Thursday 13 May 2010

My Advice: Take Advice

The problem is with comedy - or one of the problems - is that everyone has an opinion. Because our great sitcoms are cherished so deeply, and our sitcom heroes are national icons, everyone feels that they can 'give notes'. This is a good and bad thing. Mainly bad.

When you're starting out, you get friends to read the scripts, because they're the people you know. But TV scripts are hard to read. It's not like reading a novel. Scripts are in an unfamiliar format and unless you do it regularly, it's hard to know what you're looking for. It's even harder to pinpoint why a script doesn't work. And let's face it - if it's your first script it probably doesn't work. (Most first draft of any script don't really work, no matter how experienced you are) Then, there's the business of honest feedback. Is a friend really going to give you that? And if they do, will they even be right?

Once you progress from the bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed stage and end up in the bleary-eyed-and-cynical stage, it can be easy to treat all notes and feedback as an imposition, or as stupid, ill-conceived or predictable. There are lots of stories by writers like Rob Long who extract great comedy from the notes on scripts they are given by network executives who've never actually made a show of their own, and always want the show to be bland or resemble their last hit show or whatever.

But one might be making a mistake if one treats this is as the norm. Just as it's a mistake to treat all advice as equally good, it's just as much a mistake to treat it all as equally bad. Once writers get a bit of success and begin to progress, they/we start to think they really know what's going on and how to write and that no-one can improve on their script but them.

It's worth remembering that the path to success is not pursuing one's own creative vision without listening to advice - but listening to the right advicel listening to advice that makes your work better. And we should take such advice from wherever it comes.

I was reminded of this the other day when I had a meeting with someone fairly important in comedy at a major broadcasting corporation. Before the meeting, I braced myself for some comment or note that would either indicate the executive wanted to turn the show into a different show (one that I really didn't want to write) or that he would make a comment that I would have to take on board that would make the show worse in some way. Or worse, he would betray the fact that he hadn't even read the script.

But my prejudice was ill-founded. The humble exec in question kept himself to making one very good overall point about my script, and explained why he thought what he thought. And I had to admit to myself - "Darn it, you're right". Of course I'd be an idiot to ignore his advice because he's important and I want the show to progress and I kind of have to do what he says. But in actual fact, I should do what he's says because he's correct, and if I do it, the show will be better and an improved version of the show I'd like to write.

It pays to listen to advice. It takes discernment and experience to sift out good advice from bad, but when you find a good piece of advice, don't be too stubborn to take it.

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