Monday 29 October 2012

6 Rules For Writers in Production: Part 2

So, continued from the last post here, four more rules for the writer in production on his/her own show.

Rule Three: Don’t Assume that No-one Else Knows What They’re Doing

You’re the writer. It’s your show. We get it. I put it like this because some writers can get into a siege mentality – the ‘they’re-ruining-my-amazing-show’ way of thinking you see in Episodes or countless tales of production woe told by writers in West End Sam Smith’s pubs.

Undoubtedly, shows can be ruined by conflicting agendas. The channel feels its paid one type of show, the casting agent feels she’s casting a different type of show and/or the director likes to think he’s shooting a movie – and none of these overlap with the show in your head. But normally the warning signs are there early on with such clashes and conflicts. They need to be sorted out early. If you’re convinced the show the channel wants and the show your producer is making and the show you want to write are not the same show, address this before shooting. And bear in mind that plenty of shows have all these problem of conflicting agendas and still turn out okay – or prove to be hits for reasons that were not predicted by anyone. And plenty of shows are lots of fun to work and turn out to be dreadful.

Usually, grounds for paranoia is unfounded. Maybe you’re a good writer, but it’s quite likely that everyone else on the set is equally good at what they do. Maybe even better. They are probably more experienced. You’ll discover your art department worked on the original series of Yes, Prime Minister - stuff you grew up watching. They’ve done this before. And they’re making the most of what’s on the page. Are you 100% confident in what you’ve put on that page? (See Rules One & Two).

Rule Four: Don’t Assume that Everyone Else Knows What They’re Doing

A TV Production is a well-oiled machine. As long as you feed it with decent scripts. But there are always problems. Your three hours of broadcast television probably has about a hundred scenes, which is going to involve a lot sets, props, costumes and lights. There’ll probably be some location filming which will involve trying to find affordable venues at the right time of day – with the right cast. And it can't happen as you'd like. Or your pencilled-in guest star might get a better offer to be in a movie or, even better, their own detective series on ITV.

Given all of the above, stuff will go wrong. You will spot some problems on the horizon. You will be asked to approved a specially made prop that is technically correct but still hopelessly wrong. (see also Spinal Tap/Stonehenge incident). Maybe the props buyer or make was being overly literal, but the odds are that they had to guess because the script doesn’t specify every last detail (because you cut out loads of description because your producer told you to make the script shorter and you couldn’t beat to cut any of the jokes).

If someone on the crew is being difficult or stupid, bear in mind that one of their kids might be in hospital and they’ve got more important things on their mind. Or, more likely, this might be the fourth show they’ve worked on that year. They’ve just done a sitcom set on a Nuclear Submarine, a comedy drama set in a Caribbean Hotel (but filmed near Penzance) and a Sunday Night TV period cop show in Bath. They’ve been busy. You’ve thought about nothing else but your show for the last year. Give them a break. Or at least help them help you.

Rule Five: There is Never Enough Money

This rule needs no explanation. There isn't enough money. No matter what you're making and no matter how big the budget. Everyone feels they should be paid more. Everyone feels they should have a bigger budget. Everyone would like to take longer over the shot. Everyone one like one more take. It’s television. It’s not going to happen.

Rule Six: Remember, Everyone Wants the Show to Be Good

No-one actively wants the show to be bad. I'm sure there are notable exceptions of sabotage but they're rare. Everyone's doing their best to make the best show they can with the time they have, and money they have - and they script they've been given. That's the only bit you ultimately control. So give each scene a few more minutes. Clarify that direction. Do your homework. And above all, be grateful that your job is infinitely easier, more interesting and better paid that most jobs in the world.

Oh, and Rule Seven. Be nice to the runner. Why? Because it's good to be nice. But also because she'll probably be Head of Comedy in 15-20 years.

To spend the day with Sitcomgeek talking about all things sitcom - along with the splendidly knowledgeable Dave Cohen, have a look here.

Thursday 25 October 2012

6 Rules For Writers in Production: Part 1

Should you have the good fortune of having your sitcom script produced as a series, or even a pilot, you will find yourself having to make decisions, think about or offer an opinion, on a staggering number of things. It’s easy to forget that a TV show like, say, Cheers wasn’t shot in a bar, but a TV studio. Every single thing you saw in that bar was brought in and placed by a set designer, art director or props manager. Everything. That's a lot of decisions.

What to Wear

It seems obvious, but the cast of Cheers were mostly fully-clothed. This meant decisions had to be made about what those clothes should be. Norm always walked in from work, and so needed to be in some kind of jacket and tie. Was this in the pilot script? At some point, very early on, between the writing department and the costume department, a writer or showrunner needed to decide what kind of job Norm Peterson did and therefore what clothes he would be walking into the bar wearing. In one sense, Norm’s clothes are unremarkable. Or at least, the audience don’t really notice them. They see a tired, large man after work avoiding his wife, Vera. So his clothes are equally tired. But choosing the right ones requires thought and a decision.

Taking a sitcom from the script into a studio or a location shoot and then onto people’s screens at homes requires someone to make a decision about everything. So here are some rules of thumb I’ve recently come up with on recent operations that might be of interest.

Rule One: Remember that You Don’t Know Really What You’re Doing

It’s an oft-repeated maxim by writers, but it’s no less true for it. ‘Nobody knows anything.’ Bear in mind this was said by William Goldman, the writer of successful movies and novels (including All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathan, A Bridge Too Far etc). If anyone has any right to claim they know something, it is William Goldman. And yet, he is the one who tells us that none of us really knows that they’re doing.

How does this rule help us? It’s worth remembering that this scripts are slippery fish and very tricky to pin down. You do not have all the answers and should not think that you do. You do need a creative vision for your show. You need to have some guts and determination to see it through. But you are not Leonardo Da Vinci, a genius in a world of dullards. You’ve written a script that you think will probably be funny once shot, edited, graded and broadcast.  That’s about as good as it gets.

The point is that if you have a strong sense of your own flawed-ness, you might be easy to work with and nice. You might listen to good advice. Your director or producer’s suggestion that a scene is too complicated or confusing will be met with humility. The subsequent rewrite will, most likely, make the show better. Embrace this. You need all the help you can get.

Rule Two: Remember that You Do Have a Rough Idea of What You’re Doing

Having said all this, you do know roughly what you’re doing. You do know what your show is about, you know who your characters are and you know that jokes need to be clear and comprehensible.

Things can be thrown in last minute that really lift the show, or the episode. A highly talented and creative actor sometimes say ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I said x’ or ‘Wouldn’t it be funnier if I did y’. Sometimes the correct answer is ‘yes. Do that. Say that.' But sometimes you feel in your gut that’s the wrong way to go. Ideas or jokes can creep in that feel wrong, or are out of character, or are only funny if you already know how the scene is meant to run. Things can easily get overcooked. If you’re confident you have a rough idea of what you’re doing, you’ll know when to say ‘no’ to these ideas. And that will be fine because you might have had the grace to say ‘yes’ to other suggestions and ideas.

So Rules One and Two covered. Rules Three to Six in the next post.

In the meantime, why not consider a day in London with Sitcomgeek and the highly experienced Dave Cohen learning about writing comedy for TV and Radio? More details here

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Writing Comedy for Radio

Radio comedy is often seen as the poorer cousin of television; a testing bed or a training ground. From personal experience, I can say that it is certainly poorer financially, although it kept me going for quite a few years over the last decade. But although it's not going to make you rich, the upsides far outweight the downsides.

I certainly wouldn't want to underrate the training aspect. I approach TV scripts with much more confidence because of the experience of writing half hour comedies for the radio. It's meant that I'm  not as being freaked out by having to think of something new six times over, or cover 35-odd pages with coherent dialogue and at least 100 jokes. Most script problems I've encountered before - writing Hut 33, or Think the Unthinkable. I'm used to hitting deadlines, taking notes and producing new drafts.

I've also met other writers through writing for radio comedies. This was especially helpful early in my career when I needed reassuring that nobody really knows what they're doing. When I was starting out, Weekending was the show new writers gathered around. Now it's Newsjack. Meeting other writers isn't essential but it can stave off insanity. Writer-performers get to congregate in Edinburgh for a month every year. But if you're not a writer-performer, you don't necessarily have a place to gather and TV doesn't really have an equivalent. Plus there is the chance that you might hear your joke or sketch going out on national radio. Or in front of the audience. That can be a real shot in the arm.

But radio is an end in itself. It’s a great place to write. The medium itself is certainly intimate. It’s more like reading a novel, where the pictures are in your head – where the special effects are so much better, and far more memorable.
There is more to be said. And I have done last February: here. And I mention it because I'm running a day on writing comedy from the radio in London with Dave Cohen on Friday 23rd November 2012 with another on 30th November about writing sitcoms for TV. More info here. Sadly it’s not free or funded by the licence fee, but it's reasonably priced. If you’re looking for some tips on where to start, or how to progress in radio, this is definitely worth a look.

Monday 1 October 2012

Finishing Your Scene on a Joke

Lots of sitcom writers started out writing sketches. It’s probably the best place to start because mastering a sketch is not far away from mastering a scene. A sketch has a clear simple idea, gets you from A to B with jokes along the way and a really good joke at the end. A sitcom scene is similar. Each scene needs a clear simple idea in which a character moves the story along or faces a challenge – ideally two characters moving their stories along and having to challenge each other. And you need jokes along the way and the joke at the end.
This can be hard. But I’d like to focus, for a moment, on finishing each scene with a joke. This, in my opinion, is something a sitcom writer should always be striving to do – unless there is a very good reason. You want a feeling of completeness that the scene is over and a comic spring into the next scene – and you need a decent characterful joke to do that with, ideally.
There needs to be a very good reason for the scene to not under on a joke. Two possible exceptions would be trying to create an emotional climax that is being played for realism, in order to make the other stuff funnier. Even then, there’s often room of a little kicker. The other exception would be setting up a joke that is immediately paid off at the start of the next scene. But both of these are fairly rare. If you’ve got 12-15 scenes in a show, all but one should end on a joke. And sometimes, not even that.
This is easier said than done, but it’s always worth spending an extra few minutes on a joke for the end of the scene. And sometimes these come naturally – and often they don’t. So here are some possible to solutions to getting your scene to end with a joke:
1. Spend another ten minutes on it. Have a coffee. Walk around. Take a piece of paper and a pen and make some doodles or jot down ideas rather than staring at the script on the screen. But overall, just try harder to think of a decent line or action or comment that’s funny. Sometimes, it really is that simple.
2. Assuming you’ve spent ages on it, or this is the second or third draft and nothing’s presented itself, try changing the penultimate line and see if that sets up a different joke. If that doesn’t work, go back another few lines. Scenes are often conversational stepping stones in sitcoms. You often need to hop from one idea or line to the next, so changing the route might present new areas and ideas.
3. Look for ways to end the scene earlier. If there’s a really funny joke in the scene, is there anyway you could just cut the rest of the dialogue afterwards. Do you really need the rest of the scene? Does it advance the story? Is it funnier than that really good joke? If the answer to all these questions is ‘no’, you’ve got a punchline. End on the funny bit.
4. It may be that you cannot end on that funny line because there’s too much action, story or exposition to wade through afterwards. In which case, look for ways to move that stuff earlier so that you’re able to finish on the decent joke.
It feels like cheating, but it’s just away of shaking things up so that your mind is able to see the scene differently and break the brain deadlock . Try it. I’d be interested to hear how you get on.