Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Seven Deadly Sins of Giving Notes to a Comedy Writer

So, I've been very fair about the fact that TV Comedy, like all industries, has its share of chumps, twonks and clowns (and not clowns in a good way, if there is a good way). And sometimes, good TV execs, producers and script editors give notes as if they were a chump, a twonk or a clown. And so, on behalf of comedy writers in Britain, here are Seven Deadly Sins that TV Execs, good and bad, can commit.

1. Skimming
Have you read the script you're commenting on? Have you actually read it? Properly? Twice. Or did you skim it on the tube on your iphone? This script took me at least three solid weeks to write. (A week of storyline and planning, a week of writing and another week rewriting). That’s at least at least 75 hours of graft and screaming at the wall. And I’ve discounted the hours spent on Facebook/Twitter/Youtube etc. I spent 75 hours on this. Could you spend 75 minutes? The “moment you feel is lacking” is actually there on page 23. It’s the one after page 22.

2. Blanking
You've somehow blanked our last meeting out of your mind, and now you are now giving me a note that flatly contradicts something you said before. I know you’re busy and are execcing a number of projects – and I’ve script edited shows and made this mistake – but it is incredibly annoying to be on the receiving end of it. Because you have no memory of what you said at the last meeting, I now have to pretend that you haven’t just contradicted yourself, otherwise I’m going to sound defensive. And now I don’t know what to think. alternatively, you know you're telling me the opposite of what you said before and you're not admitting that the advice last time was a bum steer. That's fine. Admit you made a mistake - and I'll admit that some of my jokes are crap.

3. Glibbing
Writing is hard. Really hard. Harder than sitting through departmental meetings wondering where you’re going to find the next Russell Brand/Russell Howard/Miranda Hart. So don’t say things that imply that writing TV sitcoms is easy. It is not. Here’s the main one: “Once that’s sorted, it basically writes itself.” It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. It really really doesn’t.

4. Second-Guessing
Stop trying to second-guess what your boss’s boss's boss wants. That's just too many variables and it's an utter waste of time. By the time we've finished the script, at least one of those personnel will have changed, so the whole endeavour of second guessing is pointless. Do you like the script or idea that’s in front of you? If you do, back it. Sell it. Champion it. Channels don’t know what they want until they see it. You know that. I’m sure they didn’t think they wanted The Office, or Miranda, or The Royle Family – until they read a script or saw a pilot. If you like the creative vision of a project, pursue it and hone it. There is no point in changing it because 'everyone's into pirates right now'. If you don't like the idea in front of you, say so, let's draw a line under it and think of something else.

5. Over-Worrying
Do you get the joke? If you do, don't worry that other people won't. Don’t assume the audience are dumb. Some of them are actually paying attention to what’s happening in the show. (See Skimming). "I’m not sure people will get that reference? Have people heard of that?" Why would you assume that you have and no-one else has? "I mean, I get it. I just don’t know whether everyone else does." You assume that because we work in television, we're smarter than average? Hey, all the smart people are making tons more money than us being doctors, lawyers and bankers. We’re the idiots. If you get the joke, no offence - it's probably fine.

6. Assuming We All Have Money Trees
I don't have a tree that sprounts fivers all year round. I get my money from where everyone else gets theirs. From providing goods and services in exchange for money. I’m working on an idea you like. You’re getting paid. Can I get paid please? Soon. More on this here.

7. What is the Seventh Deadly Sin? Over to you. Leave comments - or tweet that at me here.

See also - Responding to Notes like a Pro.


  1. Script editors 7th Deadly Sin? Secretly thinking they can do it better than you.

  2. 7th deadly sin - Being overly and needlessly condescending. We're all working towards the same goal, creating great comedy, so why by openly rude and try to belittle the very people creating it out of nothing, for nothing but a far off dream of someday being paid - the writers. NO NEED.
    As an amatuer I hope that this happens less, if and when a proffesional status is obtained, but the longer I pursue this career path the less hope I have left. On the plus side I have encountered very giving, patient and helpful script editors/note givers. They are out there and when you find one, you appreciate it all the more due to all the not so magnanimous ones.
    Great Blog, James.

  3. mentioning one joke they 'really liked', as gradually it becomes clear that its the only thing they remember from your script...
    Oh and trying to read your script while you're in the meeting...

  4. Feeling They Have To Say Something is a common bit of twattery. It means noises for the sake of noises.

  5. I didn't have time to read the whole blog, but I'm afraid it needs a complete re-write. Switch 4 to 2, and 3 to 5, and start with something...well...else. Oh, and can you make the some of the jokes funnier? Which ones? Oh I'll leave that up to you - you're the writer, after all! Friday OK?

  6. Making out you don't know how to talk to the 'talent', because you're a writer. Even though you've all just been getting along famously. Cos you're creative human beings. And then being arse-clenchingly socially inept yourself with the same talent a few minutes later.

  7. Pretending they like bits of it that they don't to make you feel better about the first draft being a bit of a clusterfuck. Don't try and spare my feelings, it just confuses me.

  8. People who recite chapter three of the latest Robert McKee / Syd Field / Ladybird Book of Screenwriting in lieu of an actual opinion on the script in front of them.