Friday, 6 August 2010

Less is More in The Great Outdoors

Comedy writing is hard. Sometimes it looks hard and complicated and watching it is intimidating. Non-audience shows particularly can be fast and complex, especially narrated ones (eg. Scrubs and Arrested Development) Plots interweave and we jump from place to place and scene to scene, often just for one single joke. The jokes are finely chiselled, the set-piece scenes well-choreographed and beautifully shot. And it looks difficult and expensive.

Comedy writing is also hard because it can look so easy - especially the comedy that's filmed in front of an audience, where the scenes are longer, the pace is a little slower and it looks a lot like people sitting around and talking. What's the problem?

I am reminded of that line in Seinfeld when George, with no writing experience, talks about writing their show about nothing and he says something along the lines of 'How hard can it be? We're talking about a sitcom here?' That is one of those jokes that funny for different people for different reasons. The audience laugh because George is being disparaging about the form of the show he is in. The writers are laughing because George has no idea how incredibly difficult writing a simple-looking sitcom really is.

I mention this because I've just seen the first two episodes of The Great Outdoors (ep 2 here) which has been tucked away on BBC Four as part of some Outdoors season. It's about a small and dysfunctional rambling club - and they go on a ramble. Each episode starts at the beginning of the walk - and they walk and talk and do stuff. Looks easy. That's why it's good. It's no effort to watch. On both occasions, the first time I looked at my watch out, at least 25 minutes had gone.

Now, why was I looking at my watch? It wasn't boredom. The writer in me was thinking 'how long have they got to wrap this story up'? What interests me is that they stories aren't really wrapped up at all. In one sense, it's because there's a series arc of sorts. But in another sense, it doesn't really matter anyway. Not in sitcoms. Writers, producers, exec producers and directors get into a real tangle over this and I often find myself alone on this one. 'The room' often says 'But what about the unpaid invoice?' or 'How do they get back to shore?' or 'If he breaks his arm, shouldn't we see him in a few weeks so that we know he's all better'. My response is usually along the lines of 'The audience won't care'. The neatness of the ending is often irrelevant. Apart from anything else the audience, yes the smart audience, realise it's a sitcom and that we start from the same position next week as we did this week. If the kitchen has been burned to the ground, it'll be as good as new - well, as good as last week - next week.

Sometimes, endings do matter. In films, the ending is everything - because the protagonists go on a journey. They learn. They change. They end up in a different place from where they started. But in sitcom, they don't learn, they don't change and the end up back where they started. Sitcoms are about the journey. Films are about the destination.

And so, when your hero triumphs or fails, the show is over. So end it. The moment your show has climaxed, and the big emotional moment has been done, you've got about ninety seconds to wrap it up before the audience is bored, looking at its watch and wondering what's on next. You can probably forget about you hero's parking ticket, or weight gain, or broken toe. You can certainly forget about the peripheral characters' destroyed briefcase, ruined party or misplaced visa. Because it's not about those things, and never was. The audience knows that all will be well - and should be back next week for the same again.

That's why I've been enjoying going on a journey with the ramblers in The Great Outdoors. What is the destination? I don't really care. I'm really enjoying the journey.

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