Thursday 31 March 2011

The Answer Was There All Along

This evening I watched Big Bang Theory. The episode was called 'The Pants Alternative' (Season 3, Ep18), the climax of which you can see here. It won Jim Parsons an Emmy for his performance.

Let's make no bones about this. Big Bang Theory is a funny show. It's a good setting, the characters are well-drawn and the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny. I like it. I don't love it, for reasons I'll explain. For me, the writers have allowed Sheldon to become too dominant. The show, for me, should be about Leonard, as he is our 'way in' to the world - and someone we can identify with. I, personally, would have made it a will-they/won't-they with Penny and ran that for a few years. But then, Chuck Lorre really does know what he's doing. The house I live in would probably fit into the downstairs bathroom of his house.

Clear Quest
But I felt 'The Pants Alternative' episode had a strong positive and a strong negative that was worthy of note. And some annoying niggles. The big positive is that the quest of the characters is pin-sharp, easy and clear:

Sheldon has to give a speech. Why? Sheldon has won an award. But a condition of accepting it is giving a speech to a large room of people.

Problem: Sheldon physically cannot give a speech to a room of people large enough to trample him. (Funny joke - but hides the fact that I don't quite believe this. Sure, Sheldon could give a speech. He is surpremely self-confident, but I'll got with it).

Solution: The other characters take it upon themselves to get Sheldon through it, and prepare him to give a speech. Penny takes him shopping for a new suit. Leonard tries psychiatry. Rajesh does meditiation. It provides three decent set-piece scenes. Seems odd that no-one has mentioned what he's going to say, but again, I'll go with it. So far, so good.

No New Information
Leonard steps up to introduce Sheldon at the dinner for the speech - but in Leonard's speech, Sheldon gets nervous. So what happens? He has a drink. Sheldon doesn't drink, apparently. This hadn't been mentioned in the episode before. Then Sheldon gets up and, hammered, gives an inappropriate speech, leading to losing his trousers.

Here's the big negative: Why are we introducing alcohol to the story? For me, the third act, leading to the climax, should contain no new information, or anything that hasn't been feature in the episode. The quest is clear. The problem crops up. We think we have a solution. But it doesn't work. We need another solution - and it should be something that was there all along. Otherwise if feels that the characters are not to blame for missing it. It feels like a deus ex machina.

I can well imagine plenty of viewers have no problem with the episode - and laughed at Sheldon's drunken antics. And I'm just being picky. But I really think that episodes lose momentum when they introduce new elements too late in the story.

All that said, Sheldon, giving a speech drunk, was funny.

But it wasn't as funny as it could have been because it didn't have any consequences. Nothing was really at stake. The award was not withdrawn - which, granted, wouldn't have been funny. Nothing else happened. The episode just ended. Now, I'm all in favour of swift endings. Writers often labour over epilogue scenes which tie up all the loose ends when the audience just don't care. But in the case, I cared. And it didn't seem to matter. Which is why, ultimately, I don't love it.

Monday 21 March 2011

Bleep My Dad Says

It can be depressing watching American comedy. My current favourites are 30 Rock and Modern Family that are so good, they sometimes makes me consider giving up since I don't feel I will ever reach those heights and that level of comic perfection.

And therefore it's very heartening and encouraging to watch other American comedies that aren't so good. So scan the cable/freeview channels for shows that don't walk off with all the Emmys.

Recently, I watched Hot in Cleveland and found myself cringing. It had the tempo and feel of Will and Grace (which is a good thing), but the whole show felt like set-ups for jokes and outrageous moments. I believe the show has been unfavourably compared to Golden Girls, which is a show I very happily watched growing up in the days that Channel 4 were happy to show that kind of thing. But the show seems to have found an audience and doing okay in the USA so it's clearly good enough.

But watching these shows is also educational and useful, since one can watch them and wonder what the problem is, or at least why they're not working for you. A Channel Five spin-off channel, bewilderingly called 5* is showing $#*! My Dad Says - a much-hyped sitcom based on a Twitter account in which a guy just tweeted stupid and vaguely offensive stuff that his dad came out with. It's a perfectly decent starting point for a sitcom - and revolves around a larger than life character. But when I watched it - episode 2 about getting the internet connected - I didn't find myself laughing all that much. And I pondered why - and what we can learn.

One problem is that the Dad, played perfectly well by William Shatner, didn't seem to have a reason for his permament state of mild anger or intransigence. I shouldn't have bothered me. I shouldn't have need to ask why - but I was asking because it felt like this character didn't really have anything to do except rant, or complain about his son. What is his quest? What does he want? How do we know when he has that thing?

The other problem is that the other three characters weren't characters but foils, or people talking about stuff. Having watched an entire episode, I couldn't not name a single characteristic of any of the other characters. And this is episode 2, so they really should be hammering this stuff.

My guess is that there was a great deal of worry that the Dad was so brutal and offensive (which he isn't) that the other characters needed to be 'likeable'. But 'likeable' can easily lead to 'bland'. As I've said before in previous posts, characters don't have to be 'likeable' but compelling. And so the episode I saw was three nice characters dancing around one central unlikeable character, trying to get him to do what they wanted him to do.

Two of the characters in the show had clear quests: the daughter-in-law was worried about a rash on her breast which sparked a comment that the other son couldn't shake off... but there was nothing at stake. It didn't really make any difference to anything. It put her husband off-lovemaking. But so what? Surely the stakes could have been raised by this being a particularly good time to try and conceive a baby.

The clearer quest was the son who lived with the dad trying to get his dad to agree to having the internet connect - but because this son was so loosely drawn and a 'writer/blogger' of some kind (urgh. Don't you just hate writers who blog?), I didn't care if he succeeded or not. And his dad simply irrationally stood in his way.

Overall, it was an unsatisfactory experience, but a useful one. When you are setting up a new show, it's always worth asking whether your characters are well-drawn enough, clear enough to be understood quickly. If they're nuanced too much, or make 'likeable', it won't much matter how clear their quest is, because we just won't care.

You want clearly drawn characters? Just watch the opening titles of The Golden Girls - the opening theme of which tells you that it's about friendship. But when you see the characters, you immediately know what drives them and what they are like.

Monday 14 March 2011

So Seventies

Last night, I finally got round to watching Part 2 of The Story of Variety with Michael Grade. Part 1 was excellent, interesting and surprising - full of stuff about the thousands of variety acts criss-crossing Britain to play the hundreds of variety. Part 2 was a little bit rubbish and covered the well-trodden variety acts who ended up on TV. Twenty minutes on Morecambe and Wise isn't really necessary given the dozens of docs they've been covered in before.

Why did they include all that footage of Morecambe and Wise? Because they know we love it and never tire of it. And Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd and all those old-fashioned acts that are still funny, partly because they're so beautifully crafted, and also because they are experienced. But their comedy is universal and timeless.

I mention this because it struck me that one criticism levelled at shows like Mrs Brown's Boys is that they are so dated, and so seventies. That was the over-riding complaint on Twitter as the show was first broadcast. It's in some of the reviews too, but the point is not whether or not Mrs Browns Boys is so seventies - but the question 'Why is this a bad thing?'

Mumford and Sons are, essentially, a folk band. Aren't we done with folk? Isn't that so 1670s? Apparently not. Some people love them - and now they are popular, some people have decided to hate them. But why hate them? Because it's folk? Not really. Music combines old and new. Why is comedy different?

Specifically, comedy from the seventies is still shown on television very regularly today. Cable channels are full of it. At Christmas, they still repeat Morecambe and Wise. So why is it bad if, comedically, something seems very seventies? Certainly comedy has moved on for some people. Our tastes change. But comedy itself hasn't progressed. Just moved in a direction we call forwards because that's the way it looks from where we're standing.

A show is no better or worse for harking back to the old days or having a feel of a by-gone era about it. Miranda has attracted praise for being old-fashioned. But that is precisely the reason that some people hate it - or more specifically say daft things like "I shouldn't like it but..."

Mrs Brown's Boys
While we're on the subject of Mrs Brown's Boys, I should declare an interest in that I know the producer and the script editor, so use that to filter whatever I say on the subject. But I'll say this: I wasn't expecting to like the show given that I don't find drag especially funny, and the style of humour is not to my taste at all. I watched it out of professional interest and courtesy, and discovered I liked it much more than I thought I would. I don't love it, because it's not my thing. And yet, I laughed out loud several times - significantly more times than I did at cooler, hipper Channel 4/BBC2/BBC3 shows we could mention that pride themselves on being very now. I don't care what people say: Taizering yourself by mistake is funny:

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Annoying People & Boring Bits

This week, I watched an episode of Red Dwarf Series IV that somehow I had never seen before. I am a huge fan of Red Dwarf and Series V and VI, especially - a really good blend of characters, gags and sci-fi imagination. But I missed the Waxworld episode all those years ago and never caught up.

Let's be honest. It's not the best of the episodes. The story is a bit wobbly and the location shooting is pretty ropey (which is a blog posting for another time). There are lots of unfamiliar characters that get in the way. But the episode starts with Rimmer telling a long boring story about a game of Risk that he played years earlier. The gag is that Rimmer is going on and on and has no idea how boring he's being. But, it's not really funny at all because it's, well, boring. Jokes about boredom, shaggy dog stories and anticlimaxes are often disastrous in shows, especially when shot in front of audiences. They don't usually play very well because they are boring, pointless or anti-climactic.

Non-audience shows can make a feature of these, and nuance them to perfection, as they did in The Office and People Like Us - making many others think they can do them. But my experience as an audience member, and as a writer, have taught me to avoid doing jokes along these lines.

A similar phenomenon has arisen in Friday Night Dinner. Mark Heap brilliantly plays a really annoying next door neighbour. But he doesn't make me laugh. He just makes me annoyed. The character is clearly sociopathic and doesn't realise when he's not wanted, and thus hangs around and causes embarrassment, and it's very true to life. People often don't get the message. It's believable. But I wonder how laugh-out-loud funny the character is.

There is certainly mileage to be had in these boring/annoying characters. But most of it is in the lengths the other characters have to go to in order to avoid being stuck with the annoying/boring character - and that this has comic consequence. In the Christmas episode of Miranda, she says that she finds carol singers annoying, because you just have to stand there while they sing and it's very awkward. And so, at the distant sound of carol singers, she pretends not to be in - and has to get all her customers to hide, which is, I think, rather funny. And even better, in so doing, she misses the van delivering her package in the process.

There are ways of doing this. But my general word of warning is to ask yourself whether you annoying character is funny - or just plain annoying. If it's the latter, delete, avoid, kill or rewrite.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Friday Night Dinner

Let us begin with a few caveats. The first is that SitcomGeek is in awe of Robert Popper, the writer of Friday Night Dinner. The man was, in no small part, responsible for Look Around You, the first series of which is possibly the funniest television in many years. I always describe it as 'unnecessarily funny'. In one, sense this makes me biased towards him, but also increased my expectations.

Given this, the second caveat is that Mr Popper probably knows exactly what he's doing and, frankly, whatever I say he already knows but he's gone his own way anyway. Fair enough.

The third caveat is to mention that the show really is very similar in set-up to Grandma's House, but that this doesn't really make any difference to anything. They were probably commissioned at about the same time, and it's an unfortunate coincidence, but so what? I'm not sure which I prefer. Given I didn't really buy Simon Amstell's performance in Grandma's House, even though he was playing himself, I would probably veer towards Friday Night Dinner, which has no weak links in the cast. They are all fab to a man. And woman. But I don't have to prefer one or the other. And I don't think the audience cares. They'll make up their own minds whether to watch, one, the other or both. Given the tiny amount of new comedy narrative on TV generally, they'll probably want to watch whatever is put in front of them as long as its half decent.

The four caveat is that there's not all that much point judging a sitcom, and it's success, appeal and longevity, on the basis of one episode.

Therefore, I'm just going to focus on the boring mechanics of that one show and examine why, for me, the show never quite got going, and therefore didn't quite do it for me, even though I'll be back for more.

I liked the nice quirkness of a dad being hot and stripped to the waist - and that no-one bats an eyelid at this. I liked the pace of the show and the dialogue - and the fact that it felt real. The brotherly bickering and banter was believable, although it never quite gave me a chance to get a handle on either character.

But, if I were handed the script asked to comment on it with a 'script/story editor' hat on (wow, you should see that hat in real life. It's quite something) I'd say that I don't really feel I know any of the characters. But most ofall, I don't feel the consequences of the stories quite deliver or escalate enough in this episode.

The New Scientist Magazine storyline was a nice one - and rang true - but where did it end? The Dad was caught out trying to horde them with his son, whilst buying more. Mum tuts and despairs. And that was that. I didn't really backfire on the dad in any satisfying way. I rather liked the implication at one point that the magazines were pornographic. Exploiting that with the sofa-buyer could have been fruitful.

The sofa-bed got stuck, but why? In sitcoms, things need to go wrong for a reason - ideally a character-based reason. None of them were being stubborn or causing the problem, so it just got stuck and it didn't seem to be anyone's fault. (Funny bit when they kept saying "slowly") And then it got stuck for no good reason – and then the consequences weren’t very funny. They climbed out via ladder. A bit of groping by the neighbour. Then back inside and sofa falls and breaks the banister. Is that so bad? Obviously it's annoying to have your bannister wrecked, but what's at stake for the characters?

Finally, the sofa-bed buyer, Chris Parker, presented good opportunities. Gotta love Matt Holness. The fact that he needed the loo and that there was uncertainty was very funny, but it didn't really escalate. It was just an awkward situation. The dad had confused the dates he was coming - but why had he? And then Holness's discovery that his dad had died was good timing, but the fact he no longer needed the bed was quite funny. Should the dad not have kept trying to 'sell the bed' while the man was grieving? Putting a positive spin on it? And then the presence of salt in two drinks was an odd way to go in pushing him over the edge.

It feels like all the ingredients are there, and things are being set-up but not paid off. If I can use a cricketing metaphor, it's like getting to 250 off 40 overs, and then ending up with 295 off 50, rather than going on and getting 325+. I'm sure that's made everything crystal clear.

This show also highlights one other thing. People, critics especially, are very sniffy about mainstream BBC1 comedy, and like to fawn over Channel 4 stuff because it's different, edgy and young. But this is a very mainstream comedy. It's about a white nuclear family - and the storylines were dad hoarding stuff, mum wants to watch the Masterchef final, prankster brothers, a wacky neighbour needing the toilet, and a sofa gets stuck. That could be My Family. I don't say that's a bad thing at all. But it is a thing.