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 café 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.


  1. My main issue with the show was how little the title and the premise actually have to do with the bulk of the interactions. Of the actual "spy" based things that happened in the whole series, I can only remember him climbing up a fire escape to get a bag, that was supposed to be important, for some reason.

    I loved the cast, and the ping-pong of the dialogue, but they could have bolted any premise onto the core of the story - the custody battle and the burgeoning office romance - and it would barely have changed it at all.

  2. I can't comment on this particular show as I've not seen it (and probably never will as I don't/will not have Sky), but I find the issue of first episodes of sitcoms requiring lots of backstory and thus missing the jokes interesting.

    Firstly, if you really need the backstory it should be possible to do that in a way that is engaging and still funny. The first episode of Black Books, whilst perhaps not as good as the rest of the series, is still pretty funny while setting up the story well. Spaced, My Name Is Earl and Southpark spring to mind as having excellent first episodes without needing huge amounts of exposition. The generally great IT Crowd on the other hand has a first episode that has about 3 laughs in an otherwise painful 26-odd minutes. This is odd because it is a show that is primarily about 3 characters who are basically stereotypes that anyone can recognise and understand without explanation. At the very least it should be possible to power through the setup in about 5-10 minutes and then get back on with the comedy (Spaced being a brilliant example where they established the two lead characters in about two minutes whilst keeping it within the plotline).

    But as you have intimated with this post, why do you need to set the backstory at all? I actually disagree that you need to assume that a portion of your audience will need to be told what backstory is every time - if it's good comedy and well written that should not really be necessary. The first episode of Red Dwarf I ever saw was somewhere in the middle of series 3. For Blackadder it was either series 3 or the latter half of series 2 (I really cannot remember). I know for a fact that the first time I ever saw the first episode/pilot of Yes Minister was when I bought the DVD three or four years ago. Looking at radio sitcoms, I picked up Cabin Pressure halfway through the first series, and discovered Old Harry's Game around series 5, although I was able to catch up with the missed episodes of both thanks to the magic of BBC 7 (or 4 Extra as we now have to call it - thank you Brussels!).

    I could easily list more shows where I missed the early episodes but understood what was going on, so the question is do you really need that much exposition? I realise that you could equally argue that the reason that I was able to pick up these sitcoms without the exposition is because they're cleverly written in the manner that you suggested, or that they're so simple that you don't really need anything explaining - is there anyone who upon seeing their first ever episode of Dad's Army needed to be shown the original 1968 black and white episodes in order to understand it?

    I'm new to your blog, but I see from a few of the other posts you linked to that you work on the Milton Jones radio shows. That's quite a good example of what I mean in that every episode is about a different subject, so you need to do some sort of exposition every time. As a result every show starts the same way - joke/pun x3, "hello, I'm Milton Jones, [insert job for this week's episode], and I'm here in [insert location], doing [insert subject]". We all now know the exposition of this week's episode, that the lead character is an idiot, and you've got three laughs/pun induced groans, all in the space of less than a minute, and you're ready to get on with the show. If you can do it that quickly for a radio show, why can't you do it in less than 26-28 minutes for a TV show?

    Maybe sitcom writers should write an extra episode for their first series, so that the broadcast can start at episode two, whilst the hardcore fans can go back and watch the first episode on the DVD.

  3. Interesting. Being terribly anal, I have to watch the programmes in order and many a fine series has been denied my caustic eye by dint of failing to record the first episode. GThere again, I'm not watching for professional purposes. Very little makes me laugh, and I happily sit stony-faced through obvious stuff which is causing those around me to erupt with unfeasible mirth. I do like Modern Family, though, and would argue that that was enhanced by seeing the first episde, er, first. While not crucial, it had a clever little play which was only resolved at the end. Why else do I like it? Warm hearted without being soggy, sharp, well-paced and with excellent characters. Well, apart from Husband hates Phil (the "wet dad"), I presume because he resents his marriage to the toothsome Claire.

  4. But if you set up the characters and situation like you do in the first episode for every episode in the first two series, aren't fans of the show simply going to get bored and feel like you're talking down to them?

  5. Yep, as the other anonymous says, why would I want to watch the same show over and over again; how can you write A and B storylines that contain arcs for every character in 30 minutes if you're wasting time pandering to the casual viewer.

    I'd say it takes approx 1-2 episodes to get up to speed to a comedy programme. Setting up the show whilst being funny is a skill in itself- the first 5 minutes of Eastbound and Down is probably the best recent example of explaining a narrative whilst being funny.

    Viewers needing their hand held is one of several reasons that British comedy is in a slump right now.

  6. Have to agree with the two anonymous posters above. Personally, I would rather be slightly baffled as a new viewer to a sitcom, than be bored at having everything reaffirmed and set up every episode if I was a regular viewer.

    It's not hard these days to catch up on a sitcom from the beginning if you've missed the first episode(s), so writing in this way is becoming more irrelevant. (Not that it doesn't work, it just leads to more shite than good stuff, in my opinion).

    For me, writing 2 series of a sitcom with the view of: 'oh, nobody's seen it', would show a lack in confidence of the writing itself (and obviously if it did get 2 series, you could safely assume it had quite a solid fan-base anyway). If a sitcom is funny enough and engaging enough, viewers WILL remember the characters, the relationships and the story lines. As a writer I would rather reward the people who have invested time in it already than people who haven't seen it before.

  7. I think what we really need to understand is the characters relationships with each other (and to a lesser extent with their situation) so we can understand why the scene in front of us is funny. That doesn't necessarily take much backstory. Just show us those characters, in those defining relationships early on (for example Blackadder trying to teach Baldrick to count in Blackadder II, "some beans").

    Perhaps some of what you're saying, James, is that complicated story arcs in sitcom at least, can be fun, but can also get in the way of our understanding a scene immediately. And laughter is an immediate thing. No one laughs at a joke that is explained to them, or even one they have painfully puzzled out.

  8. "But if you set up the characters and situation like you do in the first episode for every episode in the first two series, aren't fans of the show simply going to get bored and feel like you're talking down to them?"

    I think one answer to this and the other questions from my fellow anonymice is simply "Yes, writing sitcoms is quite hard".