Wednesday 23 April 2014

Mind the Gap

Following the last two blogposts about The Rise and Rise of the Writer-Performer Sitcom (Part 1 here and Part 2 here), David Isaac had some thought. So I invited him to write up. David Isaac is a comedy writer based in Manchester. His TV credits include Lunch Monkeys, Not Going Out and Life of Riley, amongst others. He also teaches a six week commercially focused course entitled Writing and Selling TV Comedy. (The next one starts in London on July 12th. More info here.)

David Isaac writes:

Writing a sitcom script is very hard. Writing a great sitcom script is even harder. Writing a great sitcom script that turns into a great sitcom episode is so hard it is literally beyond your control. All you can do, as a writer, is do your best to transfer what is in your head, into your fingers, through the keyboard and ultimately on to the page.

Pic by R. S. Donovan via Flickr
The problem is that there are too many gaps in the process from the wonderful sitcom that is floating around inside your mind, to the award –winning show that appears on the world’s TV screens 4 years later.

Gap 1 - Imagination & Ability
The first gap is the gulf between your imagination and your ability. What you think of may actually be better than what you write. The best way to bridge this gap is practice. Quite simply, the more you write, the better you get. Learn the art. Watch great shows, read great scripts and keep writing. A producer can also help with this bridge by guiding you with notes to make your script better. Important advice: always listen to your producers. Chances are they are more experienced than you, and ultimately they want to help you build that bridge so that what is in your mind can cross the gap and appear on the page.

Gap 2 - Writer & Actor
The next gap is the one between writer and actor. This isn’t necessarily a bad gap, but it is a gap nevertheless. What the writer puts on the page is open to being interpreted differently by the actor. The actor will put their own spin on your words. Great actors will make it better, not-so-great actors may make it worse. At this point, take a break from reading and go and find a Friends script. Any script will do. Make several copies, invite some of your own friends over and have a little read through. See how the jokes don’t flow, and don’t leap off the page. Or maybe they do, in which case you should contact a casting director and get yourself some work in sitcom.

Now go and watch that episode of Friends and watch how some seriously talented comedy actors bring that script to life. Watch how their actions inform the words; listen to the subtle intonations; watch as their comic timing and reactions get more laughs from the audience. Many of these moments will not have been scripted, but those brilliant comedy actors interpreted the script in that way.

One way of bridging this writer/actor gap is to use the same people – writer-performers. They write their own words and then perform them, so no gap exists. In a script written by a writer who doesn’t perform, the job of bridging this gap is not down to you Mr (or Mrs) Writer; it is down to the director. The director is the one who will help the actors understand how the words on your page should be performed.

Gap 3 - Writer & Director
This brings us neatly on to gap number 3, that between writer and director. Writers tend to work in words, directors work with images. Obviously, as writers, we try to think visually, but sadly we are restricted to expressing those visuals via the medium of script. If only people could just see inside our heads, life would be so much easier.

A director must look at your script in order to work out what is going on. Once again, they will probably interpret what you have written differently from how you intended it to ultimately be seen.

A director will also want to change things. They will have their own theories of how the moving image should be presented and much of this will be down to their personal taste and experience. A good director will spend time talking to the writer about the script and hopefully will develop a mutual understanding of what they are making together. This is the process of building a bridge to cross the gap between writer and director.

Strangely, where writer-performers are becoming more common, this doesn’t seem to happen with the writer-director relationship. Broadcasters remain keen to keep these roles separate. Graham Linehan (IT Crowd) and Peter Kay (Phoenix Nights, Max and Paddy) and Ricky Gervais (Derek) are the only examples that spring immediately to mind. It seems that fusing these roles is seen as more of a risk than keeping them separate, and that the sole writer/director role is reserved for those writers who have reached such a high level of success that they can demand, and also justify to broadcasters the benefit of having just one person in sole control of the interpretation of the script.

Indeed, there is an argument that the merging of the various roles in sitcom creation can itself create more risks. Making a sitcom is by its very nature a collaborative process. Each person involved will bring their own experience and skill to help improve the overall product. So maybe it is a good thing that some of those gaps exist. To ensure that there is some objective reflection on the script itself and that we writers are forced to really dig deep and produce the best work that we can.

The Abyss
The Bottom Line
If the stars align, and the gods are just, then all the gaps can be bridged and your sitcom will be a roaring success. However, if not, and just one gap remains yawning, everyone could fall screaming into the abyss dragging your sitcom with it, along with the million or so pounds it took to make it.

This million pounds or so is why commissioners are so concerned by those ‘gaps’. Gaps represent risk. All sitcoms are risky. They are Marmite. No sitcom can please everyone. For every person who loves Curb Your Enthusiasm, there are millions who would prefer to curl up with Mrs Brown’s Boys. So commissioners like to do all they can to reduce the risks of their latest commissions being unpopular with viewers. One of the ways they do this (possibly sub-consciously) is to address some of the gaps mentioned above.

Using writer-performers is an obvious way to bridge the writer/actor gap. Many stand-up comedians have spent years honing their comedy skills on stage. They are adept at making people laugh. They do it every week. It is a natural step to transfer those skills to sitcom-writing, and for commissioners it reduces the risk of failure. They know comedy, and what’s more important – the viewing public knows them, and so are more likely to tune in to watch. A well-known stand-up will come with a built-in audience of several hundred thousand people at least for the first episode. This massively helps reduce the risk of commercial failure for a sitcom.

There is a long history of writer-performers writing sitcoms and this has increased proportionatly to the explosion in popularity of stand-up comedy over recent years and whilst many of these have become classics, there is still a place for writer-driven sitcoms as is proved by the current tsunami of team-written American shows such as Rules of Engagement, Two Broke Girls, New Girl, Scrubs, How I met Your Mother and possibly my favourite ever sitcom, Big Bang Theory.

As a writer, all you can really do is keep hammering away at bridge number 1. Keep writing, keep honing your skills and maybe one day you’ll get a series commissioned that is a perfect vehicle for the latest, hot stand-up act coming out of Edinburgh.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent though David's 'read great scripts' advice is, I've learnt far more from reading a lot of underdeveloped/1st draft scripts via Sitcom Trials/Mission competitions. They go a long way to explaining how stuff doesn't work and I'm a much better writer for it.

    In fact, I'd like to thank David for the best piece of writing advice I've received when at the London Comedy Writers' Festival 2011, he said '[when you're starting out] follow up on EVERYTHING, regardless of whether it's free or not, as you never know where it might lead'. Every time an opportunity has presented itself, however vague, that advice pushes me to chase it up and it's paid dividends on much more than once occasion.