Tuesday 24 August 2010

Do People Really Talk Like That?

It's a question worth asking yourself all the time as you write. Do people really talk like that? There are plenty of moments where, if you're honest with yourself, someone has only really said something in a certain way in order to provide the set-up for a joke.

A stand-out example of this for me was the much un-loved Frank Skinner sit-com Shane. I watched an episode a year or so ago and rather enjoyed it. The only bit that diminished my enjoyment was that Frank Skinner had almost all of the jokes and that everyone else had feed-lines. On top of this, the feed lines didn't always sound right or natural, which telegraphed the fact that a joke was on the way and therefore spoiled the joke (and also made one aware that the whole programme is a conceit, which is not something you want to remind your audience of). Sometimes it's hard to avoid a clunky set-up line, especially when the joke you have in mind is a real cracker. But the skill of the writer is to make the dialogue sound real, or natural, or at least real enough.

When The Office came out, the critics and the industry went wild. Here was 'real' dialogue. This is true. The dialogue did sound real (although let's not forget that the character add times spoke directly to camera, in a documentary, and the they played fairly fast and loose with the docu-format).

The Office was truly brilliant as a non-audience show. (Critics then, bless them, returned to studio sitcoms and slammed them for being contrived or fake or silly, when, as I often say on this blog, the audience do realise it's a contrivance and they're okay with that). The Office, though, had an effect though on other writers, who wanted to write dialogue like the dialogue in The Office, and number of other shows, mostly forgotten, came and went that focussed on awkward silences and ennui. Spaced was another groundbreaking show that inspired another generation of writers, and created 'a way of talking'. Let's not forget Peep Show and The Thick of It.

Likewise, monstrously successful shows like Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld have almost created a 'way of talking' that really trips of the tongue and gives a show a feeling of pace. This is fine - if you're an American writer and writing for American audiences. But sometimes this kind of wise-cracking talking finds it way into British comedy.

The reason I mention this is because one or two shows recently - and the odd movie - have felt very unreal to me because of the dialogue and 'way of talking'. It's as if the writers were writing a show that were designed to sound like other shows. It's impossible to tell whether this is intentional - either because the writer in question is writing that way because he/she thinks the audience will like it, or because he/they likes it and it sounds good, or because he/we don't realise we're doing it.

The example that made me shout at my television the most was a movie on TV called Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel - directed by a good comedy director and had funny actors in it. But it felt like the script was half-way between Hitchhikers and Hot Fuzz. That sounds like a good place to be - but it was just that and only that. It was only influences. I didn't believe any of the characters, or the set-up - and this was highlighted by the fact that people in real life just don't talk like that. What's more, the Hot Fuzz area is dangerous because it is a movie heavily influenced by other movies.

Screenwriters need to know how real people talk and write concise and characterful dialogue in that style. If you spend your life watching movies and TV, and TV influenced by movies, and movies influenced by TV, you'll end up trapped in an unreal life that doesn't connect with reality. Decent writing is about truth. If there's no ring of truth - in situation, character or dialogue - it's just someone talking cliche's or secondhand speech. If you're doing that, stop writing now and get a part-time job, get married and have a child, go into politics or just do something that isn't about TV.

Grandma's House, Roger and Val Have Just Got In, The Great Outdoors, - three brand new BBC comedies inexplicably premiered over July/August - do not fall into this trap, I'm pleased to say. Nor did Rev earlier this summer. In all those programmes, the characters feel real - like they are based on truth, not based on something based on truth. And truth, not wisecracks or contrived 'sexual chemistry', ultimately, is what keeps people watching.

Friday 13 August 2010

Happy Tuesdays: Mr and Mrs Smith

I listened to Will Smith's Mr and Mrs Smith the other day - part of the Happy Tuesdays season of pilots on Radio 4. It was a show about a married couple undergoing counselling, and starred Will Smith and Sarah Hadland.

I rather liked it. In fact, I like it a lot.

Why? Here is one reason. There were lots of jokes in it - making me and the studio audience laugh. I like it when that happens. It seems strange to point this out, but there are some comedies out there with scant few jokes in, both on radio and television. It's not that these comedy have lots of jokes that are lame, or misfiring or don't work. It's just that there aren't any in the first place - and yet the show can still be billed as comedy. Which is odd.

If you follow me on Twitter (do so here), you will have seen my mild disappointment with Roger and Val Have Just Go In - which appeared to be a well-cast, well-directed comedy, but one without any jokes in. After 7 minutes, I tweeted that I would be requiring a joke soon. And after 15 minutes, I tweeted that I was going to bed. Which I did. My problem was not that the show wasn't any good. It's just that it wasn't trying to make me laugh out loud with jokes.

It struck me that this is tantamount to making pornography but not including any sex scenes. Now, one could argue that there are much subtler ways of creating the same erotic effect - and that the most sexually charged films do not need to contain sex or nudity but that's not the main reason people buy pornography, I don't think.

Lots of people have tweeted how marvellous they thought Roger and Val was, and that it was clever and subtle and warm et al. And that it was very funny and made them laugh out loud. So clearly, I have more mainstream preferences. (eg I'd take Seinfeld over Curb any day.) I'm pleased that the show is finding an audience, and that the BBC are not trying to sell a pup. They've made something that really connects with people. Well done, Beeb. I just wanted to laugh. And found the show wasn't interested in making me do so all that often. So I went to bed.

Mr and Mrs Smith, on the other, made me laugh out loud plenty of times. From the moment Will started quibbling about the cost of the session and the lost minutes, a refund, and then working it out on the calculator on his phone, I knew I was going to enjoy it.

But the show was more than a succession of jokes (as if that were easy to do anyway). The characters inter-played well - or at least disappointed each other again and again. The format of the characters explaining it, and cutting in to actually hear the event being explained, worked. It can be muddling, but I was never in doubt as to what I was listening to - which always fights comedy. (Confusion is the enemy) There were plenty of call-backs and running jokes too and overall it didn't feel like any lines were wasted. Every line delivered in terms of being a joke, revealing character or advancing the plot - and many did more than one of those things.

If I had one suggestion for the show, should it be commissioned for a thoroughly merited series, I would make a plea to warm up the central characters a little. This doesn't mean making them 'likeable', but making their failings and foibles more forgivable. Will Smith's character throughout the show was worried about getting back in time to see Avatar with his lifelong best friend. This was funny and he wouldn't give up on it, so provided a really good distraction and quest for him, that was fighting the romantic weekend at every turn. It's just his desire to sacrifice romance for his friend seemed a little unreasonable and hard to forgive. It might have been better if these was some extra reason why he had to see Avatar with his friend on that particular day - something stemming back to a poignant moment in childhood or adolescence. It could have served the plot well in demonstrating how Will's character is unable or unwilling to let go of the uncomplicated life of being a single man. I'd also say that his job as a would-be novelist is also a little self-indulgence and needs some sort of redemption.

But all of these changes are just a minor adjustment in detail and tone. There's a lovely show here that's properly funny. And it'll be even funnier if we care even more about Mr and Mrs Smith. More please, Radio 4.

Friday 6 August 2010

Less is More in The Great Outdoors

Comedy writing is hard. Sometimes it looks hard and complicated and watching it is intimidating. Non-audience shows particularly can be fast and complex, especially narrated ones (eg. Scrubs and Arrested Development) Plots interweave and we jump from place to place and scene to scene, often just for one single joke. The jokes are finely chiselled, the set-piece scenes well-choreographed and beautifully shot. And it looks difficult and expensive.

Comedy writing is also hard because it can look so easy - especially the comedy that's filmed in front of an audience, where the scenes are longer, the pace is a little slower and it looks a lot like people sitting around and talking. What's the problem?

I am reminded of that line in Seinfeld when George, with no writing experience, talks about writing their show about nothing and he says something along the lines of 'How hard can it be? We're talking about a sitcom here?' That is one of those jokes that funny for different people for different reasons. The audience laugh because George is being disparaging about the form of the show he is in. The writers are laughing because George has no idea how incredibly difficult writing a simple-looking sitcom really is.

I mention this because I've just seen the first two episodes of The Great Outdoors (ep 2 here) which has been tucked away on BBC Four as part of some Outdoors season. It's about a small and dysfunctional rambling club - and they go on a ramble. Each episode starts at the beginning of the walk - and they walk and talk and do stuff. Looks easy. That's why it's good. It's no effort to watch. On both occasions, the first time I looked at my watch out, at least 25 minutes had gone.

Now, why was I looking at my watch? It wasn't boredom. The writer in me was thinking 'how long have they got to wrap this story up'? What interests me is that they stories aren't really wrapped up at all. In one sense, it's because there's a series arc of sorts. But in another sense, it doesn't really matter anyway. Not in sitcoms. Writers, producers, exec producers and directors get into a real tangle over this and I often find myself alone on this one. 'The room' often says 'But what about the unpaid invoice?' or 'How do they get back to shore?' or 'If he breaks his arm, shouldn't we see him in a few weeks so that we know he's all better'. My response is usually along the lines of 'The audience won't care'. The neatness of the ending is often irrelevant. Apart from anything else the audience, yes the smart audience, realise it's a sitcom and that we start from the same position next week as we did this week. If the kitchen has been burned to the ground, it'll be as good as new - well, as good as last week - next week.

Sometimes, endings do matter. In films, the ending is everything - because the protagonists go on a journey. They learn. They change. They end up in a different place from where they started. But in sitcom, they don't learn, they don't change and the end up back where they started. Sitcoms are about the journey. Films are about the destination.

And so, when your hero triumphs or fails, the show is over. So end it. The moment your show has climaxed, and the big emotional moment has been done, you've got about ninety seconds to wrap it up before the audience is bored, looking at its watch and wondering what's on next. You can probably forget about you hero's parking ticket, or weight gain, or broken toe. You can certainly forget about the peripheral characters' destroyed briefcase, ruined party or misplaced visa. Because it's not about those things, and never was. The audience knows that all will be well - and should be back next week for the same again.

That's why I've been enjoying going on a journey with the ramblers in The Great Outdoors. What is the destination? I don't really care. I'm really enjoying the journey.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Passion, People and Money

One of the best articles I've read about how to make your way in the creative industries is by a banjo player called Danny Barnes. He has written a long piece about making a living through one's music here. It is well worth reading in full and translating to the craft of writing. Naturally, some of it doesn't apply, in particular the stuff about performing live and doing gigs. But the overall tone is interesting. It is laid-back, self-assured and calm. If I may paraphrase, his advice can be boiled down to this: Work out what your art is, and then pursue it. Make sure you work with good people. Get rid of bad people or phonies. If you can see trouble ahead, avoid it. Do your taxes properly. Get a job. And stop whining. It's not about you.

There is much to be learned from all of this. And my recent experiences have chimed with them too. Let's focus on three things. Passion, people and money.

1. Passion - it is essential to be passionate about your project, or story, or character. If you're not, writing it will be an impossibly hard slog. It's hard enough to write a half hour script of a sitcom you are completely in love with. To do that for a show that you're ambivalent about is soul-crushing. Passion is essential. Ditch the project and ideas that you're not passionate about. They might be good ideas, or clever ideas, or even original ideas, but don't bother with them. I remember once developing a sitcom idea into something that seemed original and possibly interesting for a TV Commissioner - but it didn't interest me at all. So I left it. Good move.

I was once asked to come up with a TV movie that fulfilled about seven different criteria for a notable transatlantic media company. I came up with one that ticked all of the boxes and was quite interesting, although the constraints of the media company limited it, I felt. Eventually I ended up on a conference call and we were all discussing an 8-page treatment of the idea, but eventually they said 'We're all about passion at [transatlantic media company]. We just don't feel you're passionate about this story'. This is both a dumb and a sensible thing to say. I wouldn't have come up with the idea without their preposterously long list of requirements. And yet there were right that I wasn't passionate about it. So it was best that we all walked away from it and, yet again, I had done days and days of work on the promise of money that never materialise but these things happen. It could have been worse. I could currently be banging my head against a wall trying to rewrite the third act of a TV movie I never really liked in the first place.

Passion is essential, or it's just too hard. Writing it is too hard, and getting through the commissioning process without sticking your head into a gas oven is impossible without passion.

2. The other thing I've been realising is how important it is to work with good people. In fact, if you work with good people, work barely seems like work at all. It's good fun. Plus these good people make your work better. It may mean having to turn down a better offer so that you can work with the people who really understand you and the project. It may just be walking away from people that you're just not at all excited about working with. These decisions normally prove to be the right ones to make. If at all possible, avoid working with people that get on your nerves, or just don't seem to get what you do.

3. Money follows (1) and (2). You need passion to get a project written and off the ground. You need good people to get the project to be any good. If what you do is any good, money will turn up sooner or later because most TV and the vast majority of movies aren't any good. The fact is that if you're a writer, you will write. No-one will be able to stop you. And nothing else will matter to you. Getting paid is great. And is essential every now and then. But the money is always secondary to the project - or at least it should be. If you're a writer, money is something you need to help you write - like a decent word-processor, a chair and some drinkable coffee. So get passionate about that story, find the people to bring that story to life and sit down and write it.