Monday 24 June 2013

Bird and Mary Face Down the Three Peaks

The Calm before the Storm
Kelly Adams (Padre) & Katie Lyons (Bird)
Writers are indoor types, by and large. So when it was suggested that the Bluestone 42 team attempt the Three Peaks Challenge for charity, I jumped at the chance - to do the driving. It's a question of sitting down, staring into space and occasionally moving my hands. I'm a writer. I can do that.

But it was gruelling. Driving from Glasgow to Ben Nevis to Scafell Pyke to Snowdon and then to London. Over 800 miles in a weekend.

Richard Hurst, my writing partner, did the same - and cooked up a storm with the catering, making a fantastic chilli for the team that was consumed with speed and glee by everyone after Ben Nevis had been scaled.

Our efforts, however, are small beer compared to what the team who did the climbing went through. This is not a list of names, but a roll of honour: Kelly Adams (Mary), Katie Lyons (Bird), Scott Hoatson (Rocket) and Stephen Wight (Simon), along with Michelle Farr (Producer), Matt Stronge (Assistant Producer), Kieran Hawkes (Development Military Advisor), plus Kelly's husband, Chris, Stephen's fiance, Chloe and Michelle's partner, Simon.

Kelly & Katie, rightly jubilant.
Matt behind looking bemused
Katie, Kelly and Chris made it up and down all three peaks in 23 hours 25 minutes. Yeah, in your face, mountains. The rest made it in about 25 hours - a staggering achievement given that none of the peaks got the memo about it being the middle of June. Consistently cold conditions, torrential rain and biting wind, which nearly blew members of the team off the top of Snowdon. It was awful for me too. I could hardly sleep with that howling gale outside. (I'm joking, obviously (I slept fine (I didn't really.)))

Team Bluestone's efforts, however, are small beer compared to the real life Counter-IED teams who literally risk life and limb to make the world a safer place - taking vicious devices out of the ground that might otherwise kill or main soldiers or innocent civilians. Those who are wounded either physically or psychologically need help - and a charity called the Felix Fund is key part of providing that.

Our aim was to raise £5000 for the Felix Fund - and at the time of writing, we're about £120 short of that. But we'd love to raise more even more. So if you're a fan of Bluestone 42, or have benefited from the free sitcom-writing advice on this blog - or have just remembered you're a human being and that part of being human is to help others at a cost to yourself, please chip in. All the details are here.

Friday 21 June 2013

Writing Original Dialogue - Part 2

Pic by epsos via Flickr
So after a day of a twitter #sitcomhacklines, we found a few more hacky dialogue, moments and tropes (and @TheStacemeister even objected to the word 'trope'). Lots of people loathe the "There's no I'm doing that/going there/wearing that" etc, with the cut to them doing that/going there, wearing that. And lots of people hate the "He's behind me, isn't he?" standard. But this is just the beginning.

My esteemed co-writer Richard Hurst pointed out the gag when people are looking at porn then turning the picture (or their head) sideways at which point it 'makes sense'. Agreed. Hacky.

Here are some other lines and bits that simply have to go (credited by twitter handle):

"Oh God. Did we...?" Checks under covers to see if clothes are on or off. @ElizabethBower & a variation by @JakeTrusler

I'd never dare do something like that... *Hastily hides the thing they didn't do* @zanPHEE

I'm tiring of 'whole...thing', as in "I hate being stood up" becoming "I hate the whole being-stood-up thing" @simonblackwell

How about a line referencing something bizarre/wacky that happened in the past, what happened to show not tell? @tonycowards

...look up the definition of [a bad thing] in the dictionary; know what you'll find? A picture of you. @philiplarkin

'That's going to leave a mark/that's gotta hurt' and variants... @tobydavies

'You had me at [insert something incongruous that isn't hello]' @ScriptwritingUK & @The_ODonnell

"Who *are* you and what have you done with the real X?"@danblythewriter

"Penny for your thoughts" @RobGilroy Ugh.

"That's what she said. Am I right or am I right?"@AndyGilder

When character drinks frothy coffee and puts cup down to reveal hilarious comedy tache. @ingridoliver100

Not strictly a line, but I don't ever need to see another sitcom character do a doubletake.@revgerald And add to to that the nighttime security guard who sees an odd thing then looks at the cup/glass/bottle in his hand.

When talking about something other than sex: "Tell me one thing, was s/he better than me" @TheSarcasticOwl - I like this observation. They did it in Friends quite a lot (eg. shopping together in Bloomingdales) and it worked for them. But it's done now.

"At least things couldn't get any worse." (Ceiling collapses/thunderstorm starts/etc.) @sleezsisters

"So, you knew? [nods] So, all the time...? [nods] And I was never...? [shakes head]" @mcmwright

I'm here all week. Try the veal. @paultrueman74 Yes, funny in Shrek when you're an ogre who's just beaten up soldiers but that was some time ago now.

Porn films in sitcoms are always of the Hollywood pornification 'Edward Penishands' variety. @MontyBodkin

A: hi I'm Tom
B: Nice to meet you Tim
A: it's Tom
B: WHATEVER TIM @Direlogue

A character storms out of a room straight in to a cupboard. They stay there. @johnfromsoho

"Why can't X do Y?" "Because (he's) a useless etc. etc. etc. who couldn't etc. an etc." PAUSE "But apart from that?" @SimplerDave

So let me make sure I've got this right... [summarises series so far for first time viewers] @AndyGilder Harsh, because one of your characters might be stupid and a quick recap might be useful, but sure, you have to hide it better than this!

Thanks everyone. Leave more in the comments if you think we've missed any. Now, let's write something original, characterful and funny.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Writing Original Dialogue

A few weeks ago, I was catching up on some episodes of the excellent Scriptnotes podcast that I missed. It's a brilliant show from John August and Craig Mazin about screenwriting (and things that are of interest to screenwriters).

In Episode 52, faithfully transcribed here, they talked about 'Clams' or lines that of dialogue that are extremely cliched. They went through a huge long list, many of which mainly applied to action movies, but quite a few applied to sitcoms. And I thought it would be interesting to name and shame those lines here.

But one comment first. Here is the problem. Your dialogue needs to be real and believable. We are a society that is heavily influenced by television and movies - and now people say lines that are very common in movies. One of the most tiresome of these is "I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you." I'm sure it was an original line once but it's been duplicated and rehashed so many times that now it's only ever meant as a lame joke. Your job, as a sitcom writer, is to write dialogue that's funny, relevant, original and, crucially, in character.

In researching Bluestone 42, Richard and I talked to soldiers not just for stories and accuracy, but to hear how they talked. We found that soldiers had picked up a lot of catchphrases from the TV comedy. For example, they would talk about 'cunning plans' - obviously quoting Baldrick from Blackadder. We just couldn't have our characters use phrases like that, even if they were realistic. We had to come up with a way of talking which felt real and truthful, but was also original. Hopefully, we succeeded in that. (Soldiers tell us we did, which is nice.)

So, let's make a start on this list.

The Legacy of Chandler Bing
'Did I just say that out loud?' Yes, Chandler Bing, you did. And now everyone says it. Even in other sitcom scripts that I read. I think this line is from the first ever episode of Friends. Even if it weren't from a sitcom, it just sounds second hand now. The same goes for 'Don't even go there' and 'Too much information' or variants like 'That was more than I needed to know'. We know in our hearts these are hack, second-hand lines. They should never appear in our scripts, even though people still use those phrases in every day life.

'You make that sound like it's a bad thing' is a little more recent, but we're done with this now too, aren't we? I know it's funny when Gene Hunt says it in Life on Mars. But let's retire this one too. Along with 'I just threw up a bit in mouth' or the more British 'I just did a bit of sick in mouth'. It's no longer original. And there's the variant of this line at times of happiness or laughter - “I did a bit of wee, just then”. Again, we're done with this.

Stuff your Dad would day
Then there are weak conversational lines like 'We have to stop meeting like this'. It's the kind of thing your parents would say passing someone on the stairs. See also 'Don't call us, we'll call you' and '[abstract noun] is my middle name (unless you're Austin Powers).

Arguments throw up plenty of well-worn cliche's, like “You give [thing] a bad name”. And  “Calling you a [thing] is an insult to [slightly larger category of thing].” Then the line of incredulity: “What part of [key thing] don’t you understand?”

Undermining Your Reality
Then there are lines that acknowledge that we're in sitcom and it's early in the episode and nothing big has gone wrong yet. e.g. 'What could possibly go wrong?' or 'How hard can it be?' And '“No, no, no, no, no, no, I’m not going to do the thing.” And then we cut to: Them doing the thing. And then after the calamity, explosion or catastrophe, our hero says 'That went well.' Although the audience know it's a sitcom and know it's not real, they are happy to suspend their disbelief while you tell a story. Clanging bells with lines that undermine the realism of the genre just don't help. Your writer friends might think its clever or ironic, but the vast majority of the audience really don't care.

There are other ways of undermining the realism by having your characters quote cliches from movies - but in the right context thanks to the story of your sitcom, and then they say 'I've always wanted to say that.' Or they have something cool they get to use for a little while and then say 'I've got to get me one of these' (which Will Smith says in Independence Day when he flies off at great speed in his super-fast Mac Compatible space ship). Or quoting the First Rule of Fight Club. Please stop now.

And finally, there are jokes like 'He's behind me, isn't he?' Unless you have a really good twist on this (We sort of did one of these about 12 minutes in to Episode 8 of Bluestone 42), or any of the above, avoid them. Give it a few more minutes. Delete it and force yourself to come up with something better. And if your characters seem to keep spouting cliches, rather than have a voice of their own, you might want to go back and redefine your characters.

I'd love to hear other sitcom lines you're tired of hearing. Please leave them in the comments. And I'm sure Dan Tetsell would love to hear your hack sitcom plot lines over here.

And here is how you responded.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Comedian's Comedians

Just look at that face.
Stuart Goldsmith is a comedian and a profoundly nice man. I don't really know him, but I have met him once or twice - both times after recordings of Miranda when he's done brilliant audience warm-up.

What I like most about Stuart is that he really pulls his weight. In fact, he's a stand-up geek. Over the last year or so, he's been producing podcasts with stand-up comedians, asking them about their work, their craft, their experiences, their aspirations and how they got started. It's like Desert Island Discs, but without the songs and Sue Lawley or Kirsty Whatshername, longer and more specifically about comedy. Okay, it's nothing like Desert Island Discs. It's fascinating and if you're interested in comedy - which as a sitcom writer you should be - you should listen, even though it's exclusively about stand-up comedy. But the advice about the craft, the generation of ideas, the emotional distress and creative industry carries across to sitcom writers.

The podcast is called The Comedian's Comedian and there is currently a back catalague of 44 podcasts to listen to including big names like Sarah Millican and Alan Davies, newer stars like Josh Widdecombe, and joke technicians like Adam Bloom. And he's doing live interviews in Edinburgh this year that look brilliant; including seriously experienced professionals like Brendon Burns, Greg Proops and David Baddiel.

I'm writing this blogpost though off the back of catching up on an episode I missed. It was the interview with Rob Rouse. It was a really insightful interview about growing up and actually having something to say more than anything else. And the interview also made me aware of this bit of stand-up by a guy I'd not heard of call Bill Burr who has a bit about Steve Jobs that made me laugh so much I ached. So I thought I'd share. I embed for your aching enjoyment below. Enjoy.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Why Dads Are Still Funny

I have another blog which is named after a book I've written called Death By Civilisation. On it, I've just posted an article (here) about why we shouldn't be surprised about why dads are often incompetents or useless in sitcoms, and mentioning The Royle Family, 2.4 children, The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles, One Foot in the Grave and Modern Family along the way. And I didn't even have room for Freddie Boswell. Hope you like it.

There'll be another sitcomgeek along soon.