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.


  1. Did you know I was coming to your site? I need to read this 3x.

  2. Geoff and Lynnette? I feel Jeff Lynne and ELO jokes in the distant future... Yikes! A very interesting idea this blog. 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.

  3. I'm so looking forward to watching this sitcom progress - very cool to be in from the outset.

    (The bit I didn't want to say, because I don't know what I'm talking about and you'll have thought about it already: is this sort of the premise of As Time Goes By? Couple, broke up, both married, one ended in divorce and one in bereavement, then they get back together...)

    1. Oh, is it? I never really saw that show! It was sort of before my time (as in, it was on when I was young and it looked grown up and boring). Well, that's a game changer, that could be very useful/informative. Thank you!

    2. Okay, having just read the outline of the show on Wikipedia, I think this is fairly different. In As Time Goes By, Palmer and Dench meet - and fall in love, but then lose touch and the show seems to be about their reconnection. (The outline on Wiki is bafflingly complicated). This is different in that Geoff and Lynette met, fell in love, married, stayed married for a few years, then drove each other mad, and divorced. Moved on - but then re-marry each other thinking they can sort out their differences because 'the sparks still there'. So, I think this is different. Phew.

    3. I'm so glad it wasn't a game changer! Sorry for giving you a panic :) Yeah, they split up because he was at war and his letter home (or her letter to him, I forget which) gets lost - so their second relationship isn't really an 'is the spark still there?' situ - not least because they meet when Palmer starts dating Dench's daughter. Confusingly called Judy in the show.

      As a side note, I love that show so much! Perhaps more for the acting than the writing, though the writing has that trademark Bob Larbey style of believable domestic life and observational comedy.