Tuesday 30 March 2010

Getting your script read

There may be some folk reading this blog who wonder just what happens when they send their script to the BBC. Here's what, according to BBC Writers Room.

Naturally the BBC need a system to cope with the thousands of scripts they are sent everywhere. Being a licence funded system, there has to be transparency, feedback and all that.

My advice would be to send your work to a producer who makes programmes that you like. Actually like. Not pretend to like. Someone that you think would 'get' what you're doing. (If that producer is Armando Ianucci or Chris Morris, I wouldn't bother. They're pretty busy.) But take a show you like, find the producer's name at the end, and send it to them, with a covering letter (correctly spelled and politely written) and show that you appreciate your work and that they might possibly appreciate yours. They have to be fairly hard hearted to toss your script in the bin without looking (as is their right).

Then all you have to do then is make sure the first five pages are sparkling and really demonstrate what the show is and why its funny. Not just people saying funny things. Characters being funny. Then make sure the rest is also funny, well put-together and original.

If there is the smallest shred if talent there, they may well invite you in for a meeting. My advice then is: Turn up and don't be weird. The odds are you'll end up putting the script you've written to one side for a variety of reason, but you know have a link, and it's a start. I think that's more likely to succeed than lobbing your script onto a pile of 7000 other scripts. But the choice, of course, is yours.

Friday 26 March 2010

The Sound of Laughter

My friend Dan alerted me to yet another ill-conceived piece of journalism about comedy, this time on the Guardian blog here. Why a decent publication like the Guardian sees fit to give e-space to a poorly argued piece of opinion (which amounts to "I hate the sound of human laughter") is rather bewildering.

The blogger somewhat shows his hand when he describes one of the most successful and acclaimed comedies of all time, Friends, as a "a production-line comedy". Friends was not as overtly quirky as Seinfeld, but to imply Friends was merely churned out is a serious misjudgment. He suggests that Blackadder and Frasier would be better with the laugh-track taken off. Richard Curtis must be kicking himself as it seems so obvious where he went wrong. Thanks blogger, we'll re-call and re-cut all the DVDs.

The comments underneath the article are, as you would hope, better informed and less prejudiced. Newmediamark helpfully guides us to David Baddiel's more thoughtful piece in The Times from Nov 09 here quoting this bit:

The reason critics don't like sitcoms shot in front of audiences is that it takes away their power. A theatre critic who hates a play that the rest of the audience loved can always tell you it bombed; but a TV critic cannot say that about a sitcom that is storming it. Which leaves him or her with two choices - be sneering about the response of the audience (always a trifle unlovely) or assume it's canned. Which - have I said this before? - it won't be.

I would add to this that reviewing TV is a lonely business, and attracts people who are happy to spend lots of time alone watching television. An audience laughter track implies that a whole bunch of people are having a good time, which some people find alienating or annoying, especially if they are all laughing at jokes that don't seem all that funny. Audience comedy has a 'togetherness' to it that some find irritating, tacky, corny or naff, and are therefore predisposed to like the so-called laugh track.

One can only commend the likes of AA Gill who is at least honest about the prejudice behind his loathing of audience laughter - and laughing out loud in general. I shall never forget his review of Jack Dee's Lead Balloon in the Sunday Times in October 2006, which said this:

This series is part of a new trend of comedy shows that don't make you laugh; you just nod your head and mutter, "That's really funny." It's a Darwinian improvement on the tyranny of the set-up-gag guffaw, and I approve of it. Laughter is ugly and common.

Given his hatred of the physical act of laughing, turning to him for fair criticism of comedy is rather like asking a vicar for reviews of pornography - don't bother asking because he thinks the whole thing is disgusting.

Some comedy/tv critics could simply not be any further away from the sentiments of their readers. Some are merely interested in demonstrating that they would write a much better, wittier, cleverer a comedy if only they had the time and the opportunity. It's all rather sad - a form of bullying, in essence - and it makes the job of producing decent, popular comedy even harder than it already is. Still we continue to try.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Hearing Voices

There's a new comedy on Radio 4 called Party, by Tom Basden (aka one of the Cowards). It's a sitcom based on a play that he wrote about young idealists trying to set up their own party. There are lots of good things about it - not least some lovely jokes and decent routines, which make things move along nicely. It was only ten minutes in I realised that we were still on the opening scene - and it didn't stop. So Mr Basden has successfully written half an hour of realtime radio comedy, which is very impressive and something I've never managed to do, try as I might.

It also managed to be a comedy about self-defeating party politics without making me think of the Judaean People's Front - which looms large over all material like this.

But here's the boring nitpicky mechnical bit (and the reason for the very existence of this blog - we don't just come to praise or criticise but to think and learn): I really didn't know who anyone was for the whole episode. I heard five voices (I think) and those voices said stuff that was funny, as I've said, but I didn't really know who they were, and therefore why they were saying it - which diminished things somewhat. After all, if most comedy is character, and we are robbed of character, we are not left with an awful lot. It meant that the show had a high hit-rate of jokaes that stood in their own right - but could have been so much funnier if they had a real 'voice'.

Radio is wonderful medium. It's a wonderfully freeing medium in so many ways - but here's one of the constrictions. There has to be clear water between the voices and the characters, or it blends into one. It can make writing radio scripts harder since certain accents lend themselves to certain attitudes and jokes which may need to be unpicked or sidestepped. If one places one Scot in a room of Englishmen, it needs to be addressed in some way - because the audience is expecting itwhether you do or not. So best thing is to address the 'scottishness' in this case, get over it and move on, and you have a contrasting voice that will make your life easier in the long run, not harder.

I imagine that since the show is based on an Edinburgh comedy play in which various folk were invited to take part for no money over the course of a few weeks you don't think about the mix of voices as you might. So when it transferred to radio, the idea of reliquishing even one of those actors was just too much to bear. It's completely understandable, since the cast are all individually terrific with plenty of comedy credentials - but as it stood, it can be very confusing for the listener (and as we know, confusion is the enemy of comedy) and it stopped this well-written radio comedy from being an really excellent piece of radio.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Life of Riley

Georgia Pritchett, writer of BBC1 sitcom Life of Riley, writes about the family sitcom here. She cites Roseanne as an inspiration, a show I was thinking about the other day. Georgia says:
Not only was it funny, I totally believed in the characters. I believed Dan and Roseanne were married, I believed Becky, Darlene and DJ were their children, it all seemed very real. And it all seemed very honest.

I must have spent many days of my life watching Roseanne, which was on Channel 4 when I was growing up - in fact, I grew up with it (along with Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years). It's where comedy almost tips over into soap opera - because you are so involved in every part of the characters lives.

All that said, I didn't see Roseanne to the end - partly because my viewing habits and tastes changed, and partly because Roseanne seemed to change too. I seem to remember it got rather angry and shouty. (And did they win the lottery, or did I imagine that?) I'm sure there's a blog post in how to sustain a series of 200+ episodes but that is something that most of us will never really have to worry about...

Monday 8 March 2010

Having Rhythm

I've been a little under the weather recently and have been watching a little more TV than usual. One of the programmes was one of the dozens of 'How funny Britain used to be' documentaries that all the networks find more appealing to make (rather than commissioning actual new comedy). The show in question was a Heroes of Comedy about Max Miller - the 'cheeky chappie' and the highest paid comedian of his day. To give you an idea of what he was like, think Paul Whitehouse's slightly uncharitable parody Arthur 'Where's me washboard?' Atkinson.

To give you an idea of the age of the Heroes of Comedy documentary, they were interviewing Bob Monkhouse about him - and the last episode about Les Dawson contained an interview with Dave Allen. We're going back a little. But one of the comedians being interviewed was a young-ish Victoria Wood. She pointed out how much of his jokes and patter were about the delivery - and how much comedy is about presentation and rhythm.

I think she overstated it a little when she suggested that the material itself was almost irrelevant, although I can see what she means. In this case, I was watching Max Miller and I didn't find it funny at all, since he inhabited a different world. Also, he was such a quintessentially live comedian and of his time, it would be odd if me, a thirty something in 2010 found it hilarious. His comedy isn't timeless - it's of its time. And all the better for it. One can easily see how he was the must-have act of every variety bill. Bizarrely, though, the same rhythm makes Paul Whitehouse's Arthur Atkinson funny. The lines themselves aren't funny, but they sound funny. Extraordinary.

It's easy to eschew this form of stagecraft or writing - but it's all part of the most basic of comedy skills - timing. I've noticed the more I write, and rewrite, the more I feel I know what the funny line should 'sound like', or how it should bounce. It's not just about getting the funny word at the end. It's getting there with a hop, skip and a jump. Sometimes, I get the rhythm before I think of the joke. Sometimes I can't think of a joke to fit the right rhythm, so I sit there until I do. Or I redo the set-up and give myself a chance of thinking of a joke with a different rhythm.

Rhythm makes comedy seem effortless and 'right'. It can cover a multitude of sins, which isn't always a bad thing, but it means that if it's well-crafted, it stands a chance and is more than simply people talking. Again, critics of the sitcom would point to the fact that it makes dialogue even more unrealistic. People don't talk like that. But it's sitcom. It's a contrivance. It's a play. Things are compressed and speeded up. Details melt away and we get to the funny stuff.

One of the great comedy shows of all time for me was The Phil Silvers Show aka Bilko, which I watched on repeats growing up and have seen subsequently and now own on DVD. It's brilliant. Phil Silvers is a force of nature. Bilko is a truly wonderful creation. The rest of the cast can't act to save their lives. It's ham as you like. But wow, the way Bilko talks. The patterns of speech, the gabbling, the escalations, the tickings-off, the flattery, the calls to attention - it's a masterclass in how lines can be written and delivered. And because of the situation, and the storylines are about people, they are not timely, but timeless. Oh, and very funny. And ultimately, that's what it's about, isn't it?

Thursday 4 March 2010

Not Liking Audience Comedy

Liam Mullan doesn't like studio audience comedy. He explains why over on Chortle here. He is, of course, perfectly entitled to his opinion - which is, I would argue, based on preference, not argument. I don't propose to take issue with everything he says, but one sentence strikes me as interesting and revealing. He says:

I previously wrote a piece for Chortle that after Seinfeld the three-wall/three-camera sitcom had been essentially perfected as an art form, at least in the American tradition...

There is no doubt that comedy is an art, and that situation comedy is an art form - albeit a bizarrely contrived one, but then it's not much more artificial than the theatre or an exhibition of sculpture. The contrivance is part of it. We all know that life isn't like that, and that most of us live in more realistic homes. But what interested me the most is that Mr Mullan seems to think that once someone's cracked it we all applaud, give up, go home and try something else. I'm relieved that painters didn't hang up their palette's when Van Gogh cranked out his set of Sunflowers. It's good that playwrights didn't stop scribbling once they'd seen Hamlet - and I'm glad that Shakespeare kept bashing on too, even though Timon of Athens isn't wonderful and King Lear has a very dodgy ending.

Comedy is an art - but no art is definitive, surely? Some is iconic, certainly. I agree that Seinfeld is almost perfect, and I cherish my boxed sets. But that encourages me to keep going with audience sitcom, not give up. When I flick on the TV first thing, and Frasier is on Channel 4, part of me has a pang of 'I'll never do anything that good' but the other part of me says 'Have you really tried?' Now I know Mr Mullan is not saying that there is no point in trying in so many words. He says:

That does not mean I believe it has been mastered in the UK or that it’s a genre no longer capable of offering high-quality entertainment.

But Mr Mullan seems to suggest the quest for the next studio sitcom hit will be a fruitless one (and the title of the piece, probably added by someone else, would suggest this genre has died anyway). And yet, the viewers at home are rather hoping that people like me - if not actually me specifically - will keep trying because audiences like studio sitcom. It's something that young comedians, some commissioners and a number of producers and critics find hard to accept. They like a highly condensed comedy format in which characters try and fail in an amusing way but things draw neatly to a conclusion after about 28 minutes. In fact, they like Everybody Loves Raymond (210 episodes) more than Arrested Development (53 Episodes) - which hardly seems fair, since Raymond is a fine family comedy show but Arrested Development is almost divinely inspired.

The reality is that millions of people like to watch funny people doing funny things in funny looking rooms whilst hearing a studio audience laughing like drains. And they get very cross when it's done badly because they care.

Mr Mullan dislikes this genre, as is his right, just as I dislike opera. We both wished this weren't so. Opera seems to be a wonderful thing if you're really into - people singing for hours with a vast live orchestra in massive costumes and ludicrous sets. Brilliant. What's not to like? But it just doesn't push my buttons. Shame. But to declare the genre died some years ago and that we didn't notice? Odd. Likewise, Father Ted is not the end. It's a high-water mark certainly, and sometimes the tide gets close and one day a wave will come along and be even higher. If I haven't written it, then I at least hope to be alive to see it and we can all laugh together. (Too schmaltzy? Maybe. What the heck. I like audience comedy.)