Tuesday 31 December 2013

How to be Averagely Successful at Comedy

I’ve recently finished Dave Cohen’s highly readable book, How to be Averagely Successful at Comedy. I recommend you rush out and buy a copy.You can order a copy from Amazon here or you can stick it to the man and order it from Dave's local book shop here.

Wait. What's that noise?

FX:      ‘Conflict-of-Interest' Klaxon

I have to declare an interest here. I know Dave personally, mainly through running comedy writing workshops with him. But you know what? I thought I knew the guy, until I read this book, which is a real eye-opener to the comedy business.

So in the interest of balance, here’s my problem with the book: The title. Dave has made a living out of comedy for decades, writing for Have I Got News for You, Horrible Histories, Not Going Out  as well as numerous radio shows and his own Fringe shows. And he was one of the original Comedy Store Players. All of the above do not make him ‘averagely’ successful, but ‘quite’ successful, at the very least.

But this is why the book is so refreshing. Success in the comedy business often doesn’t feel like success. It feels like scraping by. Just making a half-decent living to feed your family is a struggle. Surviving the quicksand that is the comedy industry takes immense effort, as well as talent and a bit of luck. And since comedy is such a personal art, it means pouring your heart and soul into every piece of work. And doing that year after year takes its toll. This book reflects that difficult journey.

There’s plenty of joy in the book too. Dave tells the odd success story, shares the feeling of being on stage when its all going well – and how he was the man to coin the phrase ‘Comedy is the new rock and roll’.
The book is also packed with lots of useful practical advice on building a career, making your own comedy and how the comedy industry really works. There’s also loads of technical advice on writing all kinds of comedy.

In short, this is not your average ‘how to’ book about comedy – it’s far too personal, practical and prophetic. I heartily recommend you seek out a copy, take it into a quiet corner and devour it.

Dave and I are doing some more of those comedy writing worshops on the 14th and 21st March. More information here.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Stop! This Isn't What I Meant! - Part 2

So following on from Part 1, you’re watching a take of your scene in your show and an actor keeps saying a line in a weird way, or the ‘wrong way’. This happens, although less than you might think because of the process leading up to this moment.

You’ve probably been in on the casting of your show so hopefully you’re happy with the actor playing the part and what they bring to it. Bear in mind the actor is only really thinking about their character’s perspective which, at first, seems sociopathic, but is both legitimate and very useful. They can, will and should question the logic of lines, whether their character would do or say the lines that you’ve written. The ‘What’s my motivation?’ is a cliché, but it’s true. Every line needs to be motivated by character, story and logic, rather than being a useful transition line or being a bit of exposition.

Maybe the line is fine – but the logic of it isn’t clear from what's on the page. If that’s explained, that might help. Sometimes, a direction in the script will help eg. “NICK (like a sullen teenager) Just doing my best.” TV is made fast and there isn’t time to stop over every line and talk about it, so a bit of direction on the page can speed things along. But if you do it too much, it looks like you, as the writer, don’t trust the actors to find the line, or the director to direct the actors. So you need to find a balance.

Many of the problems can be ironed out before shooting. After the cast have rehearsed the scene on set, there’s a rehearsal for the crew (including you) to watch. After that, there should be a quick huddle with the producer and director and you have a chance to make suggestions. Eg. ‘Barry is saying that line about the fence-post a bit weirdly. He should play it as if he’s angry rather than puzzled. Does that make sense?’ And the director will be able to convey that note to the actor if they think it’s going to help. Remember, as the writer, you know what makes your characters tick. The director knows what makes the actors tick and how to get the best performance out of them – so you do your job and let them do theirs.

Staging an Intervention
Sometimes, you will want to intervene – and this is normally fine, if done right and respectfully. Don’t muscle in and talk to actors. I personally wouldn’t even  talk to the director directly unless he asks me directly. The directors has got 1001 other things to think about – mostly how to shoot the scene from enough angles in the time allotted, which is never enough. You’re probably sitting with the producer. Talk to them. They’ll have thoughts of their own – and they’ll know the best time to talk to the director between takes.

There are times when the line just isn’t going to be said right – in your opinion. It may work well for other people, or feel more truthful in the scene. If it sounds weird and wrong, it might be cut in the edit. But don’t dwell on it. This actor who’s mangled one of your jokes has probably done something brilliant with a different line somewhere else in the script, turning a straight line into a joke with a tone of voice. Or reacted to line a really funny way. Let go of that line. In a half hour sitcom, you should really should have about 100 jokes. So there are others.

No 'I' in Team, (but there is 'me')

You are a team: You (the writer), the producer and the director – and the cast. That’s why you need to be careful who you work with in the first place. The key relationship is between the writer and the producer. It’s always flattering and exciting to have a producer interested in your idea, but if you feel they’re constantly pulling the show into a direction you’re not happy with, or you think they’re a jerk or incompetent, stop. Think. Do you really want to work with someone for hours, weeks, months, constantly making decisions together, the result of which will be broadcast on national television? Probably not. Although frankly, it still beats real work.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Thursday 5 December 2013

Stop! This Isn't What I Meant! - Part 1

I’ve been asked about how much say a writer gets in casting, what happens if the scene isn’t being played as you’d hoped, or what you do if a line is being delivered incorrectly.

You, as the writer, are crucial. It’s pretty much your show – and the show is your vision. But, once the show is in production, you are not in charge. That’s the producer. The producer is in charge of delivering as good a programme as possible on time and on budget. They are spending over a million quid filming your TV series. They probably want to do this in partnership with you. Naturally there are many ways in which this can wrong and anecdotes along these lines are often magnified in the stories that float around the industry or in showbiz fiction.

Blowing the Whistle on Extras
In series 2 of Extras, we see, on screen, a break down in trust between the writer/performer and the producer of When the Whistle Blows, the sitcom that Andy Milman has written. My recollection of that first episode is that seemingly at the last minute, the producer thinks some comedy glasses and a wig will make all the difference. Millman is disillusioned and now seems to depise the show that they’re making.

I always found this hard to relate to. What sort of show did Millman think they were making? Milman’s written a big, broad audience comedy with catchphrases that’s being filmed in front of an audience. And surely these discussions have already been had? It didn't ring true for me.

Of course, things can go wrong between a producer and writer. But assuming they will is a mistake. And the key to a good relationship (in any sphere of life) is communication. Have you articulated your vision for the show in the script? And in person? There is naturally uncertainty at the beginning, and it continues right up until shooting and beyond. In the development process on Bluestone 42, it felt like were all roughly on the same page – especially as we spent a lot of time together with a pilot script and casting the show which is crucial to establishing the tone – but it was only when we saw some scenes that we’d shot roughly cut together that we could all breathe a sigh of relief that we were all trying to make exactly the same show in terms of style, tone and look.

This is not what I had in Mind
So how do things look when they feel like they are going wrong? And what can you do? Sometimes, when you’re actually shooting a scene on location – or watching a technical rehearsal in a studio, a scene ends up looking different from how you’d imagined. The director has made a choice or even changed the scene slightly in order to make it work. It doesn’t happen all that often in my experience. A decent producer will head that off by having the director talk through the script with the writer a few days or weeks in advance to make sure that nothing crucial is changed, or if changes are made, the writer is alerted to make sure this doesn’t impact on anything else in the script.

So the scene isn't how you imagined it. It's all wrong. Before you go off on one, stop and think. The director has staged the scene in a certain way for a reason. It may be so that it looks awesome – which is perfectly good reason to stage a scene a certain way. But it may look so awesome, or staged, that it makes it less funny. It’s odd that things looking cool, or like a TV commercial, can sometimes fight the comedy in a scene. The scene may look awkward and clunky – maybe because the logistics of the script dictate it happen this way and you’d not realised this in the way you wrote it.

Maybe the director has slavishly followed what you have written and your script is at fault. Occasionally, the director has a previous draft of the script in his head and hasn’t noticed the changes that you’ve made have profoundly altered the blocking of the scene. In which case that's unfortunate, but not the end of the world and probably fixable.

If there’s a problem, best not bowl up to the director and tell them they’ve got it all wrong. Talk to the producer – who might say that they tried it a different way at first, but the cast felt it was very unnatural, or it proved not to be practical because, say, a character had to walk across the set saying one line, but the line itself isn’t long enough to cover walk, so they changed the walk rather than the line. Complicated, isn’t it?

This is no Wrong Place

Sometimes, on the day, things just don’t quite work out as you’d expect for reasons beyond the director’s or producer’s control. In the Christmas episode of Bluestone 42, there is a brief bit of nativity play which takes place on a temporary stage erected in the base. When it came to shooting it, the stage was built in a slightly different place to where we’d imagined it would go, which meant that one part of the scene wouldn’t quite work as planned. We wanted Rocket in standing in one of the watchtowers behind the stage, but that wasn’t going to work now as he’d be too far away and it would seem odd. Moving the stage would take too long, and the reasons Rocket needed to be in the watchtower had largely been cut from the script. So we put a military vehicle behind the stage and had Rocket stand on that and it looked great. Perhaps better. There's usually more than one way to stage a scene and find the funny. So keep an open mind. It may turn out the producer and director know what they're doing.

That's Part 1. Part 2 is here.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Monday 25 November 2013

Working Patterns

People are oddly curious about how a writer actually goes about writing, so I wasn't all that surprised when @NinaCamero asked “when do you find is the best time of day to write. Do you have any rituals? Music? Specific place?”

Because writing is my job – and has been for quite a few years – I try to make sure that I spend the working day writing, and the rest of my time being a husband and dad, not hiding away in my office, using work as an excuse to avoid parenting and domestic chores (easily done). My office is on the side of my house and does not connect to it directly, so that my kids don’t bimble in when they feel like it. Also this way, I can’t hear when they’re upset, angry or annoying their mother, which is the biggest distraction because I want to get involved or intervene.

Before I had an office (which is a very recent addition), I’d work the whole morning in Starbucks or similar, wearing headphones, listening to music – either music I know very well or stuff without words eg. Bach/Beethoven/Brahms, Scott Joplin or Jazz Quintets, or Steve Reich.  Or music to get me in the mood for Bluestone 42 – I have a playlist on Spotify that helps me with that. I use a MacBook Pro, like virtually everyone else in this business, and switched to using Final Draft last year for Bluestone 42 having used only Word for over a decade.

I tend to work better in the mornings than the afternoons, especially when it comes to writing new scenes and new dialogue. Often in the afternoon, I go for a swim or workout at the gym, since otherwise I’m just hunched over a laptop all day, which isn’t a good idea. I’m normally quite productive from 5pm ‘til 7pm. Then I’m useless ‘til 10pm.  I do stay up late when things are really busy and I have deadlines – and can usually keep going ‘til 2am, especially if I’m rewriting rather than writing. But I try not to work late two nights in a row. And I try not work at weekends. If things are really busy, I might work a couple of hours on Saturday, but rarely. And, being a Christian, I will do anything to avoid working on Sundays which I try to take as a day of rest, church and family - unless obliged to since that’s the day of shooting/recording. (I could point you to Bible references if you’d like to know how that works, but I suspect you’re not that curious. Which is fair enough).

That's Not The Half of It
But this is only really how I spend less than half my time. The other half is spent in meetings, often with Richard Hurst, storylining, re-storyling, going through notes, talking, talking, talking about Bluestone 42 and other projects… And then meetings for other things. Plus doing my accounts and VAT returns.

That’s it really. That's how I write. Not that interesting or surprising, but some people like to know. You should do what works for you - and enables you to keep up obligations to family, society and the world in general, since that's where the stories are all coming from.

If anyone has any questions about writing, comedy, sitcom or any of that stuff, tweet me at @sitcomgeek.

Friday 22 November 2013

The Most Expensive Words It Is Possible to Write

David Simpkin (@simplerDave) asks: If story leads to a big set piece (from Some Mothers to Miranda etc), do you write it & then budget it, or write knowing limits?

No. Stop it. Don’t. Seriously.

It’s very tempting to temper your writing because you know it’s a British TV show and that budgets aren’t huge. But it’s a serious mistake to limit your imagination and writing in this way. How to produce what’s on the page is the producer’s problem.

You’re the writer. Write. Imagine. Dream. Create.

I probably sound a bit pretentious here, but I know that in the past, I’ve been guilty of trying to think up TV shows that seem easily achievable and filmable – and in so doing have thought up ideas that were bland, mundane or too similar to stuff already out there. Of course a show about six friends living in New York can work. Or a show set in a bar in Boston can work. But why not set a show in a bomb disposal unit stationed at a patrol base in Afghanistan? Or a show in a BBC 1950s newsroom? Or a Manchester police station in 1973?

These ideas are much more interesting to write and, although they are hard work to research, the research throws up loads of brilliant stories, characters and moments. That’s what I’ve found on Bluestone 42. Plus, these shows are more interesting to TV Commissioners, Channel Controllers and the TV viewing audience who’ve already seen a thousand cop shows, medical dramas and flat-share sitcoms.

Unless you have a background as producer, you, as a writer, have no idea how much things cost. So don’t worry about it. Stuff that you might think is expensive often turns out to be achievable, while other things you might think are straight forward are a nightmare. So don’t prejudge it. Write something awesome.

Making it Work
A Foxhound
Good producers find a way of making it work. (And even some bad producers.) Plus an Art Department or Costume Designer might be desperate to do something different or interesting. They’ll find a way of making it work. Maybe they’ve just spend four years finding and dressing cottages for Midsomer Murders. Sure, professionals want a quiet life, but they also love a challenge. And the chance to do something brilliant. Harry Banks, our Production designer on Bluestone 42, has pulled together a team to construct these vehicles (see pics: A Mastiff, a Jackal and a Foxhound) which look amazing, but are essentially flat-bed trucks, wood and welded metal. And he’s made stuff even more awesome than this that I can’t show you yet.
A Jackal

So. Free your mind. Write the scene. Write the show. And leave the rest to someone else. And then, when the Channel controller has been wowed by your creative vision, and sufficiently enthused to buy the show, you can have that chat with the producer about how you actually film the darned show.

The Most Expensive Words It Is Possible to Write
Maybe your script contains three of the most expensive words you can write: ‘The fleets engage’. But there’s probably a way of shooting even clashing fleets on a budget – especially if the story is about two admirals, or cabin boys or whatever. After all, big ships firing cannon balls at each other isn't all that interesting.

A Mastiff
So as you go through your brilliantly imaginative script, you need to think about what is actually necessary to make the scene work? You’re writing a comedy, or a drama. Not an action movie. (If you’re writing an action movie, disregard this entire post, obviously). So do you need to see a thousand extras? Will that make the action more dramatic or funnier? Or do you just need to give the impression of a thousand people being there? Or a crowd?

Think about what Alfred Hitchcock said about drama and suspense. Do you want a bomb to go off – which can be expensive – or is it more dramatic to have a briefcase under a table that we know has a bomb in it? Special effects, stunts and motion graphics are often achievable but they’re not inherently dramatic. Seeing a human being jump off the Empire State Building isn’t all that interesting – unless you know who it is or why they’re jumping. But the most interest bit is the bit before they jump. That’s where the drama is. And where there’s drama, there’s comedy. Shoot that.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Call the Police! Just Call the Police.

On Twitter, @benjaminpmoore asked me about plots. Should they be serious or funny? Well, if you’re writing a comedy show you want your plots to be funny, right? Sorry to be facetious. Not helpful. Let’s think about this.

Sometimes you’re working on storylines and think wouldn’t it be funny if x, y or z happened? Probably. This seems to be how Graham Linehan constructs his stories, by thinking of funny set-piece scenes or images that seem comic. It’s quite an unusual way of doing it, but who am I tell Graham Linehan he's doing it wrong? Mainly because he's not. What you need when plotting is a starting point – even if that starting point is at the end.

When thinking about plots, if funny stories, moments and scenes present themselves, write them down and work with them. It could be moments in your life or stories you’ve heard. Or stuff that nearly happened. On Miranda, we thought it might be funny if Miranda ended up having to do a eulogy at a funeral while not knowing who was actual casket. It was just a case of making a series of events take place that we believable, involving a new mobile phone and a late message, partly based on a true story that had happened to Miranda. And then falling into the open grave afterwards was just a bonus. And that all happened in the first ten minutes.

Whether it’s a funny story – or a serious story with funny moments and consequences (which often turn out funnier) – what you’re always after in storylining is logic and truth. You need logic in the story and truth in the character. You need one step to follow on from another one – and for the character to make those steps because they’re obvious or believable for that character in that moment.

Truth and Logic
One obvious is example is ‘Call the Police!’ When characters on TV end up in some kind of illegal scrape or confronted with criminals, there are times when you’re just screaming at the television ‘Call the Police! Right now, your character would just dial 999 and that would be that.’ But the writers have decided it would be funnier if they didn’t call the police and tried to cover things or up or dealt with it themselves. If they can’t the police, you need a really good reason for it. Either there's some personal threat so they don't – although for me these threats often ring hollow or seem generic - or the old flat mobile/no signal trick, which normally feels like cheating. Why is their phone not working? Is it because said they didn’t need to charge it up and refuse to admit they did because they’re proud? Or maybe they’re a stickler and in a long-running battle with their phone provider and have been cut off? It needs a reason.

To service your funny story, or get to your funny set-piece finish, you don’t want any beat or moment, when any normal human being, watching the screen would say ‘You would never do that’ or ‘That character would never do that.’ If you’re lucky, you won’t get that far because in rehearsal an actor worth their salt will ask the director – and then you – ‘Why is my character doing this?’ (This is the non-pretentious version of 'Love, what's my motivation?') As the writer, you will need an answer. And that answer should not be ‘because it’s funny’ or ‘because we need you to set up the story for later.’

More Pain

What this means is more work in the storylining stage. But it’s worth putting the time and energy in then – because once you’ve written a script, cutting funny jokes and brilliant routines that have no logical justification is really hard and painful. On Series 2 of Bluestone 42, Richard and I spent months thinking up. researching and sifting stories, finding funny moments, beats and lines, and then making sure each story, beat and moment was underpinned with truth and logic. We started this process in January for all seven episodes. Quite often they end up on the drawing board, or in the folder for another day, rather than in a script. We didn’t start writing any scripts ‘til the end of May and have been writing and rewriting the scripts from then until now (mid-November). There’s no special secret or inside track. Just truth and logic. Truth and logic. And time.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Tuesday 19 November 2013

How many characters should you have?

On Twitter, I opened this blog up for questions and Richie (@McQ72)  asks “How many main characters should there be...??...Or really...what's the maximum...??...”

In the past, I wrote six episodes of a show called My Hero. I started writing episodes in the fourth series, when it had ten regular characters. The focus was always on the ‘hero’, played by Ardal O’Hanlon, who drove the main plot every week. His story would often involve his wife, Janet (Emily Joyce) and/or his venal friend, Arnie and/or his insane neighbour, Tyler. There was a B-plot, usually based around the slimy doctor (Hugh Dennis) and the psychopathic receptionist Mrs Raven (Geraldine McNulty), and a C-plot, often based around Janet’s snobby mum and long-suffering dad. It was a large cast to handle and the rule was that every character was in every episode. The upside was that you had ten different attitudes to any given situation – and therefore ten types of joke. There were lots of possible stories – which is why there are dozens of episodes. And it meant that you didn’t need as many guests parts, since lots of roles could be filled by regulars (ie. Janet’s mum could turn her had to being a florist, or Mrs Raven could turn out to be very good at butchery etc). And the audience would always rather see the regular characters than guests stars. Those are the upsides. The downside was making sure enough people had lines and jokes. This was hard work – but you always new it was possible, because every week, we just about managed it.

The set up of My Hero was not of my choosing. The show was conceived by a delightful man called Paul Mendleson. The show I’m writing at the moment, Bluestone 42, was of my choosing, although the characters we have felt like they had to reflect military reality. When Richard Hurst and I chose a bomb disposal expert as a lead character in a sitcom, we discovered that his team would be a minimum of four people (ATO, Number 2, Bleep and Military Escort). We ended up with six in the team (ATO, Number 2, Bleep and a three man military escort – to give us an array of perspectives and rivalries), plus an interpreter, a padre, a Lieutenant Colonel. That’s nine characters – which, again, is very tricky. We love all the characters dearly and giving them good jokes and a satisfying story in 28 minutes is really hard work. Somehow, the stories seems to follow the same pattern as My Hero. Captain Nick Medhurst is ‘the hero’ and leads a story every week, which normally involves one of the other characters. Mac and Rocket, the squaddies, tend to have a B or C plot, and the other characters are normally involved in the other plot.

So, maybe Nick has a problem with his new number two, Towerblock – and turns to the Lt Col for advice – that’s the A Plot. Meanwhile Bird has a running battle with Mary the padre over something – that’s the B Plot. And Simon’s being pestered by Mac and Rocket over something. That’s the C Plot, which may end up being the same size as the B Plot.

Making a Large Cast Work
Sitcoms can support a large casts. Some recent gems that jump to mind would be Parks and Recreation and Arrested Development. Much older shows would be Dad’s Army and The Phil Silvers Show (aka Bilko). In each case, the show has a clear lead, eg. Leslie Nope in Parks and Rec, Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, or Bilko in The Phil Silvers Show – or central relationship in Dad’s Army, between Mainwairing and Wilson.

It’s worth looking at those David Croft sitcoms which all had large casts, but a fairly clear central hub. Hi-De-Hi seemed to focus around a few central characters and draw in peripheral ones when needed. Allo Allo was very much focussed on Rene Artois who was the ringmaster in a circus of lunatics.

Keeping Focus
Based on all of the above, then, I would suggest, then, that you ultimately know who your show is about. It should be about one key character (eg. Miranda, David Brent, Mrs Brown, Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew, Wolfy Smith, Leslie Nope) or a central relationship (eg. Edina & Saffy, Rodney & Del Boy, Hacker & Sir Humphrey, Sharon & Tracey, Terry & June, Fletcher & Godber). If you know this, you’ll know where your main A plots are coming from. If you don’t, you’ll have split focus, you’ll not know what you’re writing and the audience, should it make it that far, won’t know what/who they’re watching. And ultimately, that character, or relationship, should encapsulate what the show is about.

There are always exceptions, of course. One would be Modern Family, which has a large cast and seems to split its focus equally between the three family units with no clear ‘star’ or ‘hero’. Each episode is normally three plots that run along side each other. But then again, we should not be surprised that this. Modern Family is always exceptional.

Avoiding Overlap
Whatever you decide, however many characters you end up with, central or peripheral, you need to make sure that all your characters have clear, contrasting voices and unique perspectives. If they are all given the same task (eg taking part in a Secret Santa or running a pub quiz), they should all instinctively go about it in completely different ways. When some news breaks (eg. There’s no hot water or there’s a hurricane coming), they all react in different ways, and then end up in conflict.

Quite often, I find, when you’re storylining a new show, some characters generate stories and seem to end up in the thick of the action, and other characters you thought were going to be funny or useful fall by the wayside. It’s all part of the process, which is one of the reasons why developing new sitcoms takes ages.

So, thanks, Richie. If anyone else has a question, tweet @sitcomgeek.

Friday 8 November 2013

The Big Comedy Conference

Writing is a lonely business. There's an awful lot of staring at a screen, deleting what it took ages to write and getting notes on what you finally produced. So gathering with other writers and people who feel your pain is well worth the effort. So any day-long comedy conference is usually worth a look for that reason alone.

But I've just seen the line-up for the Big Comedy Conference on Saturday 30th November 2013 and it looks brilliant. They've got a really great mix of writers who actually know what they're talking about, producers who make stuff happen, and executives who decide on what the producers make happen. It's going to address TV, Radio, Live Performance, Edinburgh and YouTube. I'd definitely be there if I weren't tied up with Bluestone 42. It may look a little expensive, but it's a packed day and given the London Screenwriters Festival is £330 for a weekend, it's in the same ballpark - and probably a lot more use if you consider yourself a comedy writer, rather than a screen writer. And it's run by some good eggs. So if you're a floating voter, stop drifting. Hook yourself up to that conference.

Monday 28 October 2013

Bluestone 42 - Field Notes No. 3 - Magazines

When you’re writing a sitcom, you’re creating a world. And when you’re actually putting that world onto the screen, you have to think about everything. And I mean everything.

The script says:
Mac runs into the cookhouse with a porn mag, being chased by Rocket.
Rocket (Scott Hoatson)
It’s two squaddies. So far, so believable. What are they wearing? Have they just been on ops? Don’t worry too much – the costume department are all over this, and continuity will make sure it all matches up.

But the props department look at this and think ‘Porn mag? What type of porn mag? Is it proper full-on porn? Or a lads mag, which is not quite the same thing? And, crucially, what is the porn mag called?’

You can’t just use existing magazine without permission and/or paying someone and so you have to make up a name.  Fake pornographic magazines are always called something ridiculous like Big and Bouncy, but that just feels fake (about as fake as those things that are billed as big and bouncy). The props department will have a few ideas, but they’ve got 1001 other props to sort out. Ultimately, you have to approve something – or more likely think of something yourself. And it can’t be something that’s already the name of a magazine that happens to be about something else.

Ideally, you don't want a magazine title that's funny, satirical, creepy or open to misinterpretation as it'll get in the way of the scene, the dialogue and the jokes. Remember, by the time you're on set, you're ironing. You want the jokes you've written to stand out, and you want the background to be remain background. Doing two jokes at once is almost as bad as not doing any joke at all. (Discuss).

Naming porn mags is something I’ve now found myself doing on two occasions on the set of Bluestone 42. In Series 1, we ended up with a magazine called Racquel’s Choice, which, for some reason, I found pleasing. It seemed to me that this was a magazine started in the 1970s with had a bit of history to it. But Richard Hurst, my co-writer, was never that convinced but we had to settle on something fairly swiftly. In the end, you hardly saw it anyway. Richard's happier with the magazine title in Series Two, though. And you’ll just have to wait and see what it’s called. 

Thursday 17 October 2013

Bluestone 42 - Field Notes No. 2 - Ironing

So, today Bluestone 42 was a blend of notes, rewriting, read through, more notes and more rewrites.  Richard and I were doing the ironing.

What is ironing?

Pic by ItsGreg via Flickr
Overall, the scripts seem to be in good shape - if I do say so myself, but you'll be the judge ultimately. But every scripts has wrinkles and creases that need smoothing out. What kind of wrinkles are they? There a lines that don't quite sound natural, or feel annoyingly long and need trimming, or have already been trimmed to much and don't make sense. An off-hand line that implies the story is going to go one way, it isn't. And that doesn't feel nicely surprising, quite annoying.

The scripts have been heavily rewritten six or seven times in the last six months - and tinkered with a dozen times more. There are lines that made sense three drafts ago, but aren't right now, and need tweaking. Jokes have been added. Some moved. Others deleted and a mental note made to use another time, context permitting. We try to operate a No Joke Left Behind policy so one or two jokes from scenes or bits several drafts ago have been reinstated.

Sometimes what was a joke turns out to be the set up to a better joke. Sometimes you improve a line which is now a better line that the joke that follows it - so you're probably going to cut that second joke - unless you need it to move things along, in which case, it's feels a bit eggy since it's not as good as the joke before it so you now need to de-joke that second line. Or find a way of cutting it so it's all silky smooth. (But you don't iron silk, right?)

There is always the temptation to back off, go easy and assume you can fix things on the day. When you're shooting 7 pages a day, there's no little time to fix things. Fix them now. The day of the shoot itself will throw up problems of it's own. There's also the temptation you can fix it in the edit. You can't. If you don't have the shots, you really can't do anything about it. It needs to be fixed now.

It takes ages, your brain turns to mush and sometimes you just want it be over. A bit like actual ironing. But it's worth it.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Bluestone 42 - Field Notes No. 1

So, Bluestone 42 is back on TV. Series 1 is being repeated on BBC1 on Friday nights after Graham Norton. Tell your friends.

Those mountains in the background of the show are not Afghanistan. I knew you'd be shocked. Anyone who's been to South Africa would probably recognise them straight away. As would anyone who's watched the credit to the end, but the only people who do that work in television, looking for someone to resent or blame for what they've just seen.

So I'm currently writing this blogpost in Stellenbosch as we begin filming Series 2. And I'll be posting a few despatches from our pretend frontline, not as a way of trailering the series, but as a way of showing what a writer gets up to on set and seeing what we can glean from that, short of lessons in coping with tiredness, bored and passive aggressive rage coupled with thinking of brand new jokes that you somehow manage to film on the fly before cutting them in the edit several weeks later.

The highly successful and thoroughly delight Sam Bain (Peep Show, Fresh Meat and everything else) says that:
Being a writer on set is like standing next to a photocopier during a seven-week-long printout. It's repetitive and often boring and not the best use of your time, but if you walk away there's always the chance of a catastrophic paper jam.
This is a brilliant description in many ways, but there's obviously much more to be said. I often describe the job as arguing over prepositions. It's fiddling with lines, tweaking them so that they make sense, sound right, feel natural and all that. In fact, you're essentially ironing. I shall explain what I mean by that next time.

Friday 20 September 2013

There is Plenty of Decent Comedy on Radio 4

So, Liam Mullone has written an article about Why there isn't Any Decent Comedy on Radio 4? in Spectator. And I'm quoted in it a few times.

Which would suggest I think there isn't any Decent Comedy on Radio 4.

Which isn't, of course, true. Not least because I've written some comedy for Radio 4 recently which is, I hope, decent.

Moreover, anyone who's read my blog will know that I'm a huge fan of BBC Radio and Radio Comedy - and only last night was urging people to write for Newsjack, which is a brilliant way of getting started in comedy writing. And why writing for radio is just a great thing to do (see here).

I spoke to Liam about radio comedy because I like Liam and find his comedy voice interesting and subversive as far as the comedy scene goes, so we had a nice chat. And also I'm passionate about Radio Comedy and want it to be as good as possible. So when we were talking, it was more in a context of reasons why it sometimes isn't good, or why particular choices are made.

So let's nuance this all a bit. I said something along the lines of:
The BBC is desperate for new comedy voices. That’s why it returns to the Fringe each year. But because getting on to Radio 4 is an achievable aim for a Fringe performer, many shows, perhaps subconsciously, are written for radio. They’re made to be picked up and slotted in without anyone having to rethink them. So a lot of things sound like Radio 4 even before they get aired.
And I think that's true - although it sounds a little negative. Because BBC Radio 4 (and 4 Extra) puts out more original comedy content that pretty much all other TV and Radio comedy combined, there's a realistic chance that if you're a good writer (and performer), you could land a slot on radio 4. And if you're trying to be seen and progress your career in Edinburgh, you might be aiming for one of those slots. So subconsciously, you could end up writing a show that can be adapted for radio quite easily, which may inhibit creativity and originality. Having said that, most of the shows I saw at Edinburgh this year were not very 'radio-ish', so maybe people are good at avoiding that.

Comedian Talking
Another thing that can happen is that when an interesting comedy voice is found, the rush to get them onto the radio might also lead to a 'comedian talks about stuff for half an hour on a theme' radio show. There are lots of them about - and some of them are great (eg Jeremy Hardy Speaks the Nation among others). I've co-written several series of Milton Jones's show where we've tried to avoid that, and written a Ripping-Yarns-meets-Goons-style story so that show is greater than the sum of its parts. That's the idea, at least. Mark Thomas's Manifesto is another decent twist on 'Man talks for half an hour' and Mark Steel's In Town.

There is also the issue that vast majority of comedy is made for a Radio 4 audience, who are not, by and large, a Radio 1, 2 or 3, Five Live or 6Music audience. So if you're after Radio comedy and aren't a regularly Radio 4 listener (which I am) there way well be a similarity in tone or style. But that's not always the case. One of my favourite shows of recent years is Bigipedia - which somehow manages to sound like the internet. It's brilliant, full of jokes and ideas (and I don't think is returning for a third series, sadly. No idea why).

Religion, Radio and Comedy
Moving on, I also said something like: 'Radio 4 won’t have religion in its comedy.’ I'm not sure I said it exactly like that, but religion and comedy together is something that Radio 4 audience tend not to like and complain about most vociferously. And so producers are rightly nervous about tackling religion with comedy.

There are reasons for this.

Religion is very personal and so the chance to offend is high. That is not to say it should be done, but you have to know why you're doing it. In my experience, comedy people tend not to be religious. And religious people tend to have a tin ear for comedy. So this is not a happy relationship. I've written lots of this subject in other places since I'm an unusual case being a comedy writer and a professing Christian. Given the number of people and ideas competing for Radio 4's comedy slots, it's probably easier to pick someone that tackles subjects other than religion - because we all want a quiet life, right? Which brings us to:

And Finally
I said "And everyone’s terrified of being fired. So nobody wants to shake things up much." Firstly, it's hard to shake things up when Radio 4 Comedy is one part of one station's output which has a particular audience. But secondly, this statement is true of most people on salaries in most organisation in most walks of life. If you're paying off a mortgage and have to provide food for you kids, your main aim at work is to do the best you can without being fired.

Why would people working at the BBC be any different? We have incredibly high expectations of the BBC - because we're proud of it. We hold anyone who works there to a higher standard, which is not entirely fair because it's one of the most recognisable and trusted brands in the world. And its ours.

And despite the constant barrage from self-righteous MPs and tiresome Daily Mail columnists, the BBC continues. And BBC Radio 4 keeps putting out scripted comedies gems like Cabin Pressure, Bleak Expectations, That Mitchell and Webb Sound, Bigipedia, Giles Wemmbley-Hogg Goes Off, Old Harry's Game, Party, In and Out of the Kitchen, Elvenquest, John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, Nick Mohammed in Bits to name but a few - as well as the stalwart institutions like Just A Minute, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, The News Quiz and The Now Show.

In short, Radio 4 Comedy has a pretty decent hit rate and have a profoundly beneficial effect on the British comedy scene. But then, no-one's going to print an article about that, are they?

Thursday 19 September 2013

Should I Make a Youtube Video? Part 2

In my last post, I said that making YouTube videos is mostly a waste of time - if you want to be a sitcom writer. And you're not a writer/performer. I give my reasons here.

Here's what I'm advising against most of all: making the sitcom yourself with some friends as a way of 'getting the idea out there' or showing that the idea 'can work' or 'building an audience'. It won't sell the show, especially if you're trying to write something that works as a half-hour show, rather than a three-minute sketch. TV sitcoms cost at least £250k an episode, and these are not lavish productions with actors being picked up limos. Next to these shows, it's hard to make your own show which does justice to your idea. So I maintain that the best way to sell a well-written sitcom is to write a script really well and send it producers who make things that you like. For more on that, see here and here and here.

The Upside of YouTube
That is not to say if you have a go at making your own show for YouTube, you won't learn some valuable lessons, make some good friends and have fun. But everything takes time and money - and that's time and money that might be better used elsewhere.

YouTube is brilliantly democratic and immediate, so there's nothing to stop you making a show that is extremely topical. Write/Performer Dave Cohen (who has credits on Have I Got News for You and Horrible Histories) did his own topical show for a week called Britain's Got People. Or maybe you have an idea or persona that lends itself to talking directly to camera, like Jenna Marbles.

Other Web
If you're looking to write something other than a sitcom script, the web does open up a whole range of possibilities that might well be worth pursuing.

Podcasts cost virtually nothing to make and can almost sound broadcast-quality very easily. If you do something that's regular and high quality, people will notice, including producers. Eventually.

There's also blogging or other forms of written online comedy - which are worth considering if you can do them well and regularly. The Onion is a notable example (which I think started as a printed leaflet to sell pizzas). The greatest British example is the wonderfully demented Framley Examiner, written by guys like Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley who've gone on to write with Charlie Brooker on Screenwipe and A Touch of Cloth.

I'm not sure if there was never a better time to be a comedy writer - given the opportunities - or whether this is the worst possible time - given the numbers of people trying to be writers. The point is that there are opportunities to show what you can do that don't involve persuading someone to lend you lights and a boom. And I would encourage you to take them.

But right now, you should be writing for Newsjack which is running on BBC Radio 4 Extra at the moment. Here's why.

Monday 2 September 2013

Should I Make a YouTube Video?


Too stark? Okay, then.

Probably not.


I get asked this question quite often from aspiring writers and it's writers I'm talking to here, since those are the only people I feel qualified to talk to. I’m a writer. I’m not a writer-performer, a wannabe director or an aspiring producer. I write scripts. Do you want to write scripts for a living? If so, I think you should give YouTube a wide berth.

The Allure of YouTube
YouTube beckons all of us, like a shiny casino inviting us to spin its wheels of fortune. There is something exciting about the internet. It seems democratic. There's nothing to stop your video getting 15 million hits and being an overnight sensation.

But be careful. We are moths to its flame. Even if you've made a really good three-minute video, there's no guarantee that this will lead to the kind of work you'd actually like to do. It might lead to other things, of course, so I'd never say never. But if you're a writer, think hard. Ask yourself how this is actually going to help. And bear in mind that a really good three-minute video is waaaay harder to make than you might think.

And this video may actually hinder you and your idea.

I have heard producers on panel and Q&As say 'If you can make a little taster, then go for it' but I really don't think that's great advice, I'm afraid. Turning your idea into an online video may well inhibit your vision and creative freedom in the quest to make it filmable on a budget - thereby making it less attractive to producers with no imagination whose job is to read scripts and imagine how they'd work and be funny.

But let's not get hung up on them. You can't control the industry. None of us can. But the temptation is to take control of your career by making something. Doing something. Like a taster of your idea. That feels like something. But, unless you have deep pockets or stunning contacts, you'll almost certainly be selling it short, unless you have the good fortune of thinking up something that is cheap to film.  If you're making a Youtube video, you're making TV on your own - and TV is expensive. Even bad TV costs a lot.

The Problem and The Pain
The problem with many homemade videos is getting the sound, vision and content to join up. Usually one of these is defective, which gets in the way of the comedy and spoils it. Sometimes, these things come together into something half-decent, but then it's far too long. A while ago, I spoke to a guy who made a respectable YouTube clip of his idea, and it was ten minutes long. I suggested he cut it down to a punchy two minute trailer. But he couldn't face binning all that torturous hard work. It's understandable. But let's learn the lesson, even he can't bring himself to.

But what's the big deal? It's just YouTube. Your video doesn't have to look amazing, anyway, right? Hmmm. Youtube is full of ripped clips of big budget movies, pop videos bankrolled by record labels, brilliantly edited mash-ups and glorified commercials paid for by sponsors for whom fifty grand is loose change. Online, your clip is competing with all of these. As well as iPlayer, Netflix, Bit Torrent and porn.

All this said, YouTube videos can probably help writer-performers - where the writing and performance are integral. In fact, all the best YouTube videos I've seen are by writer-performers. But this is not a long list - for the reasons given above. Right now, only about three decent original YouTube videos spring to mind which I can say, hand on heart, I really like and have watched more than once and gladly shown to other people. They would be Special Forces, Thank You Hater and Blinded by Love (look them up later. I'm talking.) They've mostly been made by people with some decent credits under their belt and they sort of know people who helped them get it made and looking good. And they all took ages.

But Why?
And maybe you could do that to. But if you're a writer, not a writer/performer, why would you? If you work really hard, spend several hundred pounds on some props, food and editing, call in all your favours and drive yourself into the ground, you might produce a half-decent YouTube video. Half decent. It's probably a shadow of the idea in your head, a bit too long, one of the actors isn't great and you can hear traffic under the dialogue.

The world doesn’t need more half-decent YouTube videos. It does need decent scripts. 

Write a Script
Decent scripts will get you work. Really. They will. And you might have the power to make one of those, not least because they don't require a team of ten people and a ton of blagged favours. You can write a thirty-five page sitcom script just like anyone else. Your script will look exactly the same as those by Richard Curtis or Galton and Simpson. When it lands on the desk of a producer, they don't know who you are or what to expect. You can start your show with 'Admiral Nelson stands on the deck of his ship' and it won't look rubbish. And you won't be able to hear traffic from the A303 underneath.

But that script will take time, attention, honesty and several rewrites. If you have money to burn on a YouTube video, spend it renting a run down cottage in the middle of nowhere without an internet connection for a week or two. Finish that script and until you're actually happy with it.

I could bang on about what business people call ‘opportunity costs’, but you probably get the idea.

Should I make a YouTube video? Many would just say 'yes' because saying 'no' makes you look grumpy and curmudgeonly. Well, it's a bit late for that, so I say to writers 'Almost certainly not. Write a decent script.'

Monday 5 August 2013

What is the Universe Trying to Tell Us?

The Edinburgh Fringe always throws up a few little anecdotes that are worth retelling. For me, the best so far is this one that happened to Katie who's helping produce my play, The God Particle (Just the Tonic Bristo Square at Noon 'til Aug 25th (not 13). More info here).

She'd been giving flyers after shows that are vaguely related to ours, and so she found herself at the Summerhall Theatre where a play called 'Higgs' was running. Peter Higgs, of course, is the man behind the Higgs-Boson, the so-called God Particle. That's the tiny tiny thing they're all trying to find at the Large Hadron Collider. In her own words:
I handed a flyer to one elderly gentleman who read the title, looked shocked but not a little amused, and then put it in the bag he was holding and walked off. I thought that was a bit of an odd reaction.
The man he had been speaking to said: ‘You do know who that is, yes?’
‘That man IS the Higgs-Boson’
Penny slowly dropping now… ‘You mean…’
‘Yes, that was Professor Higgs’.
So there we go. The girl in the bright yellow t-shirt who accidentally gave Professor Peter Higgs a flyer for a show called ‘The God Particle’. 

Read Katie's blog here.

Wednesday 31 July 2013

5 Bits of Advice for Edinburgh Fringe Performers

The flyering has begun. Although the starting pistol hasn't quite been fired, previews are being performed, Edinburgh is humming and crackling. The Fringe essentially starts today.

If you're a performer, then right now, you’re all about getting your show up and running. And that’s as it should be. But here's some advice from someone who's doing his seventh Fringe in the last fifteen years: Obsessing about your own show will only help you up to a point. It’ll make it better, but there is a law of diminishing returns.

So after a few days, stop obsessing and start looking outwards, especially while there are many performance spaces with many empty seats, cheap tickets and good deals. Make use of them because one of the most useful things to come out of your being at the Edinburgh Fringe for a month is not the impact of your own show which will, mostly likely, vanish without trace (as indeed most of mine have). Right now, Edinburgh is filled with your comedy peers, both present and future. So here’s my advice:

Go and see other shows. Some of them will be extremely inspiring and you’ll see what’s possible. I remember being heavily affected by some sketch shows that showed the way in terms of the sort of sketch comedy I wanted to do.

Go and see other shows. You may end up working with some of these people in the future, so it’s a good idea to see what they can do on their own terms in an hour-long Fringe show. You may spot someone you’d like to collaborate with next year.

Go and see other shows. Then you’ll have stuff to talk about with other performers and you can hear their opinions on comedy and you’ll understand more about what excited and inspires them. You might end up collaborating with these people in the future, so it’s good to have a handle on what they’re into as well as what they do.

Go and see other shows. Then you can feel smug about having seen someone who can fill the 02 in six years time. You saw them when they half-filled an 80-seater. I still fondly remember early Bill Bailey and Ross Noble Edinburgh shows I saw in the 90s. (I also remember standing next to a guy called Brett handing out flyers outside the Gilded Balloon. This year, he won an Oscar for the song ‘Man or Muppet’.)

Go and see other shows. Some of them will be reassuringly awful and you’ll feel better about your own show.