Thursday 29 March 2012

Change The Line

It's traditional for writers to think little of actors. It certainly can be frustrating to watch some actors 'not get' your masterpiece, butcher the lines and miss the jokes.

This, of course, makes the assumption that your script if perfect, which it isn't. And that it's funny, which it might not be. And it's also easy to forget that studio sitcom, at least, is really hard on the actors. An actor has less than a week to rehearse half an hour of comedy that will be shot in front of an audience and then broadcast live to millions of people. Half of that rehearsal time will probably be in a church hall somewhere in West London, with tape on the ground showing where marks are. The script changes overnight - and there's no certainty of success. At least with The Merchant of Venice, if it isn't working, the problem is not with the writing.

At the first read-through, the actor is probably sight-reading. They may not have been sent it in advance. They rarely read it in advance once the show is up and running, but that's forgivable. This means that some lines get fluffed. Not as many as you'd think. But an innocuous-looking line that's been pored over for months by the writers suddenly becomes hard to say. Usually, though, it's a mouthful line that's proving to be a problem. Often the second sentence in a speech. Occasionally the third (should you ever stoop to someone speaking for that long uninterrupted).

It doesn't happen in every readthrough, but now and then. The actor fluffs a line. They make a 'bleurgh' mouthful noise. Apologise. Everyone laughs. They do the line again. Fluff it again. Then again, although read wrong, but we're over the worst of it and the scene continues.

I have no idea if anyone else does this, but my policy is normally to change the line. Don't make a big thing of it at the time - or put your hand up and say 'My bad. Chunky line. We'll fix that' and then in the dead of night, change the line. It may be your favourite joke. It may be very easy to say in your mind and with your mouth. You could have been actor if you'd wanted to be. But you chose to be a pasty-faced writer. So get over it.

The actor might get the line right the next day. But probably not. People will be wondering if they'll fluff it again, especially on the night. They'll get nervous. My advice. Lance the boil. Change the line. It's just a line. Think of a new one. If this is Draft 5, most of the other lines aren't original from the first draft, so why be so precious over one? If you huff and puff and demand (privately to the director or producer) that the actor 'get over it' and 'get it right' because 'this really isn't that hard', you will be the loser in this. And let's face it. You're a writer. You're already a big enough loser.

Bits of advice like this will abound at the comedy writing course I'm running with Dave Cohen in London on April 20th and May 4th 2012. More info here.

Monday 26 March 2012

Myths - #2 The Big Idea

Let's take a moment to dispel another myth about breaking into writing. The myth in question that it's all about the new, clever, original idea for a show - an idea that's never been done before and is so self-evidently brilliant that the originator of this idea will be showered with script-commissions.

There are numerous problems with this notion, mostly because it isn't true. And you can tell when someone's falling for it, because they are very protective and secretive about their idea. They will ask you to sign some sort of agreement before sending it. They are paranoid about having the idea stolen because they think they've hit a magic formula that will act as a wand, opening locked doors and ensuring success.

The idea is an attractive one because it feels like it's just a question of coming up with the right idea, rather than spending years and years learning a craft. We see dumb luck all around us - especially on the internet, where one small idea goes global very quickly. One three minute song is the beginning of a pop career. But lots of decent web ideas fail. Lots of pop songs don't lead to successful long careers. The Big Idea myth is the writing equivalent of this.

You can also tell when someone has bought into this myth when they tell you their idea - and you tell them that their idea has already been done. They often get angry at this point, because you're raining on their parade. They are being confronted with the stark reality that it's not ideas that create success but the execution of them. But as Cromwell said to Charles the First, it's all in the execution.

For Example
I've been working on a show that might well go into production at some point soon - and was explaining the premise to a fellow writer. I explained the overall idea of the show, and said it's a bit like [insert name of successful show here]. There is an overall resemblance in terms of place and tone. I went on to explain a key dynamic/relationship within the the show. And he said 'Oh, you mean like [insert name of another successful show] here'. This hadn't occurred to me, but it was correct. If I'd been a more inexperienced writer, I'd have been crushed, or worried by this relevation. Or offended by this friend's suggestion of similarity to another show that I hadn't spotted.

Come on, it's 2012. Humanity have been telling stories and writing them down for about four thousand years. If it's not in the Bible, or a one of Jesus' parables, it's in the Gilgamesh epic, or Homer probably did it, or Ovid. It'll be somewhere in the Arabian Nights stories, and/or Chaucer and/or Shakespeare. And they'll be two successful movies and nine unsuccessful ones about the same thing. Who cares?

Hut 33
A while ago, I wrote a sitcom for Radio 4 set in Bletchley Park. It was only after I started writing it that I realised that the set-up of the three main characters was exactly the same as ITV's Only When I Laugh, which I used to watch growing. It's a working class man (James Bolam/Tom Goodman Hill) against a posh man (Peter Bowles/Robert Bathurst) with a peacemaker stuck in between (Christopher Strauli/Fergus Craig). Only When I Laugh was in a hospital. Hut 33 was in Bletchley Park during World War Two. This didn't bother me at all.

The fact is an idea will not open doors. A decent script might open a few. A really good script and a bag full of ideas might open some more over time. But there's a misapprehension that it's possible to come up with a silver bullet of an idea that guarantees success as a writer. It's a myth.

How to Succeed as a Writer
If you want to be a writer, you do need to come up with good ideas, sure, but then you need to show that you can write them. If your idea show promise, and your execution looks good, you need to show that you can write several episodes of that idea. And you need to be able to following through on that and be able to write.

Ultimately, there's no substitute for just bashing away at a script, and rewriting it, and then writing more and more. But if you need a bit of help, and you want to write comedy and sitcoms, consider coming to a day-long course with me and the highly experienced comedy writer Dave Cohen (sorry, another plug) on April 20th (for Radio Comedy) and/or 4th May (for TV Sitcom). More details here. I'm not promising we'll tell you everything there is to know, because nobody knows that, but we might be able to point you in the direction - and help you learn from our mistakes. Plus you might meet a kindred spirit and form a writing partnership. Or help you feel like you're not wasting your time. Maybe see you there.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Myths - #1 The Oxbridge Conspiracy

Recently, Sam Bain wrote an excellent article for the Guardian about the reality of being a writer with a show in production. It made me laugh out loud several times – and I particularly enjoyed the comparison of turning up to filming being rather like having to stand next a photocopier for seven weeks in case there's a massive paper jam.

Rather than discussions and questions about the nitty-gritty of turning a good script into a great TV show, the comments beneath the article made very depressing reading. Reactions ranged from “Oh, poor poor you, having to do this for a living” to “you only get to do this because you went to right school or university.” The debate descended into a sad discussion of paranoia that the comedy industry is a closed shop, and that the door has been firmly locked from the inside by people who went to Oxbridge. This is a myth, as I will argue shortly and briefly.

But in time I hope to address a number of myths that circulate about ‘breaking in’ to the industry. These myths have power firstly because there is a grain of truth in all of them, but secondly because they are easy scapegoats for failure. If you’ve written a script and no-one’s biting, it’s easier to blame a conspiracy than admit that the script isn’t much good.

This self-delusion takes place at all levels. Writers who don’t make a living from it believe one set of myths to explain why they’re not making a living from it. Writers who do make a living from it believe another set of myths to explain why they’re not making as much money as they’d like to from it. Wealthy writers believe another set a myths about why critics don’t like their work. The list goes on.

So let’s take a look at these starting out myths beginning with:

Myth #1 It’s all about where you went to college
One can look at the Pythons, the Goodies, the Mary Whitehouse Experience and a long list of Oxbridge alumni and assume that your career is decided the day you’re rejected from Oxbridge. (I was rejected by Cambridge. At least twice. Seriously. And I applied because I wanted to be in The Footlights.) It’s easy to think that Oxbridgers not only have an advantage but rule the roost in comedy.

In my experience, my university education has made almost no difference to my career progression. I’ve had shows rejected down by production companies, BBC TV, BBC Radio, ITV and Channel 4 for some pretty spurious reasons. None of them were related to where I went to college. (I believe my own set of myths for these failures, one of which being that all executives are idiots, which simply isn’t true. Some are, maybe most, but not all. Besides exec idiocy isn’t always harmful and sometimes works in your favour).

The industry doesn’t favour Oxbridge-types. It favours good writers (and tolerates plenty of bad ones). The reason Oxbridge-types seem to be favoured is because good writers tend be fairly intelligent people who read a lot of books, try new things and encounter a wide spectrum of people – and learn to see the world from their point of view. This is simply university life.

I just said “my university education has made almost no difference to my career progression “. This is only half true. For three years, I did read lots of books, try news things (not that many to be honest), and encountered lots of different people. My horizons were broadened. But at university, I also met other people who wanted to do comedy and so we put on sketch shows and revues. We had mixed success, but learnt through success and failure. So by the time three of us did Edinburgh in 1999 as Infinite Number of Monkeys, it was our third Fringe, we had done about a hundred performances over the previous three years and were not totally clueless. And we were nominated for best ‘Newcomer’ and that opened a few doors.

Oxbridgers, then, do have one advantage – a tradition of comedy and a bit of structure which means they can start doing comedy earlier. This means failing quicker and therefore succeeding faster. It means time on stage performing your own material in front of other human beings who will let you know very quickly how well you’re doing.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “I takes 10,000 hours to get good at stuff” theory is pretty obvious, isn’t it? In which case, spend three years reading some books, trying new things and meeting new people. Write about them, put on a show with them and hey presto, you just went to Oxbridge.

You could also try going on a day-long course or two with Sitcomgeek and the highly experienced comedy writer Dave Cohen (yes, this is a plug) on April 20th and 4th May. More details here.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

The Best Man's Speech

Now and then, friends and family ask me for jokes to for best man's speeches. I wish they wouldn't. If they wanted a half-hour story with a sub-plot and a set-piece ending, I could help. But stand-alone wedding jokes? Nope. Can't help. I can't even suggest they jokes from the great joke writers of our day (I'm thinking Milton Jones or Steven Wright) because I know they won't credit them and that would be annoying.

So in this situation all I simply give it two pieces of advice that I know they won't appreciate and will probably ignore, but know they'd thank me if they took it. And this advice is not about the jokes specifically but the audience and their expectations. Expectations are everything. This theme crops up many times in Jonathan Lynn's excellent book about the rules of comedy (that you should definitely read) so it must be important.

Expect expectations
The first thing is to point out that the audience is mostly made up of the bride and groom's family. The father of the bride speaks first. At least half the room know him. Then groom stands up. Half the room know him too. And then the best man stands up. Most people in the room do not know him. What's more, they are worried about the speech and the possibility of rudeness and offence (always on behalf of others, you understand). Know your audience. What are the expecting? Meet their expectations so they don't worry, but delight them so they enjoy it. And they'll enjoy it if you keep it clean. Seriously. It's not prudishness. It's just basic audience dynamics.

The second tip is related to the first. If you want to delight your audience, finish early. End before the audience want you to. (The phrase is "Quit while you're ahead" but I'm trying to make it sound like fresh advice that I just thought of) If you do this, your audience will applaud more eagerly and with greater joy and probably remember your speech as being funnier than it actually was. They are happy. You will be happy. That's the main thing.

I mention this because recently, I've been writing one or two scripts and had notes about the ending. One or two of these notes say 'can we have an extra joke at the end'? (Notes which say 'can we have more jokes please' are annoying but ultimately worth having because it reminds you do your job and write funny bits. If you don't want to write funny stuff you're on the wrong floor.)

The temptation is to keep coming up with extra joke and epilogues and more bits and extra pay-offs for running jokes - until you end up with two or three pages of this stuff with jokes and bits that the audience frankly don't care about all that much. Once the hero has succeeded - or failed in a pleasingly comic way - wrap it up fast. With in a page or two. Give the audience the chance to catch their breath. Pay off a running joke. Then cue music and roll the credits. You'll be finishing the show a split second before the audience are wanting you to and they will cheerful about it.

But listen at me prattling on. Actually, there was this one best man's speech I heard about in which... oh yeah. Quit while you're ahead. See ya.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Why you should read Jason Arnopp's blog

On a wet Sunday afternoon, it seems unlikely that I'm going to write anything better and more helpful than a few posts I've found on Jason Arnopp's excellent blog. In fact, on a warm Tuesday afternoon with a following wind, I'm still unlikely to write anything better that these posts which are really good.

I've worked with Jason on a radio sketch show - and he wrote some hilariously demented sketches. But he also writes a bunch of other stuff and written about writing. He's written a very good piece on how stories can go wrong called "Five Ways to Kill Audience Satisfaction" here.

There's another post about attitudes to scripts, breaking into the business and luck called "Your Script is Not a Lottery Ticket" here. I particularly like the bit where he says "Don't succumb to that deeply weird Scriptwriter Quirk which compels you to sling an imperfect script into a competition 'just to get something in'."

And if you're starting out in the writing business, there's an excellent post called 'Eight Ways to Annoy People whose help you want.' Here. It's brilliant and sadly very true.

It was also through following Jason on twitter that I came across this post about a letter a rookie magician wrote to Teller, from Penn and Teller, my favourite part of which is this:

Love something besides magic, in the arts. Get inspired by a particular poet, film-maker, sculptor, composer. You will never be the first Brian Allen Brushwood of magic if you want to be Penn & Teller. But if you want to be, say, the Salvador Dali of magic, we'll THERE'S an opening.

I should be a film editor. I'm a magician. And if I'm good, it's because I should be a film editor. Bach should have written opera or plays. But instead, he worked in eighteenth-century counterpoint. That's why his counterpoints have so much more point than other contrapuntalists. They have passion and plot. Shakespeare, on the other hand, should have been a musician, writing counterpoint. That's why his plays stand out from the others through their plot and music.

It applies to comedy just as much. Cheers, Jason. Keeping feeding my writing soul.