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.