Wednesday 27 April 2011

The First Two Minutes

I'm not a particularly big fan of Dad's Army. It's a show hugely respect - but not one I especially find myself wanting to watch. (Hi-De-Hi was the rising show as I was growing up and getting into comedy.) But I watched the opening of the episode that was on BBC2 on Saturday (why make new comedy when you could repeat the 70s sitcom about the 40s?). Sadly it's not on iplayer, so I can't link to it. It think it's the Brain vs Brawn episode from Series 5. The first two minutes were very impressive from a writing point of view, and worth stopping to think about for a moment.

The show opens at a Rotary club. Mainwairing is there, receiving a sherry from a waitress, who says he can only have one because of rationing. Wilson arrives, who is there as Mainwairing's guest. Mainwairing points out the President of the Club and encourages Wilson to ingratiate himself with him, but Wilson turns his back to talk to the waitress, complimenting her on a pretty brooch. She is flattered and says she'll try and find him some extra sherry. Then Wilson meets the President - and it turns out he and Wilson were at school together and shared a room for a little while. Mainwairing tries to reassert supremacy by saying that Wilson works for him, but Wilson and the President walk off together, leaving Mainwairing behind - and the president says cheerio to Mainwairing, getting his name wrong. The entirety of Dad's Army is summed up beautifully in that little scene. The two main characters do their thing, and perform a mini-sketch, with nice jokes that sets up the rest of the show.

The opening of any show is, obviously, critical. I'd argue that, as the writer, you have two choices for that opening. Both are about building a relationship with your audience.

Choice One is go down this Dad's Army route, in which we re-establish the key characters leaving the audience in no doubt as to who the show is about and what the show is about. The only drawback with choice one is the sometimes it's a nice opening, and neat and clever, but not barnstormingly hilarious.

If were finding this choice a hard one, it may well be because we don't really know who the show is about, who they are in conflict with and what they are trying to achieve. We can't encapsulate the show in an opening sketch if we don't know what the show is. More work on the treatment, the characters, the outline and the stories for you, I'm afraid.

The thing to bear in mind with this choice also is that you cannot assume your audience know the characters - unless you're on Series 7 of your hit sitcom, in which case, you wouldn't be reading this blog (and if you are, can I have a job, please?) Always re-introduce your characters. Give the audience a hand getting a handle on them. This can slow things down or get in the way, which is why you could plump for:

Choice Two, which is to create a brilliant set-piece scene with a thwacking joke at the end. This might be done at the expense of re-introducing the characters to your audience, but it at least builds confident with the audience that this is going to be a funny show.

If you can pull it off, don't choose. Cheat. Do both. Miranda does this very successfully. She immediately builds rapport with the audience, establishing herself as a character, highlighting the potentially troublesome relationships in the show (with Penny, Gary, Stevie or Tilly) - and cutting to some big strong visual jokes to get the show moving comically.

If you watch the first two minutes of action (post titles) of Episode 1 of Blackadder Goes Forth (here), you learn that Blackadder is cultured (reading a book and listening to music), clever and cynical. You learn that Baldrick is very stupid, and the George is fanatically patriotic - and that Blackadder feels he's above the whole thing. That's the show. Then George produces a service revolver, and the story begins. That's how you start a show.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Script Competitions

I've never been keen on sitcom competitions, script initiatives, new writing prizes and all that.

Given that the BBC Writers Room get sent thousands of script a year anyway - ever single one of which is read - there seems little need to spend money on competitions and executives to manage them and readers to read the scripts. You could simply pay writers who show promise a little bit of money to make their scripts better.

But I've been warming, slightly, to these competitions recently since they encourage people to write - and finish - scripts. Many people respond to a deadline, so the fact there is a clear date, a prize and the promise of the script being read.

There is, however, a downside to this. Writing a decent half hour script takes ages. Especially a pilot script for a new show. It involves coming up with characters, honing them, storylining, honing the stories, writing, re-writing and editing. It's the kind of thing that would take me at least three weeks before I had anything I could bear to show to another human being who wasn't genetically programmed to love me unconditionally. That's three weeks of Monday-Friday, ten til six. I can do that because it's sort of my job.

Most people don't have this luxury, because they're holding down a day-job, or raising kids. Therefore, the whole process is done in evenings, or at weekends. This sounds really hard to me. That kind of bitty process probably lends itself to sketch writing, but not writing a half hour scripts. (It normally takes me 90 minutes to really get into a script for a day.) And so writing a script this way will take months. But most people don't have this sort of time, or hear about the competition late, or just don't knuckle down early enough. And therefore the script is half-baked, and sent off anyway.

This seems to be a widespread problem. I was interested to read this post on Chortle about Jon Plowman's session at the London Comedy Writers' Festival. Jon Plowman always says very sensible things about comedy and is a good egg, so anything he says should be given great credence. For me, the telling line was "a recurring theme of the festival [was that] writers [should] think carefully before sending off a script."

This chimes with my own experience. In recent weeks, I've been meeting a number of new and aspiring writers, and many of them said similar things about the last bunch of sitcom competitions. Something along the lines 'I entered the competition, but the script was a mess. I couldn't really get the ending to work, and one of the characters isn't funny. But I thought I'd send it anyway'.

People say these things for all kinds of reason. It might be because it's true. It's partly emotional insurance and a fear of failure, which is completely understandable. It's probably lack of confidence too, along the lines of 'I have no idea what works, so I may have written something good without realising it.' But let's be honest about this. It seems unlikely that a script that even you think isn't working would win a scriptwriting competition. So why send it in that state?

Given the proliferation of these competitions, it might be better to wait until the next competition comes round. Take that extra time to make the script good. Or really good. Put the script to one side for a month and then come back to it fresh. Be brutal. Go through each line. Does this line need to be here? Is it a joke, a set-up to a joke, or developing plot/character? If not, delete it.

The reality is that if you write a decent script, a really decent script, you don't need a competition to succeed. This is simply because there are hardly any decent scripts out there. Micheal Jacob, in his last blog for the BBC, writes:

I must have read - taking competitions and College of Comedy applications into account - maybe 10,000 aspiring scripts or part scripts. And the depressing fact is that no more than 100 were any good. The tragedy of comedy is that many people think they can write it and hardly anyone can.

If you can write - and you also write a superb script (not the same thing) - producers will want to meet you and stuff will happen. It's all about the script. Don't sell it short. Don't let it go off half-cock. Plan it. Mull it. Research it. Filter it. Replan it. Write it. Rewrite it. Edit it. Put it to one side. Forget it. Then get it out. Read it. Re-read it. Edit it. Then put in some more jokes. Then cut some of them out. And check it over again. It might then be ready to send.

It takes ages. Even if you're talented. Perhaps the proliferation of competitions gives people the idea that anyone can have a go because writing is easy. It is true that anyone can have a go. But it isn't easy. I've been doing it for over ten years professionally and only now am I starting to think I might have the beginnings of a clue as to what I'm doing. But I do know this. Talent is fine. But there is no substitute for hard work.

Monday 11 April 2011

Bored To Death

One of the best shows of recent times is Damages. It is truly compelling storytelling with monstrous characters and a brilliant script. It's full of lying liars lying their heads off. It is brilliant.

It is also possibly the least funny things I've ever watched every episode of. I find straight drama hard work since life is often funny. Anything that has every joke extinguished and every pun snuffed out is automatically less true to life, not more so. But for me, one of the revelations of the series was Ted Danson. Star of ever-popular Cheers, and the perfectly decent but much unloved Becker. But his performance in Damages was way better than anything to date.

And so I was awaiting Bored to Death with some keen anticipation. I taped it off Sky and watched it last night, hoping this would become regular viewing in my house alongside Modern Family, 30 Rock and House, MD.

Let's cut to the chase. I didn't like it at all. Ted Danson wasn't in it much. But that really wasn't the problem. It was quirky and stylish and 'aspirational', kind of. But overall, I was very confusing.

Firstly, our hero is a novelist, which is a bad start for me. I'm just not ever going to feel sympathy for a novelist or a screenwriter, even though I am a screenwriter and a failed novelist. (It also explains why I didn't really go for Episodes). He isn't a very appealing character, or especially compelling, or funny enough to get away with being neither appealing or compelling. Which is a pity. His redeeming quality is that his bearded friend is even worse, from what I could tell.

At the start of the show, our hero-novelist is dumped by his girlfriend who moves out because he won't stop smoking pot. He begs her to stay. But she leaves. (I'm with her) He wants to win her back. And write his second novel. And so he reads a Raymond Chandler novel - for some reason. When he wakes up, he advertises himself as an unlicenced private eye on Craiglist, and within seconds, gets a case.

Aha. We have a case. A quest. Good. Maybe this case will teach him something, I thought, about why he should give up pot and therefore win back his girlfriend. Or spark another novel (if you must). Or at least stop being so self-pitying.

But he solves the case without any great difficulty, jeopardy or comedy. He is also arrested, but there are no consequences to it. Overall, the case is unrelated to his own situation and he learns nothing through it. At the end of the episode, he is still single, still smoking pot and has nothing for his novel and so his 'quest' appears to have benefited nobody, and there are no upsides or side effects.

The writers and producers of this show are clearly experienced and talented. There were plenty of names I recognised on the opening titles. And people with experience can break rules - and maybe all six episodes form a complex and interweaving story with loads of quests and victories and consequences and failures and character-based plotlines. It didn't seem that way from the first episode.

Experienced writers - and lucky inexperienced writers - can break rules in comedy, and often get away with it. Half a dozen cracking jokes, one funny peripheral character, a wig and a breathe of zeitgeist can salvage a show that technically shouldn't work. But it seems that we, in 2011, are unlikely to overturn the guidelines laid down by Aristotle hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

Maybe the show is willfully breaking all the rules and revelling in ennui and existentialist despair - hence the title, Bored to Death. In which case, good luck to them. It's never going to chime with me, as I'm not an pessimistic existentialist but a contented Calvinist. I guess that's why I'm so preoccupied with story structure and the hero having a clearly defined destination...

Thursday 7 April 2011

Alarm Bells

So today, I’m going to be screaming at a burglar alarm. And my 3-year-old daughter will probably be joining in. And my little baby too. It’s going to be awful. But potentially very useful. Let me explain. And it does relate to sitcom-writing. I promise.

I live in a rented house with a burglar alarm that I don’t understand, with a manual written by someone who’s never met another person. We’ve lived in the house for 18 months, and have never switched the alarm on, mainly because I can’t face looking at the instructions. They are so annoying, unclear and counter-intuitive, they make me both drowsy and furious simultaneously.

But now it’s starting to bleep occasionally because one of the batteries is flat. And this looks ominous and potentially noisy. So I must take on the task of getting my head around it. And while I’m minding the kids while my wife goes out for a couple of hours later today, I’m going to try and do it then. I’m already doomed. I can’t be with my kids and achieve anything else at the same time. But let’s pass over this mild delusion. That’s not the point.

The point is this: I am embracing this situation in the hope that jokes and comic situations will be forthcoming. I am going to learn the ins and outs of burglar alams. Or at least one burglar alarm. And this may come in handy one day. Maybe along these lines:

Int. Writers Room. Day.
Eight writers are sitting round a large table in an airless, windowless room. There is a problem with this week's script. The story isn’t working. Our main character has to break into his own house for some hilarious but subtley contrived reason – but it’s not as funny as it could be. After a third coffee, Sitcomgeek’s brain finally kicks in and he speaks.

Sitcomgeek: What about the burglar alarm?

Writer 2: They don’t have one.

Sitcomgeek: Maybe they should have one.

Writer 3: But are burglar alarms? Are they funny? Really?

Sitcomgeek: They are if you don’t know how they work and you have to learn very quickly.

Writer 3: But you just punch in the code, surely? Every one knows their code. Who’s not going to know their code?

Sitcomgeek: I don’t know my code.

Writer 3: How could you not know your code.

Sitcomgeek: I never use mine. I rent. It was fitted before we moved in. It’s a hassle. And we have kids and I mostly work from home, so we’re always in.

Writer 2: So how does that help?

Sitcomgeek: I had change the battery on one of the movement sensors once. While I was minding the kids. Disaster. Kind of. It could have been catastrophic, though. It would have been if I’d had to have worked it out at night. Like our hero would have to.

Writer 2: That could work.

Sitcomgeek: Do you have any idea how hard those things are to work if you don’t know what you’re doing? The manuals are written by droids and pretty much everything triggers the alarm. It’s a nightmare.

Writer 4: When did this happen?

Sitcomgeek: Ages ago. I remember thinking at the time that this experience could be useful. It was the same day that I went to the gym, got out of the pool and discovered someone walked off with my towel and key. But that’s another story.

If you’re a sitcom writer, the upside of personal catastrophe is that you might be able to use it. Embrace that. Everything you do, the every day trials of life, are material. Go to gigs you might not like. Agree to do stuff that you might hate. Live life. And if possible, write it down. Keep a list that you can refer back to when the stories aren’t flowing. They might trigger something. And alarm bells might start to ring. Except in a good way.