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.





Friday, 23 April 2021

How Mainstream Sitcom Pays Even More Than Crime

In the previous two posts, I wrote about the lack of mainstream situation comedy on BBC1, and the lack of confidence in sitcoms to get ratings to compete with Line of Duty's 9.5m, how the talent is already there, and how success breeds success.

And I should probably wrap up this series and talk about actual writing, which makes me properly excited. Moreover, there's no point fretting about the state of the industry since I have no control over that. Just the scripts that I write. But there’s no point in talking about half hour sitcoms scripts if they’re not being produced.

And they are! On BBC3, E4, Apple TV, Dave, Sky Atlantic and all over the place. Lots of these shows are appealing to a narrow demographic. Some of these shows are strange, experimental, niche, authored and personal. That’s all great. We need to hear these voices, and try new things, even though the same basic rules of sitcom and storytelling underpin these sitcoms too. 

But there is a special place in my heart for the mainstream sitcom, which can be understood and enjoyed by kids and grandparents. We live in a fragmented society that is ripping itself apart over so many issues. The unifying effect of a Del Boy is not to be underestimated.

The Other Home of Mainstream Sitcom

So far, I’ve barely even mentioned ITV1, which used to be the home of stunning comedies like The New Statesman, Rising Damp and gave us Men Behaving Badly before it moved to the BBC. In terms of mainstream sitcoms, ITV1 has kept the flame alive, with the return of Birds of Feather and another series of Kate and Koji.

The forces at play on ITV after very different from those of the BBC. The Corporation is, of course, a political football and now has to find millions of pounds to pay for free TV licences, but ITV has been dealing with fluctuating advertising revenues for decades. A genre like sitcom might seem ‘risky’ to BBC1, but it may appear suicidal on a commercial channel where balance sheets can turn very red very quickly and have dire consequences.

I've argued that there is so much British writing talent and experience, situation comedy doesn’t seem like such a big risk to me. I've also said that success breeds success and can bring you huge ratings for decades. It’s easy to overlook the fact that commercial has produced many of the greatest sitcoms of all time:.

Crime & Sitcom

Commercial network television gave us M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Roseanne, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld and a big long list of shows that are funny, popular, well-written and insanely profitable.

We all know that the stars of Friends and Big Bang Theory were getting a $1m an episode by the end. This is a drop in the ocean compared to back-end profits, repeat fees, residuals, merchandising and syndication rights where the sums are eye-watering – and mouth-watering if you’re an investor looking for big long-term bets. They say crime pays. Sitcom really pays.

Experienced investors know that most things aren’t profitable. This includes sitcoms. Whether you’re developing a new product, widget or sprocket, the chances of short-term success are small. But not zero.

How do you reduce your risk? With more products, widgets and sitcoms rather than gamble the farm on just one. So American TV networks commission fifty, maybe even a hundred, writers to write scripts. Of these, fifteen or so produced are pilots, three of which are green-lit for series, only one of which might make it to the end of the first season.

The rate of attrition is very high, and not for the faint hearted or the casual investor. But the thing that keeps investors going is the rewards. In their case, not social cohesion, but Benjamins for the shareholders and bonuses for execs.

It’s Not So Sunny In the UK

Granted, the UK market is different from the US market. But the principles are the same. Hundreds of millions are being spent on comedy. But where are the big returns? In mainstream sitcom.

Here's the reason why it's a better bet than its low-risk comedy alternative, the panel game: I don’t want to watch an episode of a panel game again and again. Even one I really like.

It's nice to be reminded of that moment on Have I Got News For You when Paul Merton ended up next to a tub of lard. And I've love that bit of Would I Lie To You? when Bob Mortimer convinced David Mitchell that Chris Rea had persuaded him to crack an egg into his bath. Do I want to watch the whole episode again? Probably not? The whole series? Twice?

The panel game is the low risk option. Reliably funny people are being funny in a reliably funny format. And you can shoot ten of them in no time. If your panel game costs £200k, the long term value of that is much lower than a sitcom that cost £300k.

Of course, there’s a good chance that sitcom just won’t work. It might make critics spit and cause consternation. That's a shame. We need to get over that. (As I'll explain in the next post) But if it works, it’s twenty times more valuable. But only about one and half times the price. And so I return to the point of my first post in this series, quoting Del Boy. Let's make more mainstream sitcoms. “You know it makes sense”.

So, there’s one more thing I want to write about here. What to do in the likely event of failure. And I’ll stop going on about it, and I’ll get back to mechanics of sitcom-writing.

If you're pining for sitcom writing tips, and want to know what's wrong with the first ten pages of your script, have a look at my YouTube Channel, the Situation Room.

And on Friday 21st May at 5.30pm, I'll be running a FREE 90-minute webinar about plotting your sitcom. Sign up to the Situation Room for access to that.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

How Sitcom Success Breeds Success

In the last post, I argued that the lack of mainstream rating-grabbing sitcoms is not because of lack of talent. There are dozens of writers capable of writing a successful mainstream sitcom. But they are currently working in Hollywood, writing literary fiction, whodunnits, children’s books, TV dramas or script editing.

There are, of course, a few shows by British writers that are available to watch in the UK, like the delightful and poignant Trying by Andy Wolton, a half-hour comedy on Apple TV that looks a lot like a sitcom. It's a show that could easily sit on BBC1 at 9pm. Why isn’t it?

One pragmatic reason: Scheduling.

Schedulers have an awful lot of power. Listen to Ep 144 of Sitcom Geeks in which Anil Gupte explains how ‘The Office’ came to be on BBC2. You will hear that the reaction of a scheduler was crucial to proceedings.

But you don’t need to be a scheduler to understand this: If you’ve got a half hour sitcom, you’re going to need another one half an hour later. Or least a TV show that lasts half an hour.

TV, these days, last an hour. A while back, I posed the question about the difference between a sitcom and a comedy-drama. One answer could be ‘about half an hour’.

So - and you might need to sit down for this - why not have two sitcoms back-to-back?

From where we are, this is crazy talk. But we could get there. In fact, we need to get there because success breeds success.

But there’s no need to have two sitcoms when you have panel games. Would I Lie To You? – a real funny treat of a show –  or a rerun of Have I Got News For You? can plug any half hour gap created by an incredibly rare pre-watershed sitcom like Ghosts.

Safety First

A new show might stink. So launching a show involves some pre-emptive damage limitation. When it came to launching a show like Ghosts, a scheduler had to think about what the British public would make of a mainstream sitcom by the original actors for the right-lauded Horrible Histories CBBC series? You put something tried and tested before and after. That’s basic common sense.

There is another tried and tested way of launching a new sitcom that the US networks have done for decades. You launch it right after a tried and tested sitcom that everyone loves. Long-running shows like Cheers were used to introduce a new show straight afterwards. Of course, to do that you need a show like Cheers. This is easier said than done.

So how do you get a long-running mainstream sitcom like Cheers? With other sitcoms. Like Cheers. I realise how this sounds. But stick with me.

New writers and bright young things join the staff of an existing show like Cheers, learn the ropes and get experience. (Like introducing new players into a winning sports team). Look at the credits of these big shows and see how the names move around. Even in the UK, look at the writers for The Thick of It when it started out on BBC4, and how they have moved to other shows like Veep and now Succession.

(Except, of course, those shows aren’t on BBC4 – which is no longer making original programmes, despite having the best track record in sitcoms of any TV channel in British history. And those shows aren’t on BBC2 or BBC1.)

Apprenticeships

I was very fortunate to receive some sort of sitcom apprenticeship. I wrote a sitcom for BBC Radio 4 called Think The Unthinkable, where I met Paul Mayhew-Archer, who put me forward to write episodes of mainstream studio sitcoms My Hero and My Family.

Then after another show on BBC Radio 4 called Hut 33, I was able to help write Miranda for to BBC Radio 2, and then BBC2, and then BBC1, for which I also co-wrote a couple of episodes of Citizen Khan a few years ago.

In 2021, for someone still up for pitching mainstream sitcoms, my CV and experience is relatively unusual, mostly because there just aren’t many mainstreams shows on which to find your feet, cut your teeth or write a script.

The mainstream shows which do tend to make it on air run for six episodes rather than eight, ten or twelve. Most of the work will be done by the show creator who, let’s be honest, needs to make the most of that rare opportunity. And those with experienced garnered over the previous ten or twenty years will look elsewhere for work, and we see that’s been the case.

My point is this. Success breeds success.

Mainstream sitcoms led to further mainstream sitcoms, not just in terms of giving experience to newer writers, but also creating confidence for controllers to commission new shows to be launched by established writers. And for schedulers to find a home for them. That's how you get a Cheers from which to launch another Cheers.

Getting on a Roll

So Esmonde and Larbey could write The Good Life, and go on to give us Ever Decreasing Circles and Brushstrokes – and Larbey could write A Fine Romance and As Time Goes By.

Likewise, Carla Lane, who wrote The Liver Birds and Butterflies, could be given a primetime slot on May 1st 1986, for her new show Bread which peaked two years later with an audience of 21 million viewers.

Yes. 21 million viewers.

The UK population was 55million. So 21 million  is quite a lot isn’t it?

It’s proportionally a lot more than the 9.5m watching Line of Duty live, and on catch-up and on binge-watching a few years later. Look at the figures. Outside of live sport, the biggest mainstream TV audiences are for comedy.

Right now, there isn't much success to breed more success in terms of mainstream sitcoms. But as I argued in the last post, the experience and success is there. One of the men who wrote two of our truly great sitcoms, Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley, is now writing romantic comedies for the big screen. Others like him are developing new shows for HBO or streaming services. Or Apple TV.

Have we asked them to write some shows for BBC1? Do we make it worth their while trying? Do they feel they have a reasonable chance of success, or at least not wasting their time if they do try?

Sitcoms can deliver huge numbers when you get them right. And the only way to do that is to try. Can we try trying?

Times change, but some things remain the same. People like watching TV. They like a good story. And they like laughing. Sitcoms have consistently delivered delight for decades and will go on doing so.

If you want to write a sitcom, you might struggle to get it on BBC1, but you are fundamentally not wasting yout time. But it’s a long road ahead. It’s hard work. And you need to write a pilot script. There’s no way around that but I can help you there.

I’ve broken down the process into twelve steps and put it into a video course called Writing Your Sitcom, which takes you through twelve steps to writing your sitcom script, plus a monthly Zoom chat with me. There's 25% discount code MAYDAY21 valid until end of Bank Holiday Monday 3rd May 2021.

You can find out more info on the course here:



Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Where Do Mainstream Sitcoms Come From?

At the sad passing of the Duke of Edinburgh, TV stations began wall-to-wall obituaries and tributes. But soon the question began to be asked in all seriousness: “They’re not going to bump Line of Duty, are they?” 

The nation is gripped by Line of Duty, Jed Mercurio’s compelling and unfolding drama about police corruption. In today’s ever-fragmenting media, 9 million viewers are turning up and tuning in to watch it live. Not streaming. Not catching up. Not binging. Watching it. Live. They can’t wait to see it, they don’t want to risk spoilers and they want to be part of the cultural moment.

I’m part of that 9 million. It’s always a scramble to put the kids to bed and get the lights out, so we’re not watching it on delay. I want to be able to watch along with everyone else and watch Twitter react and join in with the chat. It’s an event. Episode four was so vivid, it felt like it should have been the lead story on the BBC Ten O’Clock News bulletin that started straight afterwards. The thrills and blood spills continue.

This shared experience is, I think, an important part of a culture and social cohesion. It’s hard to say if the fragmentation of our media the cause or a symptom of our growing tribalism but that’s a discussion for a different blog. But it’s worth noting that this isn’t just about TV, and genres. It’s who we are.

So What About Sitcoms?

It was during episode three of Line of Duty that I felt a tinge of regret. Why couldn’t there be this level of engagement with a mainstream sitcom? Right now. It feels like their time has passed. But in this post, and some following ones, I'd like to argue that sitcom could easily make a return, that there's nothing to be afraid of and that sitcoms aren't just for Christmas.

Historically some of the biggest TV audiences have been sitcoms. The same year that millions watched Prince Charles marry Diana, a similar number watched the big season finale wedding in To the Manor Born: a record-breaking audience of 24 million. This record was beaten by the nation’s favourite Only Fools And Horses Christmas trilogy in 1996.

Are those days over? Not quite.

We get a few glimmers at Christmas, or at least some glowing embers. Christmas is the time when a mainstream sitcom might still be given a prime-time slot and the front cover of the seasonal bumper Radio Times. Those sitcom specials are expected to pull in big numbers.

If I may blow my own trumpet briefly, I was at least partially responsible for Miranda’s Christmas Special in 2012. It was watched by Line-of-Duty-numbers: 9.47 million people. It beating Christmas Day EastEnders, Doctor Who (7.58m) and Strictly Come Dancing (7.76m), Call The Midwife (7.27m) and the Downton Abbey special (6.83m). 

Three years later, Mrs Brown’s Boys took over as the ratings winner. But six years on, it’s hard to see where the next Christmas special is going to come from.

Rummaging Around for Old Favourites

2020 was an odd year because of Covid, filming disruption and maybe even TV fatigue. Ratings were a disaster all round. But the normal Christmas trick is to invoke the ghosts of sitcoms past, and persuade writers and actors to show us what our much loved sitcoms of yesteryear could look like now. We’re often a little disappointed. But we’ll watch anyway, because we love the characters and the world and the genre. At the moment, it’s hard to see what BBC1’s options are for another seasonal ratings smashing sitcom special in 2021 that you can watch with your sister, your son and your gran.

When we’re not disappointed and 11 million of us are delighted all over again by Gavin and Stacey, audiences are left asking the big question: why can't we have this all year round?

Sitcoms aren’t just for Christmas. They’re for life. Or they should be. So where are the mainstream sitcoms going to come from?

Where Do Sitcoms Come From?

Let’s learn some lessons here from Line of Duty. Where did that come from? A focus group who demanded a gripping drama about police corruption? Nope. It came from an experienced writer called Jed Mercurio who had also created Cardiac Arrest and Bodies.

Where did Sherlock come from? A TV commissioner realising that the world needed an updated Victorian sleuth? Nope. An experienced (comedy) writer called Steven Moffatt who had also created Press Gang and Coupling.

Where did Last Tango in Halifax, Downton Abbey and other ratings sensations come from? Experienced writers who could be trusted to come up with an idea people would enjoy and execute it well.

Compare and Contrast

Contrast that with two truly great sitcom writers with track records going back decades: Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (Drop the Dead Donkey, Outnumbered). When Dave and I spoke to them for Episode 150 of the Sitcom Geeks podcast, we discovered how many scripts they had written since Outnumbered that were rejected, passed over and ignored. It was quite a lot. They were also given the impression that people thought that Outnumbered had only been a hit because they’d got lucky with some funny kids. Seriously. Go and listen to the episode. This is how mainstream sitcom writers are treated. I’ve not spoken to Marks and Gran since we recorded episode 50 we recorded back in 2017, but I suspect their experience is the same.

My point is this: there is a lot of mainstream sitcom writing talent out there. It's not even waiting to be discovered. It's hiding in plain sight. 

Some great sitcom writing talent is no longer with us. Victoria Wood (dinnerladies) almost certainly had another truly great mainstream nation-grabbing comedy in her. Likewise, Carla Lane was sadly unable to replicate Roy Clarke’s prolific longevity and give us more Bread, Butterflies or Liver Birds.

But Roy Clarke (Open All Hours, Last of the Summer Wine) is still going at 91.  Eric Chappell (Rising Damp, Only When I Laugh, Duty Free) is only a few years behind and still going. He got the impression he was no longer wanted as far back as the early nineties. Let’s let that one sink in. The man who wrote Rising Damp couldn’t get another show in TV and effectively retired. (I spoke to him for the Sitcom Geeks podcast here).

Others have stayed the course in the UK, like Naylor half of Grant/Naylor who is still writing Red Dwarf for Dave, but others have switched genre. Who can blame them? Given the experiences of those above, is it any wonder that Steven Moffat, writer of the brilliant series Coupling, would rather write hour-long highly acclaimed series like Dr Who, Sherlock and Dracula? Which also have bigger budgets than comedies?

Why on earth would Simon Nye go back to the genre that gave us Men Behaving Badly – the finale of which was watched by 13.9 million in 1998 – when he could make a good living writing hours of adaptations like The Durrells? Why would Richard Curtis go back to Dibley or Blackadder when he could write and produce another Notting Hill?

Bless Ben Elton (Blackadder, Thin Blue Line) for getting back on the horse with Upstart Crow which, let’s be honest, only exists because the original episode was celebrating a Shakespeare Anniversary, and it comes with Blackadder style and pedigree.

Brain Drain

Others have left the country too. Jonathan Lynn, who co-wrote my favourite show of all time, Yes, Prime Minister, went off to Hollywood, only to return to UKTV for a short revival of the show for stage and screen in 2013.

The sitcom writing talent is there. And they are writing comedy. Just not in the UK. Who wrote Veep, a show created by our own Armando Iannucci? The shows credits include Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Georgia Pritchett, Will Smith, Andy Riley, Kevin Cecil, David Quantick, Roger Drew, some of whom have gone on to work with Jesse Armstrong on his highly acclaimed HBO show, Succession.

My point, by now, should be clear. There is an abundance of sitcom writing talent. In fact, there is a really weird amount of experienced, successful and acclaimed sitcom-writing talent. It’s just very few of them are writing mainstream sitcoms for BBC1. Why is that?

Talk to any of these writers (and we do on the Sitcom Geeks podcast) and you will hear nothing but fond affection for the great mainstream sitcoms of the past, watched in living rooms in the '70s and '80s. Given the chance, most of these folk would leap at the chance to ape their comedy heroes and write their own Fawlty Towers or Dad’s Army. Why aren’t they doing that?

Emmy-winning writer and producer of Veep, Will Smith, wrote a wonderful sitcom for BBC Radio 4 called Mr and Mrs Smith, starring Sarah Hadland (Miranda), Paterson Joseph (Peep Show) and Geoffrey Whitehead, about a couple in marriage counselling. It was really simple, well-written and funny. There were attempts to get it on TV that foundered until it was clear it was going nowhere. Since then, it doesn’t look like Will Smith has looked back professionally.

Greener Grass

Perhaps I have a rose-tinted view of the greener grass over on the drama side of things. And there is plenty of comedy around on other channels and streaming platforms where a critical factor (entirely reasonably) is new voices.

But it’s frustrating to see sitcoms mostly absent from the mainstream, as if they couldn't get huge ratings, when historically this isn't true, and when there is so much talent around, if only someone would back it.

To me, backing mainstream sitcom doesn’t even seem like “a courageous decision”, as Sir Humphrey would put it. I’d go with Del Boy. “You know it makes sense.”

In the next post, we'll look at how success breeds success.

In the meantime:
To get a foot in the door of sitcom writing, or if you have an idea for a sitcom that you’d like to write, the first thing you’ll need to do is write a pilot script.

In fact, the very first thing to do is plan the script.

In fact, before that you need to figure out what the show actually is.

In fact, it might just be simpler if you had a look at my video course, Writing Your Sitcom, which takes you through twelve steps to writing your sitcom script, plus a monthly Zoom chat with me. There's 25% discount code MAYDAY21 valid until end of Bank Holiday Monday 3rd May 2021.