Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Being a Better Writer

Another year clicks round and it’s time to look back.

Done that? Great. Let’s look ahead and consider how to be better writers in the coming year.

I’ve got to be honest (which is a good start to the year ahead). I don’t really know what makes a good writer, or what makes ordinary writers write well. All writers are different. But I do know that it’s very easy to become resentful and annoyed that the whole system seems to be against you. Getting a show on TV or the radio, or working on a show, or getting a foot in the door seems impossible. I feel that sometimes, I’ve had three series of my own show on TV in the last five years.

But these feelings are mostly negative and tend not to get you anywhere. If they spur you on to try harder, that’s fine to a point but don’t write to prove people wrong. Don’t write for the money. Or the vindication. There are lots of bad reasons to be a writer. (There are 8 HERE) Some people just like the idea of being a writer. According to YouGov, that’s the most desirable job. But lots of these people who express this wish don’t actually want to write. They just want to ‘be a writer’. Which is a very different thing.

Write because you want to. In fact, most writers I know write because they have to. If that’s you, the only useful resolution you can make is not ‘get a show on TV’ because you have very little control over that. All you have control over is your writing, your words on your pages expressing your ideas through your characters. So make a resolution to do that better.

So here are some thoughts and suggestions to that end. Maybe one of these ideas will help you raise your game in the following year.

1. Be Curious – Take an interest in the world around you. Decide to research something you’ve always wanted to know more about. Google it to start with. That’s fine. But then read some proper books on the subject. Find an expert and ask them questions. Find someone with experience and talk to them. Ask them to refer you to others. You never know where it could lead.

2. Read More Books – The internet is a false friend. It’s possible to feel well-informed without ever cracking the spine of a book. But there’s no substitute for reading books that tell proper stories, fiction or non-fiction. Or books about culture, sport, history, geography, science… with, you know, facts. One of the reasons I try to listen to Start the Week on Radio 4 is to hear a variety of voices and opinions, and then often I end up tracking down the books by those people I've heard. The last time I did that, I ended up reading Where Do Camels Belong? It was fascinating.

3. Be Older – Wanting to write is fine, but you need something to write about, so live life. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to write that magnum opus. Some people peak in their early 20s. They tend to be athletes and sometimes musicians. Writers tend to take a lot longer. Play the long game. Get married. Have kids. Start a business. Go on a journey. Do jury duty. Execute a will. Track down a relative. Meet your neighbours. Be a school governor. Stand for your Parish Council. Volunteer for a food bank. Then you’ll have something to write about.

4. Write Stuff Down – As you live your life, make a note of things that happen as you go, especially unique experiences or near misses. The very act of writing it down probably means you’ll never need to refer to it again. Then, when you’re trying to think of a sitcom plot in a particular area, you’ve got ready made anecdotes to draw on.

5. Watch Less TV – Life too short for Homes Under The Hammer or Bargain Hunt. Watch one or two. Fine. But don’t watch trash every day. Why would you watch a property show when you haven’t read Brothers Karamazov or The Koran?

6. Watch More TV – When you decide to watch TV, watch good stuff. And then realise how high the bar is. Watch the opening scene of The Newsroom and see how powerful words on the page can be. Be inspired.

7. Make Something Better – Take that script you’ve been working on and think is okay and make it as good as it can possibly be. Print it out. Make notes on it. Cut lines that you don’t need. Refine it. Sift it. And then…

8. Send It Off – Send it to a producer who makes stuff that you like (more HERE). Send it into a script competition. Or to the BBC Writers Room. Have someone read it.

9. Listen Carefully to Notes – If you can get anyone to read your script, think carefully about the notes they give you. They might be right. They might be wrong. But resolve not to be defensive and work out how this comments might make your script better.

10. Start Something New – While you polish up that existing script, starts something new. Something exciting. Something you simply can’t wait to write. And hopefully, that script you've sent out will get you a meeting, and then you've got something else to talk about.

11. Think Big – TV is more ambitious now that ever. Look at the scale of Game of Thrones or The Man in the High Castle. It’s always tempting to think of noodly little ideas in which you have just two characters and it’s all in one place and in real time, or something, but why limit yourself like that? I know you want to prove what a great writer you are, but those small situations are plays, not TV shows. You can go anywhere or do anything. Have some ambition.

12. Do Some Research – And once you have an idea, pursue it. Read about it. Talk to people. Be curious. See above.

There’s nothing here that’s terribly profound or clever. Sorry about. The big secret is that there are no secrets. It’s all about the imagination: thinking then reading then writing then re-writing until they tell you to stop.

For slightly more specific information of writing sitcoms, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

13 Rules of Sitcom

What are the golden rules of sitcom?

I’ve been asking myself this, because, well, I’ve been asked this recently. I’ve been working with some folk from a country where sitcom is not really a thing, apart from American and British imports. So I’ve been re-evaluating what a sitcom is and how they tend work. I made a list. I checked it twice (but I’ll bet there are still typos). But I thought it might make a good last blog post of the 2015.

These are not golden rules.

They’re not even silver rules. Maybe somewhere between silver and bronze. (Brilver?)

And some of them aren’t even rules, but merely ‘things that tend to work’. So this is Thirteen Brilver Things that Tend to Work.

It’s a bit of amalgam of stuff I’ve been writing about on this blog for ages. And some new stuff. And they’re in no particular order.

There are exceptions to these rules. Of course there are. The exceptions are  often good episodes because they go against the convention, but you couldn’t do it every week. Sometimes, however, they really don't work.

Oh, and I’m taking for granted that we all know my patented sitcom formula, that Character + Conflict + Confinement = Comedy.

Enough already! Let’s just start the list.

Rule 1: Your Characters and Situation Don’t Change

A sitcom is, to some extent, the same show every week. The same characters make the same mistakes. They don’t learn. They don’t change. Your character is not moving to Nepal, even if they talk about it for the whole episode. Your character won’t start listening to advice, even if the moral of the story is that the character should listen to advice. And even if though they do ‘learn their lesson’, they’ve forgotten by next week. In one sense, it’s more true to life than any art form.

Rule 2: You’ve Got 48 Hours!

Execs hated the idea of this episode
Sitcoms normally take place in a 24 to 48 hour time span. For some reason, three days feels too long, even if it’s a bit more plausible. It means that people end up throwing parties and giving people a few hours notice and they still turn up. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The audience implicit understand the compression of time because they're smart. And they've watched a lot of TV. The glaring exceptions to this timeframe are the episodes that are ‘real time’, like Miranda at the psychiatrist or Seinfeld, Elaine and George waiting for a table at a Chinese Restaurant.

Rule 3: Start Your Story ASAP

Given you’ve only got 48 hours, and about 32 pages, start your story as soon as possible. It’s amazing how many scripts I read which have the characters talk and talk and talk, but not actually do anything or even threaten to do anything until about page 14.  Give your main characters achievable goals as early as possible. Show who they are by having them do stuff.

Rule 4: Give your Characters HELL

Having given your characters achievable goals, make their lives an utter misery. Make the goals suddenly seem very far away or impossible. But don’t just throw your characters under a bus. Give your characters good reasons to go in completely the wrong direction - or step into the path of a bus. Give your main character characters conflicting goals. Ask yourself why this day of all days is the worst possible day to pursue that goal. And read THIS on the subject. And also read THIS brilliant blogpost by Chuck Wendig.

Rule 5: Keep it Simple

Stories can get very complicated very easily. Remember you’re writing comedy, not complex boxed-set drama. You want the audience to laugh. And if they don’t know what’s happening, or are struggling to keep up with the plot, they won’t laugh. And one of the mantras of this blog is that Confusion is the enemy of comedy. If you want brilliant clear plotting, watch The Goldbergs.

Rule 6: Don’t Get Caught by the Logic Police

Make sure every action taken by your characters has a good reason, rather just being a convenient contrivance. Everything must make sense to your characters at least. It undermines the alternative reality you're trying to build if the audience are saying 'No-one would ever do that'. Read more on that HERE. Having said that:

Rule 7: Go Big at the End

At the very end of the script, it’s surprising how far you can push things, even if they overstep the bounds of logic for a moment. This probably isn't your character doing something unbelievable, but more of a sequence of events which act as a topper to the main story. Your main character could walk into their living room after the big moment and find it full of mini-wind-up robots that were mention a while ago. How the robots were unpacked and wound up, we don't know but it's right at the end so it's probably fine. In the last two minutes, you can get away with an awful lot. Having said that:

Rule 8: No Coincidences

A chance event cannot solve your character’s big problem. It has to be something they or another character does, ideally at great cost to themselves, that gives you the resolution. You don’t want any new information in the last third of the show. Often, a good plot is resolved by having a regular character do something that was staring them in the face all along, but they – and the audience – just couldn’t see it at the time.

Rule 9: Avoid Outside Characters

Outside characters feel like they can be very exciting and funny, but the audience really don’t want to know about them. They just love the regular characters, so the only point in having outside characters is to make your regular character do funny things. Where possible, use your regulars. If your character wants to get fit, and hire a personal trainer, have someone we already know volunteer. It’s almost certainly going to be funnier. Sure you can build a big family of characters over time, but think about that on Series 3. In the meantime, there's more on this subject HERE.

Rule 10: Avoid Outside Locations

If you’re a studio sitcom, keep your location shooting to a minimum. You want as much of the action, and especially the denouement, to take place in front of the audience. You're filming a play, not a movie.

Rule 11: Make those First Lines Count

If you’re writing a pilot script, make sure the first line spoken by each of the main characters is really significant for that character, or tells us a lot about them. Given them a prop, or something to wear as well to reinforce that. How we first encounter them makes a deep impression, so make sure it’s the right impression. More on that HERE.

Rule 12: Be Brutal

Don't just be brutal on your characters. Be just as brutal on your script. Every line of your script should either be a joke, a character line or a plot development. Ideally it should be at least two of those three. Either way, once you’ve written your script, forget about it for a couple of days, then print it out and go through it with a pen, and cross every single line that isn’t a joke, a character line or plot development. You just don’t have room for those lines. And you’re better off with a tight 29-page script than a baggy 40-pager. I learned that the hard way HERE. Also there's more on polishing your script HERE.

Rule 13: Do What You Want

You can write about anything you like. Anything. This especially applies if you’re not a writer-performer. Your acting ability and persona are not integral to the piece so you can write about anyone, anywhere at any stage of their life and at any point in time. Make the most of that (more on that HERE) And don’t be persuaded by stories of what commissioners are looking for. Ultimately they’re looking for a show that’s funny. And that’s more likely to be the case if your write in your original voice about things you’re passionate about, rather something cynical and hacky.

Write the show YOU want to write, rather than a show you think you can sell. More on that HERE.

Maybe there should be rules on dealing with exposition (more on that HERE), story lining (HERE), and what to do with your script when you've written it (HERE and HERE). But 13 Brilver Things that Tend to Work is probably enough.

For lengthier explanations of all of the above, and more, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Why You Should Consider Writing for Radio

There is no doubt that TV is where it’s at. Every new TV sitcom that comes out is reviewed by all and sundry, generates a thousand tweets and opinions. The aspiring comedy writer could be forgiven for overlooking radio. But they’d be missing out on acres of opportunity.

The industry talks about radio shows being a testing ground for ideas. Quite a few began life on radio or were tried out there: Miranda, Little Britain, People Like Us, Goodness Gracious Me, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well as the old classics like Hancock. This is true, but in the first instance, I would urge people to see it as a great place to learn their comedy trade regardless of the future of any particular show or idea. Loads of writers spent many years in radio writing for shows like Weekending and The News Huddlines before going on to television.

I started writing as Weekending was drawing to close. That led to my writing the occasional sketch on The Way It Is, sharing a table with likes of Simon Blackwell, who’s gone on to write for The Thick of It, Peep Show and Emmy-winning Veep. We’re all trying to catch him up, but it’s not a competition (unless you make it one). Ideally, these shows give you friends and colleagues who work in the industry and you all go through it together. Some have found writing partners on these shows.

Then there’s the experience of getting some jokes on the show. Nothing can beat the buzz of hearing your material being broadcast to the nation – especially if you wrote the joke that week. And especially if the joke is actually funny. When you’re struggling to make an impact in the industry and scrape a living, you need all the boosts you can get.

A Great Place to Write
All the above is true enough. Radio is a great place to start. But I see radio as an end in itself. It’s a great place to work and write. It’s interesting that a number of writers come back to radio because of the creative freedom it affords. One notable example is Andy Hamilton – who wrote the wonderful Million Pound Radio Show with Nick Revell from 1985-1992. Then he had his monster Channel 4 hit Drop the Dead Donkey with Guy Jenkin – but came back to radio to do Old Harry’s Game and Revolting People, two shows that couldn’t really happen on television. And he did these while writing another monster hit for TV in Outnumbered.

What is it about radio that gets writers coming back to it? The medium itself is certainly intimate. If TV is like being yelled at, radio is like a pleasant side-by-side conversation. It’s more like reading a novel, where the pictures are in your head – and the special effects are so much better, and far more memorable for it.

The attraction may also be the business of writing for radio compared to television – where there are so many people in the way. In radio, it’s mostly you, the producer and a broadcast assistant. There aren’t too many execs or suchlike floating around making your life more complicated than it needs to be. The audience of two hundred or so will keep you honest on that front. And then there’s the cast.

A note here about casting, which is so much easier for radio, since radio recordings requires comparatively little rehearsal, no make-up and no line-learning. Assembling a really good cast is comparatively easy. Through radio, I’ve had the thrill of working with some superb actors who have significant profile. Apart from that, they have real experience and talent and can really lift the script with their performance.

The Script is King
Because the process is so pared back in radio, the script is everything. In television, the writer can feel like a small part in a big machine – and this can tempt one into thinking that the script is only part of the process. It isn’t. The script is king. Radio teaches you that in a hurry. There’s no hiding in radio – and so as a radio sitcom writer, you learn fast. If the show misfires, it's unlikely to have been a technical fault. Most likely, it's a script error, a string of duff jokes, a confusing plot turn or a badly defined character. In other words, it’s your fault.

In radio the scripting has to be so rigorous, because you can’t rely on cinematography or clever tricks to hide poor writing. So you should improve really quickly, standing you in good stead for when you do get that opportunity in TV. By the time Bluestone 42 was commissioned, I’d been writing half-hour script for radio for ten years, so I wasn’t over-awed by the task in hand. I was ready.

Land of Opportunity
BBC Radio 4 puts out comedy every week night at 6.30pm, and often at 11pm, and 11.30am. It’s at least 12 half hour slots a week, 52 weeks a year – to say nothing of the 200+ afternoon plays that are on every year, some of which you could write. It’s not like television where there might be two or three sitcoms on per week across all TV Channels, if you’re lucky. And everyone is scrapping for those few slots and budgets. On the radio, it always feels like you’re in with a chance if you have a decent script.

A Great Place to Fail
It sounds odd, but the fact that radio is lower in profile, as we said at the start of the chapter, is a good thing. It makes it a great place to fail. We all fail as writers – and even if the scripts seem funny and the cast seem right, the show might turn out to be a soupy mess. Success is all very fine and large, but failure is your friend. You learn through failure – humility as much as anything else, and that is no bad thing.

A while ago, I had a nice show running on Radio 4 called Think The Unthinkable, starring Marcus Brigstocke and David Mitchell, among others. I tried to get a new show up on its feet called The Pits, set in the fictional British Opera Company. It starred Paula Wilcox, Phil Cornwell, Lucy Montgomery and John Oliver. Yes. That John Oliver. I thought it was okay and could have developed into something – but Radio 4 didn’t like it. The press completely ignored it and it vanished without trace. Google it. You won’t find it. It’s not even on Wikipedia. But on TV the press, I’m sure, would have torn it to shreds.

Then again, it would never have happened on TV because there probably weren’t any slots, especially not for an elitist show about posh music.

So my advice is to think seriously about radio. Listen to it. There are loads of sitcoms on Radio 4 Extra HERE. At the time of writing, and given what's there at the moment, I'd especially recommend: Cabin Pressure, The Music Teacher, Old Harry's Game, Giles Wembley-Hogg and the truly joyous Bleak Expectations. But there's loads more.

This blogpost is drawn from my book about writing sitcom, cleverly entitled Writing That Sitcom - which in turn is based on this blog. You can buy Writing That Sitcom for the Kindle and Kindle App here.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Make the Most of Your Freedom

Blogging is easy. You write. You post. And it’s there for all the world to see, should they choose to. Access to the audience is free. There are no barriers. For some, this direct, open connection feels like the norm, and the way things should be.

But this arrangement is because blogs don’t really cost anything. The blogging software is free. I have a laptop and broadband. The only thing that this blog post is costing me is time, and possibly a little sleep. (It’s 11pm as type, and I should go to bed, really. I have meetings tomorrow).

Sitcoms, however, are not blogposts.

They cost money.

Lots and lots of money.

Round about £300k an episode if they’re being shot properly. You might be able to get that down if you’re creative or clever – or you don’t care if it’s badly shot or not funny – but sitcom is an expensive medium. If you’re making six episodes, that’s at least £1.5m being poneyed up right there. So people think hard before spending that kind of money.

Getting a sitcom on TV, then, is difficult.

This is exacerbated by the number of people trying to do it. And therefore failure isn’t just an option. It’s almost a certainty. Some sitcoms get through and get made. Of those that do, many don’t last. Either way, the chances of getting your sitcom on air are slender.

And so it seems frustrating that, for lowly writers, it doesn’t seem to be a level playing field. The latest crop of successful sitcoms are almost entirely by writer-performers. Peep Show, by Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong, is the exception. Although the stars are themselves writer-performers. But let’s just take the nominees for the Broadcast awards just announced: Car Share; Catastrophe; Detectorists; Inside No. 9; The Keith Lemon Sketch Show; People Just Do Nothing. All of these shows are by writer-performers. And on TV tonight as I type, is Josh, and Toast of London. Channel 4 also has Chewing Gum. And you can see reruns of Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Not Going Out on other channels.

If you’re not a performer, then, it can seem that odds are stacked against you getting your own sitcom on air. On the latest episode of the Sitcom Geeks podcast this week, we talk about the rise of the Writer Performer sitcom.

Freedom. You get the idea.
I’ve written about it before (HERE and HERE), so there’s no point in repeating myself. But to summarise, I’m not saying that commissioners shouldn’t have commissioned those shows. All those ones I’ve mentioned are loved, respected and enjoyed by enough people to tick the boxes. And you can see how a show with a strong, tried and tested central performance would appeal to a commissioner. Stand-up comedians who can play large venues have a following and give you an audience, at least at the start. They can go on the radio and Graham Norton and promote the show. And they're probably very good at comedy. It all makes complete sense.

I have also point out these shows still often need writers. Look at the credits and you’ll see lots of famous comedians regularly collaborate with other writers, and once a series gets going, there might be three or four other writers. Maybe more. So there’s work to be had, and a job to be done, even if there might not be a format to be owned.

But here’s the one advantage the writer has over the writer-performer. The writer can write about anything. Anything at all. Any one. Any time. Any place. Any where. You have freedom.

FREEEEEDOM!

A stand-up comedian with persona built up over five years, or twenty years, of gigs and panel games is largely hostage to that persona. And that’s the persona the commissioner wants. They really don’t want to see that persona playing against type. Not initially, anyway. But as a writer, you should make the most of that advantage. You can write with ambition and passion, rather than your own acting ability or alter-ego.

Plus you have the freedom – FREEDOM! – to work on other people’s shows. And those shows don’t even all have to be comedy. You could write a drama.  There are no writer-performers in drama. And writers seem afforded greater respect, and more creative control. But then again, the grass is always greener. And I just love jokes. I suspect you do too.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:


"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

Monday, 16 November 2015

Inside Information

A few times a year, there are panels and interviews with Heads of Comedy or Channel Controllers and Genre Commissioners who are routinely asked what they’re looking for. I understand why they are asked this question. The organisation charging money for the panel has to appear to be offering special access or an inside track. And, crucially, we all want to know the answer.

But the particular question “What kind of sitcoms are you looking for?” is surely redundant? Because there’s only one real answer:

Funny ones.

Really. That’s it. They are looking for funny sitcoms.

Or at least sitcoms that they think will be funny because, to be honest, you really can't tell until you've written it, cast it, shot it, edited it and watched it in your own living room.

The problem is that "We're looking for funny sitcoms" doesn’t sound like a very helpful or professional answer, so usually you get answers that include the words ‘smart’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘warm’ or ‘a twist on x’ or ‘a y for the 21st Century’. (The word ‘edgy’ has, I’m pleased to say, been humanely destroyed.) Sometimes you get ‘laugh out loud’, which is the closest to the honest answer of ‘funny ones’. And the mainstream channels are always looking for pre-watershed family comedies because they always have and always will. Because families watch TV and like laughing.

Let's think about this.

Comedy is, by nature, surprising. You, as a writer, are noticing things about the way we live today that not been noticed by others – and then writing about them. How, then, could anyone predict what writers want to write about and can turn into a half-hour repetitive comedy format? It’s not logically possible.

Did BBC1 say, “We’d like a sitcom about a tall well-to-do woman who runs a gift shop with her short friend and is ideally in love with a chef from the restaurant next door.” Did they even say “We’d like a show about a fairly posh woman?” No! And it wasn’t even BBC1 who commissioned the smash-hit Miranda. It was BBC2 who saw a central character and world that might be funny and gave it a shot. Good on them. (I was not involved in the pitching of the show so can claim not credit for that whatsoever)

Sitcoms are not made to order, because nobody knows that they want. And nobody has any way of knowing what they want. Because the audience doesn’t know what it wants. Until it sees it.

The folk that work high up in comedy know all this but they have to say something or it looks like they’re being bolshy or reductionist or not playing the game. They could say what Bob Hope said when he was asked what he wanted on his gravestone. He said, ‘Surprise me.’

What comedy commissioners and channel controllers would say, if pressed, is that they want a sitcom that has passion, and distinctiveness, and ‘opens a window on a world we haven’t seen before’ or feels fresh or modern in some way. Those shows can only be created by writers following their passions. So that is what we must do.

Getting a sitcom on TV is so hard. I’ve managed to get three sitcoms onto the radio, but only got one of my own onto TV in fifteen years (Bluestone 42 which I co-created with Richard Hurst). Each attempt involves an idea, characters, plotting, choosing a pilot, writing and rewriting it again and again, based on notes which are sometimes helpful and sometimes hopeless – and they are almost impossible to distinguish. Then you’ve got to think of who’s going to be in the show, and who will ‘sell it’ to the channel and the audience, and be brilliantly funny it. Then there are more notes. Then probably some terrifying readthrough that will make you feel sick. Maybe even a pilot recorded in front of an audience which might make you actually throw up with nerves. It's hard.

If you’re not in completely love with the idea and passionate about the characters, all of the above is just too hard.

Apart from all this, the current rate of comedy musical chairs means this whole game is redundant. That commissioner who is idiotic enough to say that they’re looking for ‘a sitcom set on a submarine, or possibly an underwater kingdom’ probably won’t be doing that job by the time your script arrives on their desk, given the length of time it takes to develop and write a script worth sending to anyone. So this whole approach is flawed.

The Tactful Turndown
But here’s the thing that makes us question all of the above. It’s the tactful turndown that undoes all the logic that I have just laid out. Here’s how it goes:

Pic by Victoria Padevit Brown
You’ve sweated for months over an idea, about, say, a paintball park, and the dysfunctional characters therein. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, you've produced a script with all the torturous angst that a panda in captivity produces a baby panda. And this creation has been handed over to a commissioner who sits on it for some weeks, possibly months. In the unlikely event they are still in that job a few months later, the verdict comes back. It's a 'no'.

What? No?! You ask why. WHY?! Why did they turn it down?!

You demand answers. They don’t want to give answers. Your producer tries to shield you from the answers.

But you insist. So you get answers. And you hate the answers.

“Thank you for this script, which had some really great moments it, but we’re looking for comedies that have a slightly more contemporary feel than places like paintball parks.”

You’re angry because the idea you wrote was about the very fact that times have moved on and paintball parks are no longer a big deal and that’s the point of the show. Idiot. But your anger subsides, and you’ll start thinking to yourself ‘They want a more contemporary place than paintball. Okay. How about a… pop up restaurant? Or a social networking company? Or… a new political party? Yeah!" and of you go, pouring hours, or days - even weeks - into an idea that you think has a great chance of being commissioned.

STOP.

You’ve misinterpreted the feedback. You’ve failed to read between the lines. Come on, you're a writer. You should be able to understand subtext. Why didn’t they want to make your show?

They didn’t like it.

They didn’t find it funny. It didn’t jump off the page. It didn’t leap through the screen, if you were lucky enough to have made a pilot. They didn’t think their audience would find it funny in sufficient numbers. That really is all there is too it.

But, just as they have to answer the question about what they’re looking for, they have to answer the question about why they turn stuff down. And usually, the only honest answer is:

They didn’t think it was funny.

That’s all there is to it.

This is why I never ask for much feedback on a show that I’ve submitted. It’s not that I have nothing to learn. Far from it. If they pointed out technical flaws in what I’ve written, I could fix those. But they don’t want to do that, because even if I fix the flaws, they’d be left with a show that they still don’t like. It’s just a slightly better show they don’t like.

A while back, I submitted an idea for a sitcom that was set during World War Two. There were some comments of various degrees of logic but the final verdict was “We’re not looking for historical sitcoms at the moment”.

This is not really true, because if a knock-out idea came in that was about The Spanish Armada, or something, and it felt right, or fresh or special, they’d do it. They shouldn't not do it because they didn't do mine. And I should stop moaning that life is unfair. Maybe it is, but they just didn't like my show, so I need to get over it.

Likewise if Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon wanted to do a historical sitcom, they’d at least think about it very hard. And, to be honest, if they didn’t like Coogan and Brydon’s idea, they may well turn it down. Commissioners are not so star struck that they just accept any idea from someone from the comedy A-List. I’ve heard of numerous shows from award winning comedians turned down. So, it’s not even that the stars get special treatment. Although sometimes they do. Because if they're stars, they are special.

So what now?

Write your sitcom. The one you really want to write. Make sure you write it with passion. Make sure it's distinctive. And yes, it's painful and time-consuming and may well come to nothing, but that, unfortunately, is the only way. If they absolutely love it, they’ll break any rule they made up in the last two years to make it. And find the money to make it happen. If they quite like it, or can see the merit it, or just 'admire the writing', it’s not going to happen. Sorry.

It’s painful, but the alternative of creating a sitcom that even you aren’t passionate about is even more painful.

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For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.


Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.


People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:


"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon


And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.


Thursday, 12 November 2015

What Has Happened to Geoff and Lynette?

I'm still thinking about possible stories for Geoff and Lynette, who are the key protagonists in a sitcom I'm developing on this blog, called Third Time Lucky. In the last blog post on this subject, I wrote about putting your characters in various situations to see how it goes, before committing to your characters fully and fleshing things out. I used a technique for generating random stories just to get things going. I left unfinished. I'm finishing it below, just to show my working. It's not terribly inspiring at the moment, but it might show what the kinds of things go through my mind as I'm developing characters and sitcoms. If this list is baffling, look at this link first.

Chiropodist (or Chiropractor?) – Geoff has stinky feet. Or maybe Lynette does and she’s very ashamed of that. Or not ashamed enough? For chiropractor, see Healthy (below)

Damsel in Distress – Geoff is not chivalrous. But he’d like to be. Maybe he doesn’t want to do something chivalrous because he thinks Lynette wouldn’t like it or would find it patronising. Her old mates from Greenham common would be appalled. But when he confesses this, Lynette is surprised and appalled. How could he have misjudged her – when they’ve been married? Twice?!

Elephant – There’s an elephant in the room. Something about their relationship – or one of their children, maybe? – that they never mention. Or maybe one of their kids confronts Geoff and tells him that he’s a hoarder. Which he kind of is.

Giraffe – Geoff has been hiding something on a high shelf where he knows Lynette won’t even see it, let along reach it. Until spring cleaning day. Lynette gets out the step ladder – and to avoid her from finding the ‘thing/macguffin’, so Geoff gets involved in the cleaning, much to Lynette's surprise and delight. But he falls off the ladder (which he has set up incorrectly), and hurts himself – and then has to sit on the sofa helpless, while Lynette climbs the ladder to continue cleaning and finds ‘the thing’. When she opens it, all hell breaks look, but not in the way Geoff was expecting.

Health – Attitudes to health and medicine is a tricky one because Lynette could be probably pro-complimentary medicine, or she could place so much faith in nature that she believes the human body essentially heals itself. Or maybe Geoff is against all medicine and won’t take a paracetamol unless he’s dying.

Another health story here is that one of them might have a significant health scare – which really does focus the mind and force you to work out what’s precious. Geoff or Lynette has a scare, and then draws up a bucket list that is ludicrous. This could be a trigger for them both drawing up bucket lists to make sure they don't waste this part of their life, while they do have the means and the health to enjoy the world. And the lists are very different and they realise they want completely different things. But, somehow, they still want to be together. That made me think of this:


Igloo – There are disputes about the level of the thermostat. Or, better, the boiler is broken and Geoff is trying to fix it himself, but failing. All the while, Lynette is freezing, so Geoff's unwillingness to get help is impinging on the one he loves. Will his love of tinkering or love of his wife win out?

Janitor – Isn’t it about time Geoff tidied up his collection of old technology that is the garage? If so, what does he find?

Knight – subliminally, I think I wrote ‘Knight’ because I was still thinking about the Damsel in Distress, so I'm going to pass on this one.

Lemur – Lynette and Geoff have to look after a lemur for a friend who’s going on holiday. Geoff is not keen, but Lynette is pro-nature and animals so agrees. Geoff is struggling with a piece of technology, maybe, and when the lemur escapes, it shows that the technology is easy enough for a monkey/lemur to operate. (Lemurs aren't technically monkeys, are they? Or are they?)

Mauve – the living room (or bedroom?) needs repainting. Or the outside of the house. What colour should it be? And how do they decide? What different things do they associate with colours? Through the course of this, we see how incompatible they are. Something as trivial as this leads to the need for mediation.

Notebook – a note in a pad is found and heavily misconstrued. As a rule of thumb, I tend not to like stories like these where a character gets the wrong end of the stick because it means the plot is based on ‘lack of information’ rather than purely character. Sometimes, the partial information confirms a prejudice, which can be okay, but overall, I try to avoid these sorts of stories. This sort of thing could work for a beat, or scene. Geoff finds a note left by Lynette, which makes it look like she’s leaving him, when she’s actually nipped to the shops. Geoff is devastated – and maybe moves on a bit too quickly and Lynette returns, Geoff is surprised and it triggers a proper story, or feeds into something else.

Where are we?
From the list we've got, I like bits and pieces. I like the boiler story, because Geoff's passion to fix and tinker affects his other passion, his wife. I like the clash of bucket lists. I like Geoff being called a hoarder, and having to prove he's not, whilst being in denial. I like the falling out over the colour of the house. It's a common domestic dispute that could escalate.

Overall, it's still early days. It does feel like there's a show here, which is encouraging. But at the moment, lots of the stories are feeling a bit trivial and I have no idea what a pilot episode could be about. I think I now need to go back to the characters and interrogate them, which I wrote about here. Maybe I do need to figure out a bit of backstory (warning! Backstory! Handle with care) and work out where the primary battlegrounds are. So that's a job for next time.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Other One

There is a long running debate in comedy about whether comic characters need to be likeable. On the surface, this may seem surprising since many of our great comic creations are pretty unpleasant, narcissistic or snobby to the point of pathological derangement. Look at Basil Fawlty, David Brent, Edina and Patsy, Arnold Rimmer, Hyacinth Bucket, Arkwright, Alan B'Stard. Even Blackadder. And Victor Meldrew when he gets going. They're obsessives, or social climbers, or paranoid and deluded. Not what you'd call warm or likeable.

I was first made aware of this debate by Rob Long, who does an excellent podcast here by the way, in his book Conversations with My Agent, which I also recommend. I think it's in that book where he talks about the great divide between writers and network executives. The network wants writers to write Mickey Mouse. Yeah, the megastar, million-dollar mouse without a single defining characteristic other than being a bland mouse. But comedy writers want to write Bugs Bunny who is, and let's be fair to him, a jerk.

I've been introducing my kids to Bugs Bunny, and remembering that he really is a piece of work. But, I would argue, he's very much a 'live and let live' kind of rabbit. Leave him alone and he'll leave you alone. Point a gun down his hole, or take away his carrots, and he will utter the words that will lead to your condemnation: "Of course you realise this means war." And at the end of the cartoon, he might look to camera after he's utterly destroyed Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig or Yosemite Sam and say "Ain't I a stinker?" Yes, Bugs. You are mean. But I like you. It's something about his self-confident swagger, (especially as the character matures. Early cartoons have him scare a little to easily).

A hint of this debate came up in the most recent episode of the consistently brilliant Scriptnotes podcast in which they mention a theory from the days when there were only three TV channels. It was called Least Objectionable Program, which essentially means that your audience have decided to watch TV. They just don't want to be annoyed or repelled, so it's up to you to annoy them less than the other (two) channels. So the temptation is to move to bland Mickey and away from brutal Bugs, whom some may dislike for being too mean. One could argue that in a multi-channel universe, blandness is now fatal, although there are plenty of highly successful and profitable TV shows that would suggest there's life in the old theory yet.

This is all by way of introducing an excellent piece of writing by Jason Hazeley, who wrote a delightful guest post a while back on the passing of Bob Larbey, co-writer of The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles, among many other TV treats.

Esmonde and Larbey also co-wrote a bit of a stinker called The Other One, which showed us a very different kind of Richard Briers. A really smarmy one. And a slightly fresh-faced Micheal Gambon (who looks more like Glenda Jackson in the picture on the right). The audience didn't seem to like them. And Jason explains why. So go over and take the time to read Jason's delightful essay. (I read a draft of it a few weeks ago and made a few comments for which he overthanks me at the end.) It's here. Click it. Open it. And read it over lunch.

In the meantime, I just want to remind you that if you want to talk about sitcom and the nitty gritty, there are few places left on a 2-day a sitcom course I'm running with Dave Cohen on 5th & 6th November 2015 in London. Details here. We also podcast here.


Friday, 16 October 2015

Taking Your Characters For A Test Drive

We’ve got Geoff and Lynette – who are marrying for the third time. The second time to each other. The sitcom, called Third Time Lucky, rides or falls on their relationship and interaction, so there’s not much point going much further without working out some rough storylines to see if these characters work. Not only do they need individual quests, they need to clash. We’ll find out if they do when we consider some thumbnail stories.

On another series of blogposts, and on the podcast, I look at how to generate storylines. Have a look there for the methods. Here I’m going to put it into practice in a slightly truncated way since this isn’t the ‘big plotting’ part of the process. This is more like taking the characters for a test-drive.

When generating stories with my writing partner earlier this year, we tried one exercise which proved quite fast and fruitful, so I’m going to try that here. It involves coming up with word, plot or story for each letter of the alphabet. Take a word that pops into your head, and then have a think about what a story could that relates to both characters ideally.

Let’s just pause to remind ourselves who Geoff and Lynette are. They are both optimists, remember. They both think that this marriage can work, even though it didn’t before.

Lynette
Lynette is an optimist about the worlds. She's trying to change things for the better. She was one of the women at Greenham Common. She wants to help her fellow man, woman, person, animal, whatever. Every little helps. But she’s not a impractical dreamer or hippies. She’s focussed and organised. Which is why she did well in business and feels a bit guilty about selling out.

Geoff
Geoff is an optimist about trying to improve the lives of people around him (rather than the world)  - and especially himself. He loves gadgets, and new things and reckons that this latest thing really will love up to the hype. So he’s a bit naïve in that sense. And a hoarder.

So that’s Lynette and Geoff. Shall we start? Let’s just worry about A-N as random plot starters. Here are some words that jumped into my head to trigger plots:

Apples, Bears, Chiropodist (or Chiropractor?), Damsel in Distress, Elephant, Giraffe, Health, Igloo, Janitor, Knight, Lemur, Mauve, Notebook.

I have no idea where these ideas will lead. We're just taking the characters for a drive. So let’s take the first of those:

Apples
Three ideas spring from this, to me. Do they have an apple tree that produces too much fruit? Lynette would collect them, and make apple pie and give them away. Maybe she realises she can sell them and make money, which she guiltily feels should be given to charity. Geoff would want to get involved and buy an apple-processor. Maybe use some attachment from old food processor that’s been relegated to the garage (the home of all things technical). And it goes horribly wrong. He ends up in A&E.

Would it be better if they tried to chop the apple tree down because it just produces too many apples (like the trees in the garden of my parents-in-law). Everyone’s got apples and no-one wants them? Geoff would love to get his hands on the latest chainsaw. Even though he’s got an old one, he’d get a new one which has extra functions. That feels nicely dangerous as a story. Plus we have a falling tree which could fall the wrong way.

Another idea that occurred is that they have apples, and blackberries. We’ve got blackberries at the end of our garden – plus some other berries we think are rosehips. Maybe they get some odd berries, and Lynette would be keen to put them into a jam and give the jam as a present. They only discover later that the berries are poisonous. They tell a friend to throw away the jam (they don’t want to reveal it’s poisonous because it makes them look foolish), but the friend reveals it’s delicious on toast. They go round but the friend has made them some on toast to eat but they don’t want to eat it and have to reveal why. Friend furious and but is alive. Maybe they thinks they're going to die.

So there’s three apple ideas. I’m sure you’ve come up with others. Next. Bears.

Bears
I’m thinking about Teddy Bears. It could be that Geoff, who is a bit of a hoarder, finds his teddy bear, and it reminds him of his childhood. Or giving it to his son. Or another child of his who didn’t love it as much as he did. The worry about this story is that it’s looking backwards, so I’m dubious.

Maybe the bear is worth money and has too much sentimental value to sell. Doesn’t sound very interesting, does it?

Maybe his teddy was stolen or lost – and he’s sees it for sale in a charity shop, but a little child buys it before him. Geoff offers the child £50 for it, but the mother is appalled. That feels generically funny, but not very Geoff-like. Could happen to anyone.

Bears also says ‘Zoos’ to me. Lynette would be torn on zoos, because they’re good for animal preservation and public awareness. But she thinks they're a bit cruel. Could she adopt a bear? Geoff thinks it’s a waste of money because you don't actually get a bear. Can't help thinking Geoff would start to find ways of improving the bear's habitat in the zoo, which the zookeepers obviously rebuff. Maybe the ‘adopt a bear’ scheme at the local zoo is badly run and Lynette starts to get involved and is effectively ‘selling bears’ and it looks bad. Something like that.

This one doesn’t seem as fruitful as apples (ha ha), but it’s all good for thinking about the key characters.

Nothing particularly amazing has jumped out yet. But that's fine. It's early days. What's encouraging is that the characters are having attitudes and quests. So that's good. And some of these ideas may yet turn into a plot for the pilot of the first series. We're building up a load of material which can be refined and sifted later, so we're not staring at blank sheets of paper.

We just need to continue the process with C-Z and see what we've got. Maybe I'll look at those in the next post. Or you could have a go in the meantime. (Weekend homework...)

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If this sort of thing is interesting or useful, may I recommend my book, Writing That Sitcom? And you might also enjoy a two-day sitcom-writing workshop with me and Dave Cohen on 5th & 6th Nov 2015. Details on that here. We also do a podcast which is here.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Who is Lynette?

If you have a key central relationship, it’s quite easy to merely define one character as the opposite of the other. In Geoff, we have an technophile. An early adopter. A tinkerer. He thinks this or that latest gadget will improve his life and his household. It would be easy, then to make Lynette a technophobe and a pessimist, but this already makes me thing Lynette isn’t much fun, and it quite negative. She doesn’t feel very active.

If at all possible, I’d try and define your characters are people in their own right before getting too hung up on the relationships. And given the show is about optimist, it would be could to make Lynette and optimist – but a different kind of optimist.

Embracing The Base at Greenham Common
Picture by Ceridwen
I wonder if Lynette is an optimist about the world, about the environment, about politics and society in general. She doesn’t have to be a grown-up Wolfie Smith, but maybe she is some kind of activist, or was in her student days. She’s old to enough to have been one of the Women at Greenham Common in 1982-3, as a young idealist who thought they could change the world. But then she met Geoff, and they got married, had kids and then she got a job, which got in the way. And maybe that’s the reason she left him. She felt she’d become something she hated. Perhaps she ran off with a Greenpeace activist or a Swampy-type (which would tie in with the May Day Anti-capitalist riots) and perhaps she even lived in a commune for a while when she realised this was taking things a bit far.

Either way, she is energetic, and ready and willing to help her fellow man, and make sacrifices for the wider society. Perhaps she’s living with the guilt of not being the firebrand MP she was once told she could be. She’s never lived down the fact she’s sold out to ‘the man’.

Lynette is slowly taking shape, I think. But there’s another pitfall I can spot. It’d be very easy to turn her into an earth-mother hippy and do lots of jokes about hummus. That feels like a bit of cliché, or at least a sketch that might wear a little thin after a while.

Lynette’s hippiness is more hidden, because she’s not, by nature someone who steps back, chills out and goes with the flow. Much as she might like to be Phoebe from Friends, she’s just too up tight for that. Too organised. Too pragmatic. She’s a troubleshooter. Which is why she did perfectly well working in business. Which in turn is why she hates herself and feels like a failure as person – but optimistic that everyone does their bit, the world will be a better place. So the least she can do is her bit.

I feel like I know Lynette. This version of Lynette at least. She’s going to generate stories, plots and put herself into impossible positions. So that’s good. The next thing to do is see how the two characters work out when it comes to plots - and how they relate to each other. It's really hard to do that in the abstract and I find plots really do help work out who these characters really are and how they drive each other mad. Do plots make them collude and collide? There’s not much point worrying about supporting cast or peripherals characters until we’ve got these two characters right. At the moment, it’s all about their relationship, so we’ll look at that through the lens of some plots next time.

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If this sort of thing is interesting or useful, may I recommend my book, Writing That Sitcom? And you might also enjoy a two-day sitcom-writing workshop with me and Dave Cohen on 5th & 6th Nov 2015. Details on that here. We also do a podcast which is here.


Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Who is Geoff?

If you’ve just tuned in, I’m developing a sitcom on this blog, walking through the process, and showing how I go about things (have a look here and here). My way may not be the best way, and shouldn’t necessarily be your way, but it seems that people are finding this process useful. In some way or other.

The show is called Third Time Lucky, about a couple called Lynette and Geoff, who are marrying for the third time – and the second time to each other. This time, they reckon, it’s going to be different. They’re older. And wiser. And both hoping against hope that the other one can change. We know, or at least strongly suspect, that they are doomed.

They’ve probably got kids from their first marriage – and at least one of them from their second marriage. Who are they? How old are they? What stage are they at? I’ve no idea. Right now, the important players are Geoff and Lynette. Who are they?

One thing to bear in mind, even at the start, that you don’t want characters who are ‘sometimes a bit this’ or ‘occasionally a bit that’. No. We want clear simple characters at first. We need to work out what the engine of each characters is. What drives them forward? Maybe we want a bit of back story in our heads at least – and this show, given it’s about being married for the third time could easily be stuffed full of past moments, call-backs, regrets and recriminations. But we need forward momentum. Stories, not histories.

Rough Scenarios
But there are a few questions that need answers and we need a rough age for our lead characters. Or at least paint a couple of scenarios:

Let’s say they first married when they were both 25. Had a child at 27. Kept things together for the sake of their child. When the child went to uni at 18, they divorced. So they divorced at 45. I’ve just read online that if people remarry after a divorce, it tends to be after three years. So, let’s say Geoff remarries at 48. Maybe to someone younger. Or unsuitable in some way. But the marriage is a disaster. They divorce when Geoff is 53. He meets Lynette again 55. And they remarry. So that puts Geoff at mid-to-late fifties.

When does the show start? When is the first ep set? When they meet again? When they remarry? Two years into the remarriage? No idea. Maybe their wedding day would be a good place to start.

So Geoff could be 55 and thinking about early retirement. He could be an ex-copper and already retired (now doing private consultancy/security work). This doesn’t feel like a work-place sitcom, so he should either be retired from work – and active in some other way, eg. Social club, neighbourhood watch, parish council – or all of the above. Or he should be working from home, ideally from his kitchen table. Or he’s still a plumber, and he goes out and does that. And we never see it. But something tells me Geoff is not a plumber. He might be an ex-copper.

The good thing about this scenario is there are lots of brilliant, established, funny actors in their 50s. Especially actors or comedians who would work well in front of a studio audience, which is what I hope this show will be. Casting an exciting Lynette or a Geoff will not be very hard.

What’s more, any children they have will be in their 20s, so there’s scope for a really decent casting there and you might end up with another Kris Marshall on your hands. That'd be good.

The alternative scenario, which on the surface is less attractive, is that Geoff and Lynette married at 18. Maybe Lynette was pregnant and it was a bit of a shotgun wedding. Although is that a thing these days? People don’t care about that stuff any more do they. Either way, they marry at 18. Divorce at 28. Remarry at 32. Divorce again at 40. And then remarry each other at 45. For some reason, I just don’t buy that sequence of events. It actually feels rather sad. There may be a way of making that work, but I’m not sure what it is.

Also, the show is about people set in their ways, and how people are overly optimistic that other people will change – and that they’ll be Third Time Lucky. So I’m going with the first scenario and that rough timeline. Geoff and Lynette are mid-to-late fifties.

So Who Is Geoff?
To be honest, I haven’t really been thinking about him specifically, but after a while I realised that subconsciously I have been.  A few different things have triggered a thought about Geoff being a technophile. An early adopter.
Yes. Minidiscs were very nearly a thing.
Geoff has one of these. Obvs.

Let’s think about what that looks like for a man born in about 1960. No VCRs, no mobile phones, no answering machines – let alone internet. Therefore, we’ve got a guy who was entering the job market in the 1980s, when large top-loading VCRs were available at considerable expense. He bought an early enormous video camera. He probably bought a laserdisc player, and a minidisc player. Now he has a Blueray DVD player gathering dust because he’s all about the set-top boxes and live streaming. He has a massive TV.

Now, a word of caution here. People staring at screens and operating gadgets is not all that funny or televisual. So how does the technology help?

One bonus is that he’ll have grainy video footage of past family events in the 80s, 90s and 00s that might come in handy. And he’ll be constantly wanting to install burglar alarms and security systems that electrocute him and get him arrested. That sort of thing.

It’s also worth asking why has he got all these gadgets – and he’s still got them, and the original boxes and instructions in a loft or a lock-up. Is he a bit of hoarder? There’s been lots of docs about hoarders but no comedies…. Why does he keep buying the latest technology. Is it about status? “I can afford the latest things”?

No, I think the technology is a tangible illustration of his optimism. He thinks that the next gadget, the next device or platform will be the one that really makes his life better – and for those around him. He’s optimistic about the future – and that’s really what the show is about. And we’ve got a central character who’s got tangible objects that embody his optimism (even though they are relics of the past.)

So, get ready for Geoff. He’ll be along soon. Once he’s worked out how to reboot his phone which has his diary on it which tells him when we were meant to be meeting. But when he arrives, you may laugh that his technology has actually made him late, but he had a palm pilot back in the day and he said those things were the future and, in a way, he was right. There’s always just enough evidence that his optimism is not entirely misplaced. Hello, Geoff. I think I'm going to like you.

But what does Geoff see in Lynette? Who is Lynette? We’ll be thinking about her next time.


If this sort of thing is interesting or useful, may I recommend my book, Writing That Sitcom? And you might also enjoy a two-day sitcom-writing workshop with me and Dave Cohen on 5th & 6th Nov 2015. Details on that here.


Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Third Time Lucky - Refining the Idea

On the last blog post, I kicked off an idea for a new sitcom called Third Time Lucky, a sitcom about a Geoff and Lynette who are getting married for the third time - the second time to each other. Someone left a comment which is quite interesting, which I'm going to comment on here:

Is the sitcom concept a little bit mushy though, to have them both madly in love with each other after having come through failed marriages? That’s a lot of heartache to just come out the other end of and be ready for more surely? Why not have them Geoff and Lynette be more cynical about love and relationships? Maybe they decide that love is unrealistic or not worth the effort. But companionship is something they both crave and, knowing they can enjoy each other’s company without all the expectations a normal marital relationship demands (sigh… :D) Geoff and Lynette should therefore be able to make their marriage of convenience work. They have each other’s company, separate rooms, they know each other’s ways and may even have grown up kids together. Perhaps the only tension is that they might actually start to have feelings for each other. Marriage in reverse? Then the arguments happen because they’re falling in love and don’t want the other to know. Or they are in denial. I imagine it’s been done though. Or it’s been tried and failed. Horribly. Discuss.

Okay, let's discuss that. It's an interesting proposition. A couple living together as a marriage of convenience for companionship. A few things to say about that:

1. Marriage of Convenience
A Marriage of Convenience as a central idea could well work. But that's a different show. And they don't need to have been married three times for that. Or even to each other. It could be that they made a pact that they've been friends for ever and to marry at fifty if they didn't marry anyone else. But overall, it's a quite different show tonally, because it's about boundaries within a marriage of convenience and it feels a bit downbeat to me. In the hands of another, such as the commenter above perhaps, it could be a thing of joy.

2. Is that a Movie?
Couples who live as couples but aren't supposed to fall in love feels like its been done in movies many times over. Lots of romantic comedies are marriages of convenience - a man and women thrown together by circumstance and they're not supposed to fall in love (eg. The Sure Thing) but do. Maybe because it feels like the idea won't sustain for years,and you're so desperate for them to admit their in love that the idea should last 90 minutes, rather than 26 episodes/13 hours or more. Again, I can't prove this - or anything, but that's my gut reaction.

3. Is that a Thing?
Couples who marry for companionship and live separate lives - does that actually happen? Is it a thing? Feels like the sort of thing some people might do, but they'd both be fairly odd fish (and cold fish). In my idea, I'm going for the mainstream audience and trying to create a situation that is identifiable. Again, nothing wrong with unusual situations. I've written sitcoms set in Afghanistan and Bletchley Park. But this time, I'm trying to keep it simple and identifiable.

4. Long-Term Sustainable Chararacters
A couple who are realistic about how hard it is to live together, who draw up boundaries, etc probably have too much self-awareness to be sustainable long term sitcom characters. I'm really drawn to the idea that they re-marry saying 'this time it'll be different', because, sadly, that's what people do. They do the same thing again and again and expect a different result, but don't get it. That seems like a more truthful comic situation to me, and a more fruitful one. So I'm going with it.

So Now What?
Thank you for the comment, though. It helps me define my idea against it. Anything that does that is a good thing. So what's the lesson?

Amusing Picture of Horse Because Pictures Break Things Up
Talk to one or two trusted people about your idea. They will inevitably start to pick holes in it, or pull a face at a certain point that betrays what they really think. And you will leap to defend your idea. In so doing, you may find out what you really do like about the idea, and that's a good thing.

Equally, the idea may fall to bits and prove indefensible or uninteresting. That's a good thing too because you've been spared the labour of flogging a dead horse. Or at least a horse you're not interested in.

Sitcom is so hard, and takes so long to get anywhere, you have to be passionate about the idea. And confident you can write it. That's why writing cynical ideas that you think might get bought is such a bad idea - because they may well get turned down anyway and you've spent all that effort on something you didn't even like.

You will fail. I do, almost all the time. But fail well with something you're prepared to go down clinging too. Too bleak? Well, that's the world we're in folks.

I hope that was useful. Dave Cohen and I talk about stuff like this on our podcast, but also it's much better done in person. So why not consider coming to our sitcom workshop on Thursday 5th and/or Friday 6th November 2015 in London? Dave and I will be there taking you through the stage of creating, plotting and writing sitcoms, and people seem to like it. Go here for more info and reviews.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Developing a Sitcom From Scratch

On this blog – and my book – I’ve written a lot about set-up, characters, story and plot. Whilst I try to provide examples from both my own work and existing shows on TV and Radio, it’s hard not to be wise after the event. So, for the next series of blog posts, that may go on for weeks or months, I’m going to start a sitcom from scratch here on the blog. As I do so, I'll talk about the decisions that I’m making all along the way, and what’s in my mind as I make them.

The big question is what’s the sitcom going to be about? To be honest, what I've outline below is the first idea that popped into my head and it seems as good as any for illustrative purposes. It may turn into a real show one day. Who knows?

I’m not too worried about anyone stealing it for a number of reasons. Firstly, these blogs are timed and dated, so if anything came of it, I wouldn’t struggle to prove it was my idea. Secondly, ideas are not copyrightable, especially not the one I’ve just come up with. It’s all in the execution. And thirdly, and most depressingly, most ideas, even stolen ones, don’t get made into TV shows, so I’m probably not really losing out anyway.

The good thing is I have a title. I always say that if the title doesn’t turn up at the very beginning of your show, you’re never going to think of one you’re happy with. This sitcom is called Third Time Lucky. I like it because it’s a phrase people say (a bit), it trips off the tongue, it describes the show, at least superficially, and it isn’t a pun.

What’s it about?
A married couple. I’ve called them Geoff and Lynette. And this is the third time they’ve been married. They're hoping this will be third time lucky.

But this is the second time they've been married to each other. So they got married in their late twenties, got divorced, then remarried someone else. Then those marriages ended (maybe one divorce, one bereavement), and they got back together and, in a bit of a whirlwind, decided to get married. Again.

At least that’s what I'm thinking, at this early stage. If they’ve been married to each other before, rather than this just being a third marriage, that gives them a lot of shared history, regrets and unresolved rage. Now that could all be backstory and, as I keep saying on this blog, backstory is death. How do we make the show forward looking? That comes in asking the next crucial question:

What’s it really about?
Dave Cohen and I talk about this on our first Sitcom Geeks podcast, so do have a listen to that. But what is Third Time Lucky really about? At this stage, it’s hard to be sure, but I think the fact they’ve been married to each other before is crucial here. Why? Because the marriage didn’t work before. Why do they think it’s going to work now? Are they older and wiser, or just more deeply entrenched in their ways? That's the question.

The reason I write sitcom is because I think it’s an accurate, albeit heightened, representation of real life. And in real life, people don’t change. You end up having the same conversations with the same people over and over again. What do we need to learn? We need to learn to come to terms with the fact that people don’t change. Even our nearest and dearest. They don't change. And we can't change them.

Geoff and Lynette, then, both think they are able to change, and that the other is about to change, and that they can change each other, but each week, they have to come to terms with the fact that they are who they are. And marriage is about accepting each other. Or something.

Bits of Dialogue
At this point, a bit of dialogue can be really useful, just so you start to hear something of the show. You're trying to glimpse a bit of the statue you're carving out of the marble. So when I was thinking of these characters, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor popped into my head. The hottest couple in the world got divorced and then famously remarried each other. I imagined Geoff and Lynette thinking how romantic that was and telling someone about it, possibly one of their sons.

Son: So you’re marrying each other again? 
Geoff: Yep, we’re like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. 
Geoff gives Lynette a squeeze and peck on the cheek. Son winces. 
Lynette: Yes, just like them. Isn’t it romantic? 
Son: Kind of. (beat) You know they also got divorced again? 
Lynette: Ha, ha. No they didn’t? Did they? Well, we’re nothing like that. 
Geoff: No. Nothing like them.
That feels funny to me, and briefly encapsulates their self-delusion. It feels like we’ve made a start. What I need to make sure of, though, is that I don't cling on to that dialogue and formulate the characters around a couple of throwaway jokes. But the point is, I'm now interested which, given this is my sitcom, is rather important.

What’s Next?
Now I have my working hypothesis on what this show could be about. But I need to dig into Lynette and Geoff a lot more before I make any more rash statement about what Third Time Lucky is really about. It’s only when I’ve done that that I can work out where they’re going to live and therefore what the situation in my comedy is. Has one moved in with the other? Is it their original marital home? A new home they’ve just bought together to make a fresh start? It’s much easier to get into the heads of the characters before pinning down where they live and how this reunion came about and, most importantly, what's going to happen every week.

From Constant Hot Water
I need to keep thinking about my two leads rather being distracted too much by kids, step-kids, parents and wacky neighbours. Those all come later. I need to be asking myself if there’s show in Geoff and Lynette.

There are lots of other questions to be answered. How old are they? Are they still working? Do they have kids? Have they started a business together? My worry is that if they have, and they’ve started, say a bed and breakfast, then it looks like a sitcom about a bed and breakfast. Or worse, becomes a sitcom about a bed and breakfast. (And let’s face, Constant Hot Water already nailed that.)

Other Notes at this stage
I nearly called Lynette ‘Sam’, short for Samantha. Here’s why I didn’t. Before this is a TV show, it is going to be a pilot script, which has to be read by someone who is tired, busy and possibly finds reading boring. So I want to make the character names as easy to grab onto as possible. I don’t want any confusion, like thinking Sam is a man. So I’ve called her Lynette, which also begins with a different letter from Geoff which, in turn, is an unmistakably male name.
Watch out. Series 9 has a PG rating...

Also the names indicate they are not in the twenties or thirties, but their fifties, or possibly older.

In my head, this is going to be a mainstream studio audience show because that’s what I can write, have experience of writing, like writing and, crucially, is where the opportunities are.

So, I’m thinking of this in terms of Terry and June for the baby-boomers. Fresh Fields Revisited. George and Mildred Reloaded.  Now there’s something you don’t hear very often. Watch this space.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Why My List of Top Ten American Sitcoms Is A Bit More Complicated Than It Sounds

A few weeks ago, I posted details of my favourite British sitcoms of all time. These are not shows that I necessarily think are technically the best, or most popular, but shows which I love, highly rate and made a lasting impact on me. My favourite is Yes, Prime Minister.

I thought about doing the same with American sitcoms, but realised this isn’t as straightforward as it seems for many reasons. The first is that my list isn’t very original. The shows I like and admire the most, and that have shaped me and my thinking about situation comedy, are pretty much the same as everyone else’s: Friends, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development and my favourite of all American sitcoms, Seinfeld. And what can I say about these shows that hasn’t already been said? Not very much.

The other problem is that my judgment on American sitcoms is very patchy and affected by my circumstances, age and what British TV channels chose to import in the last forty years.

There are loads of classic sitcoms I don’t think we ever got here in the UK, like Murphy Brown, Family Ties and All in the Family. (The latter was based on Til Death Do Us Part, which was a British show anyway). And there are classic sitcoms that were just before my time and may well have been repeated in UK but I never saw them, like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners,The Bob Newhart Show and Soap.

Then there are classics that I first saw when I was too young to fully appreciate them, like M*A*S*H, Cheers and Taxi. And then there were sitcoms that I liked because they were on and I was young and fairly easily pleased, so that would include shows like Perfect Strangers, Head of the Class and Different Strokes. Included in that should be Golden Girls, The Cosby Show and Happy Days, which I’m pretty sure are important shows and classics. But would they make it into my top ten? I’m not sure. Maybe.

Then there are sitcoms that were perfectly enjoyable and I really got into and happened to catch me at time when I watched a lot of TV and a UK channel decided to broadcast it. Like Caroline In The City. Yes. I really got into the will-they/won't-they unrequited love storyline of Caroline in the City. What of it?

Then there are other shows that looked good but I never got into them like Spin City, Mad about You, and My Two Dads.

Then there are the sitcoms I really like now, but have no idea if they’ll stand the test of time and be deemed classics like Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99 and The Goldbergs. I also love Modern Family, which I’m pretty sure is going to be deemed a classic, so should that be on my list? Probably.

Then there are the sitcoms that I liked, but stopped watching when they seemed to lose their way, like Scrubs and Roseanne. And then there are the sitcoms that everyone else seems to rave about but have somehow never done it for me, like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Community. And what about the sitcoms that I enjoyed enough to watch in their entirety, like My Name Is Earl and 30 Rock?

So, what shows remain? One is a comedy drama, which, if we’re being technical about thing probably isn’t a sitcom: The Wonder Years. There was a show that just nailed a stage of life – being a kid in an adult world. All the while I was watching when I was fairly young myself, I was aware that this show was a class act. But it’s not a sitcom. So it's not on the list.

Then there’s The Simpsons. Is that a sitcom? Yes. It must be, but it hardly seems fair putting it on this list because it’s been hailed, for good reason, as the best TV show of the 20th Century. But it’s an animation. And given there are no rules and it’s my blog, I’m excluding it.

So what’s left?

The Phil Silvers Show aka Bilko. Much unloved and overlooked in the USA, but broadcast by BBC2 in the 1980s and 1990s in the daytime. The show is an astonishing mix of great writing, pacey directing and a central performance that may have been equalled, but never better: Phil Silvers as the grasping, gambling, slippery but loveable Sergeant Bilko. So lovable, he became Top Cat. And was this a boutique show? Distilled brilliance that couldn’t be rushed, like the 24 episodes  of Blackadder? (18 great episodes if we’re being honest about Series 1)

Nope.

They made 142 episodes of Bilko. 142 episodes in 4 years. FOUR YEARS. From 1955 to 1959. (Winning three consecutive Emmys for Best Comedy Series in the process) That’s 60-odd years ago. And it’s still funny. Really funny.

Okay, then. Since we're here, let’s just knock out a top ten of my favourite American shows in no particular order: Friends, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development, Seinfeld, Modern Family, Cheers, MASH, The Phil Silvers Show and, what the hell, Caroline in the City.

Yes. Caroline in the City. Deal with it.