Friday 19 February 2010

I Don't Know When To Be Happy For You

I've managed to watch every episode of The Persuasionists. As you might have guessed, I've been disappointed. I blogged that I rather liked the show - based mainly on Episode 2, which did make me laugh a lot. Clearly I haven't been as disappointed as the BBC who buried the show after Newsnight and dumped the last episode on a Saturday night. This is, I guess, their right. The show will have cost them over a £1 million so they can do whatever they like with it.

I've been trying to work out why it hasn't come together as a show. Failure was not inevitable as some like to suggest. People like to say things like 'I could have told them at the start why the show was never going to work'. The fact is, for me at least, Episode 2 did work quite well. Failure is not always predictably inevitable.

So here's one thought about that particular show - suggested by the title of this blog post. I didn't know when to be happy for to the characters, because their terms of success were very unclear. For example:

The last episode featured the boss wanting to make the office 'more australian', which is a funny enough idea in principle. But what did he mean by that? There seemed know way of knowing when this was the case - we didn't know how well the characters were succeeding at any given time because the boss did not give terms.

In another episode (maybe the fifth), the boss told the characters to 'be more creative' or prove their creativity. And a threat was issued. Setting challenges is always a good start in an audience sitcom - that is, if we know what success looks like. And threats are good too to discourage failure and keep the characters keen. But we have to know what constitutes failure and success. In that episode, the next thing we knew, two of the characters went to buy ultra-cool trainers - for no particular reason. It then transpired that they simply wanted to look creative. It was rather nebulous. I was left wondering 'What's going on, and what the characters trying to do?'

Here's the thing. If I, the viewer, don't know what success for the characters looks like, I don't know if they're winning or losing at any point in the show. If I don't know what they're trying to achieve, then I don't if they're winning or losing. Confusion is the enemy of a laughter. And audience that is baffled can't laugh. I've learned this from experience. I've written a few sitcom episodes for Radio which sounded terribly clever and complex, but the audience just didn't know what was happening, so the laughs dried up.

THis is not to say there is no place for randomness or bizarre events in show. A show can have random beats and moments and unexpected events of course, but they happen within a context. if that context is confusion, and chaos reigns,

When storylining Miranda with, er, Miranda Hart and Richard Hurst, I came up with a term that we used quite a lot. It was 'Clear TOSS'. It was an abbreviation for 'CLEARly defininable Terms Of suceSS'. That is to say, when the character has succeeded, it is obvious, and demonstrated with a single gesture or object. Of course it's contrived and real life isn't usually like that. But this ia s sitcom. It is, by its very nature, a contrivance. The audience know that people aren't that funny in real life. They are suspending of disbelief. They are offering you their hand. You have to take that hand and guide them. And you blindfold them and send them spinning at your peril.

Incidentally, this is why dumb characters are useful. The characters get to explain what's happening to them. They sit there looking vacant and someone says "Look, if we don't sell all these watermelons by 5pm, we're all fired" or "Hey, don't drop that painting or you'll owe Mr Peterson £5million". You get the idea. Hooray for idiots. They really do make life easier for the rest of us.

Thursday 11 February 2010

The Pressure of Perfectly Paced Plotting

BBC Radio 7 has been repeating Series 1 of Cabin Pressure - which I completely missed the first time round. I caught one or two episodes of Series 2, and enjoyed it, but am pleased to have heard almost all of the the first series. It's lovely show with an admirably small number of characters, as the title suggests - pressured relationships in one cabin of one aeroplane.

There's just a 1st Officer we know should be the Captain, but is a bit of a rogue; a Captain who's a bit uptight; the owner who's the headmistress kicking her boys into shape; and her son, the air steward who is breathtakingly dim (played by the show's writer, John Finnemore - who's a fine comedy actor as well as a superb writer. Yes another reason to dislike the thoroughly pleasant man.) There are more details about the show here and here.

In some senses, the central relationship, between first officer and captain functions a little like Wilson and Mainwaring in Dad's Army. I don't know if John Finnemore was, or even is, aware of this. Past shows influence all of us. When devising Hut 33, and created Charles and Archie, I realised I'd created a relationship akin to Glover and Figgis in Only When I Laugh. And pretty much every configuration of every relationship can be found in classic novels or Shakespeare. So this is not a criticism at all.

But it takes more than a central relationship for a show to succeed (unfortunately). In my last post, I wrote that it's important to do proper autopsies on sitcoms that die a painful death. Much can be learned. But one can also learn in an altogether more pleasurable - laughing hard at a decent show, and then thinking about it work so well.

I don't propose to list the virtues of the show. "I cannot find a single flaw in it. So top marks" said the Independent on Sunday. Praise indeed and well deserved. I've mentioned the characters. Oh, and there's the jokes. They're good. Properly funny. But the thing I'd like to praise Cabin Pressure for in particular is boringly technical - but this is a boringly technical blog. And frankly, if the boring mechanics don't work, you have a coughing and spluttering sitcom. After all, an Alfa Romeo may be fun now and then, but it's not got the boring mechanics to get you very far. Boring mechanics are only ever notable by their absence.

So here it is: the show is perfectly paced. There is exactly the right amount of story and plot to give the characters room to bounce off each other to maximum comic effect. There's not too much frantic running around at the end, ploddy bits of exposition or a mad dash to tie up loose ends in the last 90 seconds. That's what I find hardest to do in Hut 33 - but perhaps Mr Finnemore is reaping the benefits of having four regular characters (Hut 33 has six characters - and there is a war on). I'd be interested to know how Mr Finnemore does this - whether he spends a lot of time on the storylines so that they fit the show precisely, and unravel at exactly the right pace. This has the added benefit of increasing plausibility, which adds a health dose of 'this could really happen'. Which makes it funnier.

What are the temptations here, then? Why do some sitcoms often cram story in and become too frantic? It may be lack of confidence in the characters. It may be lack of confidence in one's own ability to write enough jokes. Much easier to blow up a car or lose a set of keys in the story to add extra frustation and 'mayhem'. But it may not make the show funnier. It may just make the show noisier. We can, I'm sure, think of examples in which that is the case. There are warning signs: If you find yourself typing the line "Wait a minute, there just one thing I don't understand" or "So the whole thing was covered by the insurance" or some other nebulous or unsatisfactory line. Plot is like marmite - best thinly spread.

But then, we can also watch an episode of Seinfeld and think 'How did they fit all those stories in 22 minutes?'

Sitcom is a dark art, a conjuring trick with no manual that requires hours of practice, the odd prayer - and even then one runs a serious risk of being pelted with fruit. Still, it beats real work. My dad was a farmer. I know what I'd rather be doing for living.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Understanding Failure in Comedy

Criticising sitcom, as I have remarked in previous posts, is the easiest thing in the world. Like many things that are easy, it can still be entertaining and fun, but it is ultimately destructive and unhelpful, as least for the purposes of this blog and constructive criticism of sitcom in general.

So passionate am I about situation comedy, that I want to defend every sitcom from attacks on all sides, regardless of whether I even like the comedy in question. At least that is what I felt when I read a recent posting on The Quietus - called Emma Johnston On The World's Worst Sitcoms. which can be found here. I don't mean to pick on her - I'm sure she's delightful - or the website for which she writes at all, but the article is a very typical example of pundits talking about sitcom that makes a number of curious points - and contributes to the overall welter of bizarre punditry surrounding a very specific form of commentary.

The trigger for Ms Johnston's article was undoubtedly The Persuasionists, the latest sitcom to emerge from the trenches before being mowed down by gunfire before it had a chance to fight back. I'm not going to defend The Persuasionists per se. A post-mortem is useful though, which I will come to in a moment. But in one sense, the audience have voted with their fingers. Episode 3 was only watched by 330,000 viewers, I believe. I recall a line in Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman, who explains the failure of his turkey movie The Year of the Comet. When the Box Office numbers came in, they simply said something like 'They don't want to watch your movie, Mr Goldman'.

But I'm minded to defend The Persuasionists as a valliant attempt at big silly comedy, simply because sitcoms are routinely given the most violent of kickings whilst they're on air, and then for many years after - regardless of their success, it seems.

For example, Ms Johnston says picks out The Persuasionists' "stilted dialogue, childish, laboured gags and excruciatingly unlikable, stereotypical characters" as if all of those things are intrinsically bad in comedy. Sometimes stitled dialogue is funny (like Moss in IT Crowd). Childish, laboured gags can work very well, as can excruciatingly unlikable (David Brent), stereotypical (Del Boy) characters. But we really have to do better than just point these things out and say "Why couldn't they have done a grown-up, nuanced, unpredictable comedy with Aaron-Sorkin-esque dialogue, since that would obviously work?" For a start Aaron Sorkin himself tried this on a sitcom called Sportsnight. The show was slick, clever and well-produced, but funny? Not so much. And secondly, big silly comedies are very popular and can work well, Black Books, The IT Crowd and Miranda being recent examples.

Merely describing the premise of a show is also not enough. Picking out Heil Honey, I'm Home as a bad idea for a show - whilst acknowledging the Producers pulled off a similar premise seems odd.

Slagging off shows like Two Pints of Lager (which is not a show to my personal taste) or Are you Being Served? seems bizarre to me - the latter show ran for 13 years, spawned numerous catchphrases and is fondly remember by many. To say "Are You Being Served? managed to deliver two jokes, neither of which were funny" is, at best, disingenuous. Ms Johnston has looked back and judged an 1970s/80s show by the standards of 2010 and, unsurprisingly, found it wanting - even though it delivered much joy at the time and even though David Croft was responsible for hundreds of episodes of sitcom that were gladly received by the British public at large (Dad's Army, Allo Allo, You Rang M'Lord etc)>. It is entirely fair to pick out Come Back, Mrs Noah as a notable flop, but why did it flop? That's what I'm interested in finding out.

What is my point? I'd just like to raise the quality of the debate. Why do some shows work and others not work? What is it about comedy - and audience comedy in particular - that sets it apart from normal criticism?

There are two main reasons that come to mind. The first is that comedy is so personal. It's a wonderful thing to laugh, and when you connect with characters, when you identify with themes, situations and ideas, and when the joke arrives perfectly formed, it's funny and joyous. But when it doesn't, it's unfunny and painful. And the sound of laughter - other people getting a joke that you don't get, or dislike - is irritating. It's like they're all in on a joke and you're not. A number of times, I've read critics write that they simply don't understand why the studio audience were laughing. Myths about canned laughter still circulate. It seems that people seem reluctant to acknowledge that we all laugh at slightly different things.

The difference is particularly marked if there is a moral dimension to this. Are You Being Served is of it's time and broad - when attitudes to woman and homosexuals were very different. There's the jokes about Mrs Slocombe's pussy or John Inman are, to many today, distasteful (perhaps because they haven't been told in a sufficiently ironic way to allow us to laugh at them). In the process, comedy that seems unfunny also seems, to the unamused viewer, morally defective - and then the hackles rise and criticism gets more and more vicious.

The second factor is that comedy is designed to illicit laughter. A comedy which fails to amuse has categorically failed - and can therefore be written off. The fact that it has amused others seems to be of little consequence as the knives are sharpened and people trot out the usual comments like 'That's half an hour I'll never get back', 'Worst sitcom since [insert previous failed sitcom]' or 'How does this stuff even get commissioned? Do the BBC actually hate us?' etc...

To analyse a comedy that fails to amuse, then, is difficult work. It requires empathy, imagination and a serious engagement of critical faculties - in a way that isn't terribly amusing. It's probably more akin to investigating and air-crash or a crime-scene. But that is what I'm interested in - partly because I should be, shouldn't I? I'm a sitcom writer? I have been for about ten years. I should be curious. I'm just surprised that lots of other people involved in the industry are not equally curious, and seem to be satisfied with explanations of failure like "Bad script, stereotypical characters and scenarios that just aren't true to life" - when plenty of shows survive with poor scripts, some of which have stereotypical characters and some extraordinary scenarios.

I started out my comedy career writing a sitcom called Think the Unthinkable. Ryan, splendidly played by Marcus Brigstocke, would say that mistakes are opportunities. Annoying, but true. We learn more by failure than success. Which is just as well because I fail far more often than I success - you see? I just did a typo. I really should learn to be more careful. So we need to work out a way of embracing failure, picking through the wreckage, learning and moving on. That's my plan, anyway.

Friday 5 February 2010

Links and stuff

If you like this blog - or at least the idea of it - you should also check out Ken Levine's blog. He's a very experienced American sitcom writer, as well as the writer of one of my favourite obscure Tom Hanks films, Volunteers. (Remember Ton Hanks before he was a proper actor? Happy days...) Anyway, his posts are about a number of media related things, but when he's on sitcom, he obviously really knows what he's talking about. Naturally, it's all American-sweked, but lots to learn and think about. Have a look here.

I also recommend listening to Martini Shot, a weekly 3-4 minute podcast by Rob Long, author of the wonderful Conversations with My Agent (essential reading (seriously)). Get listening by following links from here or finding him on iTunes.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Classic British BBC Self-Forgetfulness

In the Loop is a movie based on a humble low-budget single-camera BBC sitcom called The Thick of It. It's a bit of a hidden national treasure. I have just witnessed proof of its hidden-ness. I watched the nominations read out live on BBC News 24 - including In the Loop's nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Mark Kermode was talking about the it afterwards with a news anchor lady. They talked for a full fifteen minutes about everything and everyone who was nominated, without once even mentioning In the Loop. Then the cut to the weather and then into the news headlines on the hour. Bafflingly self-deprecating (or forgetful) BBC. Auntie Beeb - you have spawned an Oscar (thanks to some splendid British writers called Ianucci, Blackwell, Roche and Armstrong). Rejoice!

Monday 1 February 2010

Where Do Comedians Go When They Die?

I have to declare an interest here since I have written lots of lots of radio shows with Milton Jones, but he has written a rather splendid book called Where Do Comedians Go When They Die? It describes what it's like to be a stand-up comedian, juggling with anti-social working hours, thinking up jokes at the wrong time, trying to get opportunities on TV and simply surviving the circuit. The work is fiction, but based on real experiences and true stories. It's about a comedian called Jerome Stevens and many comedians, I've heard, have been reading it. If you're interested in comedy, and what it's like to think like a comedian, I heartily recommend it.