Sunday 31 January 2010

Getting out at the Top

It is a curiously British thing to take a sledgehammer to your own success, but that is what is regularly done - and it is, of course, partly the fault of John Cleese.

In the good old days, when your sitcom was commissioned, you milked it for all it was worth - and no-one thought worse of you for so doing. They still do that in the USA. And it's fair enough. If you manage the Herculean task of not only getting your show on air, but getting it recommissioned, and then re-recommissioned, why on earth stop? The odds are that it won't happen again. Note that even the greatest scriptwriters have penned plenty of failures that had all the ingredients but never quite worked. The cake didn't rise. The magic dust blew away. You get idea.

Fawlty Towers, a show that was largely ignored and disliked at first, may have been one at the vanguard of this habit of stopping just when they'd cracked it. Naturally John Cleese and Connie Booth were perfectly at liberty to do whatever they liked with the masterful comedy, and many people admire their restraint in stopping when the show was still good.

But why wouldn't three more series have been good? Episode 13-30 of Fawtly Towers could have explored any number of subjects and themes. Let's face it - they had the audience in the palm of their hand. The characters could all have been sellotaped to a giant bomb and it still would have got huge laughs. Once the engine of a sitcom is running, it'll serve you well for many years to come (unlike the engine out my VW Golf which I was forced to sell last year. That's for another blog - and doesn't even have a humourous story that's usable for a sitcom episode one day).

The Young Ones cut things short early and killed off everyone. Blackadder only gave us four series before hanging up their cod-pieces. Ricky Gervais 'got out at the top' in his own words on both The Office and Extras. Likewise, Corden and Jones seem unwilling to write more episodes of Gavin and Stacey - a lovely, heartwarming comedy with characters I'm only just getting to know. Why stop? I'm sure they have their reasons. New projects often seem more exciting than old ones. Understandable.

But what are British writers in general worried about? Is it concerns about a backlash? It is worries about people thinking you're cashing in your success? The British, after all, are very suspicious of success and wealth.

In America, they celebrate success. This doesn't make American's better people, by any means. Nor does it make them worse - although it does at least mean they can be happy for other people, and therefore not feel the need to constantly self-deprecate, that charming quaint British custom. This, perhaps, explains why their sitcom hits run and run and run. Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld and dozens of shows we've never even heard of make 24 episodes or so at a time. A show could run for ten years. I, for one, am glad there a nearly 200 episodes of Seinfeld. The last series was particularly funny and inventive (except for the finale - eek).

Of course, getting a show to run more than even 12 episodes is really hard work. But is that the reason Brits don't want to continue once they've done 12 or 18? Who knows? All I do know is that getting a new series up and running, and then to have it taken to the nations hearts, is even more hard work than keeping an old show fresh. I'm heartened that the writers of Peep Show keep bashing on. The fans love it. They cast and writers enjoy making it. Why stop success?

Saturday 23 January 2010

The Persuasionists

Here’s the short version: I rather like it.

Here’s the longer version:

The problem with launching a new sitcom is that most viewers compare your Episode 1 against their favourite episode of their favourite sitcom. We all have our favourites - and we love those characters as if they were members of our own family. Frankly, I would like to hug 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and tell her everything’s going to be okay. Or we’d like to smack the characters because they’re making the same mistake week after week. Seinfeld said their rules were No Hugging and No Learning - but pretty much every sitcom has that second part. Sitcom characters don’t learn. Mainwaring and Hancock are pompous, always. David Brent thinks he’s funny every week. And so on. And so usually we find ourselves chuckling before they’ve even done the joke. Sitcoms that are up and running have a crucial momentum that keeps us laughing.

And so getting a new sitcom off the ground is like launching a rocket. Once the thing is moving and orbiting the earth, you just need to nudge it the right direction. But getting the darn thing of the ground, that takes a lot of energy.

Why am I saying this? You may well be ahead of me. I’ll fess up and say that I didn’t really like episode 1 of The Persuasionists, and some of this is because of the reasons above. I just didn’t know the characters. There are other reasons, which I’ll mention in a moment. But I did like episode 2. I’ve watched some scenes several times over and laughed a lot. And I’m looking forward to seeing episode 3. Put it this way: I watched Episodes 1 and 2 on iPlayer. But for episode 3, I’ll try and make an appointment to view - or at least tape it on my PVR and watch it within 24 hours (high praise in my house).

Why did I like it? I liked it because it was a big silly sitcom with jokes in it. It sounds rather daft to say that, but I do worry, sometimes, that some people think jokes are beneath them or just too obviou, or that a show is all character and story, and the laughs are simply organic. In one sense, they are. But you need them all the same. It’s another reason why writing sitcoms is so hard. You need to create characters, relationships, a situation, a story that hangs together - and then write about a hundred jokes that make a roomful of 200-300 people laugh out loud. Oh and three million people at home, give or take. That’s why the money is quite good when you get it right.

The Persuasionists is, then, a knock-about comedy set in the world of advertising. Are the characters believable? In a sense, but they’re obviously larger than life. And they’re clearly meant to be that way. And as with most office sitcoms, and audience shows, you tend not to believe that any actual work goes on in the office in question - but nobody minds that. It’s a sitcom. The audience understand that real life isn’t that funny. And that an office of 25 people tends to have more than 5 people who actually talk to each other. Sitcom is a contrived format by its very nature. But it works.

Clearly, the recipe for this particular show didn’t work for some people. The reviews and comments were almost entirely negative. It’s all rather sad. Reviewers, bloggers, and tweeters single out comedy for the vilest of comments. In a way that shows they care about comedy. It also shows that people are prepared to hide behind the internet to say horrible things that they would never say in real life. But the relentless stream of twitters say “Worst show ever” and “I’ll never get that half hour back” is pretty depressing. Apart from anything else, most TV is dreadful. Even successful shows. But we digress from the matter in hand.

Here’s my main worry about the show - the mix of characters. There are five characters, all with fairly strong traits. And since the show is set in the world of advertising, most of the characters are, what tv execs call ‘unsympathetic’. They shout and rant and are generally mean to each other. The exception is the Adam Buxton character - who is the optimist and nice-guy. The other characters are more grotesque, which is fine, but it makes them less believable. And so every single line those characters say has to be really funny. If it isn’t, we’ll stop laughing and think to ourselves “I don’t buy this”. Occasionally, you need a character to say things like “Hey, we have to get this done in time, or else” or “I hope my mum doesn’t die” or something that they have to mean. We all know it’s made up, but if the we don’t even believe that the characters believe in anything, the whole thing falls apart into a deconstructed heap on the floor.

I’ve run into this phenomenon writing Hut 33, which is a sitcom for Radio 4 set in Bletchley Park in World War Two. One character is called Minka, played by Olivia Colman. Minka is a psychopath who believes that violence is the solution to all problems. And she’s very handy and has all manner of weapons secreted about her person. She’s a preposterous character, keeping weapons in places where they couldn’t possibly fit, but it works - as long as she’s not carrying lines of exposition or doing what the other characters do. The problem comes when you have a whole show of those big characters. They have to gag their way in and out of every situation, and if one joke misfires, it can fall apart. If two jokes misfire, it hurts.

In Episode 2 is because the jokes fired. They worked - especially the lunatic stuff Keaton said and did, and the wonderful scene in which the boss explained to the popstar why Australia wasn’t ordinary. It was great, and bits like that really carried the show. There were other lovely moments when the popstar looks at Adam Buxton from afar and he’s sniffing his hands. And then he says how boring he is saying “Even when I hear my own voice, I think ‘O God, not him again’.” Lovely. The question is whether episode 3 can pull off the same trick. I hope so. I do enjoy laughing.

Watching Comedy as a Comedy Writer

Whenever a new sitcom arrives on TV, I always try and watch it. I do this for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that I’m sitcom writer myself and a bad person, and I therefore want it to fail. I then repent of this, and try to watch it without prejudice, remembering that I have more reasons to want this show to succeed. Why?

Firstly, a bad TV sitcom makes us writers all look bad. Secondly, the TV controller hates it when his/her shows attract criticism, and there is a special place in the hearts of the British people for sitcoms and slagging them off. People get really specific and offensive - especially online. They say things like “Why do the BBC makes this thing? Which executive approved this - and can their salary be taken away and given to orpans, or back to us viewers?” etc etc “This is the worst half hour I’ve ever spent of my life” and other such hyperboles.

It’s understandable. Comedy, when it doesn’t quite work, is awkward and toe-curling. Even good shows are hard to watch when they go slightly awry, even for one scene) Naturally, any TV channel controller wants to avoid this, and this is, I’m sure, one reason why there are fewer and fewer sitcoms on TV. They are expensive to make (that’s the other reason), so why risk wasting money and copping flack, they would think to themselves. An episode of studio sitcom costs at least £250k. You could have four antiques programmes for that money. They’d be forgettable programmes that won’t make the world a better place, or even fulfill the BBC’s charter, but they won’t make people as angry if they don’t like them.

So, as a writer, I want BBC2 to have some hit comedies so that they’ll want to make more of them. Comedy is a small world, and it’s quite likely that I will know the writer responsible, or will meet them at some stage. Or at least a cast member. In the case of the lastest sitcom, The Persuasionists, I happen to regularly turn up to the same cafe as one of the cast members. It really is that tenuous. But no-one likes having to lie about a show. And some of us have ethical problems with lying, so it’s just easier if the show is actually good so you can say ‘Hey, great show! I loved the bit with the [insert funny moment here].’ And mean it.

That’s why I tend not to ask people I know about stuff that I do. They might not like it and would rather not say so, or lie, so it’s best not to ask. Plus, there’s the fact that I really don’t mind if they don’t like it. I wrote six episodes of My Hero - that were greatly appreciated by 5 or 6 million people on BBC1, mainly families with kids. It’s that sort of show. My contemporaries are the time were graduates without kids who were into Six Feet Under - My Hero wasn’t for them. If they didn’t like it, I had no problem with tha

Finally, I want a sitcom that I can enjoy for myself! I await new episodes of 30 Rock with eager anticipation. I had the same experience with Arrested Development. Both are American shows, sadly. But I did get a frisson of excitement at the next episode of IT Crowd, Black Books and more recently, Gavin and Stacey (the latter of which is not, let’s be fair, an out-and-out comedy, but a splendid show nonetheles

So you may be wondering what I made of The Persuasionists, BBC2’s latest comic offering that I initally wanted to fail (since I am a bad person) and then realised I wanted to succeed, not least because it contains the delightful Adam Buxton, whom I do not know, but enjoy on 6Music - and he comes across as a thoroughly pleasant human being. But here we run into a problem - because writing up a review on blog (which remains in the ether for ever) is a bit of a risk. Dare I say anything negative, given the close-knit comedy world that I work in. And if I do only say positives, will you believe me or will you think I’m just being nice?

Well, I shall give it a little more thought and post a review very shortly…

What this Blog is for

This blog is about situation comedy - TV and Radio. It’s something the British take very seriously. Any new comedy, good or bad, is subject to intense scrutiny and criticism in the press and now on Twitter and various messageboards. The British are passionate about sitcom and demand the best, and therefore when anything falls slightly short, which sitcoms easily can, it is merciless clubbed to the ground and repeatedly kicked.

The Americans take their sitcom seriously too. This is partly because it’s a billion-dollar industry. Friends, alone, is billion-dollar industry. If you get it right, you’ll not just make millions but hundreds of millions of dollars. And then you can blow all that money on making movies.

Until recently, I’ve been posting comments about situation comedy in general on my Hut 33 blog - which is a blog about a sitcom that I write for BBC Radio 4. But it seems sensible to keep that blog focussed on that show, and reserve comments and thoughts about sitcom in general to a separate blog. So this is Sitcom Geek. Hello.

Why I've started again here...

In case you're curious, I began this blog the other day on Tumblr - but I didn't get on very well with the interface. Tumblr seems to be a cross between blogging and twittering. And no matter what I did, I couldn't set up a comment feature on the blog posts, which is part of the point of the blog. So here we are on good old blogspot. This move also forced the name change, which is not altogether a bad thing, since I am a sitcom geek, by nature and by trade. So here we go with some repostings from the other site.