Wednesday 22 June 2011

Where should I send my Script? Part 3

I've run a few sitcom course with the highly-experienced comedy writer Dave Cohen. We do plan to run some more in the autumn so look out for dates. But in the meantime, Dave's got some useful thoughts following up some recent posts here on the blog. And it's probably the best advice of the lot.

So here, in a sitcom geek first, is a guest post from Dave Cohen:

Hello, thanks for having me. Recently James posted two excellent pieces attempting to answer the question ‘where should I send my script’. And there were several very helpful suggestions, all of which I would broadly agree with. He did however, overlook one very important option, which is this:

Don’t send it. Hang on to it. Seriously. Okay, look me in the eye, or at least stare at the following questions on the screen and answer them honestly: is your script brilliant? Does it leap off the page? Is it absolutely stuffed full of brilliant gags? Are they made even funnier because they give us an hilarious insight into our leading character or characters’ flaws? Does the plot flow, with twists and turns that are entirely believable, and again determined by the actions of your lead character?

I’m not trying to bring you down here, I’m just being realistic. I’ve done it myself, sent out a spec script to a friendly producer, knowing deep down that there were problems with it. I’m sure I thought it was as good as I could make it, I may have even thought it was great, but I always knew there were one or two flaws that would give the producer an excuse to say ‘sorry, not this time.’

So why, you may ask with some justification, is there so much mediocre comedy on TV? The answer is that, once upon a time, the writer of that mediocre show sent out a script that was so brilliant, leapt off the page, stuffed full of gags etc etc, that the script got made, and the writer was successful. It’s never easy to get a commission, especially these days, and you have to put yourself in the producer’s shoes. If they have to choose to push one script, and it’s between your pretty good one, or the mediocre one by the person with a proven track record,they’ll usually choose the latter.

Brilliant scripts don’t happen very often. Micheal Jacob, who was for many years the BBC’s TV script editor, reckoned only a few of the thousands he read were really good. I can’t claim to have anywhere near the experience of Micheal but I’ve read hundreds of new scripts and not many have made me go ‘wow’. Depressingly, the best script I’ve ever read was about four years ago, by a successful working writer, and it still hasn’t been made.

So why don’t we write brilliant scripts? Almost invariably, the answer lies in one word: preparation. Before even a word of the script is written, there is so much groundwork required to make your show work. This is the most difficult, and most creative period in writing your show. It’s difficult because you’re starting with nothing, and you don’t know where your characters are going. The urge to start writing a script gets stronger as each day passes.

It’s a horrible dilemma. No working writer is ever 100% satisfied with the script they hand in, but the reality of a deadline concentrates the mind. Fake deadlines you set yourself are just never quite terrifying enough. But if I was allowing myself three months of spare time to create a spec script with new characters, I would expect to spend at least two thirds of that time in preparation.

When I’ve given in to that urge to start writing before having an absolutely clear sense of what the show is about, my script has not been good enough. Some people argue that it is only when you start writing the script that you begin to see where the characters are going. Very well, start writing: but make that script be part of the research you can use… when you begin writing the brilliant script.

Thanks Dave. Do leave comments below.


  1. Great advice, and I totally agree. Always hard to resist the urge to jump in at the first inkling of a good idea, but months of planning and self-flagellation always pay off in the end.

  2. Great piece but when do you know when to stop? I've re-written my script several times, its very good but i keep going, a little freaked out at the rejection aspect maybe...

  3. Ado: Start working on the next episode!

  4. That is a good point, Ado. Can we have a blog on when to stop rewriting, James?

  5. In reply to Dave's reply to Ado's reply to Dave's blog response to James's original blog post, "Start working on the next episode"... (which I realise from his use of the exclamation mark may be one of these 'joke' things James was talking about):

    What is the current view on writing more than one episode of a sitcom you're developing? I can see why doing this could be a good thing, but I can also see why doing it might be not a good thing, and may even be a bad thing. What does the panel think?

  6. I'm saying that perhaps the script you're writing now may be good, but is everything in place, or are you building on a wobbly foundation? In which case, start again, and make sure you've covered EVERYTHING. You can always plunder the dialogue you've already written.

  7. Thanks Dave. I can see the advantage of writing a second episode to replace the first one, reusing the best of what's gone before while underpinning the wobbly foundations with top-quality sitcom concrete poured over the corpses of scrapped B-characters.

    I'm just thinking there's a danger of getting to the point when you're saying to producers "I've written the first twelve episodes and a Xmas special" and they start scanning the room for exits. So I guess however many episodes you've actually written, only ever send one out and let the others be your dirty secret?

  8. You can sneak them out eventually Griff. When they commission series 3