Thursday 22 December 2011

Central Character Needs Work

I've been working one particular sitcom idea for a few of years. It's a silly, jokey, studio-based show, rather than a searingly satirical non-audience piece. More Black Books than The Thick of It. The show has slowly moved around from one thing into another, losing one of the main characters and shifting focus, even though the tone has remained the same.

But all of the above has happened at such a slow speed that I've failed to notice that the key character is not clear enough. This has been pointed out to me by an exec (they're not all bad) and I've failed to properly address this, even though the script is on draft 6. If I'm honest, I have to admit that the comedy at the moment comes too much from the situation and the jokes - and not the key character at the centre of the show is based. We want to root for the guy - but we don't know how to because we don't know who he really is and what he really wants.

Some shows get away with this. I'd cautiously suggest that even one of my all time favourites, Seinfeld, has this failing. Jerry Seinfeld's character isn't quite sharp enough or focussed enough - but Elaine, George and Kramer cover that up well, as does a set of stand up at the beginning and the end. By the time the show was established, none of this seemed to matter. But they got lucky. (FYI Genius = luck + hard work + experience).

Anyway, before Christmas hits, I shall be asking myself these questions about my central character, which you may like to ask yourself of your characters that aren't quite working:

What does he want? Why? What does he think he wants? What does he actually want? How does this differ from what he actually needs? And what he gets?

What stops him from getting what he wants? How do the other characters stop him from getting what he wants? How is it ultimately his own fault?

How does he see the world? How does the world see him? How do the other characters see him? How does this differ with how we, the audience, see him?

If you don't answers for most of these, you've got a problem. So, if it's really not working, let's think the unthinkable:
Should he be a she? How does that change things?
Should he be something else completely?
Should he be deleted altogether? (I've already scrapped one character without replacing them - and it made it better).

Answer all of the above without resorting to tedious backstory. Backstory is comic death (because it's all reported) and doesn't move things forward. In sitcoms, characters need strong drives and clearly-defined quests and achievable goals - so that we know whether they are succeeeding or not. Whether they achieve them or not is up to you. But the more specific and defined the goal, the easier it is to understand. And if the audience isn't confused or baffled at any point, you stand a fighting chance of making them laugh. And that's what it's all about.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Bleak Old Shop of Stuff

This show was also going to divide the viewers - into the group of those who like jokes and those who find jokes rather insulting to the intelligence. I am obviously in the former group. And tend to find critics in the latter.

I don't intend to dwell on the Bleak Old Shop of Stuff for long - only to say that it was a lovely, silly romp with lots and lots of jokes. Yes, a little too much CGI, and maybe an hour isn't quite the right length for this, but when somebody points out a church is called 'St Weddings', who can resist?

Well, some critics obviously. Mixed reaction, as one would expect. Now, one cannot blame someone for not liking something. There are plenty of shows out there which are not to my taste but people like them, and I must accept that. But the critic who falls into the trap of saying 'No one can find this funny' is skating on thin festive ice.

Criticiquing Critics
I mention this because Zoe Williams' response is baffling and slightly comical. She hates the show. Fine. She insists on relaying the jokes she hates. It really is the way you tell them. And then, it being the internet, people leave their comments. Some agree. Some disagree. Occasionally, the critic gets lured back into making comments. If you're a critic reading this (or a writer for that matter), can I suggest you don't get lured in message-board debates? Typing out a reaction and hitting 'send' or 'post' often does not end well. You may end up saying something exactly like this:

I don't think humour is subjective. I think some things are funny and some things aren't, and this wasn't, and people who think it was are misguided.

I hope that's a joke, and that the tone has not come across. Otherwise, that's a worrying statement from a critic who seems to have access to mythical equipment that tells us what is objectively funny and what is not. Can we all have a look at this equipment Zoe? Some of us could really use it in our day-to-day writing work.

Then Ms Williams makes the mistake of assuming that anyone who disagrees agrees with her must be in some way a relative the the writer. "Are you serious?" she writes. "Are you this writer's mum?" Cheap shot.

Come on, Ms Williams. You're a professional journalist and you're better than this. I'm sure you are. (I don't read the Guardian, but I assume so, since it seems to be a decent publication).

I'm making a fuss about this because the way critics write about comedy, and sitcoms in particular, has changed the way sitcoms are perceived and even commissioned - especially within the industry. But that is a topic for another blog post.

Now, please do post your carefully considered comments...

Saturday 10 December 2011

Send in Reinforcements

I finally got round to watching Sky 1’s Spy the other night. I had all six episodes on my Sky+ box and was assuming I would begin with episode 1. But decided not to. There are number of reasons for this. The main one is that first episodes are often, sadly, full of set-up and backstory, which normally fights against the comedy, and I didn’t want to sit through that. I wanted to get to the funny.

But secondly, I was putting the show to the test – can you pick up the show from episode 2? Or 3? If you can, have a proper sitcom, which is about regular characters in repeating scenarios. You can, of course, have story arcs, but they have to be very slow and cleverly explained by a character in a line or two near the start of each episode; or you can 'cheat' and use a voiceover by Ron Howard (Arrested Development), or a whimsical Gordon Kaye sitting in his cafĂ© talking directly to camera (Allo Allo).

Let us remember that confusion is the enemy of comedy. An audience that is baffled won’t laugh. You can baffle an audience if you like – that’s called a mystery or a thriller – but it won’t be all that funny.

Now, I had an unfair advantage on this show. I’d heard some months earlier about this show and what the premise was, but I put it out of my mind, and put on Episode 2. What I found was nice, zippy dialogue, quite a lot of jokes, some good characters and some brilliant performances - most notably for me, the consistently fabulous Tom Goodman-Hill, as well as the ever-brilliant Darren Boyd. Robert Lindsay and Rosie Cavaliero were funny too.

But, sadly, I was a bit confused, which slightly got in the way. The show opened with a session of mediation. Darren’s son lives with him, but the son’s mother is trying to get custody. The son is ice-cool and old before his time (cards on the table – I find this super-smart portrayal of children really tiresome, but now’s not the time). The son was hypercritical of his father, and his father seem to play this down and shrug off the criticism. So it wasn’t clear why the son wasn’t just living with the mother which would be more normal.

The biggest problem was there was no sign of any affection between the son and the father. At all. Why was the father trying to keep his high-maintenance son around when he was such a cold fish? I was confused. And this got in the way for me. Maybe these questions were answered in Episode 1 – but if so, that’s cheating. It all has to be in there in Ep 2. As well as 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Send in Reinforcements
For the first two series, I’d say, begin every episode assuming the audience haven’t really seen the show, or have completely forgotten what happened before. It’s a fair assumption. After all, their lives don’t revolve round your show. Only yours does. By all means, stick in jokes for hardcore, die-hard fans, but bear in mind that even after several series, lots of viewers (myself included) can’t remember names of most of the characters, and, when explaining a show, describe their favourite characters as ‘You know, the short one’, or the ‘dappy one’ or ‘the guy with the shirts’.

The key is to make sure each character is doing and saying stuff in character from the start of every episode – not doing neutral, uninteresting things that anyone could be doing. Rebuild characters each week. Clarify relationships. Use props and visual cues to reinforce. It may feel cartoony and clunky, but you can pull it back if you need to. But if it’s not in the script, it won’t be in the show – and it won’t be clear and they won’t laugh. And that, friends, is your job as a comedy writer.

There were some other bits of confusion which, for me, got in the way. The show was, at times, cartoonish. I love cartoonish (eg. Black Books). But at times, it was much more nuanced and played straight. So it felt lumpy. I couldn’t quite work out how seriously to take some bits so again, I was a little confused. I’m sure that’s fixable in Series 2, if there is one. (It would seem harsh to recommission Trollied and not this show)

Also, for some reason, Robert Lindsay’s character looked exactly like Alan Sugar. Identical. It was weird. I kept wondering if that was intentional which, again, got in the way for me. His interplays with Darren Boyd were very funny, though. But it’s worth noting that if something isn’t a joke, but looks like a half-joke, get rid of it. (For on that stuff, see here)

In the end, I watched episodes 2, 3 and 6. Another highlight for me was a cameo from Dominic Coleman in the last episode as a judge who’d just got back from travelling round Indonesia. Again, it stretched credibility, but he was hilarious.

Opening Schtick
The other thing I really liked, that is worth learning from, is that after the opening credits each time, Darren Boyd would press a button to enter MI5 and there’d be a different joke about it each time. Lovely, clear and funny which really set the show up and made you feel like everything was going to be alright – and that is no small thing.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

The Big Readthrough

Yesterday was weird day. But readthroughs are weird.

Just to clarify our terms, a readthrough is when a cast sit and read a script aloud to a bunch of TV execs to see if there's a show there. They can be hastily assembled, rough-and-ready affairs to see if the script is up to much. Or they can be more polished, semi-rehearsed events in which the show is being essentially pitched as a possible contender for a pilot or TV series. Yesterday was more the latter than the former, which was fairly exciting.

The exact details don't much matter for the purposes of this blog post. But it's worth noting one or two things that the sitcom writer has to deal with on such an occasion - and I'd be interested to hear the experiences of others in the comments section below.

So, I showed up at 10am for a day with the actors - and a director - building up to a formal readthrough in front of the powers that be at 4.15pm. It sounds like a long time, but in no time at all, it was 3.30 and the hour was nearly upon us. And so, it sounds daft, but the script really needs to be as tight as possible because there simply isn't time to make all that many changes on the day, or 'find it in rehearsal'. There is no time to rewrite sections or pages. Only time to tweak lines, cut bits out or throw in extra jokes.

We read the script once at the start, and there were some notes, and tweaks, nips and tucks - and questions from the cast about certain lines that weren't clear. Your job as the writer is to listen, not be defensive and focus on making the show as good as it can be. This may mean sacrificing your favourite joke because it's in the way of some other jokes that have plot attached to them. Remember that the shorter, sharpier and snappier the readthrough is, the funnier it will appear to be. It's better to be 26 minutes and really funny, than 32 minutes with fog patches.

After reading the script once and feeding back, we then marched through the script more slowly, stopping and starting and trying to fix other bits that don't quite fly. I did my best to ensure I was making suggestions via the director, who is in charge of all this stuff on the day.

The temptation is to change things again and again and again - right up until the final moment. It's best to avoid this. By the readthrough moment, the actors' scripts will be covered in crossings out, new lines and changes. Too many will be confusing, create errors in the readthrough and completely ruin the atmosphere you've been trying to create. As the hour approaches, it's better to commit to what you have and be done with it. Endless changes 'til the very end will undermine confidence and that might create unease in the cast - who might start to panic. I've seen panic (not yesterday, mind) and it ends in either actors starting to get louder and bigger; or going faster and faster; or going quieter; or inserting swearing that wasn't there before. It's not pretty, and usually not funny.

And then, it starts. And it ends. And there's nothing else to be said.

If you've written the script as well as you could, and stuck to your guns and offered the show that you want to write, you've done well. And it's now out of your hands. The show will be commissioned or turned down for a boatload of reasons that will never be explained to you. The official line may be 'Well, it was just so funny, we simply had to have it'. The actual reason may be that something fell out of the schedules and one of your cast is flavour of the month. It really doesn't matter. And you can't control this bit, so go home, have a curry, sleep well, lie in, wake up - and think of a brand new show.

Monday 14 November 2011

Should I do a free show at the Edinburgh Fringe?

A while ago, I posted about the benefits of putting on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe (here). I was thinking about this over the weekend after I'd suggested doing Edinburgh to some fledgling funny folks on Friday. The Free Fringe, I said, since it really is what it says on the tin. Free for performers to put on shows. It was pointed out, however, that producers were reluctant to scout at these shows and venues.

This got me thinking. It is undoubtedly true that the Pleasances and Udderbellys get a lot of attention from press, wider media and talent scouts. The reasons for this are obvious. There is greater screening and filtering for these venues, and so the overall quality is higher. That is not to say that every show at these big venues is superb, crafted and hilarious. Far from it. But producers are lazy, just like writers - and don't work all that hard to unearth new talent. Unlike writers, producers are very busy and hard-working and when you only have three or four days to 'see stuff' and find new talent, it seems like a more promising pool to fish from.

So why do a show at a Free Fringe venue?
So why do a show at a Free Fringe venue? Or a very cheap, unrecognised one? Here's the thing. Producers are in town for a few days at a time. But fellow performers are in town for a month. Impressing your peers in Edinburgh is as important as impressing the industry. Let's be honest, you're first outing at Edinburgh is unlikely to be picked up a producer at Big Talk or Objective and thrust onto E4. The main reason for the show is unlikely to be all that good. It may be fresh, have flashes of brilliance, and be sporadically hilarious - or consistently amusing without ever quite taking off. But bear in mind that there are a few dozen comedians and writers who are a little less fresh, with a few more years experience who are about to generate more frequent flashes of brilliance which are more consistently hilarious.

But other performers at your venue might see your show - and like it. And tell other people about it and bring you some audience. Or tell someone who has a 'best of' show that you could do a spot at, at which a producer might be in attendance. Equally, you might see someone else's ramshackle show, and like bits of it and realise they are good at things that you're aren't so good at. And that you could help them. You might work well together either now or in the future. They might do well, get some interest but want some help and could pull you on board. You might join forces, pool resources and come back the following year with something better, leaner and stronger.

The Loneliness of a Long Distance Comedian

The reality of writing and performing is that it is a lonely business - especially if you're not a gigging stand-up comedian - but for one month in Edinburgh, you're surrounded by similar people to you and this can be rather a nice thing. You feel like you belong. Okay, after a fortnight, the novelty wears off and everyone's tired, broke and angry. But you'll have forgotten that by November and be back next year, invariably with something better. After doing that for a three or fours years, maybe you'll finally be that an overnight success we keep reading about. And when those opportunities come, you'll be able to handle them and make the most of them.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

The Business of Getting an Agent

I was listening to the UK Scriptwriters' Podcast the other day and was interested in their discussion about agents. It was very interesting and I recommend downloading it and having a listen. I realised this is something I'd never mentioned on this blog before. So, briefly, here are a few thoughts on agents with sitcom specifically in mind.

How I Got An Agent
Firstly, I got an agent via a very odd route. I was a temp at the agency, filling in for someone and typing letters. I was writing bits and pieces for radio shows and a bit of TV (Smack the Pony and Rory Bremner) and had, unwittingly, built up a CV that was interesting to an agent. When they asked if I, as a writer, wanted representation, I was genuinely surprised and agreed pretty much on the spot.

The reason I was so happy to get an agent was not primarily because it made me look and feel like a proper writer (although it did), but because I hate talking about money and asking for more of it. I am quite capable of getting angry about not being paid properly (see here) but when confronted with the issue face-to-face, I immediately say everything's fine and that I don't really need the money right now. I'll say anything to make that conversation end.

Having an agent was brilliant because I had someone on my side who would ask for more money, chase it up and pore over contracts - and understand them. An agent, then, is a wonderful ally in a lonely business; someone who is looking out for your interests. And I've stuck with the same agent for my whole career as I like being represented by her - and I like the way she operates on my behalf. Sometimes people can use their agents to be unpleasant and unreasonable so that they themselves don't have to be, hiding behind them to get more money in a rather nasty way. I'm not into that at all - and want my agent to be my genuine representative in discussions about money, rights and conditions.

Why do you want an agent?

For those trying to break into the industry, it's worth asking yourself why you want an agent. I understand that it's very hard to get a novel published without an agent. Publishers, it seems, now use agents to sift manuscripts and do not take unsolicited work. I couldn't comment on movies and drama.

But sitcom and comedy generally doesn't work like that. Agents are not the key to getting work or getting noticed. If you want to break into the industry, there are plenty of routes. Write for open-door shows on Radio 4 (eg Newsjack) or television. Send sketches to producers who make sketch shows. Put on comedy shows, make them good and then put them on in Edinburgh, and try and get them noticed. Write a really good sitcom script - and keep rewriting it until you're really happy with it, and then send it to producer who makes programmes you like. If the production company says they don't accept unsolicited scripts, I would ignore that. But don't plague them with calls either. In short, write funny and show it to people.

You'll notice an agent doesn't feature in any of the above. And the fact is that if you're a really good comedy writer, it is only a matter of time before you will succeed. Good sitcom scripts are rare. If you write a good one, you will get meetings and some interest, although it make take ages to come anything. When it does, an agent will be a great help, in terms of taking care of money and contracts. They will also be much easier to get by that stage. They may also be able to set up introductions to new producers or contacts. But pinning your hopes on getting an agent as the 'way in' is misguided when it comes to writing comedy for TV and radio.

Finding You Work
Some agents get their writers short-term jobs on panel games and entertainment shows - mine doesn't, but then I've never asked her to because I'm hopeless at that sort of comedy writing. I'm a narrative guy. And my agent understands that and is always on the look-out for opportunities in that area. And that's what an agent will do for you - help you. But they don't make or break you. You and your jokes will do that.

That's my take on agents. I'd be very interested to hear the views of others.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Scripts are Like a Flowing River

The other day, without thinking, I described the script of a show to a producer as being like a flowing river. I’m not ensure what – or who – possessed me to say such a pompous thing, but I’ve been thinking about what I meant ever since. (That’s pretty much my modus operandi – speak first, ask questions later). But I think I meant that a script is a moving, flowing thing.

The Block of Ice
A script is not a big impenetrable block of ice, or glacier, that cannot be altered or change. This is an easy trap to fall into . When you lock yourself away to finally write that darned script, you can emerge some days or weeks later, squinting in the natural light, clutching something that is, in your considered, unbiased opinion ‘perfect’.

It isn’t.

Even Hemingway said ‘the first draft of anything is shit’. Hemingway said that. Not a hack writer who cranked out prose by the yard. Hemingway. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 1954. First drafts are shit.

This is a really important lesson to learn. Your first draft isn’t very good. Yours and mine. With experience, your first drafts tend to get incrementally better. I like to think my first draft now, having been writing professionally for twelve-ish years, is equivalent to a second draft ten years ago. No great achievement as my second drafts ten years were also atrocious.

But one can be seduced by this improvement. Writers do tend to get better and better as they get older (especially novelists). The trick is to do just as many drafts as you did when you were starting out, but this way, you end up with better drafts all the way along the long – and the quality of your work improves.

Sometimes you read or watch the work of a highly successful pro and you wonder whether they felt their first draft was already pretty good and therefore the script didn’t get the love and attention it needed. This can easily happen when writers become executive producers of their own show, or become very powerful. Lines are left unedited. Gaps that need jokes go unfilled. Sequels are very very long and baggy. The quality declines, even though the writer is better and more experienced than they were twenty years earlier.

So, a script is not a block of ice. It has to be pulled around, to ebb and flow at its own pace and find its way from the source to the ocean.

The immaculate script you produced in dimly lit isolation often doesn't seem so clever in the cold light of day. After a little while, plot inconsistencies come to the surface, motives seem muddle, and the set-pieces aren’t as funny as you remember – and turn out to have been done by David Croft thirty years ago, better.

Recently, I’ve just burned through four drafts of a script in less than a month. I thought draft 1 was very clever. But it wasn’t really. It was a perfectably respectable start to the process – like an undercoat on the wall before the proper paint goes on – but it only got good on Draft 3. But if the script is produced (it's just a pilot script for now), I’m sure the script will change significantly several times – once after its been cast and we work out where the jokes really are, then again during rehearsal, followed by tweaks, nips and tucks all the way through shooting, one or two of which might quite big difference to the story, plot or tone.

The Splurging Spray

Given that the script never seems to be finished, the writer can make a different mistake, in which they have no real confidence in any draft at all, starting with the first. Maybe they lock themselves away and produce that draft, but rather than clutching it with ill-advised certainty, they toss it to the producer with a shrug, saying ‘the show should be this sort of thing’. If the script is written with this approach, the temptation is to see the first draft as a splurging spray, some of which may hit the target, but most of which will not. This is a bad way of writing.

Given that most writers are highly strung and care passionately about every single word on the page, this is a less common problem, but it can happen. The first draft is written quickly, or in fits and starts, and then offered around with excuses like ‘I can’t make the ending work, but the beginning’s not right either, so when that’s fixed, I’ll do a new ending’. The obvious – and correct – response to this is ‘So fix the beginning, then the ending and show that to me when you’re done’.

I have mentioned this before – here. It can come about in those starting out because of lack of confidence, when ultimately the writer needs to just ‘man up’ and write what they think is funny to the best of their ability. But it can happen in more seasoned professionals too. All the lines are essentially placeholders, because the real lines, real jokes, real script will emerge in further drafts – and rehearsal. This approach is a high risk strategy, and is either cowardly, hubristic or lazy. The draft you are writing now is the most important draft. And if has to be perfect. And then you'll have to do it again.

Herein lies the dilemma of the writer – to write as if the first draft is the final one, firm in the knowledge that it will probably change beyond recognition, except, in my experience, it is surprising how much of the first draft survives. The first formation or phrasing of a joke you think of is often the best. Little routines sometimes tumble out right first time. Some set-pieces and exchanges can sail through untouched. But then other parts of the script (usually the beginning and the end) are sweated over and endless rewritten. It can be hard, gruelling, exhausting work. But it’s not done down a coal-mine or slum. It’s usually done with a Macbook, Spotify and some hot coffee, so it’s really not that bad.

The script is, ultimately, a flowing river. It can change course with some effort if need be. Changes cause ripples and waves, but it can cope with them. The script is not a babbling brook that easily changes course, or a spray that mostly misses the target. Nor a block of ice that can only be chipped at. Or cracked and broken.

By the way, Jason Arnopp has written a lovely blog post here about the freedom of Draft Zero. I've often done Drafts Zeros and can testify that they are a Good Thing.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Stand Up and Deliver by Andy Kind

Let's be honest. There aren't all that many books out there about comedy - certainly not British comedy. So when one comes along, it's always worth a look. Andy Kind has written a nice one called 'Stand Up and Deliver'. Not a blindingly original title, I guess, but it does the job. It's about his first year doing stand-up comedy and appears to be a brutally honest account of that year, the euphoric highs, and the chronic lows.

Again, let's keep it transparent. I know Andy a bit, although I've never seen him do stand-up. But here's the thing. I read the book and it made me laugh. Out loud. Quite often. This is a good thing, and therefore a good book. The book isn't a Stewart-Lee-style skewering of the comedy industry and the huge flaws within the stand-up circuit, new act nights and all that stuff. Andy deals with all these things in a very jokey way, with loads of gags thrown in. Like all these things, some hit, some miss. But the hit rate is pretty high. It made me think Andy could cut it in a writers room, gagging up scripts and throwing ideas in. Maybe he's more suited to that than stand-up. But not having seen his stand-up, I couldn't say.

The only other thing that me be bothersome for some is that Andy is a Christian, and is honest about that in his book. The book's publisher is a Christian company. None of this concerned me as I'm a fellow God-botherer. To leave it out, though, would be less than honest of him, and the book is nothing if not honest.

Overall, the book is well-worth a look, especially if you're dabbling in stand-up or live comedy performance. You can get hold of it and read other reviews over here.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Everything Happens for A Reason

The last forty hours haven't been good for me. I'm fine. Everything's fine. Really. But like my escapade to B&Q last week, I find myself being constantly blown off-course and distracted by the tedious minutiae of life.

The long and the short of it is that my wife has tonsilitis and has been, to use a cricket metaphor, knocked for six. Looking after her is the easy bit. I have two girls, aged 3 and 1, who need looking after and that's been the main task in hand for the last couple of days. It's been fun. Kind of. When I haven't been thinking about all the work I haven't been doing, and the scripts that haven't been started and the other scripts that haven't been finished.

This simply means that in the evening I put the kids to bed. Have dinner. Put my wife to bed. And then work. Except last night I had to attend a PCC meeting because, as I have said before, I'm a church warden. Meetings must be held. Fetes must be planned. Pews must be arranged to be fixed. And so forth.

The Dishwasher. Yes, really.

So last night saw me frustrated, tired and about to start work at 11pm when the dishwasher started winking at me. With a light I've never seen before. And a fault called F11 flashing on the screen. Something was wrong with it.

Let us pass over a number of observations here - and potential for sitcom storylines and scenes. At first, I couldn't find the manual. Had no idea where we kept manuals. Guessed right fairly quickly. Found a bunch of manuals for all manner of appliances past and present, and turned the right page and got to work. Let us pass over the fact that my heart sunk at mere sight of the instructions, which were optimistically written. Let us briefly note that, despite comedy stereotypes and my expectations, the instructions were right to be optimistic. I followed them. Washed out various components. Refitted them. Didn't get wet. Pressed the button to restart the programme. And it worked. Hey presto. Call me Dwayne the Drain. I have troubleshot the problem.

Here's what I thought as I saw the dishwasher was faulty. I thought "For this to work in a sitcom, the malfunction of that dishwasher has to have been my fault". I needed to have ignored the careful instructions of my wife, or tried to fit too much in, or gallantly tried to fix the washing machine next to it despite the protestations of a housemate. In real life, things just break for no reason. But they don't half way through a sitcom. I am the protagonist in my life. If there's a problem that gets in the way and needs fixing - and it's not another person - it should be my fault, or at least another character's fault.

I was watching Downton Abbey on Sunday night and noting how carefully plotted it was - and that every single thing was done for a reason. Nothing just happened. Even more masterful is Modern Family in which a dozen characters move in and out of each other's lives and nothing simply happens or goes wrong that isn't the result of one character doing something in character.

Why is now the worst time for this to happen?
Sometimes, when I'm bashing storylines with people, one of the questions I ask is 'Why is now the worst possible time for this thing to happen?' So let's say our hero has had a run-in with a dry cleaner and his suit is ruined. Why is now the worst possible time for that to have happened? He has to go to a wedding. Great. Escalation. Our character has a quest. But whose wedding? Why are they getting married now? Why does he have to wear that suit? Why couldn't he get it cleaned earlier? Or somewhere else? Why does he have problems getting another one? And crucially - how has our protagonist brought this on himself? The wrecking of the suit somehow needs to be the fault of the protagonist. Or a lead character.

I'm tired. It's late. I have to work. The dishwasher is now broken. Why? What did I do wrong? In real life, things just break. Not in sitcom - where everything happens for a reason.

Monday 19 September 2011

The Value of Comedy Courses

So let's deal with the money issue head on: I'm British - and therefore unable to discuss money without acute embarrassment. I'm a writer - and therefore find money an irritating necessity. I'm a human being - and therefore intrinsically greedy. I have kids - and therefore I can justify any paid act as being for their benefit. And I'm a farmer's son - which means I'm frankly lucky to be paid to do anything at all which doesn't involve shovelling cowpats off the diary yard.

Interest Declared. Now Moving On...
With all that in mind, I'm running a comedy writing course with Dave Cohen (Have I got News for You?; Horrible Histories and much more besides), like I did earlier this year. It costs some monies. The first one, on 4th Nov, is about writing Comedy for Radio, which is something I have a fair amount of experience of, having written stuff like Think the Unthinkable, Hut 33, co-written Another Case of Milton Jones and Miranda and script-edited Recorded for Training Purposes. The second one, on 11th Nov, is specifically about sitcom, primarily for television, which, again, I have some experience of (Miranda, My Family, My Hero and those radio sitcoms - as well as a bunch of stuff in development). More details about the course, bookings and Dave Cohen here.

Hang On, A Minute...
A few blogs ago, I questioned the value of writing courses. I was referring mainly to year-long, academic, university-type courses that take ages to teach you everything. I stand-by my statements, not just because I'm proud and pig-headed. I really do think writing is best learnt through, well, reading, writing, rewriting, failing, rewriting, listening, improving and, most of all, living a life that gives you stuff to write about, so that it has that essential honestly and truthfulness about it, even if the entire thing is invented.

Just One Day?
So if year-long courses are to be avoided, what can be achieved in a day or two? Quite a lot. Most of all, it's the compressed downloading of lots of experience, hints, tips and ideas. One or two key bits of advice could make a massive difference and save you days, if not weeks or work that was either unnecessary or needed to be undone. There's no cast-iron secret formula to sitcom we can let you in on. There kind of is. I sort of wrote one here that obviously isn't so secret. And then I slightly unpicked that article here. But talking these things through for a few hours can be really stimulating, useful and lots of fun. (Well, 'fun' to the likes of you and me who want to hear writers and directors talk over DVDs with the commentaries. Most normal people don't want to analyse comedy for hours on end.)

Well, there it is. Bunk off work and join us for the day for some really practical tips about writing comedy and sitcom, as well as some useful industry info - and who knows you might be a Galton and meet a Simpson who's as serious about writing comedy as you.

And what venue could be more fitting and comedic than London's hottest canal museum?

Tuesday 13 September 2011

It's all good, really

Today was a rotten day. I woke up feeling groggy and slightly flu-ey and generally under the weather. I felt up to some clerical work and emails just after lunch. A project I've been trying to get through a well-known broadcasting corporation has been delayed again. (other broadcasters are avaialable. At least I hope so).

Then the real fun began. I tried to arrange for a faulty dishwasher at my church hall to be fixed - for I am Church Warden (seriously) and this sort of holy order falls to me.

The dishwasher has a problem closing but is still under warranty, or so I thought. I checked the website of the vendor, by the name of B&Q. I don't know what that stands for. I'm so tired and bored, I can't even think a joke for that (two adjectives beginning in B&Q. Leave comments.) Clearly the idea that one of their products might malfunction is alien to them since there's no information on their website. I phoned a well-hidden number. Ring ring ring ring. Eventually a battery of questions - and then a suggestion I ring the branch where the thing was bought. I didn't buy the dishwasher as it happens. It was bought by the previous church warden. Ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring...

I got in the car, realise I was nearly out of fuel, stalled the car, briefly panicked that I'd run out of fuel in a diesel car, which is a real nusiance. Then got going again, refuelled and went down to B&Q in delightful Wandsworth.

And this was where creatively the lousy day was almost redeemed. I walked into B&Q and wondered around looking for someone who could help me - for ages. At one point, it felt like the only member of staff there was the security guard trying to prevent £1m+ worth of good from being stolen. In my foul and furious state, I reckon I could have taken in him on. But that would have made me a common looter (well, a middle-class looter, but a looter nonetheless).

Eventually I spoke to a member of staff, who guided me to a desk where someone was unable to help, who took me to his boss, who asked me questions I simply couldn't understand, who then got the duty store manager, who ultimately said he couldn't help. He explained that the dishwasher was used in a commercial setting (apparently churches are commercial, which is news to me, given the state of our accounts). This meant Indesit wouldn't fix it. That was that. I said that the buyer said at the time that it was for church use. He asked if I had proof. I had none.

I walked away, furious and before I said anything that would bring the church into disrepute. Driving home I realised I had proof - all the delivery notes were addressed to the church. I couldn't go back. I was broken. Finished. But I realised that if I hadn't been so tired and angry, the situation I had been in had comic potential. The eerie lack of staff, the chronic indifference to my plight and the kafka-esque levels of service. All funny now you look at it.

And that is why I mention this mildly dull anecdote. Not because it's especially funny, but because it's an interesting starting point for a storyline. Or a sketch. Or a scene. Or a moment. Back in April, I wrote this about changing the battery on a burglar alarm. This one will go on the list too. It's logged in the memory. That's because sitcom writing isn't just about imagining situations - but experiencing them first hand. And then turning them up to 11 on the screen.

Plus it gave me something to write about on this blog. It's all good, really.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Why You Should Seriously Consider Writing for Newsjack

After leaving university, I applied for a number of jobs - mostly in advertising and copywriting. I had no idea that I could be a professional comedy writer, although in a way, I must have done subconsciously. I remember being asked in one interview 'Where do you see yourself in five years time?' I answered 'Writing a sitcom for television'. Now, I know there are no right or wrong answers in interviews, but that is a very wrong answer. I should have said something like 'Spearheading an award-winning campaign that changes the way people think about washing powder' or something. But I didn't. The truth came out.

And so I moved to London to do some work experience at a magazine, which I broadly hated. But one lunch time a week, I would turn up to a writers meeting for Week Ending - the open-door Radio 4 comedy show that was, frankly, on its last legs. Nonetheless, in the evenings, I would try and write some topical sketches and after about six weeks, succeeded in getting a few jokes or a sketch on. Can't really remember. I've got it on a cassette somewhere.

It was a really good experience - even though the actual show itself felt way past its best. It taught me to work hard, work fast, turn over ideas, read the newspapers, rewrite, accept failure and, above all, write jokes. These are all key lessons that can be learned 'on the job' (if by 'job' you mean unpaid writing). I also met some other people in my position and was able to swap stories, experiences and contacts, and overall began to 'feel like a writer', which is no small thing.

And so to Newsjack
That's why I would urge all aspiring comedy writers to seriously consider writing for Newsjack, a new series of which starts a week today. I don't work for the show - and never have, but I do know that they read everything they get. And not only that, they want every sketch they are sent to be hilarious. It often doesn't feel that way stuck at home, and hearing another show broadcast in which your work isn't broadcast, but it is true. They want funny. And they can spot funny. And if you're sketch isn't spotted, the likeliest reason is that it's not as funny, or well-executed, as you thought.

I worked on Recorded For Training Purposes, and my approach was the same. I wanted each sketch I was sent to be really funny, fresh and original - and ideally not about Sat Navs, Phone Call-waiting menus and TV producers pitching terrible programme ideas to TV execs, which were topics covered by about 33% of all sketches.

Read the shows instructions carefully - and follow them. It's all here. Think about every sketch you send in - before you send it in. Lots of people don't do this and just send it off unfinished, half-written or too long. (Some thoughts on that sort of thing here)

Ask yourself, is the sketch original? Is it one idea written well, with a nice twist at the end? If so, good. Or is it two ideas whammed together and not really about either? If so, bad.

Is it short/edited so that it's just funny after funny, so that the studio audience is laughing out loud every few seconds? Is the set-up as crisp and quick as it could be?

Does it end properly? THINK OF A PROPER PUNCHLINE - one that is surprising rather than cliched or convenient. Your sketch stands a much better chance of being used if it ends properly, since a script editor won't have to take up precious time thinking one up for you. (Some thoughts on writing jokes here) Also bear in mind the audience are much happier with traditional punchlines than you might think.

Is the sketch easy to read? Don't worry too much about exact formatting, but make sure it's easy to read (see here).

And so, if you can bear to spend the time on it, give this a go with both barrells. Even if you're not interested in topical comedy, you'll benefit from it. Even if you're not interested in sketch comedy, you'll benefit from it. Even if you fail to get a single joke onto the show, you will have benefited from the overall experience, and had a good work out. You may find the task to be thankless, largely unpaid and virtually impossible. If so, welcome to the world of comedy writing.

More info at various links here, mostly by Dan Tetsell who used to script edit the show.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

A Dynamic Duo

I've never been a great movie buff. I've always been more in sitcoms. In some ways, the two forms couldn't be more different. Movies are about characters who go on a journey and are changed by their experiences. Sitcoms are about characters who remain unchanged by their experiences - and that's why they're funny.

Occasionally a movie throws up some comedy characters that are funny in an enduring way. The most obvious example would be M*A*S*H, which began life as a film (based on a book) and become a far more successful comedy, running for many years.

Recently, I've stumbled across another example which contains a cast of superb comedy characters that feel more sitcom-based than anything else. Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) and Lt. Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) from Good Morning, Vietnam. This, for me, is an underplayed relationship in the film which inevitably has to be about the war and all that stuff. Also, Robin Williams is stunning in the film and almost obscures the film with his fast-talking.

But the dynamic of the movie is very sitcom. Cronauer is brilliantly funny, anti-establishment, modest and junior; and Lt Hauk is painfully unfunny, pro-establishment, totally unaware and senior works brilliantly well. You can imagine them in dozens of alternative situations week after week in which they clash over anything and everything. Imagine them co-presenting a radio show; or doing the entertainment for the Colonel's daughter's birthday party. I'm smiling just thinking about those things.

It's worth noting that sitcoms - in order to be successful - need these crackling and fizzing relationships between characters who just drive each other crazy. When it works, and you're writing it, the characters just talk in your head. As the writer, you just feel like the guy noting it all down.

If your show doesn't feel like it's heading in this direction, put on the brakes and rethink. And take a moment to be reinsipired by something great. And then go back to your situation and rewrite, rething, replot and replan until these clashing characters emerge.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Sitcomminess - Second Hand Reality

Two wonderful things have happened. The first is that I am on holiday. And the second is that I have wi-fi where I'm staying. Holidays tend to exclude internet usage, which is annoying, but not this time. This is an expected bonus. Hence, this blog post on something that occurred to me the other day, that bothers me about sitcoms. It's 'sitcomminess'.

Sitcomminess is the thing that people who hate sitcoms hate most about sitcoms. It's that they're so darm, well, sitcommy. It's chance encounters, and wacky neighbours, and dinner parties that go wrong and have hilarious consequences. It's fake, false and phoney.

My argument against this is that the audience are smart, and realise it's a sitcom, and recognise that the show is a contrivance. Audience laughter is does not happen in everyday life, and real life sets are more realistic. The audience know it's not real. And they're fine with it. Critics usually seem not fine with it, or have to apologise for finding a sitcom with a laugh track funny (as most did with Miranda). But overall, the audience realises that a sitcom is not real. The only question is whether or not they buy into it, believe the characters, and want the hero to succeed.

The Realm of the Unreal
But sometimes, even for the most ardent sitcom fan, things can teeter over into the realm of the unreal. I was made aware of this phenomenon a few weeks ago. It reared its head the other day when I was watching a sitcom that is aimed at kids, and I couldn't work out why I didn't like it. Apart from not being a child, obviously. And I worked it out, I think. The show felt phoney: it was aping American culture and reference points in a way that didn't feel natural or honest. Overall, the show felt like it was written by someone who's main experience of life was American television. And therefore, I found myself watching a comedy based on other comedies - rather than reality. As a result, we're watching second-hand reality.

Second-hand reality can still be funny. You can get away with it sometimes. But you're jumping from joke to joke, and there's no reality/empathy to tide your through the bits where the jokes aren't sizzling which, in a 28 minute BBC episode, they won't and can't the whole time. Besides, you need light and shade. Yes, lots of jokes, funny scenes and set-pieces. But also quieter bits, reflection and moments of empathy and emotion which ideally resolve with a joke. Watch Only Fools and Horses. That's a masterclass in how much emotion and comedy you need. Apart from anything else, we won't buy a character if we don't emotionally care about him. So this really is vital.

How does this happen?
This is easily done. It crops up in scenes when you realise you are leaning too heavily on a trope that has no basis in real life. You can attach your character to a lie detector if you want, but don't spend long doing it, as the audience will stop believing it after a while. They've never seen one of those lie detectors before - because they don't really exist. Just on TV. Police line-ups are fine. They happen. But not lie detectors. You get the idea.

It comes about partly through lack of research, understanding or interest in the subject matter. The writing is cynical, as a result, and feels like it's been done by numbers. The only way to avoid this is to do the research, talk to people and listen to stories and experiences. I've been have had my eyes open very wide by some research I've been doing for a sitcom. What you find when you talk to people and read books is a treasure trove of stories that you just couldn't make up, that feel extreme but authentic and grounded in reality. This keeps sitcomminess at bay.

And so three rules of thumb, then:
1. Make sure your show is about something. It needs to be be based on a truth and have a central core to it. More on that here.

2. If you're starting out, I'd suggest avoiding film studies, media and writing courses. I've just met a 16-year-old girl who is about to do A-Levels in English, Film Studies and Sound Engineering (or something). Doing English is fine, but overall she'd be much better off doing two other A-Levels that are about something. And going off and doing stuff. And then making movies. Otherwise, her experience of everything will be through film. And the films she makes may well be derivative of other films. (She may of course go on to win an Oscar aged 23. But I doubt it.)

3. Be brutal on what you've written. If it feels tired and trope-like, delete it, change it, cut it, hide it and rewrite it. If it feels like it's been done before, it probably has. How could it be done differently? How could you create something new and fresh? Change the location, the setting, the motive... anything. Just avoid sitcommy, second hand reality.

Friday 2 September 2011

It's all gone quiet over here

Sorry I've been a bit quiet. In August, things tend to grind to a halt. I'm off for one more week. After that, normal service will be resumed, and there'll be a blog post about once a week as usual.

Do please leave comments about anything in particular you'd like me to blog about in the realm of sitcom - both writing and the industry.

It seems there are a lot of opportunities out there at the moment, with BBC1 wanting to broadcast some pilots, BBC3 cancelling a lot of shows to make space for new things, and ITV saying that want to take more risks on comedy (although ITV have said this every 6-9 months for the last 8-10 years). So, it's time to get thinking, plotting, planning and then writing.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Fringe Drawback #1

There are plenty of thing wrong with the Edinburgh Fringe. I glossed over them in the last post, and I propose to gloss over most of them in this post too. I merely mention the one that is of the most interest to regular reads of this blog, and comedy writers in general.

The drawback in question is this: The Fringe does not reward good comedy writing as much as good comedy performance. If you're a theatre-type, there are Fringe Firsts for well-written plays, and that's all fine and large, as Bertie Wooster would say. But the big comedy prizes are undoubtedly skewed towards the writer/performer, and the vast majority of comedy shows are by and starring writer/performers. Every now and then you get a bunch like The League of Gentleman, which contain a non-performing writer, but this kind of arrangement is the exception, rather than the rule.

This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing. But it is a thing. Okay, probably a bad thing. I guess it happens because the Fringe is ultimately a complete free-for-all - an unsubsidised Hayekian arts festival. No attempt is made to link writers with performers, or performers with writers (and nor should there be).

The result of this is there are dozens of shows put on by performers/actors who aren't really writers. And they struggle to make the standard hour-long format work. Writing a show that lasts half an hour is pretty hard. Writing a show that lasts an hour is very difficult. Stagecraft and experience will get you so far, but it won't quite paper over the cracks. My experience of the dozens of Edinburgh shows I've seen is that the good shows tend to be a brilliant performer making ordinary material sparkle. Sometimes you get a brilliant performer with brilliant material (eg Bill Bailey (see last post) and these types often win the big fizzy liquid prize). But the Edinburgh comedy shows I see are normally okay, but could do with a major rewrite, and serious edit and some extra jokes.

Impact on Television
All of the above, however, does have one big consequence. Producers and commissioners who are looking for the next big thing, they keep seeing writer/performers. This has coincided with a shift towards writing/performing in television terms, and therefore the panel game, sketch show and chat show where comedians talk to other comedians who have been made famous by panel games and sketch shows.

There are dozens of suitable candidates for a seat on the next panel game. But the next Great British Sitcom seems elusive. It's easy to forget that the vast majority of great British sitcoms are written by writers with no interest in performing themselves. I'm sure Clement and Le Frenais, John Sullivan, Esmonde and Larbey, Galton and Simpson, Carla Lane and the like would have run a mile from an Edinburgh show of their own. And yet Edinburgh is a huge engine room of comedy in Britain today. It has also been forgotten that the great comedians of the past had writers and often didn't write much of their own material.

I have no solution to this problem. The BBC do have The Writers Room and are doing their best to encourage new writing. But my advice to writers would be to keep writing scripts, but if you come across a comedian or funny actor, grab them, write for them and make them a star. It seemed to work for Richard Curtis.

Happy Fringe-ing.

Monday 8 August 2011

Fringe Benefits and other crap puns with 'Fringe' in the title

And so the internationally acclaimed fringe festival that has been out of control for years has kicked off again. It's over three weeks long. Everyone knows that's too long. It's unsustainable, but staggers on, consuming the life-savings of comedians, theatre companies and entrepeneurs. From a distance the entire enterprise is preposterous and bewildering.

Until you get there.

I've never taken drugs. Seriously. Had one puff of a cigarette and coughed. Never been into booze either. But Edinburgh is a drug - and it's taken me years to kick the habit. My first trip to Edinburgh was for my sister's wedding was in 1993, I think. Just after I left school. I went to see Moray Hunter & Jack Docherty do a two-man show, having seen them on Absolutely. Even though I was huge fans, the show itself was pretty ordinary. It was a fitting start to my Edinburgh experience - hype, expense, excitement and mild disappointment.

I was determined to take my university revue (Durham) there. They had performed at the Fringe in 1994, I think - a show called Toilet Humour which contained the wonderful Alex Macqueen (Thick of it, Inbetweeners et al). And so my rag-bag revue did a show in 1996 called 'The Usual Sketches' at St John's Church Hall (which has been re-branded several times since then) Somehow we broke even. We returned sharper, tighter and funnier in 1997 and did Massive Deja-Vu at The Gilded Balloon and lost a fortune. But had fun. (Hugh Laurie came to see our show.) Then I returned in 1999 with two members of that revue with a show called Infinite Number of Monkeys, which was nominated for Perrier Best Newcomer. Then another show in 2000, Infinite Number of Monkeys Do Gravity, and then a shorter run in 2001, Infinite Number of Monkeys: The Complete Works. (All above starred the artist currently known as Tim FitzHigham who has been a fringe staple for most of the years since.) Then there was a sketch show in 2002, or maybe 2003, called Innocent Bystanders containing Alex Macqueen again, a duo now known as Domestic Goddi and the now-retired Sports correspondent, Jonny Saunders (from Chris Evans's Breakfast Show).

I recall all above with fondness. I have ignored in my mind the hours spent giving out flyers and promoting the various shows. I have ignored the stress, the rain, the resentment at the success of others less 'worthy', the dreadful things I ate and the awful reviews. I remember only things like regularly standing next to a nice young Kiwi chap called Brett who was promoting a little music double-act bizzarely called Flight of the Concords. (What happened to him? Back in NZ now, probably. Just sad.) I remember frisby in the park, a few full houses, some good reviews, a Perrier Newcomer nod and seeing Bill Bailey for the first, second and third time at the George Square Theatre. (I got in free the first two times with my Gilded Balloon pass. To ensure I got in a third time, I bought a ticket with my own money.)

Since 2003, I have only really visited Edinburgh during the fringe a few times. I've planned and plotted plenty of new shows to take up, even to the point of creating show titles, making enquiries and setting up accounting spreadsheets full of wildly optimistic numbers. My wife, rightly, rolls her eyes, knowing full well that professional and personal commitments - and lack of thousands of pounds to lose - will prevented my return with a show of my own anytime soon. But I still get withdrawal symptoms.

In Praise of Edinburgh
There is plenty to be said about Edinburgh - mostly in favour, actually. It forces comedians to write new material annually. Annually! A new hour of material! Most American comedians would look at that as suicidal. For them, it's mostly honing an act over several years, aiming to get a six minute set which will land them a slot on The Tonight Show. And yet the British, and quasi-British, comedians rise to challenge. Similarly, sketch groups throw themselves together to create something that is frequently dreadful, but occasionally inspired. Somewhere, I have a flyer for a show by a new sketch group called 'League of Gentlemen'. It happens. And Edinburgh is often the catalyst.

Finding an Audience
In Edinburgh, new comedians, sketch-groups and theatre troupes alike will find an audience. It may be small, but it will be people they don't know personally. Hundreds of thousands of people turn up to Edinburgh with an open mind looking to see 'stuff'. This is an astonighly rare phenomenon. Put on a comedy show in London, a city of 8 million people, and you will find a far smaller group of people willing to try something new. Almost every London comedy sketch show is only really watched by friends, and friends of friends. In Edinburgh, you get to find out if you really are funny. It can be an expensive, painful experience, but those tend to be the ones we learn from the most.

There's plenty wrong with the fringe, and future posts will, no doubt, bring these up. There's plenty of good new developments too. It is stupidly commercialised in places, but then there's a Free Fringe things, which are a splendid development.

I'm heading up there myself in a week to be part of a BBC panel thing (here) so these shortcomings will be glaring obvious and blog-worthy. But until then, I am saluting the daft vortex of lunacy that is Edinburgh Fringe.

May your venues be full, may your audiences be merry and may your hangovers be short. (And two out of three's not bad.)

Monday 25 July 2011

Write You Write Upon a Star

Ok, that title doesn't really make sense. It's late. Cut me some slack. Anyway,on with the blog.

Over the last few years, I've had the chance to work on my own shows, where I came up with the original ideas (eg Hut 33, Think the Unthinkable). I've also worked on shows like My Hero and My Family, which were long-running, established shows with a clear separation between cast and writers. But I've also worked on shows that are 'vehicles' for other people. Happily, that vehicle has proved not to be a hearse in the case of Miranda Hart and Milton Jones. (Given my success with 'Mi's, maybe I should try and work with Micky Flanagan.)

So how does writing in this situation work - when you are non-performing writer, and the writer/performer star of the show is in the room? Maybe a few words of advice jump out at me.

Firstly, remember you are not the most important person in the room. The reason the show exists is because of 10-30 years work of building up a persona/character that someone else has put in. In my case with Milton Jones, for example, I began working with him in 2003 on The House of Milton Jones. He had won Perrier Best Newcomer in 1996 and been nominated for a Sony Award for The Very World of Milton Jones. When I sit in a room with Milton, and David the Producer, it is obvious who the most replaceable person in the room is.

But this is not about status. This is about trusting the star to know what works for them. Before I worked with Miranda on her Radio 2 sitcom, she had done dozens of different stage shows, and 'been' Miranda hundreds of times in various media, and therefore has a very strong sense of what is likely to be funny for her and what won't fly. Sometimes, it can be explained. Often, it's just instinctive. In the past, I've found myself arguing a joke to Milton saying 'It's the same structure as that other joke you do' and Milton calmly and graciously says that he's not crazy about it, and I retreat. Ultimately the star will win the battle off what ends up in the script, since their name is in the title, they're in front of the crowd and the lights. And if they're heart is not in the joke, they won't make it work anyway.

Sometimes, it works the other way - in that you toss in an idea, the star thinks its hilarious, and you can't quite work out why or how. And then they do it on the night - and it's hilarious. They make it work. Whichever way it works out, remember they get the blame if it goes wrong. Nobody really watches the credits. The only people who care who 'wrote it' are other writers, and that's so they can say '[sigh] Why didn't they ask me?'

The point is the star has a nose for what works for them and what doesn't. So embrace that reality, rather than fight it. If they don't like the joke or scene or idea, drop it.

Your Perspective
But the flipside of this is to not be too intimidated. You have a perspective on the show that is genuinely valuable and necessary - purely by dint of not being the star. And what's more, they hired you so they must care what you think just a bit.

The fact is that you don't see the show through the eyes of the performer but more through the eyes of the audience, which is helpful. You're also not seeing things through the eyes of the producer, who's not just looking at the show, but dozens of other things off camera. So you can spot things that might not work or not make sense or would be better done another way or a different order. Exploit that perspective to make the show better - probably in ways that will never be noticed or fully appreciated.

Your job is to help the star to shine - and this will happen best if all the characters, scenes and jokes are firing on all cylinders. You're a wing man. No, not a wing man. You're a mechanic tinkering with the engine and sending the star out in the car for lap after lap. And yes, the one in the car gets most of the money, all the applause and has to hold up that dreadful trophy that looks like it was designed by a man going through a mid-life crisis. But... I can't remember where this metaphor's going on.

The point is they're the star and you're not. So get over it. And it you don't like it, go off and write your own show. And then in 10-30 years time, you'll know what it's like to be pestered by snarky know-all sitcom-geeks who don't get what you're trying to do. Easy.

Sunday 17 July 2011

What's It All About?

A while ago, I was asked to write a slightly tongue-in-cheek article about the ingredients of a successful sitcom. The result of that is here. In short, a successful sitcoms needs characters, conflict, confinement and catastrophe. Crucial to success is also casting. And a catchphrase is nice too, if you can bear it.

I'm happy to stand by this. It is true. And it's possible to have a perfectly good and successful sitcom with those ingredients.

But a great sitcom has another ingredient. It's a certain je ne sais quoi. Or a certain something, as the French say. The show needs a philosophy, an attitude or a stance. It needs to capture something about the human condition, or the times in which we live. These are the shows we still want to watch on Dave or UK Gold. The hairstyles may date, and the cultural reference points change, but the show says something.

So What?
I've been thinking about this recently as I've been doodling on a few new ideas for sitcoms, and thinking of characters that seem interesting and funny, and scenarios and situations that feel fresh and fertile. But I keep asking myself the question 'So what?' It's a good question to keep asking yourself because somewhere along the line, someone is going to ask you that question - a comedy executive or a commissioner. They ask questions like 'Why would I watch this show?' or 'What's this show really about?' There's no point getting cross or rolling your eyes. They may not know why they're asking that question. They may have read in a manual that it's a good question to ask that sounds plausible. Or they may realise that good shows are about something.

The Office
The Office was about funny characters, and had good stories, conflict, confinement and all that. It was very recognisable and felt fresh. But it felt like it was about something. About being trapped in a dead-end job and feeling powerless to do anything about it. Or about the lunatics surrounding you. Tim (Martin Freeman) was really the eye of the story and one sensed that he could see his life and chance of happiness slipping through his fingers. It infused every episode. And when Tim did something about it, and finally said something to Dawn, and David Brent himself seemed to change after the love of a good women, the show was, essentially, over.

Just Jokes
If you've only got jokes, you ride or fall by every joke. And when the jokes misfire, as they will surely do now and then, the audience may realise there's nothing underneath, and that the whole thing is artifice. They already know it is, and are willing to suspend their disbelief - because a really good show is about more than characters and jokes. Look at the great sitcoms, and you'll see they're not just confined characters coping with catastrophes: Only Fools and Horses, Yes Minister, The Good Life, Steptoe, One Foot in the Grave, Dad's Army, Reggie Perrin. The list goes on and on. Great shows that said something, and still say somthing.

Friends isn't about Friends
One of the most successful shows of recent times is Friends, which is a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right. It's about six friends. That's it. Well, not quite. The creators of the show spotted there was a strange post-college, pre-family time of life when twenty-somethings relied on friends and hung out with each other, and were wanting to form close-knit groups that functioned like families. They were right. The show captures that, without ever saying it. They also thought that Monica and Joey would be the 'hot couple' for the show, which shows they didn't get everything right.

But you don't need to get everything right at first. You start with a fairly good idea of where the show is and what it's about, and with a bit of luck, an open mind, a good cast and following wind, you might just make a great show.

Hut 33
It is clearly absurd to make a leap to this largely ignored radio sitcom what I wrote, but I can only speak from experience. When I had the idea of setting a sitcom in Bletchley Park during World War Two, it would have been easy to have written a show about boffin odd-balls like Alan Turing doing daft things. Like a 1940s Big Bang Theory. But I felt that would become fairly tiresome fairly soon. And so I wondered about other themes that emerged during World War Two - and remembered my wife telling me that one of the main reasons for social reform after the war was how our nation were forced to work alongside each other, rich alongside poor, elites alongside outcasts. And both sides were pretty appalled.

And so I wondered whether throwing two characters together from different ends of the spectrum could work. Hey presto, we have a posh, highly-educated, elitist Oxford Professor (Robert Bathurst), and a self-taught, working class, Marxist Geordie (Tom Goodman-Hill) Both saw the world through completely different eyes. And both were right. And both were wrong. And it made writing the show a lot easier than writing Enigma jokes. After all, did you hear the one about the German and the Enigma Machine? Me neither.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

It's All Lies

Writing dialogue is very personal. Some writers have very distinctive styles that span all the different characters in a show. There are the fast-talkers of Aaron Sorkin's worlds, be they West Wing, Sportsnight or Social Network. There the imaginative comic similes of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton's Blackadder series.

Everyone has their own style, but it's worth thinking about how dialogue works more generally and how we can write it better for individual characters. Two things to mention here without going over what I wrote about dialogue here:

Sometimes I read scripts in which one character talks and talks and talks. A character walks in and tells you what they did that day - and the other characters stand around listening. And then another character talks and talks and talks. Our lives are conversations. We say a sentence or two, and then someone else talks for a little bit. The conversation goes round the room, being filtered and remixed by the various characters and perspectives in the room. That's when it starts getting interesting.

This is the kind of dialogue I'm talking about. It's not uncommon to read this kind of mildly predictable and slightly stererotypical/sexist scene (which I've just made up as I've typed it. It's not real dialogue from something I'm working on.)



So, how was your day, Steve?


You don't wanna know. It was a nightmare. A total and utter nightmare. The buses were slow - as they always are on our road. The tube was down. Well not down. But stop start all the way into work. And when I got in Wendy was off sick. As usual. That's the fourth day out of the last eight working days. Honestly, the rest of us struggle into work. Why can't she? Then the big meeting started. The Boss droned on and on. Something about targets and marketing. Wasn't really listening because I was thinking about my next meeting when I knew that I was going to be bollocked for the St Albans incident.

Okay. It's not very funny, is it? But hey, most scripts (including mine) aren't very funny. But reading it, it doesn't ring true. He's not having a conversation. He's just talking. And talking. And talking. SHUT UP, STEVE! I now do not care about your life, Steve. You're not a real person, Steve.

So, let's break it up to make it at least mildly humourous and believable. Then we might care. At the very least, how about something like this:



So, how was your day, Steve?


You don't wanna know.

You're right. What's on TV tonight?

(ignoring her) Nightmare. The buses didn't move. The tube was stop-start. And when I did get in, guess what?

They gave you a hand-gun and licence to kill?

If only. Wendy.

Off sick? Again?

Thank you! The fourth day out of the last eight working days.

But who's counting. Oh hang on. You.

(sarcastic smile) The rest of us struggle into work.

Passing round your germs. She should be more considerate and come in.

Anyway, the big meeting started. The Boss droned on and on. Something about targets and marketing. Wasn't really listening because I was thinking about my next meeting when I knew that I was going to be bollocked for...

Not paying attention in meetings?

... the St Albans incident.

Ah yes. Well, that's in the hands of the police now, isn't it?

Okay, it's nothing special and all very smart-arse, but you get the idea. Get your characters talking to each other. Like they do in real life.

It's All Lies
The other thing to bear in mind, however, is that people frequently don't say what they mean. Quite often say the opposite, or filter it - often because of the opinion of the person standing in front of them. They lie. They delude themselves. The things they say are for their own ears, to reinforce the lies that they're trying to drum into their heads, or block out the noise of the stark reality around them.

How could that scene go with the addition of standard lying and self-delusion? Something like:



So, how was your day, Steve?


Fine. Great. Perfect.

Good. What's on TV tonight?

(ignoring her) The buses didn't move. The tube was stop-start. And when I did get in, guess what?

They gave you a hand-gun and licence to kill?

If only. Wendy.

Off sick? Again?

I know. She's got some medical condition. It's sad. Really sad. And she's good. When she's actually around.

Ooh, you hate her.

I do not. I don't hate anyone. It's just she's, you know, not been around much recently. And I just think missing four days of the last eight working days should require a doctor's note or something.

Could she bring in a blood sample, maybe, to be independently monitored?

(sarcastic smile) The rest of us struggle into work.

Passing round your germs. She should be more considerate and come in.

Anyway, the big meeting started. The Boss give his speech about targets and marketing strategy...

You have no idea what he said do you?

I was distracted by thinking about my next meeting when I knew that I was going to be bollocked for...

Not paying attention in meetings?

No. The St Albans incident.

Ah yes. Well, that's in the hands of the police now, isn't it?

From this we learn that Steve isn't as nice as he'd like to think he is. And no as good as his job as he's like to think he is. And that Mavis realises this. Now where getting somewhere.

Friday 24 June 2011

How Much Should I Write?

Previous posts and comments have thrown up yet more questions. Let's start with this one:

When should I stop rewriting my script?
In the last post, Dave Cohen sagely advised caution before sending out scripts, and urged writer to hold off sending it out until it was really and truly ready. A while ago, I made the point that this is especially true for script competitions. It is generally worth holding back until you really are sure that the script is as good as it can be - bearing in mind it can still be better and will need to be rewritten depending on casting, rehearsal and technical considerations.

And so when to stop? How do you know when it's good enough to send? You don't know. And yet you do.

If you're sending a script out 'to give a potential producer a rough idea of how the show might look', it's not ready.

If you're sending a script out 'even though the ending still doesn't quite work, but since I'll have to rewrite it anyway, I'll do it then', it's not ready.

If, when rewriting it, you're painfully aware that you're not making it any better, but just changing the words, it might be ready. Put it away. Leave it for a few days - longer if you can - and return to it. You'll see bits that aren't right straight away. Try and explain the plot simply to a spouse or long-suffering friend. If you can do that, it might be ready.

Then Dave said that maybe it's time to stop work on that and start on the next episode. Good idea. But Griff says:

There's a danger of getting to the point when you're saying to producers "I've written the first twelve episodes and a Xmas special" and they start scanning the room for exits. So I guess however many episodes you've actually written, only ever send one out and let the others be your dirty secret?


Should I write more than episode?
Let's take a step back here. One script takes ages. Or at least it should. Working nine to five, five days a week, coming up with a storyline and getting it right could take a week. Maybe longer. The first draft will take a week. Maybe two. Then drafts 2 and 3 might be another week or two. That's a least a month of solid work before it's worth sending to anyone. And then do it again? On spec? Does anyone really have time to take longer than that for free? It's well worth having outlines up your sleeve for future episodes. While you wait for responses, work up two or three of those, maybe into longer scene-by-scene breakdowns. Doing this will reveal whether your show has legs, and whether the characters really are working, or will demonstrate that some of your characters are not generating interesting stories.

If you really have nothing else to do, and no children to read stories to or no hobbies to pursue, you could start to write another episode. But it's likely the first script will, if it is progressed at all, require seismic thoughts and rethinking, so a second script might not be of much use, or be better started from scratch much later.

If I were a producer and someone sent me a script with a note saying 'I've already written six episodes', my heart would sink because I'd assume that the writer thinks that writing sitcom scripts is easy, and not extremely time-consuming. The alternative is that this writer has spent months of their own time, unpaid, writing these episodes - at the exclusion of all other things and human relationships. And this would be a worry, because comedy is all about all those other things and those human relationships.

Is that harsh? Or fair? Bad advice? Do leave comments.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Where should I send my Script? Part 3

I've run a few sitcom course with the highly-experienced comedy writer Dave Cohen. We do plan to run some more in the autumn so look out for dates. But in the meantime, Dave's got some useful thoughts following up some recent posts here on the blog. And it's probably the best advice of the lot.

So here, in a sitcom geek first, is a guest post from Dave Cohen:

Hello, thanks for having me. Recently James posted two excellent pieces attempting to answer the question ‘where should I send my script’. And there were several very helpful suggestions, all of which I would broadly agree with. He did however, overlook one very important option, which is this:

Don’t send it. Hang on to it. Seriously. Okay, look me in the eye, or at least stare at the following questions on the screen and answer them honestly: is your script brilliant? Does it leap off the page? Is it absolutely stuffed full of brilliant gags? Are they made even funnier because they give us an hilarious insight into our leading character or characters’ flaws? Does the plot flow, with twists and turns that are entirely believable, and again determined by the actions of your lead character?

I’m not trying to bring you down here, I’m just being realistic. I’ve done it myself, sent out a spec script to a friendly producer, knowing deep down that there were problems with it. I’m sure I thought it was as good as I could make it, I may have even thought it was great, but I always knew there were one or two flaws that would give the producer an excuse to say ‘sorry, not this time.’

So why, you may ask with some justification, is there so much mediocre comedy on TV? The answer is that, once upon a time, the writer of that mediocre show sent out a script that was so brilliant, leapt off the page, stuffed full of gags etc etc, that the script got made, and the writer was successful. It’s never easy to get a commission, especially these days, and you have to put yourself in the producer’s shoes. If they have to choose to push one script, and it’s between your pretty good one, or the mediocre one by the person with a proven track record,they’ll usually choose the latter.

Brilliant scripts don’t happen very often. Micheal Jacob, who was for many years the BBC’s TV script editor, reckoned only a few of the thousands he read were really good. I can’t claim to have anywhere near the experience of Micheal but I’ve read hundreds of new scripts and not many have made me go ‘wow’. Depressingly, the best script I’ve ever read was about four years ago, by a successful working writer, and it still hasn’t been made.

So why don’t we write brilliant scripts? Almost invariably, the answer lies in one word: preparation. Before even a word of the script is written, there is so much groundwork required to make your show work. This is the most difficult, and most creative period in writing your show. It’s difficult because you’re starting with nothing, and you don’t know where your characters are going. The urge to start writing a script gets stronger as each day passes.

It’s a horrible dilemma. No working writer is ever 100% satisfied with the script they hand in, but the reality of a deadline concentrates the mind. Fake deadlines you set yourself are just never quite terrifying enough. But if I was allowing myself three months of spare time to create a spec script with new characters, I would expect to spend at least two thirds of that time in preparation.

When I’ve given in to that urge to start writing before having an absolutely clear sense of what the show is about, my script has not been good enough. Some people argue that it is only when you start writing the script that you begin to see where the characters are going. Very well, start writing: but make that script be part of the research you can use… when you begin writing the brilliant script.

Thanks Dave. Do leave comments below.

Monday 20 June 2011

Writing those lines that, you know, the audience laugh at...

... what are they called, again? Oh yes. Jokes.

I like jokes. I like laughing. Out loud. I quite like smiling. And I quite the like feeling of having spotted something really subtle. But I think I like laughing the best.

I fully appreciate that some people don't like laughing. Somehow, some of them are TV critics. It's understandable to some extent. Most comedies wouldn't seem all that funny when played on a preview disc at 11am in a brightly lit lounge on a Tuesday morning. Also, some critics simply consider laughing to be beneath them. AA Gill is one, as I pointed out here. Let us remind ourselves of why he liked TV series Lead Balloon:

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.

Thanks, Mr Gill. I'll bear that in mind for all your futures reviews about comedy.

I mention all this because I'm in the throes of writing another radio series with Milton Jones who, apart from being a most delightful and kind human being, writes some of the best jokes in the English-speaking world.

The show we write for Radio 4 is called Another Case of Milton Jones which can you sample/buy here. In general, it is a show that will go anywhere or do anything for a joke. But the show has a strong narrative, as well as some regular characters, and it's far from a case of connecting up a series of Milton Jones' superb one-liners, although they are extremely useful to have in the armoury.

Writing the show is always a bit of a work-out for me. I have to be at the top of my game to keep up with Milton, joke-wise, but my main skill is seeing beyond the next joke, to the next scene, and all the way to the end, shaping the story and ensuring the whole thing makes sense, so that when the Czech Grandmaster is trapped inside a cage made of Twiglets and fed to an angry mob of penguins, we know why it's happening, and therefore why it's funny. (Confusion is the enemy of comedy)

Odd Conversations
During the course of writing the show, Milton, the producer David Tyler, and I end up having bizarre conversations about jokes, working out specifics about what colour or which animal is funniest, whether a scene should take place in Mexico or Panama, and what words should be omitted. It takes hours. We ensure that each script is given our full attention for two whole days (with the script having been broadly written and reworked before we start that process). Some days we're there for 12 hours, meaning some scripts after given 24 hours of careful attention from three of us. And then Milton has another pass at the script, filling in gaps, and deleting stuff he's only 50/50 about. In short, it takes ages. But at the same time, it's great fun because at the end of it, we've got some really funny jokes that make us laugh in the room - and we're excited about telling them to the audience so they can laugh too. This is comedy, remember.

Let us note, then, that writing comedy is hard. It's not just a question of natural ability. It's natural ability plus graft. The British love the idea of an effortless genius. It's broadly a myth. There was of course Peter Cook. But that was it. The rest of us just have to take our talents and work our guts out.

Writing Jokes
In the process of the above, however, there are a few things that crop up when trying to write or polish a joke that I pass on to the possible benefit for reading several. Three things as a starting point.

Clear a space - make sure the joke isn't being compromised by things around it. The audience are expecting jokes. Don't give them the jokes they expect. But at the same time, don't confuse them or make their life harder. Earlier, I mentioned about whether to set a scene in Mexico or Panama. In the room, we might say 'Oh, let's not do Panama. They'll be expecting a joke about a hat or a canal, and we're not doing those jokes. Can't it be Mexico?' It's all about expectation and stereotype. These can help you when they're part of the joke, but they can get in the way if the joke's about something else. Remove words in the set-up to the joke that are in themselves funny-sounding, if they're not the joke. In short, clear a space for your joke. No distractions.

Rhythm and Bounce - make sure the joke is sayable and has a natural rhythm to it, (unless of course the joke is about jarring words, or expectations). Shakespeare's so memorable and easy to say because of the iambic pentameter. He did okay. Discordant, jerky sentences tend not to work. Let us not forget some of the all time great one-liners from Blackadder eg. 'Your brain, for example, is so minute that if a hungry cannibal cracked your head open, there wouldn't be enough in side to cover a small water-biscuit'. 'Water biscuit' much funnier than 'cracker', which is shorter, but not as nice in that spot. Also, cracker can mean other things, lik Christmas cracker, and a cracker is also a sort of joke. Delete cracker. Use water-biscuit. Think about rhythm and flow. Say it out loud. If you can't say your line, why should the actor be expected to?

Zing and Sting - make sure the funny bit is at the end, so it zings. Sounds silly, but I watch plenty of comedy where the funny bit is drowning in a soup of words around it. The funny line, the punchline, the pay-off, should come last, so the audience can then laugh. They won't laugh if you're still talking. They're very polite. They'll wait 'til you've finished, by which time the laughter will have dissippated. This is the bit our American friends are really good at. (I always say that 'American English is the natural language of sit-com' Discuss)

Also, make sure it is actually a joke. Some lines feel like jokes, because of their shape, clarity and rhythm, but, on inspection, there's nothing there. It's an ersatz-joke. It's just someone talking. It may get a laugh, but it doesn't help you. Cut it. Or turn it into a joke. Or use it as a set-up to a new joke.

Some would say all of the above is against the principles of 'naturalism' that you get in comedy now. Shaky cameras and people mumbling, stopping and starting. It's quite fashionable at the moment. But that kind of comedy hides the fact that when that stuff is done well, you don't notice that jokes are clear and the lines are sayable. You're thinking 'people don't talk like this in real life' because it's all flowing well and you're too busy enjoying it.

All of the above takes time, especially if you do it on every line in every scene. But that's okay. You're a writer. It's what you do. And always remember - it beats real work.