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.