Wednesday, 28 July 2021

How to Write A Sitcom Like a Pro

The problem with a sitcom script is that it looks easy. It’s just words on a page. Anyone can type and hit print or send. It’s not technically difficult.

And a good script by a seasoned pro and a bad script by a rookie look the same. Superficially.

The two documents are virtually identical. Except for the words.

Moreover, the act of typing isn’t hard. Your 30 page script is probably 5000 words. That’s about two hours of typing.

But you’re not typing. You’re writing.

You can’t write without typing. But some writing, plenty of writing, maybe up to 95% of the internet, is just typing. Not writing.

Without wishing to toot my own horn too much, I’m a fairly seasoned sitcom writer. I’ve written a lot of sitcom scripts. So how do I do it?

So what’s the secret?

We’ll get to that in a moment. But let’s just reflect on the craft of writing a sitcom.

In many ways, it is no different from being one those artisans you see on The Repair Shop. A host of professionals restore leather bags, mend clocks, re-upholster chairs and fix cabinets.

Each craftsperson has decades of experience but what comes through strongly on the dozens of episodes of that show I have watched is this: they respect the process. They know that if something needs to be done properly, it needs to be taken apart, stripped back, cleaned with the right fluid, repaired, re-sprayed, oiled and re-assembled. That takes time.

New component parts may need to be made from scratch. That takes time.

Glue needs to be allowed to fully dry. That takes time.

Quite often they spend a fair amount of time unpicking someone else’s botched attempts at repairs. That’s how you and I repair things. We normally can’t be bothered to dismantle things and clean them properly. We don’t wait for the glue to dry, or for the paint to be ready for the next coat. We don’t like sanding down or doing the preparatory work. We just want to get on with it.

The professional knows the secret: there aren’t any short cuts. Respect the process.

The Script Process

It’s the same with writing a really good sitcom script. The thirty pages that you end up with and send out are just the visible tip of an iceberg of work. It’s probably a fourth draft, not a first.

That first draft was written from a carefully worked out ‘Scene by Scene Outline’, which in turn was the result of a ‘Beat sheet’, where the story is laid out in a series of beats or moments or twists, as the characters moderate their quest in the light of setbacks and other characters.

The characters themselves come from hours and hours of work and thought, and experimentation with plots and stories that are the results of more hours of work.

All of the above takes time. And a process. And a plan.

Why not take a day to get your head around it all? How about August 30th? Or Sept 3rd?

On those two days, I'll be running an all-day webinar, Write a Sitcom In A Day. Which you obviously can’t do. But the idea behind the day is help you understand the process and make a plan so you can get a script written. Not typed. Written. Well. Wanna join me?

It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions. Book details and course info here.


Thursday, 22 July 2021

Writing Sitcoms: Hard Work vs Frustration

Your sitcom characters can normally be described using adjectives. In general, you need to think of actions they can take so you are showing us, not telling us. But let’s stick with the adjectives for now. So here’s an exercise for the sitcom characters in your spec pilot script:

Try to think of how the characters see themselves and describe them accordingly:

Here are four characters by way of example.

Sally is super-organised.

John is intellectually curious. 

Isha is big-hearted.

Gordon is a maverick.


That’s how they see themselves. But other characters in your sitcom see them slightly differently.

Try seeing it from their point of view:

Sally sees herself super-organised. John thinks Sally is a control-freak.

John sees himself as intellectually curious. Sally thinks John has zero attention span.


But how characters see each other partly depends on the characters’ own specific flaws and personality.

So push your characters one stage further.

John sees himself as intellectually curious.

Super-organised Sally thinks John is no attention span.

Big-hearted Isha reckons John always has time for people and is a good listener.

Maverick Gordon knows that John is a coward who can’t commit to a single viewpoint and stick to it.

Similarly, Gordon thinks Isha is a pushover. And John thinks Gordon is a fascinating case study in arrogance. You get the idea. Go around your characters working out how they see each other. As you do that, you will see that a handful of characters and characteristics, and some shades of meaning, creating a web of complexity – and comedy – very quickly.

Sitcom Frustration

In the last blogpost, I explained that writing a pilot sitcom script is really hard work. I also used the word ‘frustrating’. What’s the difference between ‘hard work’ and ‘frustrating’? (Not a joke)

If you’re reading a blog like this, you instinctively know that there is a difference, just as there’s a difference between ‘hard-working’ and ‘laborious’ and ‘diligent’ and ‘fastidious’. (You character prides herself on her diligence. Another character would call her fastidious. Another might say she's got OCD.)

Not all hard work is frustrating. There are irritations that aren’t hard work, but are nonetheless frustrating. And some hard work is just plain satisfying.

So what’s the difference?

Expectation.

If something is hard work, you can make a plan to get through the work. It will only get frustrating if you’ve not left yourself as much time as you needed to get through the work or you encounter roadblocks along the way. Frustration here, then, is unexpected work.

The frustration intensifies when you realise you should have seen this coming. Or that you did see this coming but were in denial about it. Frustration can morph into rage, self-loathing and despair rather quickly.

Here are two solutions:

1. Give up. Walk away. Control+Alt+Delete.

2. Adjust your expectations.

Before
Digging the Turf

The other day, I took up some turf on my lawn so we could have a flower bed. I watched YouTube videos to learn how and discovered it wasn’t technically difficult, but just required a lot of hard work. How much? It was hard to say. Once I’d started with my spade (see pic), I realised this might be even harder work than I had thought, and I very quickly adjusted my expectations. I realised this would take all day.

But once I got into a rhythm, I realised I could get it all done by lunchtime, if I pushed lunch back an hour. I did. And I enjoyed my lunch. The work was hard. Expectations had been adjusted. Frustration was low.

Expectation of the process, then, is key.

It's the same in sitcom writing.

After
And that’s why I’m running a webinar called Write a Sitcom in a Day course. You can’t write a sitcom in a day. That’s madness. But my aim for the day is to explain what takes the time and how to go about it, so you can have the right expectations going into the process.

It is hard work. I can’t give you any short cuts there. But I can make it a bit less frustrating so that you don’t just start your script, but finish it. And actually, like that flower bed my wife and I planted, it was worth the effort.

So join me on 30th August or 3rd September (9.30am til 5.30pm) to find out what the key steps are and how to make a plan to get that script written. And for that script to be one you are proud of. It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions. Details here.



Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Climbing The Sitcom Script Mountain

In the last post, we established that writing a spec pilot script is really hard. Why? Because you’re trying to do two very hard things at the same time, from a standing start.

Why am I going on about how hard it is?

We need to be honest about the difficulty ahead in writing a script. If you underestimate the mountain you are about to climb, you won’t even make it to base camp, let alone the summit.

Worse, you might start climbing and the fog descends, the weather closes in and suddenly it’s gone from difficult to treacherous. You’re not going to stroll up a mountain.

But it’s worth the climb. The view from up there is incredible.

The feeling you get from having written a script that you know you’ve given everything is great, even though you know it’s not perfect and could be better. That’s partly why I like studio comedy so much. You hear the audience laugh. In the room. It’s a rush of vindication.

There are few scripts I’m really proud of. Like the first episode of Bluestone 42 where we got that show up and running with jokes. And Episode 1 of Series Three is up there as well where the team are pinned down and think they're going to die. It was our take on the classic 'bottle' episode. There is another script that matters to me, which is a play about science and religion called The God Particle. It’s never been on TV or Radio and probably never will (and you can stream it here). I’m really proud of it. But this is a rare feeling.

If you want to write a script that you’re proud of, it’s going to take work and planning.

It will mean working on the script when you don’t feel like it, and spending time on parts of the process that you find boring, annoying, frustrating or well outside your comfort zone.

There’s a process to it and if you skip a step, you tend to regret it later and unpicking it takes longer.

Need a hand?

If you need a hand with that process, spend the day with me on a webinar called Write a Sitcom In A Day. You obviously can’t write a sitcom in a day. But you can spend a day getting your head around the climb head, working out what you need to do, and when to do it by, so you can get to the top before the weather closes and you disappear into a cloud of frustration and despair. Join me on 30th August or 3rd September (9.30am til 5.30pm) to find out what the key steps are and how to make a plan to get that script written. And for that script to be one you are proud of. It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions. Details here.


Thursday, 15 July 2021

Why is writing a Pilot Sitcom Script SO INCREDIBLY HARD?

Writing a sitcom script is really hard.

There’s so much to think about. Situation. Characters. Plot. Pace. Oh, and jokes.

Writing a ‘spec’ pilot sitcom script is even harder. Why? It helps to know, so you can be ready for the long road ahead.

To find an answer to that, we need to understand that in writing a ‘spec’ pilot sitcom script, you have to do two very hard things, rather than just one very hard thing.

Wait, wait. You keep using that word ‘spec’? What is a ‘spec’ script?

A ‘spec’ script is a script that has been written ‘spec-ulatively’. That is, in the hope that it will lead to something. No-one has asked you to write this script. You’re not being paid to write it. You are speculating with your time and effort.

But if you’re wanting to get into writing sitcoms, you’ll find that pretty much no-one is going to commission you to write a script off the back of an idea, no matter how good or original you think it is. You won't get commissioned unless you’ve got a decent track record. Heck, I’ve got a decent-ish track record (Miranda, Bluestone 42, My Family, My Hero, Citizen Khan) and people like me are having to write ‘spec’ scripts. (The reason why is one for another time.)

The reality is that you need to show your sitcom intent by writing a ‘spec’ script. This script demonstrates your skills and talent, proving that you’re ready to be hired for an existing show or commissioned to write five more of your show.

And here we come to the two parts of writing a ‘spec’ pilot script, which I will come to in a moment. But it’s worth looking back to how this used to work and this, I think, will make the point.

What was a ‘spec’ script?


In the USA, at least, it used to be standard procedure to demonstrate your skills as a sitcom writer by writing an episode of an existing show. So you might write an ‘spec’ episode of Seinfeld or Frasier.

Let’s say you write a 'spec' Seinfeld episode in which Kramer (and Newman) persuades Jerry to do  ventriloquist act on a kids TV show, which he would obviously hate, while George and Elaine are having some feud over a recipe for apple sauce.

The aim for writing this Seinfeld was not so that you could send it to Larry David in the hope that they will just buy your script off you, shower you with money and residuals, and make the episode, and invite you to be a regular writer.

No, the aim of that script was to demonstrate to the showrunner of a new sitcom in development looking for writers that you can work with existing characters and find original, interesting funny stories and execute them in a script.

Don’t forget that in the 70s and 80s, there were only a handful of TV networks making original sitcoms and a dozen or so successful sitcoms were actually on those networks. The cable channels were then buying them in batches and repeating them, not making original shows of their own. New shows were being created and piloted – and cancelled – every year, unlike today when there are full series of literally hundreds of scripted shows being made right now.

Back then, your way into the industry, and the best chance of getting work as a sitcom writer, was to write episodes of an existing show, which is really hard. But once you’d done that for a few years, you might get a development deal where you could pitch a new show that you had created. Which is really really hard.

The ‘Spec’ and The 'Pilot’

So here are the two parts of sitcom writing separated out. Let’s spell them out

Part 1 – Writing a Sitcom Episode

This means taking tried and tested characters in a situation people have already decided they like, be it field hospital in the Korean War or a bar in Boston - and giving them new, interesting, funny things to do in way that is fresh but familiar. That’s hard – but write a 'spec', get hired to be in a room of writers for a few years, get really good it and then you’re ready for Part 2.

Part 2 – Coming up with a Brand New Sitcom

This means creating new characters in a new situation – or a familiar situation (see? There’s one variable straight away) – that hasn’t yet found an audience. This is really really hard. And in order prove the concept of your new show, you need to write a 'Pilot' script which is the first episode. It introduces all of the characters and themes in one perfect little story with a beginning, middle and end.

Here’s the difference between Parts 1 and 2.

Part 1 is baking an excellent cake with good branded ingredients you’ve been handed.

Part 2 is baking an original but kind of familiar cake with ingredients that you’ve found, grown yourself or produced that may or may not turn out to be flour, eggs, sugar, butter and whatever else you decide to throw in because, hey, it’s 2021. You put it in the oven and hope for the best.

Except For Writers in the UK

‘Spec’ scripts never really caught on in the UK. There was never a call for them. If you wrote a ‘spec’ script of My Family, that probably wouldn’t open any doors for you, with the possible exception of working on My Family. I was hired to write an episode of My Family because I'd got a sitcom on BBC Radio 4 called Think The Unthinkable in which I'd miraculously pulled off the trick of writing a Spec Pilot Script that went to series. And it did okay. And I pitched enough ideas that they liked and commissioned one of them.

In the past, there were only a few channels buying a sitcoms and a few production companies making them, like Hattrick, Talkback and Tiger Aspect along with BBC in-house production. There was, and probably still is, some nurturing of fledgling talent in big companies like that but things are very different now. There is a still a demand for sitcoms, or comedy narrative, but where is that talent coming from? It’s not really clear, especially if you don’t want to make and appear in YouTube videos or Edinburgh fringe shows. 

So what does a writer need do if they want to get into writing sitcoms?

Bad news: Write a spec pilot script.

Yes, you need to do two those incredibly hard things right out of the gate.

You have to somehow acquire and master the craft of writing sitcom episodes, which is hard enough, and also conceive of a brand new sitcom, which is harder still. And blend them together in your smoking hot, funny, fresh pilot script. All on your own time. It's a 'spec'.

So, is it worth it?

Well, that’s entirely up to you. For me, I couldn’t bear the idea of not writing sitcoms, since that was pretty much all I ever wanted to do. Even when I was applying for jobs in advertising over twenty years ago, it was obvious that this was just a way of writing comedy on TV, and a means to an end.

What about for you?

Is this something you really want to do? If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing that it is.

In which case, good news: I can help.

There’s a lot to do, but it can be done. And has been. And will be. People are doing it all the time. You could give it a go. I blagged my way into this industry with despite being a farmer’s son with no contacts, failing to get into Cambridge (where all the comedians go) twice, and getting a degree in Theology from the University of Durham. I just loved comedy and wanted to write it.

Get Help

So I’m running a day-long webinar called Write A Sitcom In A Day.
You obviously can’t write a sitcom in a day. But you can spend a day finding out how, getting your head around it, and, crucially, making a plan to get a script written. It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions. Details here.
I’m running it twice, on two different days (30 Aug & 3 Sept) to give you the best chance of being free for one or the other. Join us!


Monday, 17 May 2021

Plotting My Sitcom: How Do I Handle a Series Arc?

In the last post, I looked at the desire to have a series arc in a sitcom or comedy drama. I showed how comedies had overarching narratives decades before streaming services and boxed sets. And if your show  runs for a long time, you can’t avoid children becoming adults, adults getting married and growing old – and actors leaving or dying.

But let’s say your continuing story in your sitcom is a choice rather than a reality of the aging process.  How is that best handled?

Why are you writing this script?

Before we look at some specifics, remember the bigger picture. Why are you writing this script? Yes, it’s proof of concept of your sitcom. It’s a blueprint. You are trying to persuade a producer to go on a journey with you. The two of you will then set out to persuade someone to authorise at least a million pounds to be spent filming your series.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably writing a script on spec. So this script is also a proof of concept of your career. It’s a portfolio piece. It is showing that you can be trusted to work on another shows – which is almost certainly what you want. Working on other people’s shows improves your skills, your contacts and your reputation whilst being paid, all of which increase the likelihood of your show being made.

Therefore, you need a script that is telling the reader that you can be trusted. It shows you know how to tell a story. If it’s a sitcom script, it should show that you know how to write funny. You need to show your characters doing funny things for funny reasons. And you need some sort of resolution so they end up roughly back where they started.

I’m not saying you have to play it safe or be boring. Writing a regular sitcom episode is unbelievably hard – and probably harder than a complex plotty drama, where an awful lot of elements can be kicked down the road to be resolved in future episodes or series. (Or, in the case of Lost, not at all)

So I would advise you to write a proper sitcom script which tells a story with a beginning, middle and end - which takes us back to the beginning. Do it with flair, and originality. Make it timely and personal. You need to show off your voice and perspective (which is something I cover a lot more in my video course). But you also need to show that you’ve got what it takes.

Can you write a story that hangs together, escalates, puts your characters through hell and resolves in an unexpected by satisfying way? Answer that question in the affirmative and you will get some interest, some meetings and maybe some work.

So, no series arc, then?

Not quite. It can be done.

There are two ways of weaving a series arc into your script. Here’s the first:

Series Arc #1: C-Plots Become an A Plot

From the Writing Your Sitcom course
Your pilot episode has a main plot in which the protagonist does her thing, setting out on a quest to get something done in the next 24-72 hours. There’s a sub-plot in which another character sets out on a quest of some kind.

And then there’s a C-Plot in which your main character interacts with another character or set of circumstances that feels like it’s going to return.

What could this C-plot look like?

Maybe it’s series of letters that arrive and reveal something – and make your protagonist react in some way. Does she shred them, or hide them under a floorboard? Or a neighbour keeps doing an odd thing. You can have a bit of mystery about it, as long as the main plot and the sub plot are barrelling alone, generating laughs and resolving in some way.

Maybe in episode 2 or 3, those letters turn into phonecalls – or the neighbour behaviour escalated.

And then letters turn into a visit in episode 4 or 5, which could be a sub-plot, or even a main plot for that episode.

And then in the series finale, episode 6, 8, 10 or 13, this long running plot is really brought to a head. The next phase of the overarching narrative can begin, or put the protagonist in a life threatening situation, or cause her question everything.

Series Arc #2: Break It Down

The other way of making your episode epic in scale but satisfying episodically is to break down their uber-quest into a series of manageable and achievable chunks.

It’s the ‘telescopic’ approach that you find in video games. To get through level one, you have to kill the dragon.

To kill the dragon, you need the Enchanted Knife, guarded by the evil witch, who can be defeated with Amulet of Light, which can be found in the Mountains of Despair, that can only be navigated using the Map of Destiny.

So if this were a sitcom, your character needs to find the map (ep 1), then climb the mountain  to secure the amulet (ep 2), to defeat the witch and get the knife (ep 3) and so on.

You could have the hero face the dragon in Ep 4, only to discover it doesn’t work, or that the dragon is already dead, only to discover a greater foe who is harder to kill. Or in episode 2, getting the amulet requires it's own miniature quest which becomes an episode in its own right. I've only seen a few episodes, but it seems like this is way The Mandalorian does things.

Let's get back to reality.

Your character's big quest is to become Mayor of their town (for character-based reasons that will become clear in the series). Each episode is a step along the way, which may involve a last minute decision to stand and having to get 50 signatures by 7pm tomorrow.

Then there’s getting local press on side, having them show up at a soup kitchen where our heroine has volunteered. There are local hustings. There’s securing celebrity endorsements. There’s smearing the opponent, collecting opinion poll data and door knocking. Each of these could be an episode in its own right, with its own mini-goal and climax in a tangible event that can go wrong, or right in an unexpected way.

There’s plenty here for five episodes – alongside personal plots about family and friends - before getting to election day and a result – at which point, maybe they realise that they don’t want to win, and being elected would be a disaster.

The Long and Winding Road

The path does not have to be so clearly determined or defined, but it’s really helpful to remove doubt and allow the reader/audience to relax with a clear goal for your hero. It could be that in episode 1 your hero discovers they are adopted and they set out to look for their real mum and dad. That’s going to involve a trip to a public records office, and some detective work, travel and unexpected revelations. There is a clear goal at the end, but the steps along the way can have all kinds of twists and turns.

In fact, Series 1 uncovers the mother - but not the father. And that's series 2.

Those would be the two routes I would suggest for dealing with a series arc. The C-Plot becomes The A-Plot, and the Break It Down approach.

Iif you still feel that you want to write a half hour script that sets up some storylines for the main characters and doesn’t resolve any of them, then go for it. I think it will be frustrating to read, and won’t sell you as a writer for hire, but if this is the way you want to do it, you’re free to do that. My worry is that you’re writing a movie – or a novel – not a sitcom. And I think now is the time to be writing movies again. It seems that streaming services are now financing movies but that's one for another time.

Get Help

I’m running a day-long webinar called Write A Sitcom In A Day.

You obviously can’t write a sitcom in a day. But you can spend a day finding out how, getting your head around it, and, crucially, making a plan to get a script written. It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions. Details here.

I’m running it twice, on two different days (30 Aug & 3 Sept) to give you the best chance of being free for one or the other. Join us!




Thursday, 13 May 2021

Plotting My Sitcom: Do I Need a Series Arc?

A question that comes up a lot when talking about plotting is the problem of the series arc. Do you need one? And if so, how does that affect the pilot episode?

Short answer: No. You don’t need a series arc. In fact, I think it’s better if you don’t have one. But I also know I won’t be able to talk you out of it. So let’s dig into this.

The advent of streaming services, boxed sets and binge-watching makes it feels like we’re in new territory and that sitcoms are playing catch up. It’s easy to think that technology has changed the genre, but that's not the case.

We’ve Been Here Before

In the 1970s, before video recorders, you just had to watch a sitcom when it was on. And if you missed it, you missed it. Telling a story over six, ten or thirteen episodes seemed impossible. Some, perhaps, most sitcoms had no real progression between episodes. So you can dip into Porridge, Bilko or Dad’s Army at any point and not need to know anything about the episode before or after.

Reality and time are suspended which means you have a sitcom like M*A*S*H lasting eleven years set during war that only lasted three. No-one cares. The only significant difference in long running shows like this is when actors die, characters leave or episodes are now shot in colour.

A long running successful show cannot avoid changes and some kind of series arc. Characters grow up, fall in love, get married and have children. These are things that cannot be ignored, undone or reset at the end of the episode.

We see the life and loves of sitcom characters with almost a soap-opera-like quality in the wildly successful Bread, following the fortunes of a family in Liverpool wheeling and dealing to survive. In the same way, some of us grew up and came of age watching Friends, seeing the six characters move from singleton’s sticking together to couples forming new families.

The world changes around the characters too. In Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy embodies the spirit of the age, moving from market trader to wannabe yuppie. These are all nice problems to have if you're writing a long running show.

Before Remotes

The pace of change in a sitcom was there, but it was glacial. We watched characters turn grey very slowly. But there were other shows that were tightly plotted, which followed on one from the other.

This is possible because, although there were no video recorders, there were only three or four channels, and people couldn’t switch channels without standing up. So an awful lot of people ended up watching and tracking a long complex story.

Examples that leap to mind include Allo Allo in which we watched one long unfolding farce. Series 5 (1988-89) ran weekly for 24 episodes. I seem to remember each episode began with a recap from Rene Artois talking directly to camera. This is a good tip if your idea is heavily dependent on a continuing story.

The voiceover of Arrested Development allows the story to move very fast, and recall previous incidents in former episodes and remind the viewers off all kinds of essential information in order to each episode to make sense.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was a sitcom based on novel – and followed some kind of story without a narrator. What I mean to see in say is this: this is not a new problem. And there’s no one single answer to this not-new-problem that might not be a problem.

But here’s another question that might help. Are you sure you want to write a sitcom? Or, at least, a comedy?

Is It A Sitcom?

After watching The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Line of Duty, the temptation is to think that the story is everything. Maybe it is in drama. In comedy, it isn’t.

It really isn’t.

If your aim is to make people laugh, stories are tools, and not ends in themselves. The ‘story of the week’ is putting your characters into difficult or compelling situation where they will be funny.

Clearly, there is a demand for the next Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. And those shows have comic elements. For me, the Tyrion/Bronn relationship was priceless and could have been it’s own spin off comedy show. (In fact, someone imagined one here)

But these shows aren’t comedies. In fact, their storytelling elements will make comedy harder because the plots interweave and mingle, creating suspense. This is a deliberate form of confusion. And, say it with me now, Confusion is the Enemy of Comedy. An audience that is confused won’t laugh.  They can't. They don’t get they joke – because they can’t get the joke. They’ve not been given all of the components.

The result is a long, complicated, tortuous story which may be fun to tell, and to watch. But it won’t be as funny as Frasier. And people still watch Frasier.

Tastes change, but two things seem certain.

  1. People like watching TV.
  2. People like laughing.

So if you want to write a sitcom, stick to your guns.

The Sitcom Risk

There will always be room for sitcoms with no significant story arc. Every week, your characters clash, conspire, collude and crash in a different way. Every week, your character is trying to save the world, or her community, or his sister or his sub-species, in their own inimitable way. If you offered BBC1, Netflix or Apple TV a compelling situation that feels 'of the moment' and you've got a killer script, they’re not going to turn it down because there’s no story arc.

But the lack of story arc might make them nervous. And you. And there's a reason for that. It's risky.

The sitcom without a long-running story is really hard to come up with. It lives or dies by its characters and the blend of relationships rather than the story. It is very hard to get this right in a vacuum. Launching this sort of sitcom is like a baby owl jumping out of the nest. It's got about six second to discover if it’s going to fly and survive, or hit the ground at pace and be eaten by foxes.

I wonder, then, if the desire to find a central long-running story is, for some, a way of taking the pressure off the characters and the jokes - and the writer, and the channel.

For some this may be subconscious. For others, this reveals they are more interested in the story than the characters. Or more interested in enthralling than amusing. Fair enough. Comedy is not the only game in town, but as we wrap up this post (to be continued), let’s ask the crucial and awkward question:

Are you trying to write a comedy script?

Or do you want to write a six-part three hour movie?

Only you can answer that question.

But, but, but...

You might point to examples of a successful six-part three hour movie/sitcom – like The Wrong Mans. I think that’s why I found it rather frustrating to watch when it was on TV. Both James Corden and Matthew Baynton are properly weapons-grade funny. For me, The Wrong Mans felt like less than the sum total of the parts, and would have been a fab 90 minute movie. (Remember The Parole Officer with Steve Coogan? Like that.)

The Wrong Mans was made at a point when very few low-budget comedy movies were being made. It was part-funded by Hulu – and this seemed like an exciting premise for comedy narrative.

What’s good about the show is that it really focusses on the two main characters. It's clear what's happening as it has the shape of a movie, and taps into the tropes of ‘finding yourself in an action movie’, but as a rule, I think the three hour/six-part movie is a difficult trick to pull off. I'm not sure The Wrong Mans did. But I'd watch a movie Corden-Baynton-Road-Trip-Buddy-Movie-Caper-Comedy any day.

But let’s say you do want to write a comedy with a story arc.

I haven’t talked you out of it, have I? Fine.

We’ll look at some ways of how to write a script with a series arc next time.

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Tuesday, 27 April 2021

The Other Key To Sitcom Success

In the last post, we saw how sitcoms are risky, but can really pay off. If you back key talent and take a few chances, in the long run, you’re going to hit on something that’s huge, repeatable, wonderful and very profitable.

There will be sitcoms that fail for whatever reason. On the Sitcom Geeks podcast, we enjoy talking about them, partly because failure is funny. But also examining failure is often more informative than the successful show where success seems inevitable. (It wasn't)

On the podcast, we were able to talk to Steven Moffat about Chalk (listen for the amazing story he tells about Steve Coogan). We also spoke to Graham Linehan about the sitcom before Father Ted, called Paris; John O’Farrell about The Peter Principle; and Pete Sinclair about Mr Charity.

Before we move on, let’s just remember that the much unloved Chalk ran for two series.

Remember? Didn't think so.
Let’s take another random example that just occurred to me. Remember the Chris Barrie vehicle, Prince Among Men? Of course you don’t. It was about a former footballer-turned-entrepeneur. It didn’t do well, but it also ran for two series (1997-98).

As did The Peter Principle. The BBC used to do that, and didn’t worry too much about sniffy critics sneering at mainstream attempts to be funny.

What A Waste

Schedulers and financiers might look at the millions of pounds spent on Chalk, Paris, Prince Among Men, The Peter Principle, and Mr Charity – and bemoan the waste. How could those shows have been avoided? Or dumped after one series at the very least.

This entirely misses the point and the process. These shows are key to the successes of future. Failed projects are not just regrettable or unavoidable dead ends. They are learning opportunities. They provide experience. And they are experiments which might yield unexpected results that could be applied elsewhere.

So here’s my final point in this series. I’ve said success breeds success.

You know else breeds success? Failure.

Failure Breeds Success

We’ve all heard the stories about the making of all our favourite shows. (Although our chat on the podcast with Clement and Le Frenais about The Likely Lads is fascinating!). One of the best series about sitcoms in recent times was Comedy Connections. This show did a terrific job of demonstrating how shows came about, not just in the minds of writers, but how producers, directors and actors were brought together.

Watch Comedy Connections, you will see multiple references to sitcoms you’ve never heard of, that came and went. Maybe they were a disaster. Maybe they lacked the magic you need to get beyond that second series. But often, the failure produced some new information. A new name was discovered, or a double act seemed to work, or it turned out that certain writers wrote well for specific actors.

All of this hard-won experience was then carried over into shows where it appears that success seemed inevitable, or the writers got lucky. Luck is undoubtedly a part. And experience doesn’t always lead to success. But we can learn from the mistakes either by not repeating them, or discovering something we didn’t even know we didn’t know along the way.

Put It Bluntly

Failure is likely. Success is the outlier. Sitcoms not only need to be given time, but also allowed to fail. In fact, let’s put it more starkly still to make the point:

BBC1 needs to make more failed sitcoms.

And stick with them for a couple of series.

Why? To produce more good and great sitcoms.

You can’t tell when making them which sitcoms are bad and which are good.

You can’t tell which will start bad and will get good.

You can’t tell which will resonate with the audience and which won’t.

You can’t tell which ones that look so good to start with and sounded so funny ‘in the room’ would turn out to be a disaster. (Listen to our chat with Paul Mayhew Archer who said that the recordings are Chalk were utterly hysterical. And that the readthrough for Johnny Vaughan’s ‘Orrible were similarly hilarious)

You can’t even tell why the successful sitcoms will turn out to be successful.

Paris contributed to the success of Father Ted.

Mr Charity’s Pete Sinclair went on to work with Jack Dee on the much-loved, highly acclaimed Lead Balloon.

Prince Among Men went on to, erm, to do The Brittas Empire? No that was before. Okay, you got me on that one. Maybe it was a big break for some cameraman called Steve.

At the moment, every mainstream sitcom is an isolated outlier. So the pressure on them to perform goes up exponentially. But the irony is their rarity makes them even less likely to succeed.

Success breeds success. Success also requires failure.

You can’t have success or failure without more actual mainstream sitcoms.

The talent is there. And in the long run, it makes money. Let’s invest in sitcom. You know it makes sense.

I’m done. Four part rant over. Next time, back to the technical stuff.

I'm running a free 90-minute webinar on Plotting Sitcoms on Friday 21st May. Places are limited so sign up to the Situation Room for access to that webinar HERE.