Tuesday 23 November 2010

A Monopoly on Comedy - and Character

Episode 3 of Hut 33 is called ‘Yellow’ (at time of writing being here). And it starts with one my favourite scenes of the series. It throws the character into a simple game of Monopoly.

Our regular three characters, Archie, Gordon and Charles, plus Mrs Best, play this relatively new game and it should be no big deal. But it’s a great opportunity to express character, prejudice, snobbery and general anger. It was useful to the plot of that episode because it highlighted what a terrible Christmas they were having. And therefore the prospect of having to spend New Year’s Eve together in Quarantine would simply too much to bear. (This is what happens by the way. They are Quarantined with suspected Yellow Fever, which gives rise to tunnelling and escape plans.) In the first scene, though, the game of monopoly turns into a large political dispute about the ownership of property which was true to the characters. And the audience seemed to enjoy it – because they were starting to know the characters as well as I did.

In essence, one of the main tricks of sitcom is taking characters out of their comfort zone – without it seeming contrived or ridiculous. (It’s up to you to decide whether I’ve been successful in that.)

Mistakes in Writing Sitcom
Along the way, then, we can note that this is an area where many first-time writers fall down. New writers are tempted to make their characters sit around and say ‘funny things’ rather than get up, move around and ‘be’ funny. Witty characters swapping jokes and witticisms is okay for three pages – Hut 33 attempts to have our characters in the Hut for the first three or four pages talking about stuff to set up the episode and reintroduce the characters – but it doesn’t sustain for forty pages, which is what you need. Plus, they're not swapping straight jokes but revealing amusing character traits.

It's a good test of how well you know your characters. When I was setting up Think the Unthinkable, I tried to work out what sort of coffee each of the characters would order at Starbucks. I didn't actually have them order coffee in Starbucks until Series 3, I think, but you need to know everything about your characters, or at least be able to work it out. Where do they shop? What newspaper do the read, if any? How would they go about organising a hen/stage night? What would happen if they woke up in Narnia or Alice's Wonderland?

This is why my current practice is to think up storylines quite early in setting up a new sitcom. Once I have my characters in some rough shape or another - sometimes it only needs three adjectives - it's worth thinking up scenarios, scenes and sketches, and then combining these characters with other characters in the show. After some time spend doing this, one often finds that one character has nothing to say, or little to add, or just isn't very funny. This character is normally expendable. If your show is focussed around this character, you've got a problem (and no show).

Ban Backstory
Doing this also avoids falling into the trap of backstory and background which is often irrelevant. You have no hope of conveying in a script and is therefore pointless. Characters need to be straining forwards, not harking back (unless their main characteristic is being nostalgic/reactionary). Remember, what did Geraldine do before she became the Vicar of Dibley? We don't know. We never really find out. Only very late on do we meet one or two people from her past. What drives our characters forward in any given situation? That's what we all need to know for all our characters.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

A Busload of Quakers

‘Pigs n Spivs’ is the title of Ep 2 of series 2 of Hut 33 (now on iPlayer here) I'm not convinced this is the best title,since it implies that there is more than one pig and one spiv in the episode, when there isn’t. There is one spiv who sells our starving codebreakers a job-lot of bacon. Which is still in pig form. Unfortunately, they discover the origins of this pig and could be in serious trouble.

The difficulty in writing Hut 33 is always finding our characters things to do that the audience can understand, since they don't really have a hope of comprehending the actual codebreaking part of their work. I've read several books on the subject and I struggle to retain the necessary information in my head simultaneously to put it all together. The chance of doing this and getting laughs is almost impossible. Episodes about codebreaking in Hut 33 are fairly rare.

This is why the theme of Pigs and Spivs is shortages and hunger. It's something that we can all identify with and get our heads around. Food was in short supply for the whole war and an unpleasant reality for all but the wealthiest. World War Two ration were meagre. Most of us today could eat their weekly ration in a day. So it's good to keep coming back to that.

Quakers, Baptists and Jokes

There is one other point of minor interest on this episode. Hopefully my explanation of it will give a small insight into how you sometimes make a joke fit the context. I spotted a comment on someone’s blog about Hut 33. (Clearly during the original Radio 4 transmission of Hut 33, I’m regularly googled ‘Hut 33’ in order to find out what people think of it). This blogger, a wife of a Baptist minister, blogged about her irritation that the writer of Hut 33 seemed ignorant of certain religious groups and their drinking habits. This is particularly poignant as I am not ignorant of certain religious groups, since I cheerfully belong to one myself (yes, I'm a Christian. There. I've said it) and I studied theology at University, so I know a bit about all this stuff.

The joke in question is Archie’s joke in response to his discovery that the pub has completely run out of alcohol. He says “So we’re now standing in the world’s first teetotal pub. We expecting a bus-load of Quakers?”

The audience, as I hope, laughed at this joke. But, in a sense they were wrong to. The blog pointed out that it is Methodists that refrain from drinking, not Quakers. I knew that. Honestly, I did. But I chose Quakers for the joke because I knew it would work. Why?

Shared Knowledge
Comedy relies on shared knowledge and simplicity. If the audience have to think about a joke for too long, or are unsure about any part of it, they can’t laugh. And they don’t laugh. Simplicity and clarity is everything. This partly explains why people get upset about stereotypes. They are a reality in comedy because it relies about compressing information and leaving plenty of things unsaid. (eg. Cab drivers are racist. Builders are Polish. Rich people are dim. In fact, when one breaks a stereotype, that in itself can be the starting point for a sitcom eg. one of the first women vicars in The Vicar of Dibley. The joke was, at the start, 'it's a woman! And not a man! You know, like a normal vicar would be.' I over-simplify naturally. But that's stereotyping for you.)

In this case, I chose Quakers because I’m not sure how widely know it is that its Methodists don’t drink. It’s also the case that many Baptists don’t drink either. How widely known is that? Less so now than before. I judged that the audience would have no problem believing that Quakers don’t drink – partly because in my mind there seems to be some kind of overlap between Quakers, Puritans and the Amish, at least in terms of their public perception. In reality there are vast differences between these groups of Christian believers. The puritans in particular were a remarkable bunch of Christian folk who were nothing like the the adjective named after them - 'puritanical'.

Returning to the joke in question, we have to bear in min that this was a joke for 2008. So I chose Quaker. Even though the joke is set in 1941, when the vast majority would have been clear that Methodists don’t drink.

Add to the equation the fact that characters are the creations of writers – and do not represent the views of the writer, or share their factual knowledge. So Archie, Charles and the team, and especially Josh, say plenty of things that are wrong, or grammatically incorrect. They hold religious, social and political views that I do not. It seems obvious to point this out, but occasionally one needs to.

Incidentally, the Quaker website says:

One testimony that Quakers have had to give careful thought to is our testimony on moderation. In the nineteenth century Quakers saw the bad effects that drink and drunkenness had in society. Along with other Non-conformist Christians they campaigned against alcohol. Many Quakers were active in the Temperance Movement - a movement of people who "took the pledge" (promising that they would never drink alcohol) as a witness against the evils it caused.

So I wasn't that far off anyway, was I?

The tricky part is where joke reinforce stereotypes that are unfair, oppressive or nasty. There, my friends, we have to use a thing called judgement. And then your producer will probably thumb through the BBC Producers Handbook Guide (Vols 1-9) and then just delete the joke.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Guardian Guidelines

Sitcomgeek is pleased to have written for an institution as august as The Guardian - in the Guidelines section here. It's a breezy and facetious piece about the recipe for sitcom success including the following:

"Writing a sitcom is a black art. Like baking. But without scales. And in the dark. You do what you can, put it in the oven and hope to hell that it rises. If it doesn't, it will invariably be dreadful."

If you've just found this blog because of The Guardian article, hello. This is a blog about mainly British situation comedy - the nitty gritty and the tricks of the trade. The author's credentials are to your right. The idea is to keep things friendly. It's best not to assume that if something is popular that it is bad. Likewise, niche comedy isn't necessarily superior. Horses for courses. Don't be sneery.

You can follow sitcomgeek on Twitter here, which will keep you posted on new articles here, and developments in the British sitcom world. In the meantime, have a look around.

Monday 8 November 2010

The Inspector Episode

For a while, I wrote a blog about my radio sitcom, Hut 33. There is an blog post on there that pertains to this week's episode of Hut 33 that was on BBC7 on Sunday (and on iPlayer here). Here it is (with a few tweaks and changes).

The Royal Visitor - the blurb for Episode 1 of Series 2 of Hut 33 is as follows:
A royal visitor is coming to inspect Bletchley Park, but the top brass are worried that this particular royal is a Nazi sympathiser. Hut 33 has to delay him and make sure he doesn't see any of the code-breaking machines.

Since this blog is about the boring mechanics of situation comedy, allow me to fill you in on how and why this episode came together without, hopefully, deconstructing the whole thing into a joyless series of components - although if I do that, so be it.

The Inspection Episode
The 'inspection' episode is common sit-com device and also a very useful one. Characters are sent rushing around getting things ready. Cleaning, polishing and tidying. In the process, skeletons can be found in cupboards, difficult tasks can be comically compressed and plenty of dirt can be swept under the carpet. See the effect of the Inspector in JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls in which the presence and prospect of an Inspector causes lives to unravel.

Another advantage of the 'Inspector' episode its simplicity. Simplicity is everything in comedy, especially in half-hour sit-com. If the audience is confused, even slightly, they can't laugh. In that sense, sit-com is contrived reality, over-simplified and sign-posted. The audience is normally happy with this because they understand the genre and that real life is more complicated. The trick is, within the contrived situation, to make the plot and events seem as organic and uncontrived as possible. We start with something believable, and through a series of believable steps end up somewhere original and bizarre, so we're left thinking 'How on earth did we get here?'!

Inspections are a reality of life - audits, royal visitors, tax men - so we have a believable, clear goal that we can all understand - everything has to be ready for the inspector or special visitor. It's a variation on 'The Boss Comes to Dinner' episode that's common to many domestic sitcoms.

The Twist
The trick of sitcom, then, is to take a familiar situation and push it further, into unfamiliar areas, involving characters that we are familiar with. As you would expect, World War Two threw up plenty of these. And so when I came to consider the inspection episode, I tried to think of what the twist would be. As the blurb of the show suggests (so I'm not spoiling it) what if the Royal visitor cannot be trusted?

This taps into the very real concerns during the war that some members of the aristocracy could not be trusted and were well-known for Fascist sympathies. It is a running theme of the series - partly embodied in the character of Professor Charles Gardiner. As a well-connected Oxford professor, he moves in elevated circles and was friendly before the war with high-ranking Nazis and sympathised with some of their views. Every episode, Archie normally makes jokes implying that Charles played some kind of sport with a prominent Nazi. And Charles has to concede that he was friendly with the Von Ribbentrops, the Rommels and even Mussolini.

And so as I was thinking about which Royal visitor, real or imagined, could visit Hut 33, I stumbled across Prince George, Duke of Kent. If you read up on the man, you will see that he was a very worrying figure for the British Establishment. Given the extraordinarily secret nature of the work at Bletchley Park, the Prince's visit would have to be frustrated in some way. If news of the breaking of Enigma was leaked back to Germany, it would have proved disastrous for the Allies.

German High Command had no idea that the British were reading their messages so a hint to that effect would have been catastrophic for Bletchley. 1941 was a difficult year for the Allies. Britain stood alone against Germany and was on the verge of starvation. The convoys in the Atlantic bringing food and supplies from America were a lifeline. This, then, gives an intensity to the story that hopefully makes it play and gives good motivations for our regular characters who are instrumental in keeping the prince away from the code-breaking machinery.

Hopefully, this creates a twist on the Inspection episode. Our characters frantically prepare for a Royal visitor, making easy-to-understand displays so that the inspection will explain exactly what they do at Bletchley Park, giving our characters a clear and comprehensible focus for their activities in which the comedy can play out. But when it is discovered which member of the Royal Family is coming, they have to frantic undo everthing and obscure that they are doing at Bletchley.

Guest Star
Fans of Radioactive, KYTV and Trevor's World of Sport will recognise the voice of the Prince. He is wonderfully played by Michael Fenton Stevens (who also played alongside Robert Bathurst (Charles) in My Dad's the Prime Minister).