Monday 28 February 2011

A Big Silly Thing

Okay, enough talk about money and courses and radio. Let's do some script nitty-gritty: the time, A Big Silly Thing.

Sometimes, when sitting in a room storylining Miranda, we talk about big silly events happening - those big farcical moments that stretch the laws of probability and credulity, but are undoubtedly funny.

When that happens, you need to ask two questions. Is it funny enough to justify this stretch in credibility? It may well do. A big clear physical joke that does not contravene character is fine. You can bend the laws of Physics as much as you like, ironically. But when a character behaves implausibly for the sake of a joke, the audience won't like it. So play with Newtonian physics by all means, as long as the joke is consistent with the characters and the story. But don't mess with the characters.

But even then the timing might not be right. And here is the second question. Where is it happening in the script? Once or twice, I've found myself saying out loud 'It's okay - it's the end of the show so we can do it'. I've been trying to work out why I say that - and let's remember this is an art, not a science - but this big silly events can happen at the end of the script, but not in the middle.

Maybe it's because everything in a sitcom needs to have consequences, right the way to the end. If someone does something miraculous in the middle of the show, the characters would have to respond to it in some way, which could knock your story out of shape. There would be 'fall-out' from the story. But if this silly thing happens at the end, we're spared all that reaction. Besides, know that the slate is wiped clean and we begin again next week with everything back to normal.

So, a Big Silly Thing is essentially a 'joke for free' - or something that tops a set-piece scene or moment. Almost like a punchline. I shouldn't really matter. And it certainly shouldn't be a plot resolver - or it may look like a Deus Ex Machina, which is essentially a resolution to a story that none of us could have seen coming and isn't merited by the characters. (See Measure for Measure for Shakespeare's lousiest ending when a Duke appears out of nowhere and wraps it all up. I've not read it or seen it, but it sounds dreadul.)

The characters are the key - they get themselves into messes, and they have to get themselves out again, or at least overcome characters flaws in order to accept help.
I'd be interested to hear the views and experiences of others.

Friday 25 February 2011

In Praise of Radio

There is no doubt that TV is where it’s at. Every new sitcom that comes out is reviewed by all and sundry, generates a thousand tweets and opinions.

This happens for a few reasons. The first is that we love sitcom and, as a nation, there aren’t that many on any more. Therefore any show purporting to be the next Only Fools and Horses or Blackadder is pounced upon like a piece of ribeye steak thrown to a starved lion. Secondly, television is an arresting medium. The images are so powerful they create an enormous impact on the viewer. Then, the next day, on the radio breakfast shows, presenters talk about last night’s television and begin the national conversation.

The aspiring comedy writer, then, could be forgiven for overlooking radio. But they’d be missing out on acres of opportunities.

A Great Place to Start
Many people say that radio is a great place to learn your comedy trade, pointing to all the writers who spend many years in radio before going on to television. This is true enough. Most writers over the age of 35 have a long radio CV, which will almost certainly include the mothballed Weekending and the defunct News Huddlines.

Plenty of shows were indeed tried out on BBC or discovered there – most recently ones being Miranda, Little Britain, People Like Us and a bunch of others. Going back some time, the classics practically defined the genre there, as the nation stopped for Hancock.

Also, there are open door shows on the radio designed specifically train up writers into the discipline of gag- and sketch-writing. I myself started as Weekending was finishing – and had the occasional bit on The Way It Is, sharing a table with likes of The Thick of It’s, Simon Blackwell. And this experience gives a fledgling writer a big boost in terms of morale. There’s nothing that can beat the buzz of hearing your joke(s) going out on national radio – especially if you wrote the joke that week. And especially if the joke is actually funny.

Some time later, I had the privilege of conceiving and script editing four series, Recorded for Training Purposes (yes, I did come up with name, how sweet of you to ask), which was conceived as show to encourage and train new writers. We found plenty. Now there’s BBC7s Newsjack. These shows simply don’t exist of television.

A Great Place to Write
All above is true enough. Radio is a great place to start. But I see radio as an end in itself. It’s a great place to write. It’s interesting that a number of writers come back to radio because of the creative freedom it affords. One notable example is Andy Hamilton – who wrote the wonderful Million Pound Radio show with Nick Revell from 1985-1992. Then had his monster Channel 4 hit Drop the Dead Donkey – but comes back to radio to do Old Harry’s Game and Revolting People, two shows that couldn’t really happen on television. And even while he is writing another monster TV hit in Outnumbered, he comes back to radio again and again.

What is it about radio? The medium itself is certainly intimate. If TV is like being yelled at, radio is like a pleasant side-by-side conversation. It’s more like reading a novel, where the pictures are in your head – where the special effects are so much better, and far more memorable.

But the business of writing for radio is wonderful, especially compared to television – where there are so many people in the way. In radio, it’s mostly you, the producer and a broadcast assistant. There aren’t really any execs or suchlike floating around making your life more complicated than it needs to be. The audience of two hundred or so will keep you honest on that front. And then there’s the cast.

A note here about casting, which is so much easier for radio, since it requires comparatively little rehearsal, no make-up and no line-learning. Assembling a really good cast is comparatively easy. Through radio, I’ve had the thrill of working with some superb actors who have significant profile. Apart from that, they have real experience and talent and can really lift the script with performance.

The Script is King
But if the characters and jokes are not on the page, they won’t appear. Because the process is so pared back, the script is everything. In television, the writer can feel like a small part in a big machine – and this can tempt one into thinking that the script is only part of the process. It isn’t. The script is king. Radio teaches you that in a hurry. There’s no hiding in radio – and so as a radio sitcom writer, you learn fast. If the show misfires, it's unlikely to have been a technical fault. Most likely, it's a script-error, a string or duff jokes, a confusing plot turn or a badly defined character. ie. your fault.

I'm very grateful for having had this education. Ten or twelve years, I was very hungry to get a sitcom on television. But now, having written 45 episodes of half-hour radio scripts, and co-written another 26 with Milton Jones, I now know how hard it is, how much work it is and what to expect. Now, to have my own solo TV show would be rather scary. Back in 1999 I was no way near scared enough.

Even better, the opportunities are there in radio, especially Radio 4 – which puts out comedy every week night at 6.30pm, and often at 11pm, and 11.30am. It’s at least 12 half hour slots a week, 52 weeks a year – to say nothing of the 200+ afternoon plays that are on every year. It’s not like television where there might be two or three sitcoms on per week across four BBC Channels, if you’re lucky. And everyone is scrapping for those slots. You're competing with Paul Whitehouse, John Sullivan and the guy who came up with Friends. On the radio, it always feels like you’re in with a chance (even though I’ve just had two shows turned down in the last Radio 4 offers round!).

A Great Place to Fail
The fact that radio is lower in profile, as we said at the start, is a good thing. And this makes it a great place to fail. We all fail as writers – and even if the scripts seem funny and the cast seem right, the show might turn out to be a bit of soupy mess. Success is all very fine and large, but failure is your friend. You learn through failure – humility as much as anything else and that is no bad thing.

A while ago, I had a nice show running on Radio 4 called Think The Unthinkable, starring Marcus Brigstocke and David Mitchell, among others. I tried to get a new show up on its feet called The Pits, set in fictional British Opera Company. It starred Paula Wilcok, Phil Cornwell, Lucy Montgomery and John Oliver (yes, that John Oliver). I thought it was okay and could have developed into something – but Radio 4 didn’t like it. The press completely ignored it and it vanished without trace. Google it. You won’t find it. It’s not even on Wikipedia. But on TV, the press, I’m sure would have torn it to shreds. But then again, it would never have happened on TV because there probably weren’t any slots.

It’s all happening in radio, my friends. It's a great place to start, to work, to learn and return to when you're rich and famous because it's a lot of fun.

Monday 21 February 2011

Interest Costs Nothing

This is the last post I'm going to do about money - for now. And the reasons for that are simple: It's too painful, it doesn't get you anywhere and there's no sign of things changing. (And I've blogged on this twice before, the last of which contains an amusing and cathartic Youtube clip of Harlan Ellison here that I highly recommend.)

Let's just summarise the basic problem: scripts should be free. That's the common wisdom around in Radio, TV and Film that writers have to put up with. No matter how many 'script initiatives' that various TV channels run, the assumption is always that the initial script, the one that takes someone at least A MONTH to write, should be gratis, free and without cost. Except to the writer, of course. He'll still have to pay his rent, gas bill and all that.

I realise that these script initiatives are there to attract new talent. Even though there aren't even enough comedy slots for the existing and experienced talent according to the BBC's Head of Comedy last month. Even though this new talented writer will need a fair amount of help from old or existing talent. And the channels love the idea that somewhere out there, they'll find the next writer of Only Fools and Horses - even though the writer of Only Fools and Horses had already written sketches for The Two Ronnies, and 30 episodes of Citizen Smith.

The art of writing sitcom takes about 4-10 years to crack. Asking all-comers to do it seems about as sensible as asking someone to 'have a go at being a surgeon'. Actually, the cost of the damage (c.£1-2million) is about the same. Constantly, annually, quarterly, begging new writers to send in scripts seems to me a curious way of finding the next sitcom hit, especially when dozens of experienced writers can't even get a Comedy Lab onto Channel 4.

It's a free country. Channels and corporations are free to do whatever they like with the money at their disposal, of course. But the problem is that it is now normal to expect any writer, regardless of experience and to go without payment for at least a month, so that a script can be browsed, commented on and then, most likely, discarded - because it's cost them nothing.

When I was a real rookie, I was with a producer at an indie who mentioned that a channel was interested in a show he was developing. I was enthusiastic and said something that conveyed I was excited. He looked at me blankly and said 'Interest costs nothing.' I've never forgotten that moment.

But nothing seems to be changing. The channels and controllers seem hell-bent on assuming that some comedy genius can re-invent the sitcom from a standing start and has a month free to write a script. Or that some existing experienced comedy writer with a mortgage and two kids is going to risk repayments in order to write a script of an idea which will be thrown into a pile with 2500 other scripts.

Naturally, the experienced writer has some advantages, and can perhaps progress things further and quicker (except one sitcom idea I have in with the BBC is over two years old, and it hasn't even had a read-through yet). But even the experienced writer normally has to do weeks of work unpaid. I had a meeting with a theatre producer a while ago who said he was doing me a favour by not paying me - in case the script wasn't as hoped and he'd end up trying promote something he didn't 100% believe in. And, for a split second, like a schmuck, I believed him.

But this kind of talk gets us nowhere. Things are, senselessly, as they are. Apparently it is better to pay a development producer £56k+ (inc NI/Pension & benefits) a year to persuade 7 comedy writers to write scripts for free than it is to just pay 7 comedy writers £7-9k each to actually write 7 scripts between them.

This is why I'm not going to whine about this any more (although that felt good). I'm just going to write scripts. Dialogue, jokes and that. Characters. Write and write. That's what I do. I am good for little else. I shall stop blogging about money - and get back to the boring technicalities of comedy writing.

So, back to work, everyone.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Constructed Reality: The Script

A producer, writer and a TV exec are shooting the breeze and talking about TV in general after a meeting in which writer is being told that there’s no money to make his well-written, carefully observed sitcom. The Producer leaves for another meeting, while writer remains behind, unsure of protocol.

Exec leans back and stretches.

Exec: So tonight, it’s the big show.

Writer: Big show?

Exec: Masterchef.

Writer: Oh.

Exec: Not a fan?

Writer: (shrugs) I like food. And competitions. Just not sure I want to see it on television?

Exec: Ha, ha, ha. (Beat) Seriously?

Writer: Also, you can’t taste what they’ve made, so the key experience is missing. Like porn with very bad lighting.

Exec: Ha! That lighting is hard to get right.

Writer: I’m sorry?

Exec: (Cough) The point is that this is event TV. Unmissable. Insanely popular. Sitcom is all very well, but this is Reality.

Writer: Is it? But is the entire thing not total artifice? When do total strangers normally cook competitively with each other and then told off on national TV for not sufficiently devilling the kidneys?

Exec: Okay, fair enough. But the people are genuine.

Writer: They are, but they’re carefully chosen.

Exec: Yeah, and it’s really important that the casting is right.

Writer: You just called it casting.

Exec: No I didn’t. Beside, everyone know it’s not real reality. But some kind of…

Writer: Fake reality?

Exec: It’s not fake. Anymore. A lot of my close personal friends had to resign over that. Some of them were out of work for several weeks.

Writer: Sorry.

Exec: It’s called Constructed Reality.

Writer: Ha. It’s funny what TV does to you, isn’t it? I mean, it makes you say things like ‘Constructed Reality’ without laughing straight away afterwards.

Exec: (Beat) Why would you laugh?

Writer: Well,… because… No reason.

Exec: The other trick is spending enough on promoting the thing.

Writer: Really?

Exec: Hell, yeah. They really have to make it count because it’s not cheap to make. These celeb judges cost a fortune, and you should see the riders these people insist on. Plus the bespoke tense music. That’s pricey. And then the advertising.

Writer: Advertising?

Exec: Yeah. If you’re shelling out that kind of money, you have to make sure you’re getting bums and eyeballs.

Writer: I thought you said it was insanely popular.

Exec: It is. It is. It’s just sometimes you have to remind people how popular it is.

Writer: I see that.

Exec: Plus you have to get it all on the first showing and the cheap spin-off discussion show afterwards. You can’t repeat this stuff, or sell it on DVD. You get peanuts for re-runs on UK Food 3: Leftovers. We tried ‘Masterchef: Reheated’ but it just didn’t fly. It’s not like you can show it again and again forever like Blackadder or the Vicar of Dibley or those, you know…

Writer: Sitcoms?

Exec: Yeah, whatever. Listen, I have to go. It’s a celeb restaurant opening. I’ll try and steal you some bread rolls.

Exeunt. (Exec via door. Writer via 4th floor window)

Dissolve to several months later. BBC4 shows comedy biopic of sitcom writer who jumps from 4th floor window.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Too Many Notes

The venerable Sam Bain has written a very helpful blog about giving and receiving notes here. I agree very much with what he's written, and can add my tuppence to anyone who cares to listen.

It's worth thinking about why receiving notes is so painful. There are a few reasons that spring to mind. The first is that writing a script is an emotional process. The script is like an offspring that bears one's own DNA. Your characters are almost like children. It's impossible to receive criticism of one's offspring and not take it personally. Any attack on them stings.

The second is a more pragmatic source of pain. When the notes get going, and you realise there are problems to be fixed, you know that this is going to mean work. Cutting, editing, losing your favourite jokes and scenes, and thinking of something new, original, clever, funny and suitable to go in their place. This will take hours. And you know that these new scenes and lines in themselves will be subject to further notes.

These two things lead to grumpiness - and can easily tip over into resentment, especially if you're not impressed with the script editor's credentials. I personally find it hard to take notes from producers and script editors who haven't made any comedies that I really like or respect. (It is worth pointing out that you need to be careful not to believe every note you are given.) But in general, one needs to just suck it up and judge each note on its merit, not on the CV of the note-giver, and consider if there's anything in it. There usually is. Even the silliest or most spiteful criticism has a grain of truth at the centre. Most notes are not silly or spiteful, so listening to them really shouldn't be all that hard.

So what I have to do is remember one thing - that every rewrite makes the script better. Draft 1 is always a messy over-written jumble. The notes help draft 2 to be a more focussed bit of writing that still needs a good kicking. Draft 3 should be in decent shape, but still needs cutting down and punching up, so that Draft 4 is at least readable by actors. And then you do Draft 5.

It's easy to take your foot of the gas half-way through Draft 3 or 6, and start ignoring the notes, or assuming your cast will 'do something with that bit'. At that point, you need to remember a feeling you'll have in a few weeks time when the script is recorded in front of an audience, or broadcast on television - it's a little stab of disappointment of seeing your cast perform some lines of yours that you know in your heart of hearts aren't quite right and could be better. Remember that feeling. Take the notes. Put the hours in. Do it again. And again. And again. And again. If you don't, the biggest loser will be you.

Monday 7 February 2011

A Course with Yours Truly

Can comedy be taught? You can be the judge. On Friday 25 March, I'll be joining forces with experienced comedy guru Dave Cohen for a day of teaching comedy writing for radio. A week later, on Friday 1st April, we'll be in the same place thinking specifically about sitcom for television.

As you can imagine, teaching people how to funny is impossible. That said, there are lots of mistakes and common pitfalls that new writers make, which are easily avoided, both in writing comedy and trying to make your way in the industry. Dave and I hope to impart some knowledge on those fronts to give your work the best chance of success. Given the overall size of the event, it should be fairly intimate, so there'll be plenty of scope for interaction and Q&A.

If that sounds of interest, the details are below:


Award-winning writers Dave Cohen and James Cary will guide you through the do’s, don’ts and maybe’s of writing comedy specifically for radio: from one-liners, through sketches, all the way to sitcoms. Everything except how to come up with the jokes – that’s your job. The following week they will take you one step at a time through the process of creating your TV sitcom: character, plot, dialogue and visuals, creating a believable, funny world that audiences will want to return to each week. Everything except how to come up with the jokes...

Writing Comedy for Radio - 25th March 2011
Every year, BBC Radio broadcasts hundreds of hours of scripted comedy and comedy drama – far more than all the other TV channels combined. The opportunities in radio are considerable, but writing comedy is slightly different from writing for television, film or the stage.

Radio has always been a writer's medium, with hits that have become part of the fabric of British society – Hancock, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue… hit TV shows that began on radio - Little Britain, Goodness Gracious Me, People Like Us, Miranda Hart’s Joke Shop, Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner... and where writers and performers love to return to create shows that could never be done on TV –Lenny Henry, Andy Hamilton, French & Saunders.

Above all it's where new writers are given their first broadcast opportunities – Weekending, News Huddlines, Recorded for Training Purposes, Newsjack.

Writing Sitcom For TV - 1st April 2011
After a period in the doldrums the audience show is back in fashion thanks to IT Crowd, Not Going Out and the BBC’s latest award-winning hit show Miranda. Also a number of non-audience hits have revived the form, notably Channel 4’s Peep Show and Inbetweeners, and BBC1’s Outnumbered. But sitcom is a notoriously difficult form to master, and requires several different skills to be applied simultaneously.

We’ll look at the difference between writing for audience or non-audience, for the BBC and for the commercial sector, for mass or specialised audiences, and writing for one of the three growing Sitcom Writing competitions – Sitcommission, Sitcom Saturday and The Sitcom Trials.

The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) 13 Haydon Street, London, EC3N 1DB - Map here.

Writing Comedy for Radio: 25 March 2011, 10am-4pm Writing Sitcom for TV: 1 April 2011, 10am-4pm The cost per day is £75 +VAT (Total cost £90) – this includes tea and coffee, but not lunch.


SPECIAL OFFER: Take part in both courses and pay £125 + VAT (Total cost £150) for the two days.

For further information about booking and how to pay write to

Dave Cohen has written for dozens of radio shows including News Quiz, Dead Ringers, Sunday Format and Jammin. He co-created and has written six series of 15 Minute Musical, which won Best Radio Comedy at the 2009 Writers’ Guild Awards. He wrote and starred in two series of Radio 1’s Songlines, and his solo series Travels With My Anti-Semitism. He writes for Not Going Out on BBC1 and has written for numerous BBC sitcoms including My Family and Life of Riley. He is a regular writer on Have I Got News For You and songwriter for Horrible Histories, voted Best Sketch Show at the recent Channel 4 Comedy Awards.

James Cary won a Silver Sony Award for Think The Unthinkable, starring Marcus Brigstocke and David Mitchell. Since then, he has written Hut 33, and co-written Another Case of Milton Jones, Miranda Hart’s Jokeshop and Concrete Cow. He also script edited all four series of Recorded for Training Purposes. He writes for the award-winning Miranda on BBC2, and has also written episodes of My Family and My Hero, as well as numerous TV Pilots, and Radio 4 sitcoms, Think the Unthinkable and Hut 33.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Choosing Wisely

Last night, I finally got round to watching The King's Speech - and was relieved and thrilled that it was as good as the hype suggested. Colin Firth's performance really is stunning, and his on-screen relationship with Logue (Geoffrey Rush) was electrifying. This is a film with no fireworks or special effects, camera tricks or plot gimmicks - just characters talking. The power of the words really is stunning.

Here's one thing I take from this movie: What a great choice of story. David Seidler could have written about any number of things - and struggled to make it cinematic or shootable. He chose a story that lends itself to a strong central relationship with a clear climax. Bertie, the Duke of York, has royal duties but cannot speak in public. There is the toe-curling opening scene in which this is made obvious. His quest is simple and comprehensible. We know he will be king because of his feckless brother, and he will have to overcome this disability. And it will be obvious to us when he does. The radio broadcast at the end is the clinching victory. And because the story is so straightforward, we can revel in this fascinating and extraordinary relationship between King and Speech Therapist, Logue. There is, of course, the extra moment when Logue calls Bertie 'Your Majesty' and offers him the approval and respect that Bertie craves - and has truly earned.

In a way, it seems like the writer is cheating. The story almost writes itself. (It doesn't, and never does, but you get the idea). But how many of us beat our heads against a wall trying to tell a story clearly and simply, when it doesn't want to be told? There's something inside the story that attracts us, but sometimes the nut is too tough to crack. In which case, look for another nut.

A while ago, I read a management book for research. It talked about some people in business whining that their competitors are cheating. Big airlines whinge that the lo-cost airlines are making easy money because they are cheating, with cheap hubs, cheap planes, profitable routes and luggage restrictions. If someone talks like this, ask them this. "So why aren't you cheating?"

It may be genuine fascination with a story, a relationship or even a fact. But it may be that you've invested so much time in it that it simply has to be made to work. If you're in a hole, stop digging. Move on. Choose another story or character or situation.

I have a number of scenarios and ideas for sitcoms that I keep coming back to. I'm sure that they should work, or can be made to work, but they're just too complicated, require too much explanation or have other related problems. I need to stop digging and move on. Maybe you do too. It may be that a light is switched on and the idea is transformed and I know how to tell that particular story. But until that moment, I need to spend my time elsewhere, finding characters and stories that can be beautifully and wonderfully told - like The King's Speech.