Thursday 13 August 2015

Writing the Pilot

In the latest Sitcom Geeks podcast, we talk about writing the pilot episode. I talk about stuff that I also cover in my book, Writing That Sitcom.

Here's an extract:

Your sitcom pilot is the first episode, and it contains the First Act of your show. The only question is how long you want the set-up to last. There are a number of schools of thought on this whole issue about how ‘set-uppy’ the pilot episode should be. So let’s look briefly at the options available for the ‘set-uppy-ness’ (‘expositionality’?) of your pilot episode:

The Whole Episode Set-Up
A character wakes up one morning and decides he’s going to do something different. He’s going to move to the country. She’s going to quit and start her own business. They’ve lost everything and have volunteered to be the first settlers on the moon. Or, in the case of The Good Life, for example, you turn forty and wonder if you’re just a cog in a machine. In To The Manor Born, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton attends her husband’s funeral and loses her enormous house.

Back in the day, the BBC used to confidently churn out big sitcoms, often committing to eight episodes or more in the first series, so maybe they felt they could take their time setting up. Clearly, The Good Life and To The Manor Born have very watchable first episodes, but they are very set-uppy.

My instinct is that writers, especially inexperienced ones, can easily get hung up on this kind of pilot. They often worry about building the world and setting up characters. But I’m not sure you have time for that these days. You’re under quite a lot of pressure to get on with it. And that may be no bad thing. There are many dangers of a pilot episode that is strong on set up. You may well be establishing characters and settings that we never see again. If you’re a studio show, there might be lots of location shooting. Not ideal. Plus, you’re creating an episode which is going to be unlike all future episodes.

I would suggest two alternatives:

The Quick Set Up
In this kind of pilot, you set up the premise fairly quickly, maybe in the first third of the episode, and then spend the rest of the episode on a regular, but mini-episode. The best example of this I can think of is My Name Is Earl, in which Earl J. Hickey, a small-time thief, wins $100k on a lottery ticket and is immediately hit by a car (four minutes in) and watches the ticket blow away. In hospital, Earl’s wife Joy divorces him, and Earl hears about the concept of karma via the TV (six minutes in). He resolves to try to make up for all the bad things he has done and writes a list of 259 items (seven minutes in). At 07.25 his life quest is clearly stated: “That Karma stuff is clearly gonna kill me unless I make up for everything on that list.” Thirty seconds later, he picks an easy one off the list. Number 64: "Picked on Kenny James." Earl figures he needs to help Kenny to have friends. And we’re off. We’ve now got a 16 minute, mini-episode which will be a taste of the series to come. Brilliant. It hooked me and I watched every single episode (including the lousy prison ones).

The other option is:

The Newcomer
Someone arrives who changes everything. Or at least acts as a window on the world. This is quite useful in that you can explain stuff to the newbie, as Fletcher does to Godber in Porridge. Fletcher’s been transferred from another prison and Godber is new to the whole thing. It’s quite a common trick and can work well. In Ever Decreasing Circles, Martin Brice walks in and Paul is in the kitchen. Nothing will be the same again. In The Vicar of Dibley, a new vicar arrives in, er, Dibley. And it’s a woman. Shock, horror. In Miranda, Gary has returned. In Bluestone 42, a new Padre has arrived. And an American guy is shot in the head. In Hut 33, the Oxford Professor arrives.

You can combine the Quick Set Up and The Newcomer. For example, in Yes, Minister, Jim Hacker, the new Minister, has arrived at the Department of Administrative Affairs, and an episode plays out that beautifully sets the tone for the series.

What’s left? A couple more pilot options for those feeling brave:

The Opening Titles
Every week, the opening titles play – and you can make them work really hard for you. In fact, you can pack your show’s entire premise into the opening titles and forget pilots altogether. In fifteen seconds, you have all you need to know about the main character and situation of Veep. Graphs and headlines show that she ran for president but didn’t make it. So she’s vice president. The audience is smart enough to fill in the gaps, suspecting that it’s a bit of a non-job. Apart from that, there’s very little set-up in that show. Another example of this is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s all in the opening theme, rapped by the hero, Will Smith. Here's the slightly elongated version:

However you set up your premise in the pilot, reminding your audience of the headline idea week after week isn’t a bad idea. Even though the first episode of Arrested Development sets up the demise of the Bluth family, and how Michael ends up taking charge, it doesn’t hurt to remind people of this each week. My Name is Earl has a similar premise recap, as does Porridge.

The Show Title
Who needs explanation, set up and backstory when the title of the show says it all? My Family. It’s a family. Job done. Keeping up Appearances; dinnerladies; Men Behaving Badly. The central idea and theme is clear from the name of the show. The rest is detail.

A wiser and more experienced man than me (Paul Mayhew-Archer, in fact) says that if you want to know how to set up a sitcom, watch the first episode of Cheers. That’s good advice. Watch that. In fact, watch as many first episodes as you can. Shows you loved. Shows you hated. Sometimes, the first episode bares little relation to the show you remember, or came to love (or hate) – but usually all the key ingredients are there. They may just be a little undercooked.

To read the rest of Writing That Sitcom on Kindle or the Kindle App, click here or, if you're in USA, here. To listen to the podcast, click here.

To attend a two-day sitcom-writing course in November with me and Dave Cohen, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Some cynical friends and I sat down a couple of years ago to watch the pilot of 'Allo 'Allo, which we dimly remembered from when we were too young to understand it. The pilot, before the show became mired in punchlines and double entendre was, well still pretty heavy on the innuendo, but such a wonderful setup, genuinely funny and brave to the point of near-madness. I don't know who green-lit that show, but it's bizarre and thus wonderful.