Monday, 11 December 2017

5 Ways To Get Your Characters Talking

Developing characters is really difficult. It's easy enough in theory. You could start with contrasting personality types, drawn from a Meyers-Briggs chart, or by bootlegging a Shakespeare play and plonking them in 2017. But so much of what a character is - or could be - comes from how they talk. I've written a bit about this before here.

It would be very easy to carefully plot and plan an entire pilot episode of a brand new sitcom, and immediately hit the buffers because you just don't know how the characters sound.

First scenes are really hard to write as it is. First episodes are even harder. First episodes of shows that don't even exist yet are the hardest of all. So you need to do everything you can in order to make your life as easy as possible. Here are some tips to prime the pump.

Let's say we've got an optimistic young mum character called Ruth. In the first scene, she's at a check-out of a supermarket. Baby in trolley. Let's try and write that.

Okay, erm. So.

Scene 1. Int. Supemarket. Day. 10.00am
RUTH is piling groceries onto the conveyor belt. She's hassled. She's getting cross with the baby for no good reason. The check-out lady is tutting. Ruth gives the baby something sweet to eat. The check-out lady is tutting again. Ruth looks defensive. The check-out lady doesn't say anything. No-one says anything. Because I CAN'T THINK OF ANYTHING FOR THEM TO SAY.

Nothing's occurred to me as I write those lines of action. And I'm not excited about it as the scene sound pretty negative and charmless. What's the joke? Who is Ruth? How does she talk? How can she talk in a way that is truthful to her character as well as funny? In short, think about your character from all angles. Interrogate them - and listen. Eventually, they'll start talking.

1. What's Your Name And Where Do you Come From?
Firstly, you need to know roughly whether the character is from. Where is the show set? Are we in Birmingham? Are they from that part of the world, or were they brought up elsewhere? Do they belong there? Did this young mum move from Leeds? Or Edinburgh? To be with someone, and it's all gone wrong, and now she's raising a child alone? That will affect they way she talks. She can still be an optimist - but Ruth's situation will make her sound a bit more desperate. Or in denial. Or super-determined to make a go of it.

2. Where Do You Think You're Going?
Backstory is normally toxic to pilot episodes. I've written on this before. Think, where is the character going? What do they want? Is she determined to set up her own business? Or under-estimate how much time and energy a baby will need? This, again, will inform the way she speaks. Suddenly, she's not just a character in the moment buying groceries. She's got a past, and more importantly, a future. In her head, at least. We don't want to hear the details - and the neither does the cashier she is buying the groceries from. But she does at least have an attitude which should make her easier to write.

3. Is it Someone You Know?
It may be this character isn't just dreamed up out of your head -  although it is in my case as I just plucked an example from the air because this is blog. Maybe this is your sister, or your cousin. Or your best friend. Or a teacher you knew at school. How would they talk in this situation? Channel that. Use it.

4. Who Would Your Dream Cast Be?
You could think about who is likely to play this part - most likely someone from another sitcom already on TV. Or a drama or soap. That might give you a clear sense of how they talk. It might be hard to make your character distinctive from that other sitcom. So you could think of some super A-Lister from Hollywood and imagine how they'd play the part. What if this character were played by Reese Witherspoon? (who is 41, but that's Hollywood 41, so 30-something to normal people). Same goes for Amy Poehler, but pick someone, and that might help at least with the sensibility of the character.

5. Have You Seasoned Your Outline?
When writing your outline for you pilot script, drop in lines and bits of dialogue as they occur to you. Sometimes a line crystallises very early on and becomes pivotal. There was one character in my first sitcom on BBC Radio 4 I wrote called Think The Unthinkable. At one point, in an early brainstormed outline, in response to being asked to think of solutions to get more people cycling in London, he said, without joking, "Could we get London to be mostly downhill?" It was a key line for the character because it said everything about him. A free-thinking idiot. In the end, that line was used in the final episode of the first series.

Any lines you can drop into your outline are really helpful. If none occur to you as you're writing the outline, maybe you just don't know the character well enough to start writing

With that in mind, let's have another crack at that opening scene with Ruth, our single mum optimist with shades of Reese Witherspoon, Amy Poehler and one of my sisters (I won't say which). And why should the check-out person be female. Let's make it a young man. Might be fun. Here we go.

Scene 1. Int. Supemarket. Day. 10.00am
RUTH is purposefully piling groceries onto the conveyor belt. HARRY, the baby (c. 9 months old) is in the trolley seat. The cashier, KYLE, is about to start running the items through till.

KYLE
Need any help packing?

RUTH
Yes. Dairy in the blue bag. Veg in the green.

RUTH throws her tote bags at KYLE's face. KYLE presses a button to get assistance. RUTH freezes.

RUTH
Wait!

RUTH pulls out a long shopping list and examines it closely.

RUTH
Balls.

KYLE
Excuse me, but I have a right to do my job without harassment-

RUTH
What? No, cotton balls! For Harry.

RUTH points at the baby and gestures bottom wiping. RUTH grabs some carrot batons in a bag open opens them. She hands them to KYLE.

KYLE
Erm, no thanks.

RUTH
They're not for you! If he screams give him a baton. I'll be back in a minute.

RUTH charges off muttering 'balls', leaving KYLE looking at HARRY.

KYLE
Your mum's scary.

KYLE eats a carrot baton.

And... scene.

Okay, it's not hilarious. But it's a start. Ruth already seems funnier and more motivated. Try your own version. Hope that helps.

----------------

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.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Death by Ratings

A recent Twitter exchange prompted me to share a thought about the sitcom industry. It may well apply to shows other than sitcoms, but that's outside my field of expertise.

Here's the thought, posed as a question:

Do ratings matter?

Does it actually make any difference whether people turn up in great numbers to watch your TV show, or doesn't it? In terms of getting a second series.

These days, you get a blizzard of numbers about your show. There are the 'Overnights' which measure roughly how many people watched it live, with various segments within that. Then there are the 'Consolidated Figures' which add on catch-up TV over a specific period. And various blends of the number in-between over longer and shorter periods with different demographics. But do these numbers matter?

Ratings do matter. A bit. But no way near as much as you'd think.

I'm sure some TV commissioners and controllers would disagree and would like to think they apply the same criteria to measure each show's success and failure. But they don't, and there's no real reason why they should other than being seen to be scrupulously fair. But fairness is somewhat overrated, especially in the brutally competitive world of television.

How have I reached my conclusion? Because there are plenty of shows written by plenty of writers, some of whom I know personally, that drew a certain number of eyeballs - and were cancelled, because that number was not deemed to be high enough. And other shows which started with modest/dismal numbers and continued with said numbers for two, three or more largely unwatched series.

Why?

Because there's more to a show than the numbers. There's brand management of the channel - both to the viewing public and the industry. There's professional pride in the form of critical acclaim and awards. And there's the gut instinct or emotional investment of the commissioner or controller, who might see a show as 'their baby', or see another as an unloved orphan.

You easily get two scenarios different scenarios around roughly the same numbers.

Scenario 1
Producer: So are we getting a second series? The show averaged about 1 million viewers so it's not clear whether-
Commissioner: It is clear! It's a great show. I've always loved it. And I'm very proud of it. And this is exactly the kind of show we should be doing. And we should be backing talent. Let's do another series!
Producer: Great. (Leaves office. Pumps fist/does dance).
(Oh, BTW the writer is NEVER in meetings like this. Not in the UK anyway. Writers are just an embarrassment to the industry).

Scenario 2
Producer: So are we getting a second series? The show averaged about 1.1 million viewers so it's not clear whether-
Commissioner: Hmm. It's pretty clear to me. Sorry, but you're inheriting a good audience from Gardener's World and not keeping them. The slot average is 1.7 million, so I'm a bit disappointed to be honest.
Producer: I'm sure a second series could build on the-
Commissioner: I really don't think so. I mean, I love the show. If it were up to me, I'd recommission it.
Producer: Isn't it up to you?
Commissioner: Well, yes. Kind of. But it's complicated. Sorry, but I don't think that this show is coming back.
Producer: Fine. (Leaves office. Ponders on calling the writer, but decides to leave it 'til tomorrow.)

That stuff happens all the time. It's not a numbers game. There's much more too it than that. And that because there are a lot of issues at play. It's painful, and unnannoying, and our God-given insistence that everything is fair is frustrated. But life isn't fair. TV isn't fair. And if they don't like your show, or aren't invested in it, they ain't backing it.

This is all another reason why you should write for yourself - and not anyone else. Write what you think is funny, because whether the show gets on TV and stays on TV is completely out of your hands.


---------

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.



Monday, 23 October 2017

Don't Know Whether to Laugh or Scream

Horror-Comedy cross-over, or 'Homedy', seems to be very popular at the moment. And it's obviously going to be popular in the next week or so, since Halloween seems to be a big thing now.

It just wasn't like that when I was growing up in the 80s in England. In this regard, at least, the 80s were simpler times. Overall, society seemed to think it was reasonable not to scare children out of their wits, so that they wouldn't spend the following months unable to sleep.

In those days, Halloween was a bit naff or camp, and was a warm-up to the more exciting Bonfire Night, a few days later: a celebration of the attempted-mass-murder of MPs with hot dogs, fireworks, sparklers and the possibility of a trip to A&E. What's not to like?

Halloween was no big deal, and if you wanted suspense, the incessant adverts about the dangers of fireworks were the most frightening thing you could see on TV in late October.

You can probably tell I'm not a fan of halloween. It's partly because I'm a full-on God-botherer (and, as usual, I'll be cheerfully celebrating Reformation Day on 31st October). It's also because I've never seen any horror films. None of the Freddie films, or the Jason ones or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I have to say the title put me off the last one.

As far as suspense and mystery goes, my upper limit is early episodes of the X-Files. Yes, if horror was a curry, I'd be sweating over the Chicken Korma and wishing I'd ordered the Butter Chicken instead. (Oddly, on curry, I'm at the other end of the spectrum).

Horror and Comedy

I mention this because I'm interested between the interplay between Horror and Comedy. In some ways, they are very different genres and in others they are very similar. I thought it might be interesting to dig into this for a moment. (If it isn't interesting, here's a picture of a cat dressed as the pope).

The reason I'm nervous about mixing the genres is because they are trying to do totally separate things. Horror is trying to get you to jump in fear. Comedy is (or should be) trying to get you to laugh out loud.

Horror is giving you as little information as possible to keep you in suspense, wondering what's going to happen next. It's trying to confuse you and create mystery. Readers of this blog and my book will know I always say that confusion is the enemy of comedy. If an audience is confused, it can't laugh. One of the reasons I dislike horror, apart from the obvious, is the feeling of continually being confused and wrong-footed.

And yet, comedy relies on wrong-footing your audience. It involves giving them limited information, or sending them in one direction, before pulling them into another. Both are like magic, telling the audience to look in one place, before surprising them in another. Comedy and horror both rely on surprise. Except in horror, it's more of a shock, than a surprise. (I'm hoping to pick this up in a forthcoming book I'm writing on the ethics of comedy and jokes).

Do these similarities in construction mean that horror and comedy go well together? Or are they oil and water? At the moment, I'm not sure.

What It All Comes Down To

However, for me, the main problem with Homedy is not the mechanics, but the execution. It's the fact that the jokes and plotting often lean heavily on referencing specific horror films - films that I haven't seen and will almost certainly never see. This is where the League of Gentlemen began to lose me. To me, Series 1 is one of the funniest TV series that has ever been. It was out-and-out funny. (Remember: there was an audience laugh track.) But then the show drifted away from dark eccentricity and grotesque and closer and closer to horror, and I began to drift in the other direction.

There is nothing intrinsically funny about recreating a scene from a horror film in a comedy. I see this a lot in sitcom scripts that I sometimes get sent and have to script edit or provide notes. Quite often the writer has to perform implausible leaps to get to that spot, and then spend too long once they are there. And I have to ask the awkward question: What's the joke? Why is it funny that our regular characters are re-enacting a scene from The Shining (which I've not seen), The Omen (which I've not seen), or Poltergeist (not seen) or IT, Amityville, Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave (also not seen, not seen, not seen and not seen). As I say, I like laughing. And sleeping well.


These things can be funny for a beat or a moment, but they are not, what I call, load-bearing jokes. Echoes of other genres are fine. Homage to classic film moments can be satisfying. But they're not actually funny. We had a couple of Casablanca references in one episode of Bluestone 42 which, I think, were jokes in their own right. But less is very much more on this.

The Paucity of Parody

Most comedy writers my age probably started out writing a sketch for their friends or colleagues that was a parody of Blind Date. Fifteen years later, it was all Big Brother Sketches. Then is was X-Factor sketches. These work fine but they are ultimately derivative. The format is clear so the jokes work well. And parody is a great place to start, but it's not aspirational comedically. And yet Comedy-Horror seems to be a genre in which lots of people seem to aspire to, and it is often little more than parody. This might be why I find it even more unsatisfactory.

But each to their own. I've no problem with people like horror. I don't understand the fascination or the appeal, but then I don't understand the appeal of horse-racing, ballet or fishing. But that's okay. It takes all sorts to make a world go round. Perhaps that's what Halloween really teaches us. (It doesn't. It really doesn't. But I needed a neat-sounding ending)

-----------

If you want to know more about my rules for writing a sitcom, or your struggling with your script, get my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


If Amazon or Kindle is not your bag, it's also available as a bog-standard PDF here.


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


"first-hand information on what it's like to write for major British sitcoms and get your own one made." Amazon Review

Monday, 16 October 2017

Why Would You Even Bother With Studio Sitcom?

On a recent Sitcom Geeks podcast, Dave Cohen and I interviewed Pete Sinclair, who wrote Bad Move (right) with Jack Dee for ITV having previously written Lead Balloon together. Both of those shows are single camera shows, but Pete's previous sitcoms were both studio shows (Mr Charity and All Along the Watchtower).

In the podcast - and in a written interview on this blog here, here and here - Pete goes through just how difficult it is to make a studio sitcom work. There are so many factors to get wrong. And even if you have a great script, a fab cast and get it right 'on the night' of the studio recording, that is no guarantee that it will work on the small screen in people's living rooms.

I remember Paul Mayhew-Archer, a few years ago, telling the story of how Chalk ended up on TV - and how at the cast read-throughs and rehearsals, everyone just laughed and laughed and laughed. No-one had any idea how people would take against it - and it isn't clear why they did.

On the podcast, the story is told of how Steven Moffat, the writer of Chalk, was said to be so relieved when his next sitcom, Coupling, went down well since he was then confident that he would no longer go down in history as the clown who wrote Chalk.

It's so easy to get studio sitcom wrong. So why bother?

Good question. Especially given that you can achieve so much more with a single camera show.

The studio format can be so limiting. My show, Bluestone 42, could simply not have existed in a studio setting. And the pace of a single camera show can be so much faster. Look at Modern Family or 30 Rock for sheer rapidity of gags and development of story. And you can do achieve amazing or cute effects when you're no longer confined to a studio - like the Modern Family episode that is mostly all on FaceTime.

So the question remains. Why would even bother with a studio sitcom?

I only have one answer to that question:

People love them.

In the Past
Firstly, look at the Top Ten Sitcoms from the 2004 BBC Britain Best Sitcom poll. Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, Yes Minister, One Foot in the Grave, Porridge, Only Fools and Horses, Open All Hours, The Vicar of Dibley and Dad's Army. Not to mention the next ones on the list: Father Ted, Keeping Up Appearances, Allo Allo, Last of the Summer Wine, Steptoe and Son, Men Behaving Badly, Ab Fab and Red Dwarf.

ALL of theses are studio shows. And you have to wait 'til Number 19 before you get to the Royle Family. And then you're back to To The Manor Born, Some Mother's Do Ave Em, and The Likely Lads.

Not only are these shows classics, they are remembered fondly, they are still available and still enjoyed and watched on UK Gold, DVD and YouTube. Dad's Army is still repeated on BBC2 and outperforms every other sitcom on BBC2 and Channel 4 almost every single week.

From America
Let's not forget how TV schedules have been propped up by hours and hours of American studio comedy. I've noted before how Channel 4 often starts the day with Everyone Loves Raymond, King of Queens and Frasier. That's a lot of studio comedy. Why, then, would people say it's out of fashion? I simply can't see how that's true.

In the Present
There is no doubt that BBC's biggest comedy hitters are studio audience shows, mostly obviously Mrs Brown's Boys, along with Still Open All Hours. Citizen Khan also does very respectable numbers. You may not like these shows, or assume they are just shows for old people and families and assume studio shows aren't for the young. But quite often the most watched studio sitcom on TV is on E4. And it's Big Bang Theory.

Look at the data. Studio audience sitcoms tend to do better. And the highly acclaimed nuanced single-camera shows tend to do worse in the ratings - or delight smaller numbers of people. We live in a world when you can have both. So why not have both?

So why would even bother with a studio sitcom? People love them. They enjoy their broad brush strokes (ooh, there's another one, Brush Strokes) and the feel of togetherness you get from the style of comedy and the studio audience laughing along. We're all included.

Of course, if you don't like the show, the sound of laughter is irritating, but so what? You don't like it. Walk away. There is no need to decry the form. But people do, and I'm afraid Ben Elton's right about the snobbiness that is around about 'trying to make people laugh'. (And you can listen to our discussion of Ben Elton's Lecture right here!)

Stephen Moffat, a great sitcom writer, walked away from studio sitcoms (see also Joking Apart). Can you blame him?

-------------------

If you want to have a go at writing a sitcom, or your struggling with your script, get my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


If Amazon or Kindle is not your bag, it's also available as a bog-standard PDF here.


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


"first-hand information on what it's like to write for major British sitcoms and get your own one made." Amazon Review

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Sitcom Geeks Podcast

It's partly laziness and partly overwork that has caused me not to blog as often as I have in previous years. But the main factor is this: time I would have spent blogging has been also been spent podcasting.

Dave Cohen and I have been knocking out a Sitcom Geeks podcast every fortnight for the last couple of years which has proved to be a lot of fun. It's the kind of show you wish BBC Radio 4 Extra would do, but don't, mainly because it's just too geeky.

Dave and I are keen to do more, up the content and maybe the frequency of podcasts. To that end, we've started a Patreon page so that you can become a subscriber and access various extra goodies. Do go and have a look.

If you're new to the podcast, let me point you in the direction of some of our greatest hits to get your started in no particular order.

In Episodes 42 & 43 we get some proper comedy wisdom from a Jedi Grandmaster of Comedy, John Lloyd.

In Episodes 46 & 47, I go to Eric Chappell's house, yes, to his house and talk to him about his glorious sitcoms like Rising Damp, Only When I Laugh and Duty Free.

Episode 51 is a personal favourite of mine in which Dave and I talk with Tom Edge (Lovesick, The Crown, Strike) about working with producers. In this one, something just clicked.

Episode 57 is a deep dive into Ever Decreasing Circles with the super-writer super-fan, Jason Hazeley.

In Episode 50, we talk with more sitcom royalty, Marks & Gran (right) at a live event for the WGGB.

Episode 17 has some really useful tips on writing topical comedy with The Now Show & Dead Ringers creator, Bill Dare.

Not to mention interviews with Barry Cryer (right), Andy Riley & Kevin CecilIan Martin and David Tyler. That's probably enough to get your started.

They're all here - thanks to the guys at British Comedy Guide - and on iTunes. Do have a look, and a listen. And if you like what you hear, subscribe to the podcast via Patreon and we can push the show further and make it more useful, exciting and special.

Monday, 4 September 2017

3 Ways to Improve Your Sitcom Script On Your Own

So, you've written a script. You do improve it without input from others? Three ways leap to mind.

1. Put it in a Drawer

Some drawers.
This is a metaphor obviously. Who prints out scripts? But the idea is that you write the script and allow yourself some time away from it. Write another script. Do your taxes. Go on holiday. Allow yourself as much distance as you can between drafts so that you can maximum distance on that thing you wrote. The more of it you can forget the better. And then you can be surprised by some of the jokes and the twists. Or baffled by your plot leaps that made sense at the time, but this time, not so much.

2. Print It Out and Switch off Your Computer

This is not a metaphor. Who prints out scripts? You. Print out the script.

Why? I find that reading scripts on a screen can be very unsatisfactory, not least because the internet keeps popping up, poking you and tugging at your coat. An easy way to avoid that is to print out the script, turn off your computer or walk away from it. I know. Don't freak out. How do you make changes without a computer?

A pen
Keep calm. Just get out a thing called a pen and make notes on the script. You might think of better of jokes, spot errors, realise scenes don't make sense or spot that a whole scene it boring or unnecessary.

The other reason I like to do this is because reading a script on your screen might encourage you to start making changes before you're ready. It's better to read the whole script through - ideally a couple of times - so that you can get a sense of the whole thing and whether or not it works overall.

3. Summarise Your Script

Write a summary of your script, that's scene by scene or page by page. This is a new one for me. I thought I'd try it the other day and it really helped. You may well have written an outline before writing your script. But scripts don't always follow outlines. That can be a mixed blessing. So throw away that outline (metaphorically) - and write a new one based on the script you have actually written.

I find this helps me to get to the end of the script without trying to make too many changes and helps me see it as a whole. So make a note of the scenes, and how long they are. Summarise what happens in each scene. Key jokes and moments. Where are the turning points?

Doing this, you might spot that the key moments come too close together, or too close to the end. Or don't even come at all! You might discover that nothing really happens until page 12. It really needs to happen on page 4. You might discover one character vanished for 20 pages. Fix that. You might need to make some cuts. Or you might need to jiggle things around. Or a bit of both. The structural problems should become obvious. Or at least more obvious.

I'm about to do 2 and 3 to a script right now. (Be Lucky for BBC Radio Wales, since you ask). I wonder what I'll find?

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.


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: 


"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Friday, 16 June 2017

Should I write a Spec Script?

Firstly, what is a spec script?
A ‘spec’ script is one that is written speculatively. Or ‘on spec’. Which means that no-one has paid you or commissioned you to write it. Because of the way the TV industry in USA has worked in the past, a ‘spec script’ implies that the script written ‘on spec’ is a script for an existing show. So not too long ago, an aspiring writer might have written a ‘spec’ episode of Frasier or Seinfeld.

Why would you write an episode of an existing show?
In America, especially in the 80s and 90s when there were only really a few networks making sitcoms, the emphasis for writers was on getting work on long-running existing shows. You’d need a room of 8-12 writers for that. So the most common writing job for the sitcom writer was, and still is, writing on someone else's show. To get that job, you'd need to demonstrate your ability to write funny lines for existing characters and plot episodes that worked for a specific world. Originality was not really required.

So, a writer starting out might write a 'spec' episode of Seinfeld – without maybe even intending to work on Seinfeld. But show-runners of other shows would be able to read your Seinfeld spec script and decide whether you had the skills required to work on their show, be it Ellen or Caroline in the City or Married with Children.

These days, I believe that spec scripts no longer open doors as they used to. Show-runners are now expecting to read original material and hear fresh voices. But this is a tall order, since presumably they expect the same level of competence at writing for existing characters. Plus, wannabe writers now have to be able to write cracking pilot scripts, which is, ironically, the hardest episode to write. Still, far be it from me to tell the Americans they are going about it all the wrong way, since they  making all the shows I love like Brooklyn 99, The Goldbergs, Silicon Valley and Modern Family.

What about in UK?
'Spec scripts' in the UK are not a thing. Traditionally, British shows are written by one person (eg. Carla Lane, John Sullivan) or a writing partnership (eg. Marks and Gran, Esmonde & Larbey). The chances of working on someone else’s sitcom is fairly low. I was lucky enough to work on My Hero and My Family, both of which had ‘teams’ of sorts, but this is quite unusual. Therefore, the concept of writing spec scripts never really took off. Why would you spend weeks perfecting a script given there’s almost no way that script will get you work?

That is not to say that writing a spec is a complete waste of time. It's a valuable writing exercise and if you're keen to improve and want to have a go, far be it from me to stop you. I think I wrote a spec Blackadder script when I was 18, set in 1066. (I seem to remember Baldrick was responsible for shooting Harold in the eye) But in UK, the sitcom market has always been towards originality so you should priorities an original script – which you will have to do speculatively since it is unlikely that you will be paid to write a script with very little track record.

Bear in mind your original script needs to do three things.

Objective One – Proof of Concept

Your script needs to demonstrate that your characters, your idea, your scenario works as a half-hour comedy. You need to show that your sitcom about a nanny in space, or set on in a betting shop, or based on Timon of Athens, will sustain for half an hour with decent jokes. Your characters need to be consistent, and are undone by their own flaws and do all the things sitcom characters need to do. And the reader of the script is left wondering what will happen next week. (You should probably tell them, with a paragraph outline a few more episodes)

Objective Two – Proof of Writer

Your script needs to demonstrate that you are technically competent to write the show you are proposing. This is often neglected. You need to execute your idea in a way that gives the reader the confidence that you could pull off this trick six times over. Ideally, 18-24 times over.

Producers are excited about finding new voices, and fresh ideas, but they need to see a baseline level of competence in a script so they can be confident they have something to work with.

Imagine it from their point of view. They have a pile of thirty script to read. Thirty different situations (okay, at least six of those script will be about out-of-work actors, and another six will be flat shares. Three will be set in the future. Etc.) and in the right hands, a dozen of those situations or sets of characters could work, with a bit of luck and development. But your script has to show that you are a safe pair of hands, or at least that you can learn and improve.

Your script can and should also do something else beyond display technical competence. It should demonstrate insight into the human condition, or the particular world you're opening up that feels fresh and original. Or timeless and classic, but timely. If your sitcom is set in a very specific location, like an operating theatre, a refugee camp in Somalia or behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House, you need to show that you know that world. It needs to feel authentic, even if it is heightened.

Objective Three – Proof of Potential

You do need think of your script as a ‘sitcom-in-waiting’, a show that could actually happen. But you also need to realise that your sitcom is statistically very unlikely to make it to the screen, for a whole number of reasons. But if you’re writing scripts that feel like they at least ought to be on TV, you will look like the kind of writer who producers want to work with. Your sitcom script will do the job of a ‘spec script’ and possibly open the door to other opportunities. Maybe the producer reading your script is looking for someone to work on a script they’ve already got in development but isn’t quite working. (I know, you’d think they’d ditch the idea that isn’t working, and start developing your idea instead, but it doesn’t work like that for some reason.)

Your script needs to do all of the above. It’s a tall order and no-one said it would be easy. But hey, no-one asked you to write a script.

If you need a hand with that, dip into my book which takes you from, as the Americans say, soup to nuts on turning your sitcom idea into a script that you can send out.

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.


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: 


"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Outlining Your Sitcom Script

Writing a half-hour script is hard.

Really hard.

You need to do everything you can to make your life as easy as possible. Of course that involves getting some decent coffee, collapsing your Facebook window – maybe even unplugging your internet altogether, or going somewhere where there’s no wifi. You really need to put your back into this.

Most writers tend to find the best way to get through the painful process is to have a really solid outline in front of them. And it’s worth spending time on this so that by the time you come to write the script, there’s so much detail already there, it feels like joining the dots.

I personally make sure that I don’t start writing a script until I have an outline that runs to at least two or three pages, with a decent paragraph on what happens in each scene, and some key jokes. Overall, the document might be 1500- 2500 words.

If I have that document, I might be able to get the script done (5000-6000 words) in four or five days. That’s working flat out from 10ish ‘til 6-ish with maybe one late night if I’m ‘in the zone’, maybe with a swim or a walk after lunch each day I don’t think I’m exceptionally quick – or ludicrously slow.

Alright. I’ll Do an Outline? But how?

The good news is that you’ve done most of the hard work. Hopefully, you’ve worked out three plots for your show: A Main Plot, a Sub Plot and a Runner. The Main Plot, especially in the pilot, should be all about the hero of the story, the key relationship, or embody the essence of the show in some way. The Sub Plot is a proper story for some of the other characters – which could also involve the main character. And a Running joke is a tiny little C-Plot that might soak up the other characters.

In Miranda, as the title suggests, the show is all about Miranda – so she’s in all three stories. The Main Story might be about Miranda and her mother. A Sub Plot might be about Miranda and Gary and the on-off romance. And a C-Plot might be something to do with Stevie in the Shop. In another episode, it might be flipped, so the Main Plot is about Miranda and Stevie competing over something, the B-Plot might be about Miranda and her mother, possibly involving Tilly; and the C-plot might be about Miranda and Gary.

In Bluestone 42, with a fairly large cast, Richard Hurst and I tried to give the main plot to Captain Nick Medhurst – which might involve a storyline with Mary and Bird. The B-Plot might be Towerblock/Millsy and the Colonel; and the C-Plot Mac, Rocket and Simon. Another week, it might be Nick and Simon leading the A-Plot; with Mac, Rocket and Towerblock messing around in the B-Plot; with Bird and the Colonel as the C-Plot. Over the course of the Series, we try and make sure it all balances it out, although actors frequently think everyone else has more lines than them.

Separate

It’s normally simpler to think of the stories in isolation – and work out the main beats. Don’t worry about what happens in each scene yet. Write out the story in bullet form, with a new line/bullet for each new beat or moment of the story, but add in as much detail as you can. You might have some really neat phrasing, or a decent joke. Put it all down. If it’s the main story, it might have somewhere between eight and twelve beats.

Do the same with the B-Story, which should have fewer beats, maybe between six and ten. Again, keep going with detail, and anything relevant. Then do the same for the runner/C-Story, which may only have three or four beats.

Check the stories over, especially the A-Story. Does it peak and trough? Does it escalate? Do we believe each step? Does each step move on in a way that is both believable but surprising? Does the hero have a way out that means they could walk away from their quest without suffering any consequences? You want to close off any such escape route. Check over the mechanics of the story so no-one needs to call the Logic Police.

But then there’s the issue of being excited about the story. Do you like the whole storyline? Could it be better? Do bits of it bore you or seem predictable? If so, they’ll be very hard to write in a satisfactory way. Fix them. Now. Don’t assume you’ll think of something better when you come to write it. You might, but if you don’t, you’ll have miserable days trying to think of something better when you should be getting on with the next scene. Take the time to fix the problems at this stage.

Combine

When you’re happy with the stories, and they’re flowing nicely, you can start to work out your scenes. This should be fairly straightforward as you’ve probably been subconsciously doing it all along, but you’re working out which scene happens in which location or set. In some scenes, you’ll be pushing along two plots. In others, just one. Occasionally, it’ll be all three. Quite often, you might be kicking off all three in the first scene (although you might start a fire under one of the stories if you have a quick pre-titles scene).

The plots might not mesh together perfectly, so you may need an extra beat of a plot here, or lose another there. But hopefully, you’ll be able to get the episode laid out as a Scene by Scene outline.
It would be worth showing that to someone if you can. A producer, if you’re working with one. If not, a friend who ‘gets’ what you’re trying to do. Talk them through it. They’ll have some thoughts or concerns, about beats of the stories, moments they don’t understand, set-pieces that might not work, or character motivations that seem unclear. Even if they don’t, you will as you explain your story. Again, I recommend fixing them – if you agree with the notes – before you write the episode, so that once you’ve got your revised outline you can finally start writing.

So. We’re going to start writing the script, now right? Okay. Sorry. One more thing? It’ll take two minutes...

But you'll need to get my book, Writing That Sitcom.

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.


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:

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Finding A Character's Unique Voice

In the last post, I gave some general advice on polishing up your script so that it's ready to send off and out and away. In this post, I'm just looking to expand one of those points with a really good clear example that cropped up when some of us were talking about sitcoms over on the Sitcom Geeks Facebook page. Here's what I wrote:

4. Check That Each Character Has A Unique Voice
Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear and distinct? This will not only make the script more interesting, but will make it easier for the reader to distinguish the characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. Only that one character would say that thing that way, or make that joke. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Eddie and Richie in Bottom don't talk the same way. Nor do Blackadder and Baldrick, or Edina and Sapphie. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

This is hard to do and has to be informed by character, but once you hear the characters talking in your head, you know you're onto something. If it's hard to generate those cadences, imagine a famous actor in the role - it's not cheating. In fact, it might help you fill out the corners or find something new. Or imagine a relative that this character reminds you of and is possibly based on. When I interviewed Eric Chappell for the latest Sitcom Geeks podcast, he was quite clear that Rigsby was based on one particular colleague. Make the most of that.

And here's the example that cropped up on yesterday that made me think of this and a really clear example of what's possible: The speech patterns of Tom Chance (Simon Callow) from Chance in a Million which have stayed with me for decades. The way he talks is simply extraordinary. See below. Never uses pronouns, articles or prepositions unless absolutely vital. Talks in bullet points. No idea why. Just the way it is. Something like that could work too. Didn't mean that Chance in a Million ran for years, but still remember Chance decades later. And that's something.

---------------

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.

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



Here's an episode where it shouldn't be - on YouTube - but makes the point. Get the Chance In A Million - The Complete Series [DVD] Boxed Set here.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Polishing Your Script

Deadlines are like bees. Right up close and in large numbers, they’re horrendous. But from a distance, and overall, they produce good things. If you’re an aspiring scriptwriter, there’s a deadline looming. The BBC Writersroom is accepting unsolicited scripts between now and 15th May 2017. That means a human being will actually read your script. Or at least ten pages of it.

Do you have script? Is it ready to send? Really? I bet it isn’t. Put your hand on your heart and tell me your script is perfect. Of course it isn’t. But that’s okay. You’ve got a bit of time to make it better. Here are some obvious ways of doing that (and you’d be surprised how many people don’t do these things). I wrote a list like this a couple of years ago but I’d like to expand it a little, having read quite a lot of first ten pages in the Sitcom Geeks podcast I do with Dave Cohen.

Let’s say you’ve written a script. You’re happy with it. You’re aware that it’s not perfect, but you’ve taken it as far as it can. Here are some notes I can give you on the script without having read it.

1. Start Your Story Earlier

In almost every single spec sitcom script I read, this is the biggest problem. The script introduces us to a bunch of characters and they talk. And talk. And talk. For about 4-8 pages. There is some backstory. There is setting. There is scenery. Maybe some jokes. There is more talking. Then on page 9, something happens. Someone sets out on a quest (if you’re lucky) but by then nearly a third of the show has gone and I'm a bit bored.

Story is character. Yeah, Rob. We know.
The usual response I get to that is ‘Yes, but I’m setting the scene and introducing the characters’. *takes off glasses* *pinches nose* Yes. I know that. And that is all you are doing. Do more. You don’t just introduce characters by having them talk to or at each other. You reveal character by action. Character is story. That’s the £500 take-home from a Robert McKee weekend. The choices a character makes, the things they want, the goals they go after reveal a character every bit as much as dialogue, if not more. In fact, characters often say one thing but do another. Because they’re delusional. Just like us.

Your first ten pages are not Act 1 of a movie in which you’re trying to establish normality for 10-20 minutes where everything is normal, normal, normal before your hero goes on a quest, finds a dead body, discovers she is a robot, is visited by a time-travelling gecko or is transported back to the Paleolithic period. Sitcom is all Act 2. No real set up. No permanent resolution.

Start your story early. Really early. Your character should be declared banktupt on Page 2 or 1. Not page 9. Your heroine should decide to sail around the world at the start, not after a long discussion with several other people.

Grab the reader’s attention early on. They are reading at least ten other scripts that day. Maybe twenty. Or more. Make stuff happen. If it’s the right stuff, it will show and develop the characters.

2. Introduce Your Characters Faster

A character who wanders into a scene or is sitting drinking tea might take a whole page to tease out. If you have five or six characters, that’s five or six pages of teasing. Make that first impression work harder.

What do they say that gives the reader a clear idea about who this character is and why they are funny? That first action or line for each character is crucial. It should really sum up who they are. If they are a pedant, their first line should be pendantic. If they’re needy, their first line should be clearly seeking approval. Set the tone from the very first line.

When we first meet Janet or Simon, what are they doing? What are they wearing? What are they carrying? Are they making themselves tea? Or are they adding sugar to an energy drink because they have to stay up all-night to do something important. Are they wearing jeans and a T-shirt, or are they only half dressed, or in overalls for some useful reason? Do they start tapping on their smart phone, or do they carry round a list of people who have wronged them?

In the first episode of Friends, Rachel Green turns up in a wedding dress. Bang. You’re away.

3. But Don’t Introduce Them All At Once

With stronger first impressions and more action you can set up your characters faster, but don’t set them up all at once. I’ve read quite a lot of eight pages opening scenes with 6-8 characters, at least three of whom have a name that begins with the same letter. There’s a Steve, a Simon, a Mary, a Mick, a Peter and Jeff. Boring names that meld into one. Have a Steve, sure, but have a Felix too. Have a Mary but also a Persephone or a Serenity.

And don’t have them all in the one scene, unless you make it very easy to follow. Start the show with two or three characters. Get them going. Then introduce a fourth. And a fifth. A script which only has three or four characters in the first ten pages is a lot easier to read and enjoy than one with nine or ten. You may be stuck with ten characters (like we were in Bluestone 42) but be careful and clear about how you introduce your characters to your reader.

If you have to have lots in one scene, make it clear who the important characters and have them drive or dominate that scene so it is clear who is going to be in that whole episode so the reader/audience is not worried about where the action is, or is going to be.

4. Check That Each Character Has A Unique Voice

Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear and distinct? This will not only make the script more interesting, but will make it easier for the reader to distinguish the characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. Only that one character would say that thing that way, or make that joke. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Eddie and Richie in Bottom don't talk the same way. Nor do Blackadder and Baldrick, or Edina and Sapphie. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

5. Look Very Closely At The First Few Pages

Let's be realistic. A reader is going to make up their mind about your script by the end of page 2. If your first two pages are badly spelled waffle, you're going to struggle to make any kind of impact with the remaining thirty pages. You first two or three pages are critical. Focus extra time and attention on those.

6. Be Brutal About Action Lines

People, even professionals, do not read action lines and direction properly. They skim them, if they even look at them. That's just a fact. Nothing is more depressing to read at the opening of a new script is lines and lines of action, scenery and more action – unless it’s very dramatic, or striking, or clearly laid out. Keep the action as simple as possible and don’t try and direct too much on the page, especially when the fine detail doesn’t matter at this stage.

7. Clarity

There's so much to do on those first few pages, but you're making life difficult for the reader if it's not crystal clear what's going on. Is the situation clear? Where are they? Who is there and what are they trying to achieve? Having lots of action lines is not the solution to this (see above) and often just creates confusion, so agonise over action as much as dialogue in terms of brevity and clarity.

You're writing sitcom. Not suspense.
There is often temptation to create some mystery or suspense. That’s not comedy. That’s suspense. You are writing a comedy. This is a sitcom script. Clarity is your friend. I'd recommend announcing your comedy themes with a blunderbuss, rather than a cloak and dagger.

8. Tighten It Up

Can every single line in the script justify its place? Delete any line that isn't character, action or a joke. Every line in fact. There's no room for 'meh' lines. Or filler. Or wit. Or turn a character line into a joke. Or action. Or a joke into something that drives the story along.

Look at each scene and ask whether it could be shorter. It probably could. Could you come in later? Could you cut earlier? Do you need every line? Are you repeating information? Almost every script can be shorter. Make yours shorter, tighter, leaner and meaner. A funny 28 pages is way more appealing than a baggy 36 pages.

9. Check For Typos

Are there typos all over the place? Or one or two still lurking around? Typos are reelly annnoying. And very easily avoided if You just put in a bit of extra tim. Get a fiend to read it. I find it really hard to see typos in my own writing (as this blog regularly demonstrates), so get someone else to check it over.

10. Check for, er, Jokes?

Are there enough jokes? Again, it's a sitcom script so are you trying to make the reader laugh at least three times per page? You really should be aiming for that. I know the current vogue is to have nuanced and noodly comedy drama, but given that it is a comedy, veer on the side of jokes.

Is there any way of turning half-jokes into proper jokes?  Are you making the most of each funny moment? If you've done the hard work of getting your characters into funny situations, make sure you maximise the funny when you're there. Or if it's only a half-joke and it can't be turned into a whole joke, delete it.


Go through the script a few times with all of these in mind. Maybe take a pass for tightness. And again for jokes. And again for typos. And again for speech distinctiveness. It will take time, but you want your script to stand out, don't you? Sure, the basic idea is important, but that's a given. Your script needs to just be better than others.

It may be that the script starts to fall to pieces as you really scrutinise it. Your plot starts on page 12. You have a jumbling open scene and you're pulling on threads and it's all unravelling. You realise you need to start again. In which case, start again. That’s what writers do. If you want to be a writer, get into the habit of starting again.

Quite often you discover that it wasn’t quite a broken as you thought and new version comes together rather quickly – but it only does that when you’ve mentally let go of the previous version.
Then do all of the above again. Then send it. Forget about it. And start the next thing.

---------------

Or 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 it 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, 17 April 2017

Advice to Writers

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to some university students about writing. Here's the gist of what I said.

1. Write because you want to

Writing is an end in itself. It is not a career, or a living, or a way of getting rich. Look at the numbers. How many people make a decent living out of screenwriting or novel writing for more than a few years?  In the UK, at least, we’re talking about hundreds, maybe dozens, rather than thousands. Sure, you could be one of them, but the road that destination is so long and so hard, you have to love writing so much that it was never about the money and always about the work, and the words on the page. Both in scripts and in life, money is a very bad motivation for anything. If you’re a writer, money is just one of things you need so that you can write. So focus on the writing, not the money or the career.

2. Writers must have a thick skin

If you want to be a writer, you will spend most of your time having your work criticised and critiqued. It may be notes from producers or execs or editors; it may be feedback from friends, or reviews in newspapers, blogs or on Amazon. If you cannot get used to this, writing is not for you. That said, if you’re immune to all kinds of criticism and advice that’s not a good thing either. Listen carefully to notes, advice and reviews, but it will hurt. The only thing that will get you through is a thick skin, and a desire to keep writing (see point 1).

3. Writers must be readers


Read books. Read good writing. Read bad writing. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Read scripts. Read writers you agree with, writers you can’t abide and writers you’ve never heard of. To improve as a writer – and you do need to improve as a writer – you need to be curious about writing and the world around you. If you read widely, you’ll be more interesting in your content and less derivative in your style. And it’s never been easier to get your hands on other people’s writing. The written word used to be precious. Not any more. (Make a note of that when considering how easy and cheap it will be to get hold of your work and the impact that will have on your income).

4. Write what you like

There’s never been more advice out there on how to be a writer, what to write, how to structure it and what to do with it when it’s written. Advice is plentiful. But you must find your own way with your own style and your own angle. You should be writing stuff that only you can write.  Write what you know if you like. But write what you love. Write what you want to read or experience.
Listen, learn, and improve, but stick to your guns. And the reason why is very depressing: Failure is almost certain. Whatever you write is so unlikely to be commissioned or published, let alone be a hit or a best seller that it’s essential that you fail on your own terms. Don’t die in someone else’s war. Die fighting for what you want to write. It was never about the money, or acclaim. It’s always been about the work. About the words. About the writing.

So if you’re a writer, write. Read. Then write some more.

-------------------

There’s lots of general advice like this as well as technical advice in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. Also available as a PDF here.


"I've worked on sitcoms. I thought I knew about sitcoms. Then I read James's book and I realised I knew very little. Luckily, James knows everything. A must-read for writers, producers and everyone involved in comedy." Danny Stack, UK Scriptwriters


"Absolutely first class guide to writing sitcoms by a master of the art. Really honest and thorough, a guide that has made me think seriously about whether I want to do this (I do!) and then how on earth I go about it, with examples drawn from the world of sitcoms. Can't praise it highly enough." Sevilla

Thursday, 30 March 2017

All Work and No Play Makes Blogging Virtually Impossible

This blog has been dormant for a few weeks. I like to post something every week. But I don't manage that these days. Fortnightly is just about okay, but it's coming on for two months since my last post which, in my defence, was rather epic.

The reason for the lack of blogging is that I'm working on a stage show which premieres on Monday. It's called A Monk's Tale and it's about Martin Luther, celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses. Songs and sketches. It's labour intensive, and exhausting but a lot of fun. I've been relearning the importance of simplicity in comedy, which is trick when you're trying to explain Purgatory, penance, papal bulls and indulgences.

Writing scripts for TV and Radio is nice work if you can get it (and I can (at the moment)), but you can't beat doing your own show your own way in front of alive audience for a change. Instant feedback and reaction from an audience is a real tonic when you're spending two years developing a sitcom script that has never been read aloud by professional actors.

Any spare time I have normally goes into the Sitcom Geeks Podcast. A new episode just went up today, so if you're feeling deprived, listen to that. Or read some of the books we recommend in the latest episode. We also talk about this brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch (see below).

More blogs soon.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Ghost of Sitcom Future


Today is a sad day for lovers of situation comedy. Today is the day that Alan Simpson died. He was one half of the Galton and Simpson partnership that gave us Hancock and Steptoe & Son, studio sitcoms that dripped with character, pathos and jokes. When two of their scripts were remade last year – and shamefully hidden away on BBC4 – the actors may have been different, but the scripts still sparkled.

We can celebrate their achievements and look at their legacy, and it feels like we have many times over, but we can also look at the present and into the future and wonder where is the next Alan Simpson coming from? Where are the writers that will pen the next generation of sublime studio sitcoms?

As I hope to explain in this worryingly long article (which you may prefer as a pdf), my concern is this: almost all the pathways into mainstream studio sitcom for writers have been closed off or diminished. It is not at all clear how studio sitcoms will be produced in the future in any great quantity, despite the fact we live in a time where there have never been more production companies, TV Channels, development producers and script executives.

But before I explain the reasons as I see them, it’s worth asking why I continue to bang the drum for multi-camera studio sitcoms. You know the ones. Those filmed in front an audience where you hear the sound of human laughter. The ones that tend to get the largest viewing figures.

Like many people, I love studio sitcoms which is why I struggle against the overwhelming odds to try and write them. I believe there is plenty of life left in those over-lit pantomime contrivances because when they work, they convey a greater truth that transcends the genre. The truly great sitcoms like Hancock and Steptoe demonstrate that, as did the likes of Only Fools and Horses, Fawlty Towers and Porridge; brilliant comedy actors portraying superbly drawn characters, doing expertly crafted jokes, routines and set pieces.

No one is saying studio sitcoms are superior, or necessarily harder to write or make. And I don’t just like studio sitcoms. My favourite shows of all time include single-camera shows like Modern Family, Arrested Development and 30 Rock as well as studio shows like Seinfeld, Yes PrimeMinister and Red Dwarf.

The general trend over the last thirty years, however, has undoubtedly been towards single camera comedy which, I worry, is slowly killing off the studio sitcom.

Look at the BAFTA for Best Sitcom. Since 2000, it’s been won by only two studio sitcoms: Black Books in 2001 and 2005, and Mrs Brown’s Boys in 2012. Compare that with the winner of Best Comedy from 1990-99. Blackadder, New Statesman, One Foot in the Grave, Ab Fab, Drop the Dead Donkey, Father Ted, Only Fools and Horses, and I’m Alan Partridge. All shot in front of a studio audience (yes, even I’m Alan Partridge) and all the better for it.

The Popularity of Studio Sitcoms

Please forgive me while I labour this point since studio sitcoms are just so achingly uncool you might miss this, but despite the trend in the industry, audiences at home still really like studio audience sitcoms.

BBC1 knows this, wants them and likes to broadcast them. When they work they get ratings. The last series of Still Open All Hours averaged 6.3m. The current roster of BBC1 returning studio sitcoms also includes Not Going Out, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Count Arthur Strong and Citizen Khan. And ITV1’s studio sitcom big hitter is Birds of a Feather. And when sitcoms are really working, their Christmas special makes a cracking centrepiece in the TV yuletide offering. On Christmas Day 2016, even though Mrs Brown’s Boys on very late, it still did really well being the “second most popular festive programme” according to the Guardian with 9 million viewers, beating Strictly’s festive special. On that occasion, the Guardian spared us the lecture about why 9 million people were wrong to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Studio audience sitcoms can’t just be found on these mainstream channels. UK Gold is awash with repeats of audience comedy, currently showing Ab Fab, Bottom, Keeping up Appearances, My Family, The Vicar of Dibley and One Foot in the Grave – as well as a bootleg Gogglebox called We Have Been Watching in which you watch famous comedy actors watch sitcoms. Over on Dave you’ll see they’ve stumped up for original episodes of Red Dwarf shot in a studio like they used to.

Look at my Twitter feed most weeks and you’ll see that I take a snapshot (right) of Broadcast magazine’s ratings for all programmes on BBC2, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The best performing sitcom on those channels, almost without exception, is reruns of is Dad’s Army.

On the day of writing this blog, Channel 4’s schedule began like this: 6.45, 7.10 & 7.35 King of Queens; 8.00 & 8.30 Everybody Loves Raymond; 9.00, 9.30, 10.00 Frasier. That’s eight episodes of studio shows in a row on terrestrial TV. None British, sadly. For that you’ll need to go to E4 or More 4, where you’re rarely more than half an hour away from an episode of the majestic Father Ted or Black Books. Plus London Live shows a lot of Desmond’s.

Yes, I know. Still Open All Hours, Birds of a Feather, Red Dwarf, reruns of Dad’s Army, Frasier, Father Ted, Desmond’s are studio sitcoms for nostalgic old farts. They are comforting old shows that remind us of happier, more secure times (like the Cold War, the Miners’ Strike and 9/11).

Except younger people also like studio sitcoms. Loads of young people are discovering timeless classics like Blackadder on cable channels. Bear in mind that some weeks, the most popular sitcom on TV is Big Bang Theory on E4. In the UK at least, Comedy Central’s is mostly Friends, Two and a Half Men and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They are trying to wean themselves off those repeats with original shows many of which are filmed in front of an audience like I Live With Models which has just started its second series.

There is a desire for new studio sitcoms, but where are the writers of those new Comedy Central shows going to come from? Where are they going to find experienced young writers who even want to write studio comedy? (Believe me, I know the rates of pay, and for that money, they’re only going to get young writers.) And where will the Alan Simpsons of mainstream studio sitcoms come from?

But wait? Don’t we already have plenty still in service? In the words of Vizzini in  the Princess Bride, “You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you?” 

But no. Read on.

The Hunt for Studio Sitcom Writers

It is has been said many times in the last decade that decision-makers in the mainstream really want studio sitcoms. But it has also been said many times that they struggle to find new ones because they just don’t get the scripts. A few years ago, one comedy commissioner said that only about a tenth of the scripts they received were for studio shows. The rest (about 200 scripts) were all single camera shows. So where will these new studio sitcom scripts come from?

At the moment, these shows are drawing from a smaller and smaller pool of talent. Shows like Birds of a Feather, Red Dwarf, Still Open All Hours and the return of Porridge are being written by men who got tons of experience in the 70s, 80s and 90s, or reprising old shows or formats. Mrs Brown’s Boys was honed by Brendan O’Carroll in a live theatre context, as was Count Arthur Strong, which went via radio, and was then bolstered by the highly experienced Father Ted/Black Books writer, Graham Linehan.

Other writers in this small pool of talent have moved away from sitcom altogether. Richard Curtis is making movies and saving the world. The rest have moved into high-end, prestigious drama. The brilliant Steve Moffat (Coupling, Joking Apart) is running Doctor Who and Sherlock. The utter genius who wrote One Foot in the Grave, David Renwick, now writes comedy dramas like Jonathan Creek and Love Soup. The sitcom legend behind Men Behaving Badly, Simon Nye, is writing The Durrells.

Who can blame comedy writers for turning to drama? For a start, the money’s better, not least because you’re writing double-length scripts, and sometimes more than six at a time. Drama writers are also treated with greater respect than comedy writers who are regularly treated like errant children. We often hear producers and controllers and channels celebrating the wondrous Sally Wainwright, Russell T Davies and Jed Mercurio. Quite right too. They are also given the space to pursue a vision. In so doing, they garner great reviews from critics. Who wouldn’t want some of that?

Especially when these same critics lie in wait to stamp on any new studio sitcom, and ideally dance gleefully on its grave when it dies. Studio sitcom is a medium they ultimately despise. Whether it’s the sound of human laughter that is such kryptonite to them, or just the theatrical artifice of the genre is hard to say. But who would bother with a studio sitcom when you’ll only ever win begrudging respect from your industry? Or maybe you’ll get lucky and be described as a ‘guilty pleasure’ (as we had early on with Miranda, until eventually some people admitted to just liking it).

Blackwell, Roche & Iannucci. All British.
There are still other writers who could be writing 8.30pm BBC1 shows and are writing situation comedy. Except they’ve been writing and directing in America on Veep for decent money and critical Emmy-winning acclaim.

So there are dozens of people alive today with the ability and experience to write mainstream studio sitcoms. Why aren’t they? What is it about the process, or working conditions that means virtually all of them are doing something else?

And if they’re not going to be seduced back, where are the new studio sitcom writers going to come from? Here’s why I’m not optimistic that many people will emerge to fit the bill and why this problem is not going to be fixed any time soon.

Theatre

Firstly, one previous source of studio sitcoms, both writers and actors, was the theatre, not least rep theatre. Eric Chappell entered the sitcom world via his popular play The Banana Box, which became Rising Damp. He then went on to write shows like Only When I Laugh, Home To Roost, The Bounder and Haggard. Plays like Rising Damp are, I suspect, rarely written these days and yet studio sitcoms are more like plays than anything else. And produced even more rarely. Producing theatres need to make their cultural mark. It seems unlikely they would do that by producing one-room farces that could be turned into a mainstream studio sitcom.

See? I'm not making it up.
If you want that sort of thing, you have to do it yourself, as Brendan O’Carroll did with Mrs Brown’s Boys. The show actually started on radio and became books – and a movie, yes, a movie in 1999 called Agnes Browne with Anjelica Huston. Yes, Anjelica Huston. But it was the touring theatrical version of Mrs Brown’s Boys that was spotted by Stephen McCrum at the BBC and dragged into a TV studio.

Theatre has changed, and there’s not much we can do about that.  A play written for the theatre can still become a sitcom. But it’s interesting that the last play which did that very recently, Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, became a single-camera comedy. And has won every gong going.

Rep theatre, which was essentially knocking out a play every week or two, is the perfect grounding for studio sitcoms, which operate on a very similar basis for writers and actors especially. But rep has gone the way of music hall and variety, and that training ground is no longer there.

This is not to say that theatres no longer have any impact on sitcoms. These days, theatres across Britain aren’t filled with people watching original plays (notable exceptions in London and the likes of Chichester notwithstanding). But they are regularly packed out with audiences watching comedians they’ve seen on Live at the Apollo or Mock the Week. Experience would suggest, though, that there are not many acts big enough to be worthy of a prime-time mainstream sitcom slot. And of those that are, why would they want to expose themselves to such a critical mauling?

And yet these seem to be about the only people that execs and commissioners have confidence in to create a hit studio sitcom. I’ve had conversations about finding vehicles for this name or that name – many of them speculative from development producers casting around for something to say they’re developing so they can continue to say they’re developing something, or from people far more senior with no imagination who really should know better. It is at least an understandable policy because comedians have an on-stage persona that’s been tried and tested in front audiences (at zero cost to the broadcaster).

In one way, this is nothing new. I’m sure that’s how the likes of Sid James ended up in a sitcom like Bless This House. Everyone knew what they were getting, the writers know what they were writing, and the audience had a pretty good idea what they’d be watching.

The trouble with this ‘talent-led’ approach, however, is when it becomes dominant. At the moment, it seems to be. But there are serious drawbacks.

For a start, it means essentially that a comedian, once they’ve done their show about their own comic sensibility, can’t really do another one without it being basically the same show. Whereas a writer can write multiple sensibilities and situations. In the case of Carla Lane, you not only got the Liver Birds, a show very much drawn from her own experience. You also got the sublime Butterflies and the ratings juggernaut Bread.

Another drawback with this ‘talent-led’ approach is that when a comedian isn’t available, or doesn’t want to risk career suicide by being in a duff sitcom, commissioners and development execs might grasp at the next best thing: a real person with a life story. Someone with a unique and interesting ‘authentic’ life experience who gives the show ‘an angle’ that will ‘cut through’.

Again, this approach might work and can probably generate a show or two. But where is the confidence in experienced sitcom writers to come up with an idea from their heads? An idea that they can execute? An idea that will basically work and be watchable?

Do we really think that a modern day Esmonde and Larbey would even get a script commission to write a show about some painters and decorators, called Brushstrokes? What about someone called, say, Michael Aitkens pitching an idea for sitcom set in an old people’s home called Waiting for God? Both of those shows ran for five series, and were perfectly enjoyable. But, you would now be asked, what is the point of them? Faced with that line of questioning, almost everything is impossible to justify.

While we’re about it, right there we have two examples of the talent pool getting smaller. Esmonde and Larbey, who between them also wrote Please Sir!, The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles, A Fine Romance and As Time Goes By, are both sadly dead. And Michael Aitkens moved on from sitcom to write episodes of Midsomer Murders from 2006-2014. Good on him.

But I digress. Where were we? Oh yes. Theatre.

Not Quite Done With Theatre

There is another kind of theatre that almost sounds absurd but it’s had such a big studio sitcom legacy that it would be remiss to ignore it: Entertaining the Troops. Read any history of comedy and you will come across a good number of comedians serving in the war and ending up on stage. Not only did this lead to directly to David Croft writing about his experiences with the Royal Artillery Concert Party in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, it also led to a broad style of mainstream, accessible comedy that was just trying to get a laugh.

Croft also joined forces with Jimmy Perry to write Dad’s Army and then Hi-De-Hi, another gang show about a similar kind of entertaining style in holiday camps. These shows paved the way for the likes of Are You Being Served? and Allo Allo, co-written with Jeremy Lloyd.

My main point, some time ago now, is that the stage, be it in a theatre, holiday camp or war zone, is very closely related to studio sitcom (more on that here). But because of how theatres now operate, the decline in holiday camps and lack of wars, we’re not likely to get any sitcom writers like Eric Chappell or David Croft in the foreseeable future.

But this is not the greatest problem for sitcom by a long way.

Sketch Comedy

The second concern is sketch comedy. There used to be a lot of it about. In fact, one of these sketch shows was called There’s A Lot Of It About but I think that was referring to something else. However, there used to be a lot of sketch comedy on mainstream TV, a key training ground for a number of writers who ended up writing studio sitcoms.

I noted in April last year when Ronnie Corbett died:

Sorry! was written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent. They had written for The Two Ronnies and Ian Davidson had been the Script Editor in 1978. Along the way he came up with a popular vehicle for a much loved mainstream sketch actor. The Two Ronnies was also a place where the likes of John Sullivan (Fools and Horses), David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave), Andrew Marshall (2.4 Children) and David Nobbs (Reggie Perrin) got some TV comedy miles under their belts. Add up the number of episodes of TV sitcoms written by this crowd alone (remembering to include John Sullivan's Just Good Friends, Dear John, Citizen Smith and The Green Green Grass, (and those other shows by those others writers). We have hundreds, possibly thousands, of episodes of TV enjoyed by millions. Sometimes tens of millions. Some of these episodes are truly great. Many other episodes are just watchable and enjoyable. Again, no small achievement.

On the Sitcom Geeks Podcast, I talked to comedy producer Steve Doherty about this. The beauty of The Two Ronnies was the most important thing about a sketch was not an impression, or a persona, or a character but an idea. If the sketch was funny, it went in the show. Today, we have sketch shows – albeit far fewer and in shorter runs. BBC1 has Tracey Ullman’s show, and David Walliams’s. Writing for these shows is a different proposition than writing for The Two Ronnies. On top of this, Tracey Ullman’s show is all shot on location and played to an audience, and Walliams and Friend is about half and half. So the writers of these shows have fewer opportunities to learn that discipline of having to make a studio audience laugh a few times every minute.

There are sketch shows, every now and then, on BBC2 which are mainly based around the likes of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. Again, these are normally character based, rather than idea based. And Channel 4, we are told, have stopped commissioning sketch shows altogether. If true, what a curious decision.

My point with sketch shows is purely this: in the past, there were lots of mainstream, studio-based sketch shows like The Two Ronnies, Little and Large, Russ Abbot, Sez Les et al, which were not as dependent on characters and a central performance. These shows no longer exist in a way that benefits the production of studio sitcoms. And so a second route to the writing of studio sitcom scripts that might plausibly be placed on the desk of BBC1’s commissioner, has been strangled.

Sister Channels

The third obvious source of studio sitcoms for BBC1 is its sister channel BBC2. Traditionally, the sitcoms of today on BBC2 have been the mainstream hits of tomorrow. So what are we looking at down the line? In short, very few studio sitcoms. BBC2 has shows like W1A, Mum, Two Doors Down and Episodes. Since House of Fools and Up the Women ended their brief runs on BBC2, the only returning studio sitcom is Upstart Crow, which is not by a new writer, or even a new-ish one, but sitcom veteran, Ben Elton. And all the better for it. It’s a funny show.

ITV2, which has been running for a much shorter time, has given us Plebs and The Job Lot, but hasn’t yet made a studio sitcom, let alone one that could transfer to ITV1.

What about Channel 4? In days gone by, the sort of people you’d see on BBC2, you’d also see expect to see on Channel 4 and vice versa. (eg. The Comic Strip cast regularly switched between the two) But the story there is the same. In fact, this is the original prompting for writing this article (before it got out of hand), because it was when looking at the job specification fortheir new comedy commissioner that I noticed something that I thought significant. On the job specification, eight sitcoms are listed as examples of comedy they are proud of: Catastrophe, Flowers, Chewing Gum, The Windsors, Drifters, Man Down, Ballot Monkeys and Friday Night Dinner.

Those shows are all very different from each other and have their respective merits, but they are all single camera shows. And that list could also have included Toast of London, Peep Show, Wasted, Crashing, Lovesick and Raised by Wolves. So that’s fourteen half hour comedy narratives. All single-camera.

Likewise, Sky’s returning sitcoms from the last few years include Trollied, Hunderby, Moone Boy, Doll and Em: all single-camera shows. The wonderfully daft Yonderland has the feeling of a studio sitcom, but even that is single-camera when it comes down to it.

None of this is a criticism, but an observation. Channel 4 and Sky are at liberty to do whatever they like. They need to get ratings, balance the books, satisfy numerous criteria, produce returns for shareholders, hit manifold targets and tick all kinds of boxes. Neither channel probably even has a tiny box marked ‘Support Studio Sitcoms’. Why should they? The supply or encouragement mainstream studio sitcom and writers thereof is not their problem. But it does help explain why this problem is not being fixed any time soon.

Which leaves us with the question we began with. Where are the new mainstream studio sitcoms coming from? Where can a new writer learn their craft?

BBC Three

As far as BBC TV is concerned, or at least online, how about banging on the door of BBC Three? Do we really think that BBC Three will commission a studio sitcom any time soon? I’m sure BBC Three would say that they will happily consider any script or idea and execute it in the way that works best for the idea. But let us bear in mind studio sitcoms are more expensive to produce than a single-camera show, and so this will take a bigger slice of budget, come under greater scrutiny and may eventually be deemed not worth the risk.

And who has the experience to get this tricky format to work? How many comedy directors have experience of multi-cam studio sitcom? Not many.

This point about expertise is not an inconsiderable one as the talent base in studio sitcom production is also getting smaller and literally dying out. This means a new writer might end up working with a comedy producer who has never produced a studio sitcom before. Gulp. This is going to be a big worry for them, because in a sitcom, everything has to be alright on the night. You shoot the show in sequence. Maybe a couple of takes. And that’s it. It’s brutal. (As I write here) And if there’s one thing a studio sitcom needs it's this: confidence.

In a way, the single-camera model is easier for a producer, director and editor, who can then assemble, or reassemble, a show in the edit, salvage a storyline that doesn’t work, add a montage or some snazzy jump cuts and some upbeat music to paper over a few cracks. Who wouldn’t? It’s another bite at the cherry. Or another level of interference, depending how you look at it.

Imagine you’re a comedy producer with zero studio sitcom experience, which way are you going to nudge the writer with a script or sitcom idea that could go either way? Will you have the confidence to get it all right on the night, risk the wrath of execs if it goes wrong? Or will you feel happier piecing together a show in a dark room in Soho. The expertise is shrinking and dwindling, and with that goes the confidence you need for a studio sitcom.

BBC Radio

All of the above has put enormous pressure on the only place where studio sitcoms are actively encouraged. Except they are not TV studio sitcoms, because I’m referring to BBC Radio. This is where I started, getting my first break because BBC Radio 4 were actively looking for studio sitcoms, and were prepared to take a punt on a newbie like me. I’d come up with Thinkthe Unthinkable and there was a slot for it. It ran for four series and gave me invaluable experience, and I was mentored by the utterly delightful Paul Mayhew-Archer, a writer who’d co-written episodes of the Vicar of Dibley, and written sitcoms of his own (Office Gossip, Nelson’s Column, An Actor’s Life for Me) – and worked with another great writer who came from radio, Andy Hamilton (Outnumbered, Drop the Dead Donkey)

Through Paul Mayhew-Archer, I was lucky enough to be invited to work on BBC1 mainstream studio shows including My Family and My Hero. But I continued to work for Radio 4 with a shortlived sitcom called The Pits (starring some guy called John Oliver. Whatever happened to that guy?) and then a sitcom set in Bletchley Park called Hut 33. And then work with Miranda Hart, which led to involvement in the first two series of her TV sitcom, which, of course, began life on BBC2 and transferred to BBC1, showing that system can still work.

I’m pleased to hear that BBC Radio is still committed to sitcoms recorded in front of audiences. As a judge for the Writers Guild of Great Britain awards, I listened to a number of decent sitcoms recorded in front of an audience including Ankle Tag, Reluctant Persuaders, The Lentil Sorters and To Hull and Back.

I can also testify from my own experience that competition to get shows on BBC Radios 2 and 4 has never been more intense. So intense, I can’t get one on. At the moment, I’m writing the second series of three-part series for BBC Radio Wales called Be Lucky. And I’m grateful for the opportunity.
This pressure on BBC Radio is no big surprise, though, because as it stands, BBC Radio is the only realistic destination for those who really want to write studio sitcoms. The problem is that it’s a huge jump from BBC Radio 4 to BBC1 where the stakes and budgets are far higher. Helping writers make it across that chasm is a huge challenge, but currently, I don’t see any realistic alternatives.


That is unless Channel 4 appoints a Comedy Commissioner who really likes multi-camera comedy – and goes out of their way to nurture it. Which would at least be a start.

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If, by some freak accident or a cosmic alignment of planets, you ever get to write an actual sitcom, or would like to, there’s lots of technical writing advice in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon


It's also available as a PDF here.


"Generously knowledgeable about his subject." Paul Wimsett