Thursday 18 December 2014

Writing on Kids' Sitcoms

Children’s sitcoms has often been considered a good ‘way in’ to writing Sitcoms for Grown-ups.  Those who work in children’s tv, however, often do not see it that way, and it’s not hard to understand why. Nine year-old boys and thirteen year-old girls are very different creatures. Your job is to make both of them laugh. That’s not easy – especially if you’re not a nine year old boy or thirteen year old girl. Writing for someone other than yourself is very difficult.

So let’s look at other difficulties and restrictions in writing for Kids first – given that I’m a writer and therefore the glass is not just half-empty, but smeared with fingerprints and lipstick.

Editorial policy
There are certain words you can’t use in Kids TV, and areas best avoided. There are obvious things like swearing and sexual references. But there’s the also the worry about imitation, and doing things that the children may try to replicate at home. It can be frustrating when you think of something brilliant, simple and funny that is so brilliant, so simple and so funny that you’re teaching the nation's children an amusing way of hurting themselves. You’re not supposed to this. I know. Political correctness gone mad, etc.

Child Actors
Children’s comedy often has children in it. It’s understandable. (Sidenote: At one point, CBBC had an insane hard and fast rule that all their comedies had to have children in them. You couldn’t even pitch a show that didn’t have kids in it because it wouldn’t even be considered. I pointed out that this would have meant that Rentaghost, Maid Marian etc, would not have been commissioned – and they seemed weirdly fine about this. I found this very frustrating, because when I was a ten-year old boy, I didn’t want to watch ten year old boys on the telly. I’d spent all day at school with ten year old boys. Ten your old boys are lame and annoying. I wanted proper funnies on my telly to help me forget I was a ten year old boy. The policy mercifully changed and they ended up with insanely popular and brilliantly silly Horrible Histories, so that sort of proves the point. Sidenote over.)

But there’s still a very good chance your children’s show will have some kids in it. That limits you in a couple of ways. The first is that there aren’t as many child actors as grown-up actors. And the really good ones can be quite hard to find. Obviously, a ten year-old actor has less TV experience than a forty-something, and the really good ones end up in movies, so you’re writing for cast who are feeling their way. What they do achieve is really impressive – but it’s not the same as writing for actors with a bit more telly under their belts.

And secondly, child actors can’t work twelve hours days. I know, I know. More political correctness gone mad. Thanks, Lord Shaftesbury. Well done. So filming becomes more complicated, the days are compressed and there is less time to get a scene rehearsed and really fizzing and funny.

And on top of everything else, the budgets are tiny. Really insultingly small. The only upside of Kids shows is that you’re often not paying our tens of thousands of pounds to a big star to show up every week, but you are paying for chaperones for the child actors – and a lot of the other costs are the same or fixed. When you compare budgets with grown-up TV, what is achieved for the money is astonishing.

As a writer you are paid less for kids shows (but it’s still better than radio), but there’s an upside here. And others besides. The small budgets mean that the series are often longer. They tend to make a children’s series in tens or thirteens rather than sixes, so there are more episodes to write and you can make a living that way.

Plus, given one person can’t really write thirteen episodes, there are opportunities to get work on these shows – and write an episode or two and get some experience that way.

What normally happens if you can get through the door is that you’ll go to some writers ideas/pitching day, and maybe go away and write up some ideas and throw in some new ones. On the basis of that, you might well be commissioned to write an episode. You’ll need to a few outlines first – and then a few drafts of the script. Overall, it works a bit like the system I’ve written about here. But it tends to move fairly fast. Faster than Grown-Up TV. On Series 3 of Bluestone 42, we had a couple of readthroughs for each script – and ended up shooting draft six or seven. Sometimes draft nine or ten. One episode this year was draft 12b. And even then there are last minute changes on the day.

Because of budgets, and volume, Kids TV is faster and doesn’t really allow for that. Once the producer/script editor/creator is broadly happy with your draft (probably the third draft), it might be taken off you, tweaked by a Script editor (who knows what can be achieved on the budgets, with the sets and actors, Editorial policy etc) and the next thing you know, they’ve shot it and it’s on TV. And somewhere along the line you get paid.

You tend not to turn up the read-throughs or filming, unless you are the creator of the show. There just isn’t time to fiddle about. It can be frustrating feeling removed from things, especially earlier in your career when this script is a big deal and you want everything about it to be perfect and you feel like you’re never really in control of your episode. You might watch it on TV and shout 'Why did you change that?' or 'You ruined my joke!' but that is the nature of the beast. It's made fast for not much money - and you weren't there, man.

The Cast of Dani's Castle
This is all my experience, anyway, based on writing episodes of Dani’s Castle, Kerching! and, a long time ago, Chucklevision. (I kid you not). I’ve also done quite a lot for CBeebies, but that’s for another time. If you have wildly different experiences to this, do leave a comment and share with the group.

The other upsides

Despite the frustrations and budgets, writing for kids can be great fun. The limitations really force you to be creative. And you’re writing for an audience that can be much more open-minded than adults. You can do some really daft stuff that just wouldn’t sit on BBC2 at 10pm, or E4 at 11pm.

Plus the lack of profile of Kids TV can be a good thing while you find your creative feet and learn your trade. You don’t have AA Gill lying in wait, ready to shred your pathetic attempt to make a smile pass over his cynical, tired cakehole. And that has to be a good thing.

If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Comedy Conference 2014

I've been a little quiet recently. The main reason is that we're shooting Series 3 of Bluestone 42 in South Africa. This usually affords hours of time for sitting around waiting for the lights to be reset. But at the start of shooting there's usually quite a lot of things that require your attention. And access to the internet is patchy, so updating blogs is not high on the list. Plus, one is reluctant to get out a laptop when dust is swirling around the place. Not convinced? Me neither. There will be some new blogs before long. And I have been writing stuff, but mostly material for a sitcomgeek book. (If you'd like to publish this book, please contact my agent.)

Anyway, the reason for this blog is to let you know that those real comedy geeks over at the British Comedy Guide a running another conference on Saturday 29th November 2014. I'm really glad that these guys are running comedy conferences because they just love comedy. And that comes through in everything they do.

The last conference was, by all accounts, great. I was here in South Africa, gadding about playing soldiers, so I missed it. And it's the same again this year. I'm even more annoyed I can't get along, as it looks utterly brilliant. They've got comedy royalty coming along in the form of Simon Nye, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. An hour spent in the room with those guys is time - and money - well spent. Worth the price of the ticket just for that. Then throw in the likes of Pete Sinclair, Mark Burton, Vicki Pepperdine, David Quantick and plenty besides and you've got a day of unalloyed comedy pleasure and insight. Oh, and I think they're about to announced some guy called Graham Linehan is coming too. Yeah. That guy.

I'll be honest. Maybe it's seems a little on the steep side being £169 for the day. But here are some mitigating circumstances: The day is long and packed. These things cost money. They also offer writers money to come and speak. Most conferences do not this, whilst charging even higher ticket prices. I hope we can all agree that writers, even ones that are doing okay, should he paid. Plus lunch and refreshments are thrown in. And, a free one-to-one session with a guru who might be able to give you a nudge in the right direction. And the British Comedy Guide guys aren't doing this for the money. As I say, they just love comedy. The conference is about comedy - and how you can make some, and learn from the real pros.

And here's the kicker: Use the code SGEEK when you book before 17th Nov and you'll get £20 off. So, all that for less that £150. I think that's money you will not regret spending. And I really and truly get nothing out of it. I just think it's a good thing. So go here.

Friday 17 October 2014

The Readthrough

It’s the big day. Well, maybe not the big day, but it’s a day. Judgment day. For you and your script. All the cast are sitting around a big table, along with the producer, director and half a dozen others who do stuff you haven’t quite figured out yet, but they seem to know who you are.

You are ‘the writer’.

Or one of the writers. But are you a good writer?

Is this script any good? Are you funny? Did you make the right choices? Is that stuff you insisted on leaving in the script going to work? Is it going to get a laugh in the room? Is it going to play? Does the script make sense? Will the whole thing judder to a dreadful embarrassing halt as the last ten minutes makes no sense, but they just won’t stop reading it out? Will the actors understand all the subtleties and nuances of your amazing dialogue? Will they trash a key line? Will anyone actually read or notice some vital stage directions that make sense of the whole thing? Do you feel sick? Is it hot in here? Can someone open a window? Is that what you really want to do with your life? Didn’t your mum say you should have gone into teaching? Or the law? Maybe it’s not too late to retrain. Are you naked and everyone's laughing and you're going to wake up...



It’s completely understandable, but if you approach a readthrough like this, it’s will be every bit as suffocatingly awful as you think it is, even it goes quite well.

But a readthrough of a script is not an exercise in pride or vindication. It feels like it is, but it shouldn’t be. A readthrough is just part of the process. A painful part, for sure, but once you’ve accepted that, you’ll have a much nicer time.

Your Script Isn't Perfect
What you need to realise before the readthrough starts is that your script isn’t perfect. It’s probably not awful, since you’ve been writing and rewriting this for a few weeks. Maybe even a few months. It might well work. There or thereabouts. But there’ll be bits in it that don’t work. They might be key moments that need fixing. The question is working out which bits they are.

A readthrough will show up all those weaknesses. So the readthrough is a good thing. Just like a trip to the dentist will show you which teeth need attention. People tend not to sit around and watch while you have your teeth checked, and draw conclusions about you and your talent from the state of your teeth, but you signed up to be a writer, so you know that people are going to look at your craft at some point.

It’s best to find those script flaws now in a badly lit, windowless, basement meeting room – rather than in front of millions of people on TV or radio, or in front of a studio audience, or even in front of three dozen tired production crew while you’re shooting stuff on location and it’s obvious that it isn’t working and it’s just too expensive to take time to fix it. So the readthrough is a good thing, even though it feels a cold shower. Of bleach.

The actors may well be sight-reading the lines, and they might make mistakes on some key bits, but you’ll just know from that readthrough what works, and what doesn’t; what scenes feel strangely long, or even pointless; what jokes you’ve clung onto from the start just aren’t funny, especially as you’ve changed the context of those jokes in the previous rewrites. You might even find the original moment, or motivator for the episode just feels oddly out of place now and should probably be cut. Great. You can now cut it.

What's The Worst That Can Happen?
The episode may fall apart completely in a readthrough. I had that once. It just wasn't funny. We were recording the episode in front of an audience in five days, and already pre-recorded some scenes. It was the worst day of my professional career. But we fixed it – because we all wanted to make a funny show. And it became my favourite episode. So, it doesn’t matter how wrong it goes. You can make it right.

So, once the script has been read, listen, think, consider, review and generally keep an open mind. The notes you’ll get will be a mixture of baffling, truthful, infuriating and infuriatingly truthful. And you’ve got time to fix the script so that it’s funny. Really funny. And that what you all want.

And keep bearing in mind that if you’re script is at this stage and the pressure is on you, at least you’re being paid. This is both what you wanted, and a lot less arduous than working in a factory, a mine or a corn field. So get over yourself. Your life is easy.


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:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

Monday 29 September 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - For Real

The last few blogposts (like this one and this one) have about working on other people's sitcoms. And  I thought it might be useful to talk to someone who's been experiencing all these shenanigans for the first time. So I talked to Lucien Young, who's been working on Siblings on BBC3 which is, in some ways, the BBC3 version of Sykes (Google it!). Siblings has just be recommissioned for a second series. I first met Lucien when he was recommended by a producer as someone who'd be good to take part in a gag pass for Series 2 of Bluestone 42. He was great to have in the room, and introduced me to the idea of writing '(Google it!)' into scripts. For which I thank him. Here goes. My questions in italics, obviously.

Hello, Lucien. How have you ended up working in situation comedy - rather than starting your own Youtube channel, doing stand-up or writing on panel games?  Were there particular shows growing up that influenced this?

I've been obsessed with sitcoms since before I could understand most of the jokes. I think it was Frasier repeats on Channel 4 that got me hooked -- when I was thirteen, I wrote my own Frasier spec script and posted it to NBC. No reply. Still bitter about that. And The Simpsons was huge for me. As long as I can remember, I've been watching films like The Godfather, Cape Fear and The Shining, and realising I already knew the four-fingered, yellow version.

What is it about the form that attracts you to it?
I guess what's exciting is that sitcom is infinitely elastic, but also has a strong underlying structure to guide you. Broadly speaking, you know that your characters are going to enter a strange situation, which will build and build in craziness, before some sort of resolution that takes them back to (roughly) their original state. But how that situation develops and resolves is completely up to you. So a really good sitcom can manage to be comfortingly familiar and thrillingly weird at the same time.

How did you end up working on Siblings? What was your involvement initially? How did you generate story ideas? Did you pitch into other episodes?

Siblings was created by the exceptional writer Keith Akushie, who I've known since university and worked with on sketches, and in Edinburgh. I'd also had meetings with Bwark, the production company who make Siblings and The Inbetweeners, so they'd read some of my scripts. When BBC Three commissioned the show, based on Keith's pilot, Bwark brought in Daran Johnson, Joe Parham and me to help with ideas for the remaining five episodes.

During these writing days, we operated a lot like a US team-written show, with Keith as Head Writer. We would all come along with rough premises and talk them though as a group. Then, if one seemed particularly exciting, we'd flesh it out, getting more and more specific and coming up with scenes and then the beats within those scenes. Because we had Keith's pilot script in front of us, we had a strong idea of what the main characters (Dan and Hannah) were like, and the general tone of the show.

I'd argue massively in favour of the team-written approach. Aside from the obvious advantage of having more minds on any problem, you also find yourself collectively coming up with ideas that none of you would've had individually. And, as Head Writer, Keith was able to guide the creative process and make sure the results had his own distinctive tone.

Plus, it's way more fun being in a room with funny people and going for burritos at lunch than it is writing on your own, wrestling with a sense of inadequacy and trying not to look at Facebook every five minutes.

I guess you had to produce (or co-write) a detailed outline of an episode. How was that? Had you done it much before? What was harder or easier than expected about this bit of the process?

By the end of our team-writing weeks, we had five detailed 'beat sheets' from which to develop outlines for each episode. Keith took two of them and the remaining three were split between Joe Parham, Daran Johnson and me. The outlines (which came to roughly 20 pages) were then sent to BBC Three for notes before we started our first drafts.

The time we'd spent talking the stories through as a room meant that, producing your outline, you had a heap of material to draw upon, which was ideal. The trickiest part of writing an outline is it's tough to explain, in theory, why something's going to be funny. That's also the best thing about outlines: you can't hide behind gags when a scene doesn't justify itself structurally. If you can make a fairly straightforward description of what's going to happen in each scene entertaining, you know you're going to have a better time writing that first draft. I'll always do a pretty detailed outline before starting my own pilot scripts.

What was it like writing the first draft? How long did it take? Did you find some scenes or beats just didn’t work when you came to write them? What did you do to fix them?

By the time I did my first draft, I'd already produced a detailed outline, and had our ideas from the room to work with. So I'd say I spent about a week on it. I generally find it's best to devote a lot of time to planning, then come up with the actual draft as quickly as possible. It helps keep things fairly natural and fresh, and often the first idea to pop into your head is the funniest. Then you can go back and polish.

The stuff that needed fixing was mainly structural -- for instance, when there were two scenes doing the work of one. If I feel uneasy reading a scene back, that's usually because it's not pushing the story forward, and I've tried to paper over the cracks with jokes/weirdness. Most of the time, the solution is to return to the outline and make sure every part justifies its place in the wider story.

What was it like getting notes?
I guess, deep down, every writer wants to be told they're a beautiful genius who can do no wrong and should be working less hard, if anything. Notes inevitably go against this, so you never exactly relish them.

That said, the ones we got on Siblings were really useful and attuned to the show's sensibility. You're going to want to do a second draft anyway, so obviously it's better to do that with feedback from smart people who spend all their time thinking about comedy. Writing for TV is collaborative and notes are a vital part of that collaboration.

And even if you disagree with a specific note, it can still raise questions that end up being massively helpful to the script.

Did you have to cut favourite jokes/beats/moments?
I don't remember having to lose anything particularly painful at the scripting stage, though a bunch of stuff went during editing (which sort of functions as a final redraft).

They made absolutely the right calls -- pace is 100x more important than preserving every punchline you're proud of -- but there are certain lines I miss. When three minutes need to be cut, you can't get around the fact that exposition is necessary and individual jokes aren't. I guess the solution is to make your exposition as funny as possible.

How many drafts did you do?
Once I'd submitted my first draft, it was sent to Keith to do his pass. We then went over it together a few times to arrive at the final shooting script. Which was fun and a great way to avoid comedy writer tunnel-vision.

Were you around much for the filming?
I spent an unjustifiable amount of time on set -- tried to be there on most of the days they were filming my episode, and on special occasions like the wheelchair basketball match. The experience was genuinely thrilling to me. It's so surreal to see some weird idea you and your mates blurted out a few months ago has been brought to life by a team of exceptionally talented professionals. I felt this most profoundly when they brought in the hydraulic dildo machine for episode four.

Also, I was able to help with a couple of on-set line tweaks, though obviously you can't go crazy with that, given the colossal time pressure everyone's under.

Overall, how has this experience changed you as a writer? Essentially, what did you learn - and what do you feel you still need to learn?
Being in the Siblings writers' room has definitely affected my approach. We're constantly discussing tone, characterisation, what makes jokes work, and examining story structure from every angle. So I've learned a lot from that. Most of all, it impressed upon me how helpful it is to have a really solid outline before you start Draft One. Also, going on set and finding out more about the technical side of making TV has been really useful.

What I love about writing sitcom is that it's an endless challenge -- every time you learn something, it makes you realise how much more there is to know. One thing I want to focus on in future is how to build a small story into something crazy, while keeping every step believable and taking the audience with you.

Lucien, thank you. When you are wealthy and successful with your own hit show, please offer me work.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - Script

So, if you’ve been involved in generating ideas for someone else's sitcom, or been part of a gag pass, or the show creator is your brother. Whatever. You've been asked to write an episode. Now what?

How does it Work?
It will differ from show to show, but most likely you’ll need to pitch a load of ideas for your episode to the show creator, head writer and/or producer. They’ll probably be offering you one episode in the first instance, so you’ll need to pitch at least half a dozen really good ideas that suit the show. Ideally, a main plot, a sub plot and a little running joke so all the characters are involved. Nothing too detailed, just a thumbnail sketch but ideally with a couple of decent jokes to sweeten the pudding. Overall, maybe a paragraph or two for each episode idea, so you’ve got about two pages of ideas to talk about.

For this, you’ll need to have come up with ideas for 20 or 30 main plots, sub plots and runners  - and chosen your best, and work out which main plot goes with which subplot. Think really carefully about this and make sure your ideas work well for the characters and show you’re pitching for, rather than the generic ‘Surprise Birthday party’ idea that could happen in any sitcom. And avoid bringing in outside characters. More on that here and especially here.

Grubby Keyboard
(made grubbier by visual effects)
It may be they like the main plot from one but a subplot from another and ask you to combine those instead. Great. They’ve seen something they like and you’re off to the races. And by ‘races’, I mean hours alone in a room in front of a grubby keyboard.

You might be asked to work out the story in detail with other writers in a writers’ room. This is what happened when I wrote of episode of My Family. Or you may have to do it by yourself and present it, and then meet up to discuss it with the producer, creator and script editor, which is what happened when I wrote episodes of My Hero.

You may need to rewrite your outline a few times before you get a tick in a box from the producer and told to go and write it. It can be frustrating, but frankly, there’s just no point writing the script until the outline is right, especially on someone else’s show. Also, you may have a tight deadline and outlines tend to help hit those. Charging off on an unplanned flight of fancy in script might be fun, but you might end up in having to throw it away and starting again, which is no fun when the deadline is tomorrow. Or yesterday.

The Fun Bit, In Theory
You’ll probably have a couple of weeks to actually write the episode, which should be enough, given the detail of your outline. This is the bit where you really feel like a writer, and the years of slog and rejection melt away for a week or two. You’re writing an episode of telly. And being paid for it. Great. Enjoy it. This doesn’t happen much unless you’re called Roy Clarke.

Ask for a copy of one of their regular scripts so you can get the formatting right, so you’re using their house style. If they use Microsoft Word – and you don’t have Word, for some weird reason, buy Word. Likewise Final Draft. These are basic work tools that you need to do your job – which you are being paid to do. And it’s tax-deductible. I’m often surprised at how reluctant new writers can be to buy the basic tools of the trade and use free versions of odd applications downloaded from the Web. Don’t ask  ‘Can I send it as an rtf?’ or whatever, because you’ll look like an idiot. Because you are an idiot. (Too much?)

Asking is Fine
Some bits of your outline won’t work as you try to write them, in which case fix them. Earn your money. But if you get really stuck, and you've tried everything, and it’s just not working, there’s no disgrace in shouting for help. Talk to the producer or the script editor. They know the show much better than you and may well be much more experienced. They’d rather you asked for help and hit the deadline rather than having a teary unusable mess handed to them on the day of reckoning.

Last Pass
And here’s what I do. I aim to finish my draft a couple of days before the deadline, so I can forget about it for a day. Then I’ll print it out, go take it to a cafĂ© with a pen and read it, making notes, thinking of better jokes and trying to find cuts. If I do this on paper without my laptop, I find can read it better, and don’t try to fix everything the moment I see a problem. Read it through, makes some notes, then open up the draft and make the changes.

Trim it, prune it, tighten it. Don’t leave it baggy and let them decide which bits they like. I did that once. Rookie Mistake. And I won’t do it again. (I wrote about it here).

Then they’ll have notes. Brace yourself. More on that here. But bear in mind in this case – this is their show. You’re being paid to write something you didn’t come up with and ultimately don’t carry the can for, even though your name’s on the script. They can’t force you to rewrite anything you don’t want to, but you can be fired, although this really doesn’t happen very often. And bear in mind they’re shooting lots of episodes that you don’t know about, have a relationship with the cast, crew and commissioners that you don’t fully understand, so notes may have all kinds of odd reasons that make sense to them, but don’t to you.

If you’re not sure about a note, and it sounds confusing, or downright silly – politely ask for clarification, so you can give them the script that they want, and that you’re happy with. Then rewrite. And then there may be more notes. And more rewriting.

At some point, you’ll be able there when the cast read it aloud, which is terrifying. And we’ll cover that next time.

Friday 22 August 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - Gag Pass

So we’re thinking about being a writer and working on someone else’s sitcom. How does it work? What normally goes on. Last time, it was Ideas Generation. This time, The Gag Pass.

What is a Gag Pass?
Pic by Snow0810 via Flickr
A ‘gag pass’ or a ‘punch up’ sounds like some dangerous game that squaddies play, but really it’s quite straight forward. It’s just a day or two of making a script as funny as it can possibly be.

The script is probably going to be shot in a few weeks, and overall it’s in good shape, but the writers just want one more pass at the script before it gets locked down. Maybe there’s just been a read-through and some jokes seemed to work and others fell flat, so there are patches that might need special attention. So a few writers are hired for a day or two to sit and go through a script - or a bunch of scripts – to make sure every joke is as funny as it can possibly be.

Some sitcoms do this by correspondence. The script is emailed to a chosen few who write down alternative gags or lines. This has never been an especially satisfactory way of going about it, but it saves schlepping into a stuffy windowless room and trying to be funny.

The more traditional way is that stuffy, windowless room with hard copies of the script printed out so you can jot or doodle on it, and pitch your ideas for new lines. You probably haven’t been sent it in advance and you’re not expected to have done any homework.

In my experience, you need to rely on your instincts for the actual jokes. You need to react to a duff line with a better one, at least in your head, and then make a note of it so you can pitch it when the time comes. When I’ve run gag passes, we’re read a scene aloud amongst ourselves and then stop at the end of that scene to look for improvements.

In general, the rules of ideas generation apply. Don’t pitch something more than once, even ironically.

Pitch lines they can actually use, rather than lines that just make the room laugh – which is worth doing once or twice, but can get out of hand.

Laugh at other people’s jokes and mean it. Don’t be a jerk. If you’re feeling grumpy, fake it. It’s only for seven hours.

Also, it’s okay to defend a joke or bit or moment in the existing script that you really like. It may be the original writer has gone off the joke and just needs some gentle encouragement to stick with it – especially if you don’t have a better one.

You can also pitch sight gags, improvements to props, and anything which adds comedy to the show but doesn’t make it longer. Usually, the script is a little long and needs cutting, so jokes need replacing rather than adding, but a sight gag takes no time at all.

Know the show. It sounds obvious but don't go into a room where you're meant to be pitching jokes and you're a little hazy on the characters and their names. Watch more episodes. Make a little diagram or chart if it helps you. Get into those characters and you'll be able to see scenes from their perspective which will help you come up with characters jokes, rather than just 'funny lines'.

Keep the tone of the show in mind. If it’s not a sweary show, don’t pitch sweary lines. If it’s not a goofy, silly show, don’t pitch goofy, silly jokes or props. If you’re not sure pitch it, maybe with a caveat of ‘This may be too dumb but…’ Or pitch the line and then say ‘Does that work with the show?’ etc. Let the show runner or creator be the judge if you’re not sure. But don’t pitch lines that obviously don’t fit because it wastes time, and shows comtempt for the show and the process.

Work out what the scene is trying to achieve, and make some suggestions for lines that don’t derail that intention. It’s too late for picking apart the scene – unless you’re told otherwise.

The Table
So that’s Ideas Generation and The Gag Pass. What about being part of ‘The Table’? If you’re part of one (or 'a room' of writers), most of your work is Ideas Generation at start, with some episode plotting (or ‘story breaking’) and a Gag Pass on each draft that comes in front of you. Maybe you’ll be part of a discussion about fixing the script if it didn’t quite work at a readthrough. But you may end up writing and episode, so we’ll look at that next time.

But in the meantime, it’s worth pointing out that most British shows don’t have tables – mainly because of expense. After all, why would you spend a penny more than you have on the content of what you’re actually filming and the stuff the actors are going to say? That makes no sense at all. We don’t do tables or rooms.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - Ideas Generation

Despite being the land of the free, America has a fairly set structure for how their sitcoms are written, how rooms are run and how writers progress.  (There’s an excellent summary of that at the brilliant  Children of Tendu podcast here)

In the UK, things are much more haphazard. Especially now. As a rule, it used to be that writers wrote and actors performed. And the writers who came up with the show wrote all the episodes in batches of six or eight. There have always been writer-performers, like Eric Sykes, but, again, they tended to write all of their own material, or used one other writer. (Again we looked at that here).

Things are much more messy now – and I’m pretty glad about that. Although I’ve created a few of my own sitcoms for radio (Think the Unthinkable and Hut 33) and co-created one for TV (Bluestone 42), a lot of my work has been writing with other people – like Miranda Hart or Milton Jones – or existing shows, like My Hero, My Family or a number of children’s shows (Dani’s Castle, Kerching!, Mr Bloom’s Nursery and the legendary Chucklevision). I’ve also spent a day or two here and there on other shows that have not come to fruition.

The point is this: collaboration is normal and more often that not, you’re going to be working on someone else’s show. It seems there are four main ways in which this could happen. Here's the first:

Idea Generation
Maybe a sitcom has been commissioned for a second or third series. Perhaps it’s going to be eight or ten episodes. The writer-performer has burned through lots of material in series one. But they need ideas, stories, plots, moments and set-pieces. You may have been invited to do this because you know one of the other writers on the show, or the producer liked a pilot script you sent them. Or you have a good agent and a decent CV.

You may get to work in
as creative a room as this. I did.
You’ll probably be in a room of three or four others, maybe more, and there’ll be a whiteboard. You’ll probably have to turn up at 10am and pitch ideas ‘til 5pm. I know. Tough life. You should be paid a day rate (a few hundred quid or more if you're experienced) and what you say or pitch is theirs. It goes up on their whiteboard.

Now this could tempt you to clam up. They get your all ideas? Let’s not give them the crown jewels. Well, yes and no. The fact is you’re only going to pitch ideas that are suitable for their show. You may have watched the show and a few ideas popped into your head, so pitch those. And you have a big long list of sitcom story ideas (see here and here) but only a handful are relevant to the show you’re pitching on. And in a day, you’re not likely to pitch more than half a dozen ideas because other people will be there – and you can build on their ideas too.

You want to make sure you pitch some really good, usable ideas because they might be using this day of ideas generation to see if you’re suited to actually writing an episode. They want to see if you ‘get’ the show. Maybe they’re not looking for someone to write at an episode now, but they might be in the future. The main writer might decide to hand one off, and you want to be on the end of that hand, having a juicy script commission smacked into your forehead.

So, do some homework. Work out the rules of the show. Think of some stories that put the big star of the show in stories that matter to the character – but also involve big funny set-piece scenes. Bear in mind a big funny set piece scene is just that. A scene. It’s not a story. So think about how to get to that scene and what’s at stake for the character. And what happens next. You don’t need it all worked out, but give it some thought.

Some Do's and Don't's
For this reason, don’t pitch ideas that are essentially film parodies, partly because they require little imagination and original thought, but also because they’re not actually stories that sustain. Avoid.

Also, have something up your sleeve for characters that seem under-served by the stories in the last series, or character pairings that are unusual for the show. And maybe an idea or two for some locations or sets that have been built, but seem underused.

Personally, I’d avoid pitching ideas that involve outside characters. “Hey, our hero’s sister shows up and she’s Little Miss Perfect. Played by a famous person.” That may sound cool and exciting, but if I’m the British equivalent of the Show Runner, I’m hearing “Hey, the regular characters are boring. Let’s have someone else. And someone cooler than the show.” No, thanks.

So that would be my advice in addition to the usual stuff like don’t pitch something twice, act normal, and don’t be a jerk (so not normal, if you’re a jerk). Build on other people’s ideas. Don’t talk over other people. And remember it’s not your show.

And if you're not sure of what's expected of you on the day, ask the producer. Email them. They won't mind. They really won't.  They'll probably say that you just need to turn up - and say you don't need to prepare because they don't want to pay you for your preparation time. But prepare anyway. Welcome to the world of not being paid for everything you do. You have a paid days work with funny people. With a chance of lunch thrown in. Rejoice.

Hope that helps. Next time, the gag pass.

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.

If you don't use Kindle or Amazon, there's a PDF format here.

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

"If you want to write a sitcom - particularly for the UK market - I defy you to read this book and NOT be a better writer as a result." Matt White Amazon Review

Tuesday 12 August 2014

The Late Great Robin

I don't think any of us were expecting the news about Robin Williams this morning. We knew he had some self-destructive habits, but we wanted to believe that he'd keep it together to do a few more movies, and a few more stand-up sets. And apart from being an astonishing performer - and writer - he seemed like a good person who deserved a happier, longer life.

Most people would settle for a third of his career. A quarter, even. Good Morning, Vietnam; Good Will Hunting; Dead Poets Society; Mrs Doubtfire; The Fisher King; Aladdin; and a load of family comedies like Patch Adams, Hook, Jumanji and the 90 eps of Mork and Mindy that brought a lot of people a lot of joy.  There was probably at least one more Oscar Winning performance in him. If not more.

But for me, he blew my mind when Channel 4 showed his 'Live at the Met' show when I was about 15. I think it's what people mean when they call something a 'Tour De Force'. It's astonishing, fast, funny - and very satirical. Check it below. Hilarious, mainstream, utterly brilliant - but thoughtful and satirical. What a pity we've given up on that in the UK. Thanks for showing us the way, Mr Williams.

Monday 11 August 2014

A Podcast You Should Know About

Stuart Goldsmith
I've just listened to another brilliant interview by Stuart Goldsmith. This time with comedian, Nick Doody. And it occurred to me that some recent readers of this blog don't know about this podcast. It's called The Comedian's Comedian which you can find on iTunes and various other sites where you get mp3s (I've literally no idea what they sites might be).

I hardly know Stuart Goldsmith and he didn't ask me to put up a blogpost about it! I'm a huge fan of what he's doing. The podcast is exclusively about stand-up comedy rather than sitcom, but it's just fascinating to here people talk at length in detail about comedy in a properly technical way, so it's music to my ears.

There are already 87 episodes to choose from so far, but if you have no idea where to start, you'll probably  want to start with famous people off the telly like Sarah Millican, Alan Davies, Greg Proops, Milton Jones, Jason Manford, Tim Vine, Rhod Gilbert - who all do great interviews. But if you're a geek like me, I'd recommend the podcasts with the real joke technicians: Listen to Ep6 Adam Bloom, Ep26 Stephen Grant and Ep67 Gary Delaney. Then listen to all the rest, and donate some money to the cause.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

All is Not Lost

Life is straightforward in TV drama. Writers write. Actors act. Directors direct.

Sitcoms used to be like this. They were written by great writers like Galton and Simpson or Carla Lane – and then performed by the best comic actors of the age like Ronnie Barker or Leonard Rossiter. And there were plenty of sitcoms written by half-decent writers, and performed by pretty good comedy actors. In short, there were lots of sitcoms. But my point is this: There was a division between writers and performers.

This is no longer the case. The rise of the comedian, as opposed to the comedy actor, or comedy writer, has led to a signficant increase in shows by comedians. (See here for the pros and cons) But looks can be deceptive. Many of these shows are co-written with an off-screen writing partner. Pete Sinclair co-wrote Lead Balloon with Jack Dee. Freddy Syborn co-wrote Bad Education with Jack Whitehall. Dan Swimer wrote Grandma’s House with Simon Amstell. I’ve co-written seven series of radio comedy with Milton Jones. And I met my Bluestone 42 writing partner, Richard Hurst, writing on Miranda

So what should the writer learn from this? Well, that depends on your half-full-half-empty perspective.

Half Full or Half Empty?
Who cares? It's not even beer.
Half Empty
If you tend towards the half-empty, you could conclude ‘What’s the point? Unless I’m a writer-performer, I’m never going to get a chance.’ This is not true. There are still writer-led sitcoms out there. I write one with Richard Hurst (Bluestone 42), but there's more of a mixed economy now. You'll need to think outside of yourself. Sorry.

Half Full
If you’re more of a half-full type, you could decide to turn yourself into a performer so you are increasing your chances. That could work. It worked for Ben Elton who realised very early that writer-performers like French and Saunders, Fry and Laurie et al were going to get all the work unless he got in there with a sparkly jacket.

Performing on some level is not alien to most comedy writers. Almost every full-time writer I can think of working today has been in a sketch group in their early years or done stand-up. Pete Sinclair, whom I mentioned earlier, went into full-time comedy writing from music into political/punk poetry and then stand-up. (More on that here) And this is not all that unusual.

At the time of writing, The Edinburgh Fringe is on. If you could get hold of the programme from ten, twenty or thirty years back and look at the stand-ups and sketch groups you’ll see plenty of names and faces that you may not recognise – but who are now making a living as a writer, having given up performing.

So what did these people get out of Edinburgh? Certainly not money. They got a number of things, but let's focus on two main ones.

The Fringe gives you experience of writing for an audience who don’t know you personally, or you work. If you do shows in your home town or your student bar, your mates will probably laugh, because they're supportive and nice (Well, they turned up, didn't they?). In Edinburgh, your audiences are strangers. They have no idea who you are. And you will soon find out if your material is funny.

Comedy Friends
But the main thing these people got out of Edinburgh is comedy friends. Hanging out in the Pleasance Courtyard or pushing through Late and Live is all about making friends with like-minded people, finding allies who like what you like, and forming alliances and partnerships. You are very unlikely to win an award at Edinburgh, or even be critically acclaimed. You might not even get a Radio 4 series. But you may impress someone who’s being fast-tracked onto the TV, who is looking for back-up and people to cling on to. You could be Larry David to their Seinfeld. Or their Stephen Merchant to their Ricky Gervaise. You get the idea. Or you might create an impression on someone who’s Head of Comedy Development at the BBC in four years time, which means you get the benefit of the doubt when your script hits their desk and could go either way.

All is not Lost
If you’re in Edinburgh, and you’ve already realised your show isn’t what you thought it was, or isn’t quite working, and you know who’s show is going to be the talk of the town, don’t worry.  That’s only a small part of why you’re there. You’re on the scene. You’re in the mix. That’s a start.

If you’re not in Edinburgh, I really recommend getting along there and having a look, watching some shows, seeing what’s possible, and what’s passable, and think about what you could do next year. Like it or not, Edinburgh really is The comedy trade fair.

So this is a way of introducing a series of blogposts about writing for other people’s shows – since, if you make it as a professional comedy writer, this could easily take up the bulk of your time and bring in the lion’s share of your income. Stay tuned.

Saturday 12 July 2014

I Love This Idea - But That's Not How It Sounds

We Brits look at the Americans with envy. In the world of TV Comedy, they’ve given us M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, The American Office and plenty more besides.

Pic by Ricardo Liberato
And some Americans seem look at us Brits with envy even though we only seem to have given them Monty Python, Benny Hill, The Actual Office and some shows that became Sanford and Son and All in the Family.  I’m sure American writers look enviously at the idea of the BBC with its compulsory licence fee, noble aims to inform, educate and entertain and therefore the freedom not to chase TV ratings (don’t tell them).

To British eyes, the American system seems to be very regimented – from the calendar of when shows are pitched, pilots are cast, picked up and shot, to the hierarchy of writer-producers (for more on this, go the brilliant Children of Tendu podcast). On top of all this, The Writers’ Guild seems to have hammered out fairly clear protocol, agreements and levels of payment for all of the above. 

To American eyes, Britain must look like a shambles. Which it is. There is no real system in British comedy, apart from the annual decamp to Edinburgh, which heavily favours the writer-performer. For writers, though, there's nothing set in stone. This is partly because no-one feels there needs to be system, and I applaud that. It seems crazy that the entire US TV industry is trying to make dozens of pilots at exactly the same time.

One way in which this shambles manifests itself is the way in which sitcoms are developed. Again, the differences could not be more stark. In America, a studio decides it likes a writer, who’s probably earned their spurs writing on an established show for a few years. The studio offers them a deal. Money to develop a script. Maybe an office. (Ha! Try even getting a meeting room at the BBC, let alone an office.) You might even get some assistance. In the form of an assistant. And ultimately, you get a deadline.

Notice two things here. Firstly, the deal. And secondly the deadline. Let’s take those in turn.

The Deal
In that studio-deal system, the promise of money come before an idea is even discussed. The studio is buying into the talent of a writer and rather hoping the writer will try and deliver something good. That’s a safe assumption, given the writer wants a good show on the air, for reasons of creative satisfaction, a desire to get rich, to disprove a stupid teacher at school or appear clever to other writers (pretty much the big four reasons, I think. Discuss.)

‘The deal’ almost never happens in Britain. I had something like this with BBC Comedy for a year a while back, which produced a script and a readthrough. It all ultimately died when the exec who had championed it left. And that was that.

The British alternative to a deal is a vague ‘Hey, we’d love to hear some of your ideas’. I’ll bet you would. Nothing like ‘We think you’re a brilliant writer and we want to be in business with you.’ It’s all very low-key and non-committal.

I realise this is part of our British way. We’re suspicious of money, contracts, lawyers, business in general and talking like you’re Alan Sugar. In the main, that’s a healthy scepticism. But it leads to amateurishness, confusion and frustration – of which more in a moment.

The Deadline
Because of the rigid TV calendar in America, there’s a deadline. A line by which a script must be submitted or it is dead. There is no such thing in the UK. New TV series start on all TV channels all year round. And so there’s no hurry. For anything. At all. So everything bimbles along, then drifts…

Until a slot comes up, a new initiative is announced, a pot of money being made available, and then there’s a blind panic to get a script in and you work all hours, unsure if the contracts are going to be signed and you’re going to be paid but you do it anyway and you write and rewrite and scream and rewrite and finished and send.

And then.

The exec who announced that initiative leaves.

The development producer you were working with seems be busy on something else.

Your emails seem to vanish into the ether.

People seem hazy on what was agreed and what wasn’t. 

And it’s hard for people to care because the project is dead.

And you don't get paid properly. If at all.

Why do I mention all this?
Good question. It’s all a preamble to a particular phenomenon which seems to be happening a lot at the moment. And I wanted to get some groundwork done before launching into it, so I don’t seem like a petulant, greedy writer who thinks he’s some kind of writing deity - or at least to disguise this fact.

The phenomenon is this: A producer says ‘We’d love to hear some ideas’. And you go in and mention one or two. They latch on to one and ask to see a treatment – a couple of pages explaining the idea, which may well have been in your brain for months or years. A decent outline or treatment could be weeks of work, reading, research, writing and rewriting.

They want this for free.

*deep breath* Fair enough. You’re wanting them to get behind the idea, commission a script and pester a commissioner or controller to give you a read-through, a pilot or a series. So a treatment is just about okay, given we don’t have a dead/deadline system in place. And we're trying to sell our comedy wordy wares.

If they like the idea, they might ‘option’ it, which is a small amount of money (£500. Told you.) which means you can’t take it to anyone else for a six months or a year or whatever. It’s kind of one-page, memo-type deal. Or at least it should be. This £500 in no way covers the hours, days and weeks you’ve already spent on this idea, but it’s a start.

So. Some has said ‘I like the idea’. So you send them the treatment.

Then they might say ‘I really like the idea’. And then option it. £500 quid. Yours to spend on whatever you like. Like food. Or heating. Or your mortgage. The choice is yours. You’ve got plenty of time to think about it. The money won’t arrive for months.

They have a few thoughts on how the idea could be improved. Some thoughts are good. Others are insane and demonstrate they’ve not really understood the idea or been paying attention. Or they’re trying to turn your idea into something else that they’re more interested in, or watched on TV last night. But they’ve optioned it now. So you decide to tweak the treatment.

You spend another day on the treatment. And send it in.

They say ‘I love the idea.’


Could they have some sample scenes?


This is the bit I’m dwelling on. When I mentioned ‘amateurishness, confusion and frustration’ earlier I was talking about this bit. It’s amateurish because someone’s treating you like an amateur  - ie. not paying you. It’s confusing because no-one quite knows what the protocol should be. And it’s all very frustrating.

Sample Scenes
‘Sample scenes’ don’t just write themselves. They take at least a couple of days. Because it’s new show, and a new idea, and it’ll be ages before I could bare to show those samples scenes to anyone, it’s probably three or four days work, scattered over a couple of weeks. Maybe longer, because you're looking to write scenes that crystal key relationships and are demonstrative of the show as a whole. So, five days. minimum. So, do I want to work for five days for free? Tough one.

“Ah yes,” says the Comedy Exec, “but if a script is commissioned… and then a series… and then repeats… and then…” Stop. True. That all might happen. But the likelihood a script won’t be commissioned. And if it is, the likelihood is that it won’t be commissioned as a series, because most scripts aren’t. It took me twelve years to get a show on TV (Bluestone 42). I fully expect the next one to take at least half that time. If not more. If I’m lucky.

But we all know what’s going on here. Someone’s doing everything they can to get more for less. I understand why people do that. I try to do it at the supermarket. But Tesco is a multi-billion pound retailer. Not a writer. (I might go to Sainsbury’s if I’ve just been paid that £500)

So. A Development Producer or Comedy Executive is well within their basic human rights to ask for yet more work, this time for free. And the lack of system encourages this. But here’s why I don’t recommend it:

It doesn’t sound good. I’ll go further. It sounds bad.

The Joy of Subtext
We writers don’t just deal in text. In fact text isn’t even our main product. That would be subtext. That’s what scripts are: Characters saying one thing and meaning another; and other characters hearing something else entirely.

So, while I completely understand why a Comedy Executive may say, ‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’, this person needs to know that I’m hearing something else. I may well be wrong about most of it, but don’t forget, I’m the averagely paranoid, freelance writer. And I hear a mixture of about 5 things.

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
1. 'I don't love this. If I did, I’d commission a script.' 
Speaks for itself really. If you loved it, you’d commit . But you have doubts. Why would you that be? Onto the next thing that I’m hearing.

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
2. 'I can't really imagine this'.
So I’ve set up the idea, the characters and the setting. I’ve explained how it’s going to be funny – and you seem happy with this. In fact you love it. And the only reason we had the meeting in the first place is because you think I’m a funny, competent writer. So what’s the problem? Your lack of imagination. That’s a shame, given your job in development is to imagine what might be. So, could this be the real problem that:

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
3. ‘I don't trust your ability to make this idea funny.’
The idea is fine. Funny, in fact. Fresh. Modern. Classic with a twist. But how can I be sure this writer - who’s been nominated for a few awards, is well regarded and whom I invited in to my office - can deliver funny scenes around this idea – that they’ve come up with and nurtured?  Maybe it’s borderline but ultimately: 

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ could mean:
4. ‘I don't think you're worth my budget.’
You have a limited budget that you have to eke out over a year so you’re going to make it stretch as far as possible. So you’re going to save your boss some money and make a writer that you want to be working with write for free for even longer. Thanks.

One more thing. Is it possible that:

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
5. ‘I don't have the guts to stand by this or turn it down.’
Maybe. As the writer and creator of this idea, I had the guts to spend weeks of my own time on this, committing to it at the exclusion of other things – because time is finite, remember? – and yet you are unwilling to do this. That's what I'm hearing. Because I'm paranoid. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

It’s not about the money. Okay, it’s partly about the money. But mostly it’s about honesty and respect. I quite like our non-rigid, slightly shambolic system. But this is the downside.

For more on money, have a look here

Friday 13 June 2014

Top 10 Tips on Dealing with Exposition - Part 2

In the last post, we began to think about the writer's nemesis that he can't live without: Exposition. And I promised 10 tips on how to convey exposition without resorting to dreadful, creaky, crunchy lines where characters just say things that a necessary rather than natural. And actors sometimes spot them and ask, on set, 'I don't understand this. Why is my character saying this? It doesn't feel like something they would say.' If you're answer is 'We need to explain to the viewer x, y and z' then you have failed as a writer on this occasion. Anyway, for the first four tips, go here. Otherwise, read on.

5. Have A Blazing Row
Your character is explaining a plan. The other characters listen. Boring. Annoying. Not funny. Could someone have an alternative plan? And explain their plan, or keep interrupting the original plan – and the two characters have an argument about it. Going back to Blackadder, Baldrick’s cunning plans are always really funny, and gives our hero the chance to explain a decent plan, with jokes. Although sometimes, the plan isn’t even explained. It’s obvious. When Blackadder asks for two pencils and a pair of underpants, we’re intrigued – and then we go straight into seeing them in action (funny), and then the explanation. Which leads to asking:

6. Do you Need to Tell them this?
Backstory and exposition often seems very important when you’re planning a sitcom, or outlining an episode, but when it comes to writing it, you quite often realise you don’t need to explain yourself as much as you might think. This is especially the case with backstory. Newer writers tend to get quite hung up on where the characters have been, and what they did before – but the audience are more interested in where they are going. As I’ve written before on this blog, The Vicar of Dibley just turns up. She just arrives. No back story. No past. She’s the new vicar. (NB. As a church goer, this would never happen without consultation with the church, etc, but that doesn’t really matter. Again, no explanation needed.) If you like, you can reveal backstory and hidden depths later.  In The West Wing, they do at that in Series 2, once we love the characters and want to know a bit more about their past.

7. Is Every Line Pulling Its Weight?
If you’re already got a script and are feeling it’s confusing and needs more exposition, don’t just think about adding lines. Apart from anything else, sitcom is brutal in terms of length. On BBC you’ve 28 minutes. On ITV/SKY, you’re got nearer 23 minutes. In USA, you’ve 21 mins. You don’t have the luzury or more time or more lines. Why are you needing to give the audience signposts? Is every story/routine. Make sure every scene, sequence, line – and every action - is working hard not just comically, but expositionally.

In a sitcom, everything happens for a reason. It’s there because you’ve decided to put it there. So use all these tools to tell your story. Let’s consider the work of some real comedy legends, Esmonde and Larbey and their blissfully odd sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles. (More on the title later)

Every time, Martin Brice walks in and fiddles with the phone in the hallway. He untangles the wire, or turns the phone round. He does this a lot – pretty much every episode. This tells you at least three or four things. He’s essentially obsessively compulsive. His wife, Anne, isn’t, for it is obviously her who puts the phone down the wrong way round. She is clearly happy to do something that she knows her husband will correct. And Martin is prepared to do it week after week and force a smile afterwards.

Anne comments on the phone thing in the first episode – which is well worth looking at. Watch the first bit of the first episode. It’s genius. All you need to know about the show is in the first three minutes. By then, you know all about Martin and Paul, which is ultimately the key relationship in the show. Every line and action builds and builds. He’s shouting cheerfully after the boys who’ve just been thrashed at football. He wipes his feet for ages. He does the phone thing. He talks to Paul in an overly knowledgeable way. He thinks he’s winning at life. There’s an interesting moment at 2.58 when Paul reacts to something Martin says – and looks to Anne who doesn’t see anything unusual in this comment. This is the world we are in. It’s masterful. Please. Take the time. Watch it.

8. Use your Opening Title Sequence
The opening titles of Ever Decreasing Circles (because you watched it, right?) is bold. It’s all metaphor, obviously. You’ve got an opening title sequence. That’s about 20-30 seconds that you can use to explain the premise of your show, conveying a couple of essential pieces of information or highlighting a key relationship. My Name is Earl had a brilliant, lyrical, brief opening about a winning lottery ticket and karma, which includes a car crash. (Have a look here if you like) It doesn’t matter if you don’t catch all of it. What really stand out is the end bit when he says, ‘I’m just trying to be a better person.’ That’s all you need to know. He has some money and he’s trying to be good.

9. Use the Title of your Show
What’s your show called? I’m not referring to the title of the episode, which is largely meaningless. (All the episode title, and one sentence summary, does is tell the audience whether or not they’ve seen the episode before.) I’m talking about the name of the show, as they should do at least some expositional work. If your show title is a reference to an obscure TS Eliot poem that you happen to like, and it doesn't help you, I suggest you change it.

Miranda Hart’s show is called Miranda because it’s telling you the show is about her. She’s in every scene and the show is entirely from her point of view. So the audience subconsciously knows that every character in the show is defined by their relationship to Miranda. Him and Her – is about him and her, and their relationship. Ever Decreasing Circles is telling you this is about a man who’s going round and round and slowly going insane. Your show has a name. It’s another tool in the armoury. Use it.

10. Cheat
If you’ve still got a whole ton of exposition to crunch through, you might just have to cheat. Cheating’s fine. Two of my favourite shows do it. Modern Family and Parks and Rec have a very murky, ill-defined documentary style that is wildly inconsistent with odd looks to camera at very points. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t know why. It just doesn’t. I think they’re able to get away with this because of the language and grammar of television has been heavily influenced by ‘Fly on the wall’ documentaries and reality TV in the last fifteen years, and then The Office.

You can cheat by having a narrator. This is how Arrested Development crunches through an amazing amount of story in such a short time. Ron Howard’s voiceover is never really explained (It is? Does it need to be?) but again, it doesn’t seem to matter. More cunning and less cheaty is the voiceover in Desperate Housewives who is a character speaking from beyond the grave. Nice move.

You can have a character talk directly to camera. Miranda does that, and it’s incredibly useful from a story point of view, as she can relate previous incidents in her life, announce the story of the week and give us a heads-up on foreseeable problems, which will hopefully lead to unforeseen ones. Miranda’s pieces to camera also give her an extremely deep connection with her audience.

Finally, you can cheat in the most brazen way possible by having a character called Basil Exposition. It was only on the third time of what that movie that I got that joke.

So, there are ten tips on dealing with exposition. If you have others, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Top 10 Tips on Dealing with Exposition

I’ve just written a novel. Okay, okay, I’ll stop banging on about it. (Four quid on Kindle etc) But I’d like to write about writing the novel for a moment – because there are two aspects of it which are quite interesting for a sitcom writer.  And it’s more interesting than putting receipts into a spreadsheet which is what I would otherwise be doing.

Size Does Matter
The hardest thing about writing the novel is the length of the thing. 80,000 words is a lot. But for me the problem was not thinking of those words or the story or character or anything. Once I had the idea and the characters and the basic structure, writing prose wasn’t that hard. (You be the judge of whether that prose is any good).

What I wasn’t used to was not being able to remember what I’d written. You need to have what you’ve written in the back of your mind because it informs what you’re going to write. You want to avoid repeating yourself, or assuming you’ve established something earlier on when you haven’t. You have to go back and check previous chapters to make sure you’ve kept the continuity or whatever – and it can take ages to find the chapters, read what you wrote, resist editing it and go back to what you were writing 40,000 words later. This was a new experience for me.

Some Memory Sticks. Clearly.
The problem is you just can’t retain a novel manuscript in the back of your mind, or even the front and the sides, without it dribbling out of your ears and nose. A sitcom script, being about 5-6000 words for 24-28 mins, requires about 100 MB of mental memory. And that’s about the size of my actual memory, or back of my mind, or bit where scripts tend to lurk. So when I’m writing or re-writing and I need to check on a line or a prop, I can usually find it within a few seconds and I’m back writing. But a novel is about 1.5 GB of mental memory – and it’s not super-fast flash drive memory, but old school hard drive-type whirring-moving-parts memory. Finding what you wrote several weeks earlier in a chapter you can’t quite remember was like wading through treacle.

However, there is an upside to writing a novel that makes it waaaay easier than a sitcom script.


Exposition is the screenwriter’s toughest, thorniest, deadliest foe. In a sitcom script, you have scene descriptions and dialogue. That’s it so you have conveying exposition and all relevant information using these tools that doesn’t involve stupid lines like ‘So, tell me again, what are we trying to achieve here?’ or the ultimate: ‘So how long have we been brothers?’ And some people try and fix the latter with a stage direction which is ‘JOHN turns to PETE, his brother.’ Great. You’ve told the cast and crew these two guys are brothers. You haven’t told the audience.

The joy of writing a novel is that you just tell the reader stuff. You don’t even need to be in the first person to justify it. You just describe what happens – as well as the reasons for it happening, what went before, what comes after. Easy. So so easy.

But this is not a novel-writing blog, or even a screenwriting blog. It’s a sitcom-writing blog. And in sitcoms we have to do our exposition much more subtley. So here are 10 tips on doing exposition, at least the first four:

1. Show Not Tell, blah blah blah
You know this, but Show Not Tell is easier said than done, ironically. But it is worth going back over your scrip and checking it over with this in mind. Are characters saying how they feel? Or do we see it? Are they saying they are angry, or are they doing things in anger? Blah blah blah. This is all very well, but how to do we explain plot, highlight quests, specify goals and convey relevant backstory?

2. Write a Joke
It’s a sitcom. A few decent jokes go a long way and cover a multitude of exposition. And there’s no better than Curtis & Elton on this. A certain Blackadder line could read:
George: Are we going to attack the enemy? How exciting!
Blackadder: Yes. And we’ll all die in the process. This war is a completely waste of time.
That’s exposition. And not funny. Here’s the same exposition with jokes:
Lieutenant George: Great Scott sir, you mean, you mean the moment's finally arrived for us to give Harry Hun a darned good British style thrashing, six of the best, trousers down?
Captain Blackadder: If you mean, "Are we all going to get killed?" Yes. Clearly, Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
Not only is the latter version 1000% funnier, it also gives us so much more information about their characters. We’re only four minutes into the series when these lines crop up and these are brand new characters for us, since the previous series was set a hundred years earlier where George was the Prince Regent and Blackadder was the butler. Now Blackadder is a Captain. George is a Lieutenant – and calls him, sir. We also learn in the two lines that George is insanely patriotic and overly optimistic – so probably a bit thick given how previous attacks have gone. We learn that Captain Blackadder is a realist, cynical and unimpressed with the general directing the battles and their futility. This isn’t just exposition.

Clearly, the tone of Blackadder doesn’t suit every show, but a joke can really help. So cover some exposition by writing one. If you don’t want to write jokes, write a drama. But you’ll still have this exposition problem, so read on.

3. The Value of Supreme Idiocy
Blackadder is surrounded by idiots. Baldrick, George, Generals, etc. In series 2 there was Lord Percy, too. Idiots are very useful – partly because they are often joke machines. But another good reason to have an idiot-character in your show is because they can get the wrong of the stick and then the other characters have to explain or clarify what’s going on to them, which will also clarify things nicely for the audience.

I wrote a sitcom set in Bletchley Park during World War 2, called Hut 33. In it, I had a character called 3rd Lieutenant Joshua Fanshawe-Marshall, possibly the stupidest man on earth, brilliant played by Alex MacQueen. I did that because codebreaking and the job they actually did in the huts at Bletchley is really hard to understand. So I needed a military person, not an intelligence person that would need explanations. Joshua is colossally stupid who thinks that German already is a code and the enemy should play fair and speak English. But Joshua also needs to know what’s going on because he’s sort of in charge, being the embarrassingly inept son of gung-ho Patton-like British general. So his idiocy, position and backstory all made him a character who needed stuff spelled out to him. This was very useful for explaining exposition – and generating jokes at the same time.

4. Why You’ve Gotta Love a Man in Uniform
Who is everyone? How do they relate to each other? What they’re wearing can explain an awful without a word of dialogue. One upside of military comedies – at least ones on television – is that they all wear uniforms which indicate rank. And even if we don’t know what rank slide means what, you can tell who’s in charge given who calls who ‘sir’ or, in the case of Bluestone 42, ‘boss’. And who snaps to attention when someone walks in.

Thinking about costume applies to all screenwriting.  What do the characters wear? What does it say about who they are – and how they relate to other characters? Do some people have to wear a uniform and others get to wear 'managament-style' suits? Do someone wear their clothes inside our, or back to front, or refuse to wear the right thing? What they are wearing says a great deal about where they’ve come from and, more importantly, where they’re going – both literally and figuratively.

So that’s four. Six to go. Numbers 5-10 in the next blog post.

In the meantime, buy the novel that's full of exposition. In a good way.