Monday 8 April 2013

Bluestone 42 at BBC Writers Room

The BBC have a thing called the Writers Room. It encourages writers and writing and is, in general, a wonderful thing. Here's me and Richard Hurst talking about Bluestone 42 - and then click around to find other cleverer and more experienced people talking.

Friday 5 April 2013

Why is Britain So Bad at Standup Sitcoms?

Let's talk about this article on the Guardian TV & Radio blog for a moment, shall we? Critics criticise comedians and sitcoms, so I guess it's only fair for us who write comedy and sitcoms to scrutinise what they've written. Moreover, the author of the piece, says "Now I've thought about this carefully and I'm happy to be corrected..." and I hope at least one of those is true.

But first a quotation from an excellent article in Grantland about the world's supposedly most hated bands, Nickelback and Creed. The writer of that article is trying to understand why people hate them so much . here is my favourite paragraph about Chad Kroeger, the lead singer of Nickelback:
"It's hard to get inside the existential paradox of Kroeger's life on tour: Every day, he gives interviews to journalists and radio DJs who directly ask him why no one likes his band. Every night, he plays music to thousands of enraptured superfans, many of whom love him with a ferocity that's probably unhealthy. Every concert ends with a standing ovation; if he feels motivated, he spends the remainder of the night partying with forgettable strangers who will remember him for the rest of their lives. Eventually, Kroeger falls asleep. And then he wakes up in a beautiful hotel room, only to read new articles about how everyone in North America hates his band."
So let us return to the article in the esteemed and much loved Guardian. The headline reads: "As Lee Mack returns for a sixth series of Not Going Out, Leo Benedictus asks if a British standup comedian has ever made a really good sitcom." This would seem to be a bit of a Kroeger problem. A more honest headline would be: "As Lee Mack returns for a sixth series of his BBC1 Sitcom Not Going Out, Leo Benedictus asks why Lee Mack has failed to write a successful sitcom." It's rather puzzling. Many sitcoms don't make it past the first series. Many give up after two. This is series coming is number six. That's quite a lot, isn't it?

The writer shows his hand, of course, when he writes "Lee Mack returns to BBC1 with a sixth series of Not Going Out, which – let's give it time – may yet show that the first five were just a lengthy warm-up." It seems the problem is that the writer doesn't like Not Going Out. Aaah, now that's a different thing from it being unsuccessful. I don't like Holby. It's a drama. I do not find it terribly dramatic. But my mum does. And I can see that it's a successful show. Not Going Out isn't quite Steptoe or Hancock, but it's doing okay.

The rest of the article continues to make this error, confusing personal taste with objective success. What are the British shows fronted by a stand-up comedian? Lead Balloon is cited as being 'an interesting but rather dreary simulacrum'. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds bad. But Lead Balloon was quite good, wasn't it? And some critics liked it too. Even AA Gill and he detests the very act of laughter. And there's Grandma's House - which has done okay too, hasn't it? Some liked it. Some didn't. Got some awards for some of the performances.

He also claims that Dinnerladies and Ideal were down there with Lab Rats in being unsuccessful self-penned vehicles for comedians. Hand on heart, I've never seen Dinnerladies (pronounced 'dinnerladies') but I've just looked it up on wikipedia. It says that "series 2 peaked with "Minnellium", which aired on 31 December 1999 and reached 15.33 million viewers." You know, I'd settle for those viewing figures. I also never watched Ideal. But it did SEVEN series. And, ahem, it actually isn't penned by Johnny Vegas, but by Grahan Duff. So it doesn't really count anyway, does it? That information was also easily available from Wikipedia.

And then there's Phoenix Nights, an excellent show that I loved written by Dave Spikey and Peter Kay - both stand-up comedians and the latter being one of the most successful stand-up comedians of recent times. Surely that would qualify? Nope. Peter Kay isn't really a proper stand-up comedian, apparently. Our correspondent has "always found Peter Kay to be stronger on parochial fondness than he is on jokes." So even the classification of being 'a stand-up comedian' thing is a matter of taste to then.

But this article isn't really going to get bogged down in categories. After all, in the opening paragraph, Sue Perkins, of Heading Out, is effectively cited as a stand-up comedian - when she isn't really, is she? She was part of a double act. (*sigh* fondly remembers Light Lunch) But Sue Perkins is no more a standup comedian than Miranda Hart, who's show is, I would argue, successful. (But them, I'm obviously biased.) And yet Miranda is curiously left out of the article altogether. And there was a very successful stage/comedy show that isn't quite stand-up either, but has run in theatres all over the country but a man pretending to Mrs Brown. That show's doing quite well now too and even won a BAFTA - although, as with all comedy, it is not to everyone's taste.

Moreover, the TV shows our correspondent likes, being The Royle Family and Alan Partidge, have strong central performances from Caroline Ahearne and Steve Coogan respectively who cut their teeth on the stand-up circuit. This is all very confusing.

So when the author of the piece writes "Now I've thought about this carefully and I'm happy to be corrected", I would argue that he hasn't thought about this all that carefully. And hope this correction brings the happiness that has been promised.

Thursday 4 April 2013

The Plot See-Saw

Some time ago, I was advised to watch Newsradio. I was keen to do so as it stars Phil Hartman, one of my favourite actors in the world, who is tragically no longer with us. Today, I watched an episode that show on YouTube. I chose this episode because it was the fiftieth - and I figured the show had hit its stride and all the characters were established. (In some ways, it's like taking a sample from the middle of the stream rather than the beginning or end, so there's some science behind my choice.)

This blog post will be best enjoyed if you do actually watch the episode. It'll take you 20 minutes. And it's quite funny. So why not do that? It's here.

*drums fingers for twenty minutes*

I quite enjoyed it. Despite not really knowing any of the characters, there was a story that was easy to follow and it had jokes and a guest starring role for Jon Lovitz. In it, Phil Hartman's character has a run in with a traffic warden and it escalates to the police, resisting arrest and a psychiatric assessment. He fails the assessment. Cut to our hero in a mental institution. He wants to get out, but can't because they think you're crazy no matter what he does. When his colleagues come to get him, though, he's decided to stay. And then realises he's made a mistake.

No Offence, but Why Review a Sitcom Episode that was First Aired Almost Exactly 16 Years Ago?
Fair question. I only mention this show because reminded me of a plot device that it worth knowing when about when it comes to plotting your show - which is something I've been writing about on this blog recently (like here). It's 'what I call' a plot see-saw that can work well as a variation in your show. I'll come onto the specifics in a moment, but what I like about the episode of Newradio is the choice they made.I'd imagine the writers room discussion presented various options for Phil Hartman's quest:

Option 1: Our hero has a run-in with law, resists arrest, and it gets a serious because he has to take a psychiatric test. And he really needs to pass or he'll end up in a mental institution - and there'll be no escape. And so his main quest in the episode would be to avoid being declared insane and return to work.

But wouldn't it be better to see him actually in a mental institution? So:

Option 2: Our hero has a run-in with the law, resists arrest, and takes the psychiatric test - and fails. And ends up in a mental instituion. And now he needs to get out. So his main quest is avoid going into a mental institution. He fails. And now he needs to avoid being stuck in the mental institution forever. Eventually he succeeds.

In the end, they went with the more interesting Option 3 - which is getting to the mental institution quickly - and half way through he achieves his inital quest to get out, but decides against it. He stays of his own free will because he's happy there. My only quibble with the episode is that when he changes his mind and decides to leave at the end, it's too easy for him. He should have to do or say something he doesn't want to do or say in order to prove his own sanity. It felt like a really missed opportunity there.

The See-Saw Quest
So, here's what's interesting. If you're feeling your sitcom plot is a bit boring, accelerate it - and give let the character achieve their quest quickly, and then see how they regret it or wish to undo it. It reminds be of Ep2 Series2 of Miranda entitled Before I Die that I was involved in plotting. Miranda is offended not to be asked to be the godmother to a child of some friends she can't stand. But it's the principle of the thing. So her quest is to be asked to be a godmother, so she arranges to look responsible in front of them. She does such a good job that half way through the episode, she achieves her goal. And then realises she's made an awful mistake and the seesaw tips. She spends the rest of the episode trying to reverse this and look irresponsible in front of these friends, which involves reading Mein Kampf to kids in a library and punching a vicar. Funny. (Well, I think so.)

So this is worth considering if you feel your storyline is running out of steam or becoming pedestrian. Try a seesaw. Give the character success in their quest. And then see what the consequences are. It might be funny.

And before we finish, let's just have one more bit of Phil Hartman from one of my favourite films of all time, So I Married an Axe Murderer: