Friday, 6 March 2015

Seven Tips For Getting Your Script Ready

A deadline looms large. It's the BBC Writers Room window for submitting comedy scripts. From 9th March to 2nd April 2015, their comedy script room will be open. This is something I advise you to make full use of, not because it will mean that your script will necessarily be plucked from obscurity, rushed to the DG's office by a panting courier and a limo sent to your door to bring you to the BBC as the saviour of BBC Comedy. That is unlikely.

A positive response from the BBC Writers Room is well worth having because it means that some people at the BBC know about you. You might start getting invited to some free workshops at which you might learn stuff and hear about opportunities. You might meet other writers in a similar position and maybe get to know some producers. In short, you might feel like you're getting somewhere.

But it's a long process which starts with a script. Is your script ready?

You want your script to stand out. The best way to do that, boringly, is to have a decent idea about something you're really interested in and passionate about. Create some fresh characters with some original stories and write it. It needs to be about something, like a clash of worldviews or a stage of life. A cynically assembled script, designed to be purely eye catching or 'commercial', will almost certainly read as exactly that. It's hack. And the BBC Writers Room - and Channel 4, ITV, SKY and production companies up and down the land - want new voices, not hacks.

Right now, however, we're concerned with the script we have in front of us, and making sure it's match-fit for the scrutiny of the readers of the Writers Room. Here are seven things to bear in mind when going over your script before you send it in.

1. First Few Pages
Let's be realistic. A reader is going to make up their mind about your script by the end of page 2. If your first two pages are badly spelled waffle, you're going to struggle to make any kind of impact with the remaining thirty pages. You first two or three pages are critical. Focus plenty of you time and attention on those.

2. Clarity
There's so much to do on those first few pages, but you're making life difficult for the reader if it's not crystal clear what's going on. Is the situation clear? There is a temptation to create some mystery and do some huge reveal in an attempt to create drama and tension. Well, this is a sitcom script. Clarity is your friend. I'd recommend announcing your comedy themes with a blunderbuss, rather than a cloak and dagger.

3. First Action
Your script will be clear if it's obvious from the start who the characters are and what they're about. What are they doing when we first meet them? And what does it say about them? Sitting, drinking a cup of tea is not a great way to introduce a character. They walk in - what are they holding? What are they wearing? What do they say that gives the reader a clear idea about who this character is and why they are funny? That first action or line for each character is crucial. It should really sum up who they are.

4. Unique Voice
Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear? Reading a new script for the first time - especially when it might be the eighth script that day - makes it hard to retain distinctive characters in your head. Help this along by giving distinctive patterns of speech, or turns of phrase, to your characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

5. Tightly Written
Can every single line justify its place? Delete any line that isn't character, action or a joke. There's no room for 'meh' lines. Or wit. Look at each scene and ask whether it could be shorter. Could you come in later? Could you cut earlier? Do you need every line? Are you repeating information? Every script can be shorter. Make yours shorter, tighter, leaner and meaner. A funny 28 pages is way more appealing than a baggy 34 pages.

6. Typo Free
Are there typos all over the place? Or one or two still lurking around? I find it really hard to see typos in my own writing (as this blog demonstrates), so get someone else to check it over.

7. Funny
Are there enough jokes? Again, it's a sitcom script so are you trying to make the reader laugh at least three times per page? You really should be. Is there any way of turning half-jokes into proper jokes? Or you making the most of each moment? If you've done the hard work of getting your characters into funny situations, make sure you maximise the funny when you're there.

So those are my brief tips. Good luck.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Don’t Writers Just Get in the Way on Set?

Yes, of course they do.

I'm sure many producers probably feel this way. Writers are just one extra voice in the mix which feels like it will just slow things down when time is pressing. Shooting TV is frantic.

But writers can also save the production vital hours if anyone actually has time to listen to what they have to say. The writers have thought about little else for the previous six months so they can be a very useful reference point for props or costume if they have questions, able to give instant answers. And the writers haven’t just written the dialogue. They’ve written the action and the story. In fact, they’ve The Show.

So all questions are relevant to the writer. For example:

How big should the ladle in Scene 7 be? What sort of liquid soap do we need in Scene 3? Does this picture on the wall seem about right? Is this scarf too much? What army rank is this unspecified character? Should they be running, marching or walking? You get the idea.

Writers can also suggest cuts on the fly. It sounds unlikely, but writers often know in their heart of hearts that a scene or a bit of action isn’t strictly necessary. If pressed, they can normally find cuts when faced with the reality of shooting half an hour of television in five and a half days.

Writers can also spot howlers or errors during filming that much cost money to reshoot or fix in the edit.

Moreover, writers can fix script problems quicker than anyone else because, well, it’s their only job. They’re good with words. And when a line doesn’t work, asking a member of the cast, the director or whoever happens to be on hand to fix is unreasonable. Coming up with the right line for the right character in situ is not easy. In the case of Bluestone 42, there was also military advice and technical knowledge to be weighed and considered. It’s a writer’s job to fix it, isn’t it? It seems odd that a director or producer wouldn’t insist the writer is on hand for that.

I’m also surprised when a writer doesn’t want to be on hand for all of the above. (Well, I’m not that surprised. Writers aren’t paid extra for turning up.) The shooting of the script is The Most Critical Stage, isn’t it? You can’t edit pictures and lines you haven’t got. You have to make sure you have everything and have it right. After all, the final broadcast version of the show is all anyone sees or cares about. You’re the writer – you’ve written the Show, not the Script, haven’t you?  Discuss.

Who's In Charge?
Here we dip our toe in the ‘Who’s In Charge?’ question. In America, the Show Runner, who is often the show creator, is in charge and has final say, although they may temper their vision based on the wishes of their paymaster and broadcaster. In UK, things are less clear cut. Is the producer in charge creatively? It seems that we muddled through in the hope that no-one’s going to cause an embarrassing scene. How very British.

A director I spoke to recently was surprised that either Richard Hurst or I were on set for every scene of Bluestone 42 being shot. He wondered why. I replied that we’d spent months of our lives writing these episodes. Why wouldn’t we want to see it through to the very end? It seems to me that if you don’t take the time and trouble to be there on the day and have your say on in the edit, you don’t really have any right to complain if Your Script and The Show are two very different things.

If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Notes on Notes

In the last blog post, I mentioned a brilliant edition of UK Scriptwriters podcast with writer and Script editor Andrew Ellard, who tweets interesting writer stuff here. In the podcast, he talks about the three kinds of script editors that are out there. The Conduit, Contributor and Consultant. (More on these here.) He sees his job as the Consultant, that is a script editor work doesn't collate the notes of others or throw in gags, but gives details notes to get the stories and characters working properly. Essentially, this kind of Script Editor is the writer's friend.

Huh. I can already hear you splurting out your fourth coffee of the day. "I'm a writer! It's Me vs The World. No one understands my creative vision! Blah blah blah."

Are you done?

Different shows need different kinds of script editors. I don't plan to addressing that here. But what is worthy of note is the nature of notes of this kind. Andrew said he sees his job as a script editor as trying to help the writer execute their idea in the best way possible. This highlights one of the key issues around note giving and note receiving

My rule of thumb on notes is that the best notes are an articulation of an awful truth you’ve been suppressing all along (which I say here). But the worst kind of note is one 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'.

The note behind the note, however, 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.

If you're giving notes on a script, it’s worth asking yourself ‘Am I trying to help the writer achieve their vision? Or am I trying to change the writer’s vision?’ It may be the latter, and that may be entirely justified and reasonable given the state of the script, but one needs to have an honest conversation about that. In fact, one should probably have had an honest conversation about it earlier at the outline/treatment stage.

But you didn't read the treatment properly, did you?

Because the treatment, or Scene by Scene Outline, was 1500 words of dense text. (See Deadly Sin 1: Skimming here) Okay, maybe I'm being a little harsh here. We're all busy, and outlines are not exciting to look at, or inviting you to read them over and over to get them in your head so you can imagine the episode and respond constructively. But we all have to do things we don't enjoy. And I guess that's why you're paid a decent monthly salary, with job security, serviced office, assistant and a pension. Sorry. But you get the point.

So let's take a silly example.

Your characters go to a theme park in the second act of your episode - and you've written your outline, which has been approved, and now you've written the script. Maybe it's a second draft. And you get a note along the lines of 'Does it have be a theme park? Maybe it could be a zoo. Or a themed hotel?'

What are you meant to make of that note? There could be any number of reasons for it - which could be that the notegiver knows for a fact that theme parks are expensive to film in; or had a bad experience at one as a child and never liked them; or has some hare-braned notion that 'Theme Parks aren't funny'.

To be honest, if an experienced exec producer says that 'Theme Parks aren't funny' and then makes a case for it, I'm all ears. You're a fool to ignore the advice of someone with decades more experience than you. You could make the case, for example, that 'Fashion Shows aren't funny'. The reason for that, you could argue, is that they are already inherently preposterous. It's normally funnier to make something run-of-the-mill preposterous. But the skill of good writing is that it finds new ways to do all kinds of things. I'm sure there's a funny Ab Fab scene or two at a fashion show.

Occasionally, you do get silly 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). If you follow Network Notes on Twitter you'll see some of the most ridiculous examples that I'm not entirely sure I believe (or are ripped out of context but a furious/frustrated writer). eg.

“Maybe instead of an alcoholic, she should be a well-adjusted woman who everyone likes and respects?” – ABC

"We like your dialogues and scenarios very much. But gangsters can't be Chechens. Nazis?" - Canal Plus

“You know what would help this story? Seven high fashion models.” – NBC

"I haven't seen Moneyball, but could you make this more like Moneyball?" - FOX

So, that's the silly extreme stuff.

One more example, which is a little more nuanced. It's also a more common one in which are faults on both sides, so it's a fair fight.

Bottle Episodes
You're writing Series 2 of your sitcom so decide you want to do a ‘bottle’ episode in which all the characters are trapped in one confined place for a whole episode. It’s a fairly standard sitcom trick that makes writers feel like they’re being clever. It’s often a broken lift, but it can be an overnight prison lock-in (Porridge), a psychiatrist’s office (Miranda) or a Chinese Restaurant where a table is never available (Seinfeld). So far so trad.

Initially, producers like episodes like this because they're cheap to produce. If you're in a studio, you probably don't need any location filming at all - and ideally no outside characters. Budget saved. Tick. Line producer happy. Writer happy. And actors normally love this sort of episode too, because it feels like theatre - which everyone respects more than TV - and someone might have an emotional breakdown or a big character revelation. Aah, the sniff of awards.

An exec, however, is probably going to worry that the episode is going to be boring. And, to be honest, that is a real danger. But, rather than say so, the notes make various tactful suggestions about 'opening out the episode' and 'moving things on' - which are the only thing the episode can't do given it's parameters.

It's clear from the subtext of the note that exec/producer/channel has lost confidence in the idea and think that either you don't have the talent or experience to pull off this episode - and that you've written a tiresomely derivative, unfunny Beckett play - or that the audience don't have the attention span. They may well be right about one of more of these things. It may well be that you, the writer, have bitten off more than you can chew in you bottle episode, so you might do well to rethink the whole thing.

So, let's stop being British, tactful and embarrassed. Notes need to be clear. That is the only way they can be constructive. But notes also need to be timely - this conversation about the troubled bottle episode should have been had way earlier, before the writers spent three of weeks sweating over the first two drafts of this script, so don't be surprised if they're not wedded to it and resistant to major changes. Bottle episodes always run into problems like this, so have the conversation at the outline stage - ideally even earlier.

Post Script: Nota Bene
TV is made fast, and there's never enough money (especially with the BBC's ludicrous Delivering Quality First idiocy), which is why it is a collaborative medium. Therefore, trust is essential. Notes which don't say what they mean don't help this. So, if an episode idea, scene or moment has been agreed, let's all try and find a way of making it work, rather than undermining the entire process with oblique comments that don't really help anyone. Or we're honest enough to say 'this isn't working, and isn't going to work. So let's have a new idea'.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Three Kinds of Guest Character

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about guest characters in sitcoms – and the danger of getting too excited about writing them. The audience aren’t as interested in the guest characters as you are. They’re all about the main characters they’ve come to know, understand and, hopefully, love. So don't get carried away.

The one thing that’s been gnawing away at me since posting that is Seinfeld. Mostly this bit (and I know it's bad form to quote oneself):
The successful and memorable ones tended to be completely extraordinary and at least partly based on truth eg. The Soup Nazi or The Bubble Boy. Their names explained exactly who they were so the audience were up to speed straight and we could get on with the jokes. A catchphrase helped that along too ('No soup for you!'') But what we enjoyed the most about these characters is the reactions of the regular cast to them. Seeing George humbly bowing to the Soup Nazi and then being cheated of a bread roll and then being banned is funny - because it's George. And then there was the unpleasant incident with the Bubble Boy... Other characters in Seinfeld weren't funny at all but downright annoying, intentionally so because they put the regular characters into awkward or unpleasant situations, one of the most obvious examples being the infuriating comedy hack Banya. Banya made Jerry funny.
I'm happy with everything I wrote there. But it kind of goes against my case about not getting hung up on guest characters and not bothering to make them funny because the audience don't care. These guest characters are really funny and work brilliant. Why?

Well, I think I might have stumbled across an answer, whilst processing some really interesting podcasts. The first was UK Scriptwriters latest podcast with Andrew Ellard, who’s script edited Miranda, IT Crowd and a bunch of other stuff. I know Andrew a bit, and when it comes to sitcom logic and motivation, this guy is in the Premier League – which may not sound like a compliment, but it really is, especially bearing in mind my last post about The Logic Police.

Vive La Difference
In the podcast, Andrew said something about conflict that struck me and made me thing that sometimes this term is overplayed in sitcom. Andrew said that there doesn’t need to be conflict, necessarily, but ‘difference’.

Now, despite the fact that Nobody Knows Anything and there is no formula to comedy, my general rule of thumb when it comes to sitcom is this:
Characters + Conflict + Confinement + Catastrophe = Comedy*
*except when it doesn’t.
That is to say, you need characters with clear points of view that contrast. And they’re stuck together in a situation and stuff goes wrong. But the conflict is more than tiresomely repetitive arguments from different viewpoints with nothing much actually happening.

Before I could think more about that, I heard the latest episode of Scriptnotes which is all about conflict. Craig Maizin produced an interesting list of six types of conflict, which make the point that the is more to conflict than argument. His six kinds of conflict (with some of my comments added) are:

An Argument – an expressed difference of opinion: either a blazing row or a passive aggression scene between some characters.

Struggle Against Circumstance – our hero has locked their keys in car and has to fight the car to get them back and continue with their quest. So this is Man vs Nature/Object/Corporation (eg. Castaway)

Unfulfilled Desire – a character has a life goal that they want to achieve, but can’t. And in the movie this desire will be fulfilled – ideally in a way they hadn’t expected. But in a sitcom, this is life goal remains unfulfilled in pretty much every episode. Basil Fawlty wants to run a classy hotel, but he’s too much of a snob to see that this is a fools errand. And he’s too lazy to put the work in to make this a reality.

Avoiding a Negative Outcome – I have to do something in a way that doesn’t get me (or someone else) hurt or into trouble.

Huge special DVD boxed set available. Yay!
But not in the UK. Boooo!
Confusion – You’re in conflict with the world around you because you don’t have all the facts. In a movie, this state doesn’t last long (here’s my crazy but literal ‘fish out of water’ example – Splash) In a sitcom, this situation can be an almost permanent state of affairs, especially where aliens are involved. eg. Mork and Mindy, Third Rock from the Sun, My Hero. Or even a ‘coming of age’ ‘how-does-this-crazy-world-work?’ show like The Wonder Years where a child is trying to figure out the world around him.

A Dilemma – Your hero has a choice to make, but all the choices are bad.

I’m sure Craig would be the first to admit this is not exhaustive or exact list. I think some of these categories overlap with each other.  For example, ‘An Argument’ is a subset of all them, rather than a conflict in itself. An argument comes about when someone is struggling against circumstance (represented by a character) or confused in some way and starts to lash out. And as they struggle, they may be left with ‘a dilemma’ in which they can’t avoid a ‘negative outcome’. You get the idea.

But it’s a really interesting list nonetheless. It demonstrates that are many kinds of conflict beyond the verbal disagreement, which is probably the least interesting of them all – and because it’s not all that interesting, it’s very difficult to write.

So, how do we get to Seinfeld Guest Characters from here?

I’m getting to that. Stay with me.

As Craig and John talked on the podcast, they talked about how your characters can want the same thing – but still be in conflict. And here we come back to Andrew Ellard's 'Differences'. The characters go about things differently, or do things to avoid an argument which results in an argument, or different kind of conflict.

This is useful, since this helps explain the success of Friends in which they are, well, friends. The show is not called Enemies. They are friends, trying avoid the negative outcome of hurting each other’s feelings, which makes it quite a huggy, warm, fuzzy show. No harm in that. It’s easily in the list of Top Ten Sitcoms of all time. Somewhere below Seinfeld, which is not huggy at all. Quite the reverse. (We’re getting there, okay?)

Being Reasonable
Then John and Craig talked about keeping the characters likeable and believable. We’re back to the logic police, and it occurred to me that our regular characters may be larger-than-life, but there’s always a reason for what they do.

Basil Fawtly is not angry. People remember him beating that car with a branch, but this isn’t because he’s fundamentally an angry man. He’s driven himself (ha ha. Driven. Sorry) to this. Fawlty gets angry because he’s a snob, and he wants to run a classy hotel so he can be with the higher class people. But he doesn’t belong there and he’s not very good at running at hotel (for various reasons). Everything he does is motivated. He’s reasonable to the point of explosion. Like Victor Meldrew – who only gets angry when he is treated like an irrelevance. His cause is usually just and we’re on his side.

The regular characters, then, are reasonable – even if they’re monsters. Their quests and causes have to make sense. But with guest characters, all bets are off. They can be unreasonable. We don’t have to like them, or even understand why they’re crazy because it’s almost as if they’re from another world. You can have an efficious parking attendant who seems to get pleasure from giving people tickets. This character would probably be tiresome, or not believable, as a regular character. But they might work well for a scene.

So we have at least three kinds of guests character that tend to work:

The Plausibility Person
A character who is needed for the sake of plausibility – ie. It would be odd for there not to be a nurse/teacher/traffic warden in the scene you're writing. Your characters report a crime at a police station. You need a policeman at an incident desk, but the scene is not about them. These are characters who are there because they're essential to the scene.

The Sensible Cypher
Someone who might be in a few scenes and arrives on the scene as a sibling, or a love interest, a temporary neighbour or an inspector. It’s as if they’re representing the real world – the world of the audience.  And they do and say the kind of things we would do and say. Often, they walk in are amazed at what they find. A lot of their action is reaction – but sometimes they make moves that the regulars have to respond to (esp if they’re an inspector or authority figure), if that's part of the their mandate. In Bluestone 42, we’ve had a few characters like this; not least the Vet who ends up being interrogated by the team in Series 1; and the politician whom Nick chases away from Mary in Series 2.

The Unreasonable Sociopath
These are forces of nature who react in bizarre or unexpected ways – and the episode often turns on these characters. We have no idea why they are like this – or even what becomes of them. And Seinfeld’s most memorable guests characters fit into this category: The Soup Nazi, Lt Bookman (the library detective), The Bubble Boy, Jimmy (who always refers to himself as ‘Jimmy’), The Doorman, Izzy Mandelbaum (the octagenarian fitness freak). And even characters who were in a handful of episodes like George Steinbrenner, Jackie Chiles (the lawyer), Jack Klompus (from ‘the pen’ episode), Bania, Mr Peterman and Mr Pitt were all crazy in their own way.

And that’s how they created memorable guests characters on Seinfeld that could be a big part of a plot. Because they weren’t regular, we didn’t need backstory, motivation or moderation. We didn't need to like them. They arrived crazy. They drive out regular characters crazy. And they leave crazy.

I'm sure there are more kinds of Guest Character, so please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.

If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Logic Police

 Actual Police, not Logic Police, but you get the idea.
Pic by Sky Noir via Flickr
I’ve written before about the infuriating feeling you get when a TV comedy or a movie isn’t working when you’re screaming at the screen, shouting ‘You would never do that!’ or ‘You’d just call the police’ (like here), but following a question on a recent edition of Scriptnotes, I thought there were one or two other things to so. So let’s back up.

You’ve plotted your script. Maybe you’ve written a couple of drafts – and then you get a note. ‘This scene is very funny, but would Jennifer really run down the street in a giraffe costume, especially given how self-conscious she is?’ or ‘In the emergency, she calls her brother. Wouldn’t she call her mother/the police/Rentokil?’ You get the idea.

So, does that mean you need to change it? Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s ask the most basic question first.

Is the note right?
The best notes are an articulation of an awful truth you’ve been suppressing all along. So in your heart of hearts, you know Jennifer would never run down the street in the giraffe costume - even though it would be really funny. Or you know in the emergency, she’s the type to call the police. You might be able to address this quickly and easily. How? Let’s address the latter:

Maybe you really need that first call to go the sister, not the police. In which case, maybe she picks up her phone frantically and speed dials her sister – whom she tells to get off the phone because she needs to call the police, and you’re into the conversation to the sister that you needed.

Maybe the sister calls her at exactly the wrong moment – and she’s been calling her throughout the episode at equally inconvenient moments and this is the topper. You might well be able to address the note and keep the order of events you need. In which case, take the note, and make the change and be grateful for a good note. It just made your script better.

Why has this note been given?
It could be that this note feels very unhelpful. Someone is trying to justify their salary by chipping in. They says idiotic stuff like ‘I would never do that’ to which the answer is ‘No, of course you wouldn't because you’re not Jennifer and you’re not the character in the story.' Does this person even understand who Jennifer is? Possibly not. And who's fault is that? Have you written Jennifer as this character, or is this just in your head on not on the page?

The answer to this note might ‘Yes. Jennifer wouldn’t normally. That’s why it’s an interesting story. Events have taken such a terrible turn, and she’s made a series of such bad decisions that she has no choice but to do this thing.’ But is that true? It may be that you’ve left the door open to other options which she could plausibly do, in which case you need to close those, so the note is valid and you have failed as a writer. That happens. Or it could be the person is simply not very good at giving notes, or trying to look clever and they failed as a note-giver. That happens too.

When is this note being given?
Maybe this is draft 7 of a script, and this bit hasn’t really changed since draft 2. Someone says ‘Isn’t it odd that Jack runs out of the door still holding the landline phone?’ And the answer might be ‘Good point. It does feel odd, and we don’t get much out of him still holding the phone, so he could throw it down.’ Or the answer might be ‘I suppose it might be odd, but it’s all a bit hectic and he’s stressed – and he might have forgotten it’s not his mobile, but his cordless landline. And he’s a smart guy. So, I suppose it is odd, but it hasn’t seemed odd ‘til now, and it still doesn’t seem all that odd, so we may well be overthinking this.’ You’re the writer. It’s your script (despite what you’re told). You decide.

There are some illogicalities that don't seem to matter all that much - especially after the climax of the story, and something happens which is nice topper to what's gone before. You've earned that one, and it's probably fine, but it might not be. In general, though, illogicalities cause confusion and uncertainty - and a confused audience doesn't laugh.

Closing Doors
If you spot a logic problem and you have the luxury of time to be able to unpick the whole episode and fix that one problem – that’s great. It’s often just a question of closing off the alternatives so that illogical step for you character is the only realistic or plausible option. Or the option is made by mistake or in haste and is irreversible. Or another character teases this character for being so predictable and an argument ensues, so that your character does what he need them to do – doing the illogical thing, that’s motivated by a desire to prove another character wrong. Or impress someone hot.

Writing Exposition
Sometimes an action by a character seems illogical but isn’t because you've done your groundwork, but it's not immediately obvious. In which case, you could try writing the exposition or explaining it in some way. More on that here and here. Quite often, when you write it and read it through with the cast – or even shoot it on camera, you realise you don’t need it after all, but that’s fine. That’s what an edit is for.

Strike a Light

But if you’re really against the clock and you start pulling on threads, the whole thing can unravel before your eyes. I sometimes worry about addressing a logic issue and thinking that I’m going to replace it with someone brutally logical but less funny or original. So one other way of cheating is to draw attention to the illogicality and own it – what’s frequently called ‘Hanging a Lantern’ on it (they mention this in the podcast). Rather than hide the illogicality in a darkened corner, you light it up. What does this look like? It may be some raised eyebrows, or a comment or a brief exchange – ideally with a joke. After all, it is a sitcom.

If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Writing on Kids' Sitcoms

Children’s sitcoms has often been considered a good ‘way in’ to writing Sitcoms for Grown-ups.  Those who work in children’s tv, however, often do not see it that way, and it’s not hard to understand why. Nine year-old boys and thirteen year-old girls are very different creatures. Your job is to make both of them laugh. That’s not easy – especially if you’re not a nine year old boy or thirteen year old girl. Writing for someone other than yourself is very difficult.

So let’s look at other difficulties and restrictions in writing for Kids first – given that I’m a writer and therefore the glass is not just half-empty, but smeared with fingerprints and lipstick.

Editorial policy
There are certain words you can’t use in Kids TV, and areas best avoided. There are obvious things like swearing and sexual references. But there’s the also the worry about imitation, and doing things that the children may try to replicate at home. It can be frustrating when you think of something brilliant, simple and funny that is so brilliant, so simple and so funny that you’re teaching the nation's children an amusing way of hurting themselves. You’re not supposed to this. I know. Political correctness gone mad, etc.

Child Actors
Children’s comedy often has children in it. It’s understandable. (Sidenote: At one point, CBBC had an insane hard and fast rule that all their comedies had to have children in them. You couldn’t even pitch a show that didn’t have kids in it because it wouldn’t even be considered. I pointed out that this would have meant that Rentaghost, Maid Marian etc, would not have been commissioned – and they seemed weirdly fine about this. I found this very frustrating, because when I was a ten-year old boy, I didn’t want to watch ten year old boys on the telly. I’d spent all day at school with ten year old boys. Ten your old boys are lame and annoying. I wanted proper funnies on my telly to help me forget I was a ten year old boy. The policy mercifully changed and they ended up with insanely popular and brilliantly silly Horrible Histories, so that sort of proves the point. Sidenote over.)

But there’s still a very good chance your children’s show will have some kids in it. That limits you in a couple of ways. The first is that there aren’t as many child actors as grown-up actors. And the really good ones can be quite hard to find. Obviously, a ten year-old actor has less TV experience than a forty-something, and the really good ones end up in movies, so you’re writing for cast who are feeling their way. What they do achieve is really impressive – but it’s not the same as writing for actors with a bit more telly under their belts.

And secondly, child actors can’t work twelve hours days. I know, I know. More political correctness gone mad. Thanks, Lord Shaftesbury. Well done. So filming becomes more complicated, the days are compressed and there is less time to get a scene rehearsed and really fizzing and funny.

And on top of everything else, the budgets are tiny. Really insultingly small. The only upside of Kids shows is that you’re often not paying our tens of thousands of pounds to a big star to show up every week, but you are paying for chaperones for the child actors – and a lot of the other costs are the same or fixed. When you compare budgets with grown-up TV, what is achieved for the money is astonishing.

As a writer you are paid less for kids shows (but it’s still better than radio), but there’s an upside here. And others besides. The small budgets mean that the series are often longer. They tend to make a children’s series in tens or thirteens rather than sixes, so there are more episodes to write and you can make a living that way.

Plus, given one person can’t really write thirteen episodes, there are opportunities to get work on these shows – and write an episode or two and get some experience that way.

What normally happens if you can get through the door is that you’ll go to some writers ideas/pitching day, and maybe go away and write up some ideas and throw in some new ones. On the basis of that, you might well be commissioned to write an episode. You’ll need to a few outlines first – and then a few drafts of the script. Overall, it works a bit like the system I’ve written about here. But it tends to move fairly fast. Faster than Grown-Up TV. On Series 3 of Bluestone 42, we had a couple of readthroughs for each script – and ended up shooting draft six or seven. Sometimes draft nine or ten. One episode this year was draft 12b. And even then there are last minute changes on the day.

Because of budgets, and volume, Kids TV is faster and doesn’t really allow for that. Once the producer/script editor/creator is broadly happy with your draft (probably the third draft), it might be taken off you, tweaked by a Script editor (who knows what can be achieved on the budgets, with the sets and actors, Editorial policy etc) and the next thing you know, they’ve shot it and it’s on TV. And somewhere along the line you get paid.

You tend not to turn up the read-throughs or filming, unless you are the creator of the show. There just isn’t time to fiddle about. It can be frustrating feeling removed from things, especially earlier in your career when this script is a big deal and you want everything about it to be perfect and you feel like you’re never really in control of your episode. You might watch it on TV and shout 'Why did you change that?' or 'You ruined my joke!' but that is the nature of the beast. It's made fast for not much money - and you weren't there, man.

The Cast of Dani's Castle
This is all my experience, anyway, based on writing episodes of Dani’s Castle, Kerching! and, a long time ago, Chucklevision. (I kid you not). I’ve also done quite a lot for CBeebies, but that’s for another time. If you have wildly different experiences to this, do leave a comment and share with the group.

The other upsides

Despite the frustrations and budgets, writing for kids can be great fun. The limitations really force you to be creative. And you’re writing for an audience that can be much more open-minded than adults. You can do some really daft stuff that just wouldn’t sit on BBC2 at 10pm, or E4 at 11pm.

Plus the lack of profile of Kids TV can be a good thing while you find your creative feet and learn your trade. You don’t have AA Gill lying in wait, ready to shred your pathetic attempt to make a smile pass over his cynical, tired cakehole. And that has to be a good thing.

If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Comedy Conference 2014

I've been a little quiet recently. The main reason is that we're shooting Series 3 of Bluestone 42 in South Africa. This usually affords hours of time for sitting around waiting for the lights to be reset. But at the start of shooting there's usually quite a lot of things that require your attention. And access to the internet is patchy, so updating blogs is not high on the list. Plus, one is reluctant to get out a laptop when dust is swirling around the place. Not convinced? Me neither. There will be some new blogs before long. And I have been writing stuff, but mostly material for a sitcomgeek book. (If you'd like to publish this book, please contact my agent.)

Anyway, the reason for this blog is to let you know that those real comedy geeks over at the British Comedy Guide a running another conference on Saturday 29th November 2014. I'm really glad that these guys are running comedy conferences because they just love comedy. And that comes through in everything they do.

The last conference was, by all accounts, great. I was here in South Africa, gadding about playing soldiers, so I missed it. And it's the same again this year. I'm even more annoyed I can't get along, as it looks utterly brilliant. They've got comedy royalty coming along in the form of Simon Nye, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. An hour spent in the room with those guys is time - and money - well spent. Worth the price of the ticket just for that. Then throw in the likes of Pete Sinclair, Mark Burton, Vicki Pepperdine, David Quantick and plenty besides and you've got a day of unalloyed comedy pleasure and insight. Oh, and I think they're about to announced some guy called Graham Linehan is coming too. Yeah. That guy.

I'll be honest. Maybe it's seems a little on the steep side being £169 for the day. But here are some mitigating circumstances: The day is long and packed. These things cost money. They also offer writers money to come and speak. Most conferences do not this, whilst charging even higher ticket prices. I hope we can all agree that writers, even ones that are doing okay, should he paid. Plus lunch and refreshments are thrown in. And, a free one-to-one session with a guru who might be able to give you a nudge in the right direction. And the British Comedy Guide guys aren't doing this for the money. As I say, they just love comedy. The conference is about comedy - and how you can make some, and learn from the real pros.

And here's the kicker: Use the code SGEEK when you book before 17th Nov and you'll get £20 off. So, all that for less that £150. I think that's money you will not regret spending. And I really and truly get nothing out of it. I just think it's a good thing. So go here.