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.