Thursday, 21 July 2016

My Favourites From That List

In case you were wondering, and you probably weren't, which sitcom I'd pick for The Radio Times Sitcom Of The Century (so far), I've whittled it down to a top ten.

Just as a reminder here are the forty sitcoms from 2000-2015 (bizarrely omitting My Family, My Hero, Two Pints and Coupling):

Mrs Brown's Boys, Miranda,  Not Going Out, Outnumbered, Peter Kay's Car Share, Citizen Khan, Count Arthur Strong, Benidorm, The Worst Week of My Life, Yonderland, Moone Boy, Bad Education,  Black Books, Catastrophe, Detectorists, Early Doors, Episodes, Extras, Friday Night Dinner, Gavin & Stacey, Getting On, Green Wing, Him & Her, Lead Balloon, Man Down, Nathan Barley, Nighty Night, Peep Show, Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, Psychoville, Pulling, Raised by Wolves, Rev, The Inbetweeners, The IT Crowd, The Office, The Trip/The Trip to Italy, The Thick of It, Toast of London, Twenty Twelve/W1A

From that list, I've made a top ten. But what order should I arrange them in?

Well, the only guide I can think of is how much they made me laugh, how much I want to see them again and how much I admire them over all. Warning: There plenty of shows that are very good, but for one reason or another, I just never got into them or got round to watching them (eg. The Inbetweeners). All that being the case, my ten in order would be along these lines:

Black Books, The Thick of It, The Office, Phoenix Nights, The IT Crowd, Yonderland, Not Going Out, Outnumbered and Count Arthur Strong.

That's nine. My tenth is Miranda which should be somewhere on the list, but given I was involved in the first two series, I probably couldn't say where it could or should be.

I've extolled the virtues of Black Books in the past, making it my 8th favourite sitcom of all time, so there's no need to dwell on that further here.

Thinking about it, though, I wonder if my number one would be The Thick Of It which is full of jokes, characters, atmosphere and satire. When I was compiling my favourite British sitcoms of all time, I didn't really want the Thick of It on the same list as my all time favourite, Yes Prime Minister. So maybe that's clouded my judgement. Either way, Black Books and The Thick Of It are both very fine shows.

My other observation is that only four of those shows are filmed in front of an audience. I really do think we are collectively losing the art of the studio sitcom.

Competing With The Classics
But here's a new thought based on a comment from David Murphy on the blog posted yesterday. He writes:
You also ask whether fewer mainstream comedies are being made. When I think back to that time I think of getting cable TV for the first time. I think that many people will have had a similar experience. Now that I think about how that changed my habits, I think that it meant that I was more likely to watch comedy I knew and loved on UK Gold rather than put the effort into getting to know a new world with and new characters, and risk not laughing. Rather than taking the time to get to know a new comedy, I'll watch a classic instead. 
It's an excellent point. I've said in the past that critics brutally compare Episode 1 of your new sitcom with Episode 60 of Only Fools and Horses. But it's worth noting that the audience at home do that too. A direct comparison can still be made because all of those old shows are still being shown. All the old classics, and plenty of the modern classics are on all time every week on UK Gold, or Dave or any number of Freeview channels.

And it's not just the cable channels. BBC1 repeated every episode of the Vicar of Dibley at least seven times. BBC2's best performing sitcom for the whole of this year has been Dad's Army. And they're in the process of remaking some of the old classics, just to make it even harder for the new boys. That means your new sitcom hero is still fighting with Mainwairing, Fawlty, Hancock, Arkwright, Brent, Del Boy, Fletcher and Victor Meldrew.



Last night, UK Gold launched The Rebel, based on the Oldie cartoon strip, with Simon Callow (above). I've not seen it yet, but it's being played out before and after episodes of sitcoms that we already know are good and are prepared to watch again. That's tough. But that's the TV landscape we live in.

So let's get use to our brave new/old world with some Thick of It to finish with:

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Fifteen Years of Comedy

The Radio Times has launched a survey to discover the sitcom of the century, or at least the last fifteen years. Somehow, they've narrowed it down to forty.

There are a few glaring omissions. It wasn't ever cool, but seems a bit remiss to leave out the long-running and highly successful My Family. (interest declared: I wrote one of those) It also seems a bit curmudgeonly to omit to My Hero (interest declared: I wrote six of those) There's also no place for a sitcom that almost singlehandedly saved BBC3, Two Pints of Lager and Packet of Crisps. And somehow, Coupling which began in 2000 has been left off the list. That would have to be on there, wouldn't it?

But what do you leave out? Well, that would be up to you. I have my candidates.

It is interesting, however, that the first three shows I mentioned are all mainstream. Only about quarter of this list are mainstream. Why is that? Is it that there weren't many other mainstream shows to choose from? Os it this the usual critics bias, veering away from the prime time stuff. Who knows? I have my theories.

So here are the forty shows grouped accordingly. Make of it what you will:

Mainstream BBC1/ITV/SKY
Mrs Brown's Boys, Miranda,  Not Going Out, Outnumbered, Peter Kay's Car Share, Citizen Khan, Count Arthur Strong, Benidorm, The Worst Week of My Life, Yonderland, Moone Boy

BBC2/BBC3/BBC4/C4
Bad Education,  Black Books, Catastrophe, Detectorists, Early Doors, Episodes, Extras, Friday Night Dinner, Gavin & Stacey, Getting On, Green Wing, Him & Her, Lead Balloon, Man Down, Nathan Barley, Nighty Night, Peep Show, Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, Psychoville, Pulling, Raised by Wolves, Rev, The Inbetweeners, The IT Crowd, The Office, The Trip/The Trip to Italy, The Thick of It, Toast of London, Twenty Twelve/W1A

We can argue over categories and classifications but looking at them overall. Some fine shows there, but how are we doing?  How can we tell?

How about we compare it the previous fifteen years? What sort of comedies were on from 1985-1999? I made a list.

The list excludes shows that began life before 1985. That cuts out quite a few big hitters, because there were some big long running shows that we rampant in the late 80s. So there's no Yes Minister/PM, (1980-88) Only Fools & Horses ('81-'91 plus specials), Allo Allo ('82-'92) or Hi-De-Hi ('80-'88). We also lose Blackadder, Ever Decreasing Circles and stalwarts like Don't Wait Up. And both Duty Free and Chance in a Million ran from '84-86, so they're out, sadly.

And let's not forget that this was an era with a lot of sketch comedy on TV as well, with Lenny Henry, Victoria Wood, Fry & Laurie, French & Saunders, Harry Enfield, The Fast Show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Smack the Pony, Alexi Sayle, Fist of Fun, Adam & Jo, Reeves & Mortimer, Chris Morris, Goodness Gracious Me, Absolutely, Naked Video, The Real McCoy and Paul Merton.

Paul Merton reminds me that this was also the heyday of panel games with the beginning of Have I Got News For You, Who’s Line Is It Anyway? and They Think It’s all Over. And the much forgotten very watchable prime time panel game with Kenny Everett & Gloria Hunniford, That's Showbusiness.
"Karl Howie also starring in
Me & My Girl"

There were shows that weren’t technically sitcoms too, like League of Gentlemen or People Like Us.


Oh, and Spitting Image was running this whole time, from 1984 until 1996.

So what are we left with for 1985-1999? Here are 40 to be going on with.

Let's start with 23 mainstream ones:
Vicar of Dibley, One Foot in the Grave, Father Ted. Keeping Up Appearances, Men Behaving Badly, Absolutely Fabulous, The Royle Family, As Time Goes By,Birds of a Feather, Bread, dinnerladies, 2point4 Children, Goodnight Sweetheart, The New Statesman, Waiting For God, Kiss Me Kate, May to December, Chef!, The Detectives, Dear John, The Brittas Empire, Brush Strokes, You Rang M’Lord?

Here are 17 that are less mainstream:
Father Ted, Red Dwarf, Drop the Dead Donkey, The Thin Blue Line, I’m Alan Partridge, Bottom, Gimme Gimme Gimme, Rab C Nesbitt, Spaced, Desmonds, Hot Metal, Joking Apart, Operation Good Guys, How Do You Want Me?, Hippies, Game On, Sean’s Show.

Also theres forty shows. And we don't even need any of:
Home To Roost, The Upper Hand, The Peter Principle, Three Up Two Down, On the Up, Is It Legal? Oh Doctor Beeching! or City Lights. Or my personal favourites like Mr Don and Mr George or Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. Or cult classic, The High Life. (Or mix and match your favourites)

So that was the previous 15 years. A lot of was mainstream. And even the stuff that isn't mainstream is more mainstream.

Am I biased? Am I just giving the stuff in 1990s an easy ride? How does it compare for you?I know which I prefer.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

An Interview with Radio Comedy Producer

Ed Morrish
Ed Morrish has produced a ton of comedy for BBC Radio, including John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, Dilemma, Mark Thomas: The Manifesto and Spats and more recently the revival of lost episodes of Hancock. (I don’t hold this against him. They’re rather good)

I worked with Ed on Recorded for Training Purposes, and can say categorically that he’s a very nice man. I took advantage of this and used it against him by asking him to be interviewed for this blog now that he’s moved on from the BBC.

Hello, Ed. I'm in italics, just to be clear. Please feel free to answer me in plain text. Ta. Now, you’ve worked for BBC Radio Comedy for quite a few years, from early in your career. How has your time producing hundreds of radio shows shaped your understanding of comedy? What did you think about comedy going into the job - and do you see things differently now coming out the other side?

I think that I thought, never having worked in comedy at all, that there was some sort of empiric answer to making good comedy, a defined skillset you could hone. And when you got to the point that you were successful 100% of the time you were declared the 'winner' and offered the next job - for writers that's the old production line of chucking in one-liners to Week Ending until you were asked to do a sketch, and writing sketches until you were asked to write a sitcom; for a producer it would be making a successful sitcom, a successful sketch show, a successful panel show and a successful stand-up show, then you'd be offered an executive job in radio or a telly job.

And what I've learned is that no-one one knows for sure, 100% of the time, what the audience will like. If they did they would either be a commissioner at a TV network that never had any flops, or they would be a permanently-employed producer that sold everything they pitched. Neither of those people exist.

So: we're all just guessing, and the more experienced you are the better those guesses should get, but you're never going to be right 100% of the time, and that's OK. It's the audience who decide what they like and they don't care how hard you worked or how original you are or how hack other stuff is. All you can control is how good you think it is, so make it as good as you can. Ideally, better than is necessary.

That’s easier said than done!

Your stuff will never feel as good as other people's, because for your own stuff you have to go through the bits - the drafts, the edits - where it's not good, or where it looks like it's never going to work. It's like you're constructing something from cardboard and string and everyone else is carving into stone. The thing is, usually, no-one else can see the string, and your stuff is as solid as anyone else's.

Also, your career advancement owes more to serendipity than empiric qualification. Deal with it.

Ouch. Really? I guess that it is partly luck-based. Right place right time. But how does the newbie right increase their odds? What do you see writers doing that helps/harms their chances of success or a career?

I think what helps your chances is finding a producer who is genuinely enthusiastic about your stuff. Don't think you can wear them down with persistence, because it takes ages to get stuff on the air and if someone isn't going to be jumping up and down about your stuff it's not going to happen.

In radio, you need fewer people than in telly, but you still need at least one person who is appreciably animated about you. Don't read "this had some nice moments" and think "I will send them draft after draft after draft". We never want to be rude and tell you your script's rubbish (although I've tried to be as honest as possible, and have turned down perfectly decent scripts because I didn't love them), because no-one wants to be the person who said guitar bands are on the way out, but at the same time we're really only in it to make programmes we love.

I would say be cordial, and don't give up, but it's worth casting around to see if you can find the most enthusiastic person possible. They'll do you the best job.

How has the comedy landscape shifted in the time you’ve been at the BBC?

Generally speaking - it's gotten slightly smaller in TV and radio (or perhaps, hasn't expanded at the rate of the rest of the rest of the comedy world), which has made it harder to get stuff made - not only is there more competition for a set number of radio slots, but there are also now some famous people who wouldn't have considered the medium a decade ago because they could get stuff away on TV competing against you when you're pitching your new show which has unknown talent. And that's obviously tough. So the squeeze on TV has lead to a squeeze in radio.

Parochially, the pipeline from radio to TV has also dried up a little - the guy who hired me, John Pidgeon, got Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh, Dead Ringers, Mitchell & Webb, Flight of the Conchords and Genius started for radio, as well as Chris Addison's Radio 4 series that eventually became Lab Rats, all in six years (1999-2005). Since then - Miranda, Count Arthur, I've Never Seen Star Wars, Nurse, In & Out of the Kitchen... Anything else? Partly this is due to the emergence of digital TV and YouTube, because radio used to be where you proved you could deliver a series before being trusted with a TV budget, but those platforms took away that USP - in fact, superceded it because if you can do Gavin & Stacey on BBC Three that's a better indicator of what will work on BBC 2 or BBC 1 than anything you could put on the radio.

Likewise, there's now a bias towards writer/performers rather than writers, because you can go to Edinburgh and see a comedian make a room full of people laugh for an hour, and asking them to write a sitcom might feel like less of a risk than imagining whether a script written down in black and white will make 320 people in the Radio Theatre, and 1.2m people at home, laugh.

Yay! It’s not just me that thinks that there is a bias towards writer/performers. Is that trend the new normal and we the pendulum isn’t swinging back any time soon. What would your advice be to non-performing writers? (other than writing for radio, of which more later) Get some acting training? Write for a rising start? Start a podcast? Get on Youtube?

Yes.

All of those are good ideas; podcast/youtube because that's the same principle as a stand-up knocking it out of the park for 55 minutes. You're asking less guesswork on the part of the producer/commissioner. "See? It works!" I mean look at People Just Do Nothing, Hood Documentary and Ackee & Saltfish - all picked up by the BBC because of really brilliant web series.

I'd warn you to be honest, though - if you're not a performer, don't, because a badly-performed thing can put people off. (So maybe the acting training/stand-up?). Maybe find a rising star and ask them to do perform it for you?

Oh. Well, I normally advise people not to bother with Youtube, but maybe you're right. I am often banging on about how new writers should try and get started in Radio. What sort of mistakes do you see rookie writers making?

I think the most common mistake is writing out a funny idea, but not in a funny way. So it's kind of amusing to think about, but won't reveal information in a surprising way - and it's the surprise that gets laughs. If you lay it all out at the start, you're sort of noodling through in a way that passes the time amiably enough, but it's not funny.

Also, don't think you're being innovative unless you've listened to a lot of stuff. "Hey, I'm really blowing your fusty, Radio 4 minds!" is probably unwise attitude to take if you've never heard The Burkiss Way.

The biggest thing is writing what you imagine a Radio 4 comedy should be like, rather than what you want to do. R4 comedy is hugely varied, way more varied than you might give it credit for - in the last year I've made shows with Lemn Sissay, Sami Shah, John Finnemore, Paul Sinha and Sue Perkins and Danielle Ward. In each case - you make the show that they want to make in the best way you possible can; I didn't mould any of them to be "more Radio 4”.

At the risk of sounding like a job interview, which shows are you most proud of? And why? And what were some unexpected knocks?

Every knock is to some degree unexpected - because if you didn't believe your show was worth its place on air why did you make it? It's an occupational hazard I suppose; survivor's guilt.

The shows I'm most proud of? Well, John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme is the most successful show I've made by far - we're recording series six in October/November. But the first episode of Lemn Sissay's Homecoming is probably the best half-hour of audio I've ever made; I'm very proud of the mix of stand-up poetry (recorded in an Ethiopian jazz club), interviews, music and links recorded in a run-down area of Addis.

Spats was criminally under-rated; John-Luke Roberts remains a genius.

And Dilemma was a really interesting format for which Danielle Ward (and others) came up with really funny and difficult problems and for which we booked some really diverse (meaning different, not code for "non-white", although it was that as well) guests - there's no other panel show that's had both Dame Ann Leslie and Ricky Wilson and Adil Ray on it.

And I still believe there should have been a third series of Eddie Robson's Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully, although it seems from the audience response that not enough people agree with us...

So you’ve moved on to the BBC. What next?

Mainly, making radio programmes for the BBC. Yeah, I know. But I'll be fulfilling my commissions as a freelancer - so a new series with Lemn Sissay, a two-parter with Aditi Mittal, and series six of Souvenir Programme will all happen before the end of the year. I'm also making some stuff for Audible - one large series and a few pilots so far.

Would you be interested in reading any scripts if people tracked you down and sent them to you?

In theory, although the people who've sent me scripts in the last two months might disagree. I also have two small children with whom I'm hoping to spend more time, so feel free to email me, but bear in mind I might be helping my son play SimCity, or drawing with my daughter...

Oh, and I had this idea for a show set in a 1990s video store. I didn’t really. Although we all did in the 1990s. Out of interest, what is the 2016 equivalent to the hack video store idea that you see a lot these days?

"Two siblings are very different people but jointly inherit a family business" comes up a lot; as does "Here's a tiny fictitious outpost of the British Commonwealth where events humorously mirror the political stories back on the mainland".

I also used to get "A semi-improvised sitcom based in the world of entertainment where actors play versions of themselves" a lot, and now Curb's coming back I expect that to crop up again. And the truth is there's nothing wrong with those as set-ups, per se, and I don't even know if the writers know how many other people have come up with the idea before them because most of the versions of those never make it to air.

That's the fun thing about comedy -it's all in the execution. "A sitcom set on an aeroplane" is the description of both The High Life and Cabin Pressure; it's how Forbes & Alan/John write them that make them work...

Any more advice to people wanting to be a sitcom writer? My experience of spec scripts is that nothing actually happens in the first ten pages. What have you noticed?

I think if nothing happens in the first ten pages you're lucky. Usually nothing happens in the first script. Or rather, the first script is spent setting up the sitcom. I get why people do this, but you're selling your show on a false prospectus I think, because you should know what your show is: it's the show where X and Y try to do Z (with hilarious consequences). If your first episode is "X and Y meet and a series of events conspire to put them in a position that next week they will try to do Z", that's another show. And a less interesting one.

My favourite way of getting around this was (and I'm not just saying this because you co-wrote it), Milton Jones. "Hello, I'm Milton Jones, the world-famous racing driver" - there, he's just told you who he is and what he does, let's get on with it.

So my general sitcom advice: get straight to the story. You need the audience to want to know how it turns out because that will keep them listening. Why did you watch Gavin & Stacey? Because you wanted to know how it ended - so hook them. And skip the expositional first episode that you wrote. The end of that episode is where your sitcom starts, so start there. (Then plunder the expositional first episode for gags and backstory.)

Also, remember you are taking up the audience's time, so justify that. You remember that line from Seinfeld: TV Exec: "Why will people watch this?" George: "Because it's on TV!" - that didn't really work then and certainly doesn't work now. Always be telling them something or showing them something.

Thanks, Ed. Now get back to playing SimCity ‘with your son’.

Follow/pester/heckle Ed Morrish on Twitter where he has very cleverly styled himself @edmorrish.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Why Laughter Should Be Just A Normal Human Reaction

Bear with me. This ends up being about sitcom. Promise.

Your average stand-up comedian tends to look down on three types of comedian: the impressionist; the comedy musician (and possibly the poet); and the comedy magician.

The impressionists don’t seem to need much help in looking down on their own craft. With a few exceptions, impressionists seem to be keen to prove what else they can do the moment they get a reputation for doing brilliant voices. The likes of Steve Coogan and Chris Barrie managed to tunnel out of voicework and into character comedy. And Coogan can now go back to impressions on The Trip or chat show interviews now he’s proved beyond doubt he doesn’t need to do them. Because impressions aren’t enough on their own, apparently.

Comedy musicians are often crowd pleasers. Other comedians find them annoying, being dismissive of the craft of comedy songs. Rhyming doesn’t automatically make it funny, if the cynics are to be believed. While we can all admire the genius of Tom Lehrer or Bill Bailey, as a rule comedians seem to think audiences are too lenient on a comedian, just because they can play the guitar or let the audience sing along.

I don’t know if there’s still a north/south divide in comedy, but I do know that some comedians find it odd that a comedian will finish the night with a straight song. Like Ken Dodd would (and still does). And Peter Kay still does. Again, it's making the audience happy without doing any actual jokes. Which is cheating.

Finally, there’s the magician. and here things are even more adversarial. Embittered comedians can never really get behind the cocktail of magic and jokes because the jokes, they claim, wouldn’t stand on their own merits if someone weren’t creating a ‘wow’ effect or getting a round of applause with making something disappear or correctly guessing a card. That’s not proper comedy. If you’re a real comedy snob. So the theory goes.

Just as stand-up comedians tend to look up on at least two other types of comedy; the improv masters who conjure comedy out of thin air. The Ross Nobles, the Adam Hillses and the Phil Kays. That’s comedy in a very pure form. And all of those guys look up to wistful storytellers like Daniel Kitson. In fact, it’s mostly just Daniel Kitson who does beautiful poignant shows that are, apparently, just fab, selling out months in advance. And then there's Stewart Lee.

But what’s the problem here? Why point out divisions in the comedy world? It’s all entertainment, isn’t it? The audience don’t care, do they?

Correct.

Yes, it’s all entertainment.

And no, the audience don’t care.

They’ve had a hard day or week at work. And they’d like a night out and a laugh. And if a comedy club gives them some magic, some music, some impressions, some improv and a story, then great. As long as its funny. Or they've seen someone they like on Mock the Week, and fancy an hour of that. And they get it. Great.

I mention this because I’m trying to work out how to respond to Sam’s Wollaston latest pontifications on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to TV comedy – especially in how it relates to so-called ‘canned laughter’, which newspapers and critics continue to use as a term, even though it’s not canned or fake, but real.

We’ve spoken of canned laughter before. Long ago. And many times since. In various places on the internet. And yes, we know that sometimes the sound of the audience laughter is enhanced or tweaked – sometimes for technical reasons, or to stop it sounding annoying or weird. Audience laughter is, ultimately a sound effect. And occasionally that is cheating.

So why go over old ground? Good point. My first instinct was to shut my eyes and assume that this particular critic will go and eventually review something else, like books or garden furniture.

But I feel I have to say something as it’s not just Sam Wollaston tipping idiocy all over the world of TV criticism. Plenty of people agree with him if you look at the comments below his article. (Don't bother) Moreover, opinions like this appear regularly in The Guardian, a significant newspaper in the media world, and read voluntarily by most people who work in it. This is how opinions are formed and trends are set. And sitcom writers like me have to work in a world in which those opinions and trends have consequences and ramifications for our mortgages.

I don’t want to repeat anything that Ken Levine has said in his blog. This guy wrote episodes of M*A*S*H. I’m prepared to go with him when he says "It’s such a stupid argument I have to shake my head" and so forth.

So, let’s make two other points here. Firstly, let’s go back to my original point.

The Audience Doesn't Care
The majority of the audience doesn’t care if there’s a laugh track or not. They’ve had a long week at work and they’d like some comedy with some jokes in it. They’re not watching it on a Tuesday morning on their own with a notepad because it’s their job. Your experience is different, Sam. They're watching at night with a brew or a beer and are wanting to have a nice time. So to state that “television comedy does not need to come served with laughter – studio laughter, audience laughter, whatever you want to call it – in 2016. Not just doesn’t need it, is much better without it" is just nonsense on roller-skates.

Like most normal people, I like different kinds of comedy. Subtle stuff, satirical stuff, and stupid stuff. With or without the sound of laughter. I love plenty of single-camera comedy with no laugh track. Right now, most comedy I watch is this kind. This year, it’s been Brooklyn 99, The Goldbergs, and Modern Family. And catching up with Parks and Recreation on DVD. Plus Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Which has an audience. That laugh. Out loud. A lot. And the blisteringly funny Newswipe with Charlie Brooker. Which doesn't. I like both. Because you can. (I also co-wrote episodes of Miranda which does. And episodes of Bluestone 42. Which doesn't. Which is fine).

What are the most watched shows on TV at the moment? The ones on BBC1 probably aren’t aimed at metropolitan TV critics so we can pass over those if you like. (Even though the biggest sitcom on TV this year is Still Open All Hours. Which has that awful sound of enjoyment on it. Urgh. And Birds of a Feather on ITV is no different. Yawn.)

What about funky and groovy BBC2 and Channel 4? Here’s a fun fact for you. The most watched sitcom on those two channels is a repeat of Dad’s Army. Every week. Almost without fail. Check the ratings. Seriously. Every week. Ah, but that’s nostalgic, you may argue. Or it's a classic. But are we just putting up with the noise of humans enjoying themselves because we love the characters? Or is it all of a piece? A genre that some people happen not to like. Which is fine.

Look on the other channels and you’ll see reruns of audience sitcoms like Yes Prime Minister, Miranda, Men Behavingly Badly, My Family and Ab Fab. UK Gold wouldn’t be showing these TV shows if they didn’t rate. Dave has been making Red Dwarf again. And again. And you know what? They found it worked way better in front of an audience.

What TV shows are the BBC remaking? Porridge, Keeping Up Appearances and Are You Being Served? Shows with audience laughter.

Are all of these shows just nostalgic? Maybe. But, hey what's the biggest sitcom in the world right now? An audience show called Big Bang Theory. A show insanely popular with younger audiences who’ve never seen The Rag Trade or In Loving Memory. But they have also watched a ton of episodes of Friends. They're fine with laughter.

There’s not much point going on giving further examples. Sitcoms work with audiences. Some are better without. To say it’s “much better without” is plain dumb.

That was a long first point. But here's the second:

It's Not A Contest
There’s something else at the heart of this – and why I think comedy criticism is so odd, dysfunctional and out of touch with people who just like laughing at funny things on TV. (Hey, it’s not just Westminster that has elites that have no idea what the people that pay their wages actually want or think!) Wollaston says:
“It’s not about telling the viewer when to laugh, the laughter advocate will say; it’s about creating an atmosphere in the studio for the recording. Fine – if you’re in the studio. I’m not though, I’m in my living room; I’m judging it from here, where – yes – I want to decide for myself, and am more likely to laugh without being nudged hard in the ribs.”
Here’s the nub. Wollaston is a critic. I get that. He’s judging comedy. But he needs to read some CS Lewis. Not just a writer of stories about big Christ-like Lions, but an expert in English Language and literature. He wrote a superb book called An Experiment in Criticism. A tough read, but highly recommended. In it, he writes this:
“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”
Essentially, give it a chance. Allow yourself to be entertained. For that’s what a sitcom is. Art, masquerading as entertainment. You can’t possibly judge it on its own terms if all you can do is sit over it. You have to sit under it. Or at least next to it. A laugh isn't something you 'make up your own mind about'. It's a normal human reaction. Why should it be anything else?

The reason I mentioned stand-up snobbery earlier was also because of how some people view magic. Which I also mentioned earlier. (There was method in my droning madness.) People can be very negative or weird about magic because they say it’s all just a trick. And yet, it’s not just a trick. It is a trick. And you can call it a trick if you want, which may or may not fool you. Or you can call it magic and allow it to entertain you. Your choice.

Do keep on going, Mr Gill
Magic, for some, seems to be a battle of wits, as if the only question is whether the magician can put one over on me, and make the impossible appear to happen without my working out how it’s done. If the magicians wins, then well done them. Slow hand clap. You’ve outwitted me. You were probably bullied at school, weren’t you and only got into magic so people would like you? Loser.

You don’t like magic. Fine. I could take it or leave it.

But this is how some people seem to be about comedy. Wollaston’s comments about comedy belie this bizarrely adversarial attitude towards sitcoms especially which seems to be quite common among critics of comedy and those who like what they write. There is an arms-folded, straight-faced, ‘go-on-then-monkey-boy-make-me-laugh’ vibe going on, as if a joke is a comedy trick that you didn’t see coming and can’t quite work out, and then deeply resent when it hits you. Or maybe you did see it coming, and now you despise the comedian or writer for trying to outsmart you and failing.

Is this any way to watch a comedy show? I don't think it is. It only leads to misery, frustration and snobbery, which is the lot of the stand up comedian who thinks that people are cheating the audience with impressions, songs or a cup and balls routine.

As in most things in life, I'm with CS Lewis. Not Sam Wollaston.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Make It Worse. And Worse. And Worse.

Plotting is hard. Stories rarely come to mind fully formed. There’s normally a starting point, or a snapshot, or a moment that feels like it would be funny, or interesting or fruitful. The hard part comes when you have to turn that into a plot for your sitcom episode.

I’ve written about this in the past, saying how important it is to give your characters hell. Let rip! This has never been more important than the current climate when drama is killing comedy in the ratings. Your comedy protagonist is on the same box that gave the public Jack Bauer, President Bartlett and Walter White. Sometimes we don’t let our imagination run wild and cause utter calamity for our characters because we’re worried we won’t be able to plot our way out of it. We need to take off these shackles.

But, there’s more. Sorry.

Sisyphus. Trying to get a sitcom on TV is like this.
The Protagonist is not just hero, or the one we’re rooting for, or the dolt we feel sorry for. He/she doesn’t just try and fail like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill day after day. In each episode, the protagonist is the agent of change. In short, they need to keep making it worse at every turn. Worse for themselves. Worse for their friends. Better/worse for their foes. Worse.

It’s tempting to give your character a quest – and see them fail once, then fail again, learn a lesson and through a third failure, somehow succeed. Nice and easy. Or they have to go on a wild goose chase, or get the runaround. But it’s probably not be very interesting or satisfying. Chuck Wendig is brilliant on this here.

Take some characters I created in a previous blog post. Geoff and Lynette. Geoff is a technophile and a tinkerer. Let’s say he wants to prove his manliness to Lynette and that he’s not a useless old git by, say, fixing the waste disposal unit. How’s he going to do that? A waste disposal a dangerous thing that might take his arm off. That’s good (for comedy). He tries to fix it one way. And then another. At this point, I’m already thinking that a waste disposal might not be right because we’re never going to see the thing take his arm off. Maybe it’ll be fine. Can’t tell at this stage.

Either way, after a couple of scenes, he hasn’t fixed the waste disposal, at which point, we’re screaming at the TV that he should just get a handyman or plumber in to fix it. Maybe he does – and then has to pass off that his was his handiwork. Or Lynette comes home early and the plumber has to hide in a cupboard.

It could be funny that Geoff is hiding a fit, virile young handyman in his cupboard and it looks like they’re having a torrid love affair, which might have been hinted at in jest earlier and now looks like it might be real. But this plot feels very linear. It’s just a series of events that may in themselves be funny set-pieces but are less then the sum total of the parts.

Geoff needs to make it worse. As he embarks on his quest, he needs to make it all worse, and make his quest harder.

And not only does Geoff needs to make it worse. The reasons for the actions leading to that catastrophe need to be based in character, rather than just bad luck, or clumsiness. Story is character if we're going to be all McKee about this.

So let’s remind ourselves about who Geoff is:

Geoff is a good hearted optimist, always trying to make things better for the people around him. And would probably like to be recognised for doing so. He’s a gadget guy, and thinks gadgets can improve everything. And he never throws anything away in case it comes in handy. This is all a function of his optimism.

How will this affect his fixing of a waste disposal unit? For a start he will believe that he can do it. And he will have the tools to fix it. Somewhere. And he will have the original instructions. Somewhere. So when Lynette goes off on a trip suggesting Geoff call a plumber, Geoff can be confident that he can do the job before Lynette gets back late that evening, at which point, she says she will call a plumber if he hasn’t fixed it.

So Geoff will spend ages finding the tools and the instructions. Because he's a hoarder. And then not find them but get distracted by other junk. Because he's a tinkerer.

Then he’ll be in a hurry to fix the waste disposal to get it done before Lynette gets back, and in so doing disconnects a pipe with sends water splurging all over the kitchen, perhaps onto an important irreplaceable document that Lynette has left out for him to sign? (We'd need to seed that earlier and imbue that piece of paper with great significance) In trying to dry out this document, he uses too much heat and fuses the electrics, plunging himself into slippery darkness.

He slips in the darkness (don’t let the darkness last long as we can’t film it!) and somehow there’s an emergency light – or the light from the oven he can just reach. Maybe there’s a panic button Geoff has always been too proud to use because he doesn’t consider himself to be elderly (because he isn’t). Lynette comes home to find calamity. Or Geoff passed out in front of an open oven, and it looks he's tried to gas himself?

This is the kind of process I would go through in trying to work out the plot. It still feels a bit linear, but it’s all just a first stab at what could happen, without a very satisfactory resolution yet. It’s a quest for Geoff that gets harder and harder as he makes bad decisions because of his character.

I’m dubious about some of the later stuff because it’s funny physical comedy, but not quite coming from character. It seems there needs to be more justification for it – but this is blog and I’m not being paid to sort this out, so I’m going to leave that there for now. But I could easily spend a whole day – several hours – going through the possibilities, talking it through with my writing partner and refining it. And even then, we might leave it on the drawing board, or realise the whole thing is flawed for some reason we could see early on.

I like Fawlty Towers, although not as much as some, but I suspect that Cleese and Booth did this brilliantly in their plotting, as they would heap calamity onto catastrophe, all coming from Fawlty's snobbery, ego and cowardice. For homework, it might be worth watching one or two episodes to see how they did it. And if you show is a tenth as successful as Fawlty Towers, you'll be doing very well indeed.


Hope that helps with your plotting. It takes ages. And you need to ask more than the question which is ‘What goes wrong?” You need to ask “How does my character make it worse."

"And worse."

"And WORSE."

"Because of who they are.”

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Advice like this and much more can be found in Writing That Sitcom, available as an ebook for Kindle & Kindle App. 

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Sociopathic Behaviour

When I start noticing trends in sitcoms, I’m always very suspicious of my observations – especially when comparing the current crop of shows to those of a certain era. Dozens of British sitcoms seemed very funny in the 1980s, but I was only six years old in 1981 and hardly what one could classify as discerning.

Moreover, you only remember the good stuff – or the stuff you liked, because you watched lots of episodes of that, and didn’t bother with the stuff you didn’t like. Unless, of course, you knew from a young age you wanted to be a TV critic, and so you were training yourself to watch TV you despised so that you could write about it at great length (and somehow still not know that canned laughter isn’t fake).

I didn’t watch loads of TV in the 90s, although some would argue it was still plenty. I suppose I had more choice, being in my teens, when we had two TVs in the house. But although I had my own TV as a student, I didn’t watch it very much. After being a student, I was trying to earn a living and was going our more (although not much). And it just wasn’t as convenient to tape things. Although I always thought Videoplus was a bit magical.

Now I’m in a lot more, because I have two small children. And I’m a comedy writer, so I feel professionally obliged to watch lots of new comedy, including stuff that isn’t aimed at me. So I’m now watching TV as a 40 year-old dad, so not only is the comedy different, but I’m different too.
So there you go. Four paragraphs of caveats because I make this following observation: an awful lot of comedy at the moment seems to feature characters that are essentially sociopaths. And that’s being reflected in the scripts that I read too.

Is it just me?

For the avoidance of doubt, Chambers’ dictionary defines sociopathy as:
“any of various personality disorders characterized by asocial or antisocial behaviour”.
I’m seeing a lot of that at the moment, especially in comedies that end up being called ‘dark’; characters who are just plain awful human beings, rude, incapable of engaging in normal human relationships or grindingly selfish.

I realise that lots of great sitcom characters are borderline sociopaths, like Victor Meldrew, Basil Fawlty or David Brent. They are all sociopathic in some sense. Kramer too. They all behave very antisocially at times – or don’t seem to know how to behave are various crucial moments.

But Meldrew, Fawlty, Brent and Kramer aren’t selfish idiots. They are people who are driven into terrible behaviour, ludicrous schemes or clumsy speech by overarching desires. Meldrew wants to be respected – and as an old man, he frequently does get that respect. This means he often takes matters into his own hands, and then it backfires. Fawlty is a snob and simmering with rage that his mediocre hotel attracts very mediocre guests. Brent just wants to be truly loved by his colleagues. Kramer is always trying to be one step ahead of the crowd and thinks he’s smart.

So these characters aren’t funny because they’re awful human beings or behave transgressive. They’re funny because they’re motivated by desires that make them behave awfully or transgressively.

Let’s take an example of a scene that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in a ‘dark’ comedy or a script I’d been asked to read. Let’s say we have a couple called Ian and Susie. They’ve been trying to have children and it hasn’t happened for them. And they can’t afford IVF, or its gone wrong. That, I’m sure, would be very painful. Susie has a sister called Beverly. And she’s a sociopath. Just awful. And selfish.  And everything. She doesn’t know how to talk to people. And in one scene she gives Ian and Susie a lovely present: a baby doll. Because it’s the next best thing, isn’t it? Pretending. In fact, dolls are better because they don’t crap everywhere and you don’t have to feed them. Susie starts crying, and, not being a sociopath, makes an excuse and leaves. Susie is baffled. Ian just has to do the best he can. And suggests that they don’t want the baby doll, and now Beverly is offended and starts crying. Beverly, being a sociopath, has made it all about her. Tears. Pain. Misery.

Is that funny?

I don’t think it is. Maybe it is. Is it just a taste thing?

But I’m seeing this sort of thing quite a lot on TV and in scripts at the moment.

There is probably comic version of the scene I’ve just described, if we make Beverly a very sympathetic and warm character. She’s on her way to visit a goddaughter – and has the baby ready as a present for the goddaughter. But stops off at Susie and Ian's who are having trouble conceiving. Over the course of the conversation with Susie and Ian, Beverly gives the false impression that this present is for Ian and Susie. Ian is appalled, as he can’t believe that Beverly would be like this etc. Susie runs out weeping,  Beverly then realises and now has to do that thing she didn’t want to do to make it up to her sister, etc.

That might work although I’m not going to take the rest of the day off after thinking of a scene like that.

Is this all in my head? Is it because I’m 40 and a dad? Help me here.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Notes for Newbies

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote that ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ If you’re a screenwriter, you can add one more thing to that list: Notes.

It is fashionable for writers to laugh at notes, stupid notes and the stupid people who give you stupid notes. And it’s funny when real industry pros like Rob Long talk about it. You can read examples in his two excellent books that I highly recommend, Conversations with My Agent and Set Up, Joke, Set up Joke. But he’s sucked up his fair share of notes in his time, and written episodes of Cheers. So he gets to talk like that.

The fact is that sometimes, you do get really silly or arbitrary notes. Writers are always swapping stories of daft notes they’ve had. It’s a way of the over-educated powerless writers asserting their intellectual superiority. I know. Pathetic, really. And although moaning about notes is fun, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.

If you’ve written a script, sent it to a producer, development executive or script editor and they want to meet up, they’re most likely going to give you notes. You’re going to have to get used to this. If you want a career as a writer, you’re going to have a lifetime of being told that what you’ve written isn’t quite right – or is way off. If you don’t want that, or can’t handle it, do something else. Farmers get crapped on. Nurses are vomited on. Writers get notes. It’s an occupational hazard.

Let’s say the producer is interested in your script and it has potential, and wants to take it to an exec, but would like you to take a look at some parts of the script first. They have notes. How to respond? How does it work?

I’ve been a script editor on several series of radio and a few series of children’s TV – and given a fair amount of notes, as well as being on the receiving end of them so I’ve seen this from both sides. We’ll get to a few specifics in a while, but first, a few general points.

Bear in Mind
You are very attached to your script. You’ve given birth to it. It may well have taken nine months and essentially feel like a child. And parents don’t take negative comments about their babies very kindly. So understand that you are an overprotective, overly sensitive person when it comes to your script. And remember that it’s not a baby – an inherently valuable being made in God’s image – it’s a script. Just a script. Words on a page. About made up people.

It’s good that you care about it. But don’t let your attachment to it blind you to its flaws. And there will be flaws. It’s not easy to hear negative comments and react rationally, but you must. I have to take a deep breath before every notes session, and prepare to suppress my rage, whilst trying to keep an open mind – even with notes on a fourth draft of a third episode of an existing TV series where, essentially, I’m winning.

It would also pay to remember that at this stage in your career, the note-giver is mostly likely vastly more experienced than you. They’ve been there, done that, and made their mistakes – and may be giving you the opportunity to learn from theirs.

Moreover, the producer or script editor wants the same thing as you: a funny show. Even better, a funny, successful show. He (or she) doesn't want to make the show worse. And he (or she - you get the idea) doesn't want you to remove good jokes. He wants you to remove bad jokes, or cut things that get in the way of the jokes. Or streamline things that are confusing. Or ensure that everyone's motivation is clear and defined. He may be wrong about some of these things, but not all of them. So assume he’s right about some of them. Maybe even most of them.

Also, the script editor or note giver is busy. They’re almost certainly working on lots of projects or have their heads in something else. They may make a mistake in their notes, or misremember something. They may forget the names of some characters or get a set piece scene the wrong way round. This may be the third script they’ve fed back on that day. Your script is not at the centre of their universe. So if the notes are a little non-sensical, or contain errors or contradictions, try cutting them some slack.

And if they don’t find a joke funny, they can't help that. They might realise that others will find it funny. Or they may have reasons for cutting it.

Remember that without notes and suggestions for improvements, your script cannot improve. And if it’s a first or second draft, there’s no way that it’s good enough or ready to be shot.

The Best Kind of Note
The best note is an articulation of an awful truth you’ve been suppressing all along. There’s been a consistent weakness in a character, a scene or story that you’ve been wilfully blind towards, and you can’t face fixing it because you’re worried it’ll mean losing a whole load of funny stuff. Well, that chick has come home to roost. Time to address that which has remained unaddressed. The consequences may not be as bad as you think. But they may be worse. Essentially, though, this note is a blessing.

The Worst Kind of Note
There are lots of worst kinds of note. (I know logically this can’t be the case. But this is notes. Logic does not apply) The very worst note is the one given by someone with nothing to say, but a desire to justify their salary. So they seize on random things in the script and undermine them. You can sometimes spot these notes because they’re just bizarre.

A Common Bad Note
A more common kind of bad note is one that appears to be about one thing, but is actually about another. This is why experienced writers advise rookies to think about ‘the note behind the note’. Sadly, the note behind the note is often ‘I hate this idea’ or ‘I wish this episode were about something else’ or ‘I’ve never liked this character’. These notes are profoundly annoying and unhelpful because they're dishonest. Worse, you can't really do anything about them.

So those are the extremes. Now, let’s have some specific Dos and Don’ts:

Do Ignore Some of the Notes
As we’ve established, not all the notes will be right or helpful. But think twice before ignoring any note completely, because there's probably something in it. If a line or moment you think works fine is questioned, maybe it doesn’t quite work fine. Take another look at it. Maybe it’s flawed in a way you and the notegiver hadn’t spotted.

Even the silliest most deranged note (like 'Hey, could the hero die on page one?' See clip below) is worth considering for a moment or two. A script is a moving, mushy thing. Nothing is set in stone until it's actually broadcast and out there. At least try it their way, even if you end up switching it back.

Do Question Notes
But do it politely. A note may make no sense to you at all. It may seem strange, utterly nonsensical or wilfully negligent. Don’t rant and whine to your spouse or loved ones. It may not be a conspiracy or even a cock up. It may be something that’s been badly explained. Or even a typo. They’re easily doen. (Ha ha!)

You are more than entitled to say to the Script Editor or Producer ‘I’m confused by this note, because...’ or ‘I’m struggling with which way to go on this. We've talked about two ways and I'm still not clear why you favour the second option...’ A dialogue for clarification is fine, and may be fruitful if done with proper care and respect.

Don’t Give Notes on the Notes
If you’re emailed some notes, you don’t need to go through them all on the email and say whether you agree or disagree with them - or give the lines a backstory. I’ll go further: Don’t do that. It’s really annoying. It sounds defensive. And when you’re giving this redundant feedback, don’t simply reject notes with non-specific excuses lines like ‘You told me to cut that bit but I really like it. I don't know why. Just feels right.’ Why do you like it? Why should it be kept in? Every single line of your script needs to fight for its right to survive. You can’t keep bits in because of some non-specific affection. If you want to be a pro, act like a pro. Defend the line with a concrete reason, or cut it.

Don’t Crow
It’s quite likely that a script editor will suggest something for your first draft, that they will suggest removing after draft three. Maybe she’s forgotten that it was her idea. But then, she’s read two drafts of ten scripts since she gave that note. Cut her some slack and don’t make her feel like an idiot with a ‘Well, I only put that in because you told me to’. Grow up. And remember that when she’s dishing out extra commissions for scripts, she might remember your notes on her notes and your crowing and decide to go with someone else.

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Advice like this and much more can be found in Writing That Sitcom, available as an ebook for Kindle & Kindle App. 

Oh, and of course the best thing about awful notes is this amazing sketch from Mitchell & Webb: