLY LOW – which was okay as I was unmarried, early 20s. I'd just been a student. I knew how to live cheap.

But if you already have commitments and obligations, you’re going to have to fit in in around all that.

On the plus side, if you’re older with more life experience, you’ve got more to write about. So every cloud has a silver lining.

Reason to be Careful #2 It’s REALLY competitive

I recently ran a script competition here in the UK, and we had nearly 900 entries.

The BBC Writersroom or BAFTA Rocliffe competition gets thousands. There’s a lot of people out there trying to write scripts.

But you’re not just competing about other aspiring sitcom writers. You’re also competing against actual sitcom writers – like me - as well as higher profile stand-up comedians and writer-performers who have already proved themselves and have a following.

But here’s one more reason to be cheerful before I tell you want to do next.

Reason to be Cheerful #5 A good script will get noticed

Why? Because most scripts aren’t very good.

Sitcom scripts are really hard to write. I just read hundreds for this script competition and getting it down twenty or thirty scripts was not that hard.

Write a really good script, and you will get noticed, get meetings and get interest.

And eventually work, and eventually some money.

Now you may think I'm dead wrong because your script’s not getting noticed. Well this is awkward… Do you want me to say it? Maybe your script’s not that good.

Why not start over?

If you want to do that, and you understand what you're getting into, can I recommend my course, Writing That Sitcom? It's launch is imminent, and you'll want to get in there, as there are bonuses for those who sign up early. Get on the mailing list for when it all drops and offers in the future.

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Can You Write a Sitcom? YES YOU CAN!

Right now, I feel like the monster in a Scooby Doo cartoon, trying to scare you away from something. In my last couple of posts, you might be thinking that I’ve been trying to stop you from writing a sitcom so I’ve got less competition.

That’s not why.

I really love sitcoms, and I want more sitcoms on TV and better ones. The more competition that drives up the quality that makes sitcoms funnier and makes me laugh more, the merrier!

I’ve been issuing the warnings because I’m launching my 12 Lesson sitcom writing course very soon, because it’s a big undertaking. I want people to know what they’re getting into because it’s really hard going.

Maybe you love sitcoms, but the idea of writing one seems impossibly hard. It’s too big a mountain to climb.

Or you think it’s really can’t be that hard. You’re like George in Seinfeld, who comes up with an idea for a sitcom which he says they could pitch to NBC.

Jerry: Since when are you a writer?

George: What writer? We’re talking about a sitcom.

George seems to think it’s incredibly easy, which says more about George than it does about the process of writing a sitcom.

So here are 4 reasons to be cheerful about the idea of writing a sitcom.

Reason 1 No Qualifications Required

You don’t need to qualify as a chartered script writer or sit exams.

Can you imagine sitting comedy exams? Feels like a Monty Python sketch, doesn't it?

Do you need go to film school, or get a Masters in Screenwritng?

Nope. My college degree is Theology.

I have zero qualifications. And some how I’ve written over a hundred episodes of sitcoms for BBC TV and Radio, including Miranda, My Family, Bluestone 42, Hut 33 and a bunch of others.

You don’t need qualifications. You just need to have something to write about. And then you need to write it. All you need is something to write ON. Which takes us to: 

Reason 2 No Special Equipment Required

You don’t need any kit. Just something to type on. You could probably use the device on which you watching this video… unless it’s an Apple TV. But there’s something brilliantly democratic about script writing.

You’ve got 30 pages and words – the same as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Richard Curtis or any other writer you care to mention. And there are loads of names because…

Reason 3 People Like Watching TV. And they Like Laughing

This is not a minority skill you’re trying to crack.

It’s not like you’re trying to master writing haikus. Sitcom is not some rarified art form. It’s a huge multi-billion dollar industry. And that’s just Friends.

This is the golden age of script TV.

And although drama is really big, there’s still always a market for comedy and people are still watching them on streaming services. Which means that:

Reason 4 There’s money in it

There’s not a lot of money in writing haikus. At least not in Hollywood or the UK. But when the money does come in writing sitcoms, it’s pretty good. When scripts are commissioned, the money isn’t bad. And you get repeat fees and residuals (although not on Netflix, you don't.)

I’m still getting payments for stuff I wrote ten years, fifteen years ago. It’s not enough to retire, but it’s not nothing.

I’ve made a living predominantly writing comedy and sitcoms for twenty years. I didn’t study screen writing. I was born and raised on a dairy farm in Somerset and I didn’t go to Cambridge or know anyone in the industry. So it’s possible.

So those are four reasons to be cheerful. And I’ve got one more to come but first, there are two reasons to be careful, and we'll look at those tomorrow. But if you can't wait, you could just watch this YouTube video.

And why not subscribe to my mailing list to find out more about this 12 lesson video course?

Monday, 13 June 2022

The Crucial Ingredient in Writing A Sitcom Script

Last time, I said that in order to write a sitcom, you need to love sitcoms.

My overall tone probably sounded like I was trying to put you off.

I was.

Over the years, I’ve seen lots of writers underestimate what lies ahead, and what I don’t want is anyone to spend good money on my 12 lesson comprehensive video course, and then give up.

So why do they give up?

What are they missing? What's the crucial ingredient?

We need to know because writing is hard.

Writing a sitcom is particularly hard.

When you tell people this, they tend to nod and agree, but not believe you. The number of script competitions and initiatives suggests that anyone can do it. And everyone can have a go. They can.

But should they?

Turn Back Now

In my e-book, Writing That Sitcom, I begin with an intervention, trying to put off the reader from writing a sitcom. The chapter is called ‘Turn Back Now’.

I was inspired to do this by an article by screenwriter Josh Olson (History of Violence) who wrote a brilliant piece for the Village Voice back in 2009 about what happens when friends ask him to read their friend’s script.

The friend is usually under the mistaken impression that the script is probably basically fine, and just needs tweaks, because, after all, writing can’t be that hard, can it?

Olson writes:

“Here’s the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer. If I can talk you out of being a writer, I’ve done you a favor, because now you’ll be free to pursue your real talent, whatever that may be. And, for the record, everybody has one. The lucky ones figure out what that is. The unlucky ones keep on writing shitty screenplays and asking me to read them."

Ouch. Okay, that's pretty grumpy.

But in article, he argues that people really don't understand how much work is involved in creating a script. Professionals spend all day every day doing it, and their scripts still aren't that great.

I often say that my advantage as a professional script writer is not really experience. I was relatively successful in my 20s and early 30s without as much as experience as I have now. But one key advantage I have now is that I know how long it takes to write a good script. So I know how much time to allow, and can adjust my expectations accordingly.

Are we there yet?

Those starting out writing a sitcom script – or looking at the 12 Lessons of my course - might look at the process and think they won’t need to go through those steps. But they will.

Or they may think, as they go through then, that they’re doing something wrong because each step is taking a long time, a lot of work seems wasted, and this whole enterprise is going to take months.

Correct. If takes ages, if you’re doing it right.

The crucial ingredient in writing a sitcom is: time.

Physician, Heal Thyself

All of this is easily forgotten. I took some short cuts on a sitcom script recently, and wrote thirty pages. And then I tightened it up.

When read it though and realised that the first 17 pages just don’t work, and aren’t needed. I got my wife to read it. She agreed. And she's really nice.

Now, I’m quite good at sitcom writing. I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and I’m looking at a script that just doesn’t work. And I’m a little numb with the amount of work that lays ahead of me. But I'm no surprised.

I should have done my own course and done it the right way – the long way. And you know what? That’s exactly what I’m doing. My own course, taking my own advice. And I recommend that you do the same.

You can get that e-book, Writing That Sitcom, or the audio version right now, but it’s included for free – along with many other things – in my Writing That Sitcom course. It’s a complete course that’s all about helping you write a sitcom script you’re proud of. It’s launches on 16th June – but you’ll want to get in soon as many of the bonuses are only available until 4th July.

Why not join the mailing list to so you’re ready for when it opens and anything else that's happening in the future? Join here.

Friday, 10 June 2022

To write a sitcom, all you need is... love?

If you’re thinking about writing a sitcom, what do you need? What do you need to do?

I can tell you – and I’ve put it all in a 12 Lesson video course that launches on June 16th – but a professional athlete or life coach will tell you what’s really important: mindset.

That’s what I’m going to be thinking about over the next few posts on this blog: what mindset do you need to write a sitcom? What are the qualities?

The first might be most surprising, but is obvious: love.

You need love. Love is not all you need.

But you do need to love sitcoms. Do you watch sitcoms? Do you like them? Are you passionate about them?

Do you have five favourite sitcoms and you can’t decide which you love the most. For me, I’m torn between Yes, Prime Minister, Arrested Development, Seinfeld, the Larry Sanders Show and Red Dwarf

Those are my favourites – which is not the same as shows I most admire, like Frasier which is a masterclass in sitcom writing.

Loving Characters

But while I love those shows, some of my favourite sitcom characters (After George Costanza, Hank Kingsley and Kryten) are from sitcoms which aren’t quite in my Top Five. They would be Ron Swanson (right) from Parks and Recreation.

I also love – and am slightly in love with - Liz Lemon from 30 Rock.

You need that love of the sitcom form because if you’re about to embark on writing a pilot sitcom script that you're proud of, then you are facing a giant labour of love.

Sitcom Are Harder Than Movies

Writing a script is not a question of opening Final Draft and typing. You already know that in your heart and your head. But that 30 page sitcom script takes more work than a movie script, because a movie is just one linear story (unless you're Christopher Nolan). Your pilot sitcom isn’t just a tight, funny, surprising story with great jokes: it's a template for another hundred just like it.

To write that, you need to know what your show is about, who the characters are, how they interact, and what story you’re going to open with. And then you need to plot, plan and develop that story before writing, re-writing and editing it. It's a lot of work.

Trial by Sitcom

To go through this trial by sitcom, you need to really love sitcoms.

Writing a sitcom makes no logical sense. Sure, dozens are being made every year across the channels and networks, but only a few dozen. Not hundreds.

But tens of thousands are having a crack at it. And they are competing with the likes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Ben Elton, Romesh Ranganathan - and me.

So, if you love sitcoms so much, and can’t not write one, then I can teach you a system and a method and a process to do that. I've developed a 12 lesson that will be launching on 16th June.

The best way to keep informed about it, and other webinars I’m running, as well as instant access to videos I’ve already done, is to join the Situation Room Mailing list.