Tuesday 29 September 2015

Third Time Lucky - Refining the Idea

On the last blog post, I kicked off an idea for a new sitcom called Third Time Lucky, a sitcom about a Geoff and Lynette who are getting married for the third time - the second time to each other. Someone left a comment which is quite interesting, which I'm going to comment on here:

Is the sitcom concept a little bit mushy though, to have them both madly in love with each other after having come through failed marriages? That’s a lot of heartache to just come out the other end of and be ready for more surely? Why not have them Geoff and Lynette be more cynical about love and relationships? Maybe they decide that love is unrealistic or not worth the effort. But companionship is something they both crave and, knowing they can enjoy each other’s company without all the expectations a normal marital relationship demands (sigh… :D) Geoff and Lynette should therefore be able to make their marriage of convenience work. They have each other’s company, separate rooms, they know each other’s ways and may even have grown up kids together. Perhaps the only tension is that they might actually start to have feelings for each other. Marriage in reverse? Then the arguments happen because they’re falling in love and don’t want the other to know. Or they are in denial. I imagine it’s been done though. Or it’s been tried and failed. Horribly. Discuss.

Okay, let's discuss that. It's an interesting proposition. A couple living together as a marriage of convenience for companionship. A few things to say about that:

1. Marriage of Convenience
A Marriage of Convenience as a central idea could well work. But that's a different show. And they don't need to have been married three times for that. Or even to each other. It could be that they made a pact that they've been friends for ever and to marry at fifty if they didn't marry anyone else. But overall, it's a quite different show tonally, because it's about boundaries within a marriage of convenience and it feels a bit downbeat to me. In the hands of another, such as the commenter above perhaps, it could be a thing of joy.

2. Is that a Movie?
Couples who live as couples but aren't supposed to fall in love feels like its been done in movies many times over. Lots of romantic comedies are marriages of convenience - a man and women thrown together by circumstance and they're not supposed to fall in love (eg. The Sure Thing) but do. Maybe because it feels like the idea won't sustain for years,and you're so desperate for them to admit their in love that the idea should last 90 minutes, rather than 26 episodes/13 hours or more. Again, I can't prove this - or anything, but that's my gut reaction.

3. Is that a Thing?
Couples who marry for companionship and live separate lives - does that actually happen? Is it a thing? Feels like the sort of thing some people might do, but they'd both be fairly odd fish (and cold fish). In my idea, I'm going for the mainstream audience and trying to create a situation that is identifiable. Again, nothing wrong with unusual situations. I've written sitcoms set in Afghanistan and Bletchley Park. But this time, I'm trying to keep it simple and identifiable.

4. Long-Term Sustainable Chararacters
A couple who are realistic about how hard it is to live together, who draw up boundaries, etc probably have too much self-awareness to be sustainable long term sitcom characters. I'm really drawn to the idea that they re-marry saying 'this time it'll be different', because, sadly, that's what people do. They do the same thing again and again and expect a different result, but don't get it. That seems like a more truthful comic situation to me, and a more fruitful one. So I'm going with it.

So Now What?
Thank you for the comment, though. It helps me define my idea against it. Anything that does that is a good thing. So what's the lesson?

Amusing Picture of Horse Because Pictures Break Things Up
Talk to one or two trusted people about your idea. They will inevitably start to pick holes in it, or pull a face at a certain point that betrays what they really think. And you will leap to defend your idea. In so doing, you may find out what you really do like about the idea, and that's a good thing.

Equally, the idea may fall to bits and prove indefensible or uninteresting. That's a good thing too because you've been spared the labour of flogging a dead horse. Or at least a horse you're not interested in.

Sitcom is so hard, and takes so long to get anywhere, you have to be passionate about the idea. And confident you can write it. That's why writing cynical ideas that you think might get bought is such a bad idea - because they may well get turned down anyway and you've spent all that effort on something you didn't even like.

You will fail. I do, almost all the time. But fail well with something you're prepared to go down clinging too. Too bleak? Well, that's the world we're in folks.

I hope that was useful. Dave Cohen and I talk about stuff like this on our podcast, but also it's much better done in person. So why not consider coming to our sitcom workshop on Thursday 5th and/or Friday 6th November 2015 in London? Dave and I will be there taking you through the stage of creating, plotting and writing sitcoms, and people seem to like it. Go here for more info and reviews.

Friday 25 September 2015

Developing a Sitcom From Scratch

On this blog – and my book – I’ve written a lot about set-up, characters, story and plot. Whilst I try to provide examples from both my own work and existing shows on TV and Radio, it’s hard not to be wise after the event. So, for the next series of blog posts, that may go on for weeks or months, I’m going to start a sitcom from scratch here on the blog. As I do so, I'll talk about the decisions that I’m making all along the way, and what’s in my mind as I make them.

The big question is what’s the sitcom going to be about? To be honest, what I've outline below is the first idea that popped into my head and it seems as good as any for illustrative purposes. It may turn into a real show one day. Who knows?

I’m not too worried about anyone stealing it for a number of reasons. Firstly, these blogs are timed and dated, so if anything came of it, I wouldn’t struggle to prove it was my idea. Secondly, ideas are not copyrightable, especially not the one I’ve just come up with. It’s all in the execution. And thirdly, and most depressingly, most ideas, even stolen ones, don’t get made into TV shows, so I’m probably not really losing out anyway.

The good thing is I have a title. I always say that if the title doesn’t turn up at the very beginning of your show, you’re never going to think of one you’re happy with. This sitcom is called Third Time Lucky. I like it because it’s a phrase people say (a bit), it trips off the tongue, it describes the show, at least superficially, and it isn’t a pun.

What’s it about?
A married couple. I’ve called them Geoff and Lynette. And this is the third time they’ve been married. They're hoping this will be third time lucky.

But this is the second time they've been married to each other. So they got married in their late twenties, got divorced, then remarried someone else. Then those marriages ended (maybe one divorce, one bereavement), and they got back together and, in a bit of a whirlwind, decided to get married. Again.

At least that’s what I'm thinking, at this early stage. If they’ve been married to each other before, rather than this just being a third marriage, that gives them a lot of shared history, regrets and unresolved rage. Now that could all be backstory and, as I keep saying on this blog, backstory is death. How do we make the show forward looking? That comes in asking the next crucial question:

What’s it really about?
Dave Cohen and I talk about this on our first Sitcom Geeks podcast, so do have a listen to that. But what is Third Time Lucky really about? At this stage, it’s hard to be sure, but I think the fact they’ve been married to each other before is crucial here. Why? Because the marriage didn’t work before. Why do they think it’s going to work now? Are they older and wiser, or just more deeply entrenched in their ways? That's the question.

The reason I write sitcom is because I think it’s an accurate, albeit heightened, representation of real life. And in real life, people don’t change. You end up having the same conversations with the same people over and over again. What do we need to learn? We need to learn to come to terms with the fact that people don’t change. Even our nearest and dearest. They don't change. And we can't change them.

Geoff and Lynette, then, both think they are able to change, and that the other is about to change, and that they can change each other, but each week, they have to come to terms with the fact that they are who they are. And marriage is about accepting each other. Or something.

Bits of Dialogue
At this point, a bit of dialogue can be really useful, just so you start to hear something of the show. You're trying to glimpse a bit of the statue you're carving out of the marble. So when I was thinking of these characters, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor popped into my head. The hottest couple in the world got divorced and then famously remarried each other. I imagined Geoff and Lynette thinking how romantic that was and telling someone about it, possibly one of their sons.

Son: So you’re marrying each other again? 
Geoff: Yep, we’re like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. 
Geoff gives Lynette a squeeze and peck on the cheek. Son winces. 
Lynette: Yes, just like them. Isn’t it romantic? 
Son: Kind of. (beat) You know they also got divorced again? 
Lynette: Ha, ha. No they didn’t? Did they? Well, we’re nothing like that. 
Geoff: No. Nothing like them.
That feels funny to me, and briefly encapsulates their self-delusion. It feels like we’ve made a start. What I need to make sure of, though, is that I don't cling on to that dialogue and formulate the characters around a couple of throwaway jokes. But the point is, I'm now interested which, given this is my sitcom, is rather important.

What’s Next?
Now I have my working hypothesis on what this show could be about. But I need to dig into Lynette and Geoff a lot more before I make any more rash statement about what Third Time Lucky is really about. It’s only when I’ve done that that I can work out where they’re going to live and therefore what the situation in my comedy is. Has one moved in with the other? Is it their original marital home? A new home they’ve just bought together to make a fresh start? It’s much easier to get into the heads of the characters before pinning down where they live and how this reunion came about and, most importantly, what's going to happen every week.

From Constant Hot Water
I need to keep thinking about my two leads rather being distracted too much by kids, step-kids, parents and wacky neighbours. Those all come later. I need to be asking myself if there’s show in Geoff and Lynette.

There are lots of other questions to be answered. How old are they? Are they still working? Do they have kids? Have they started a business together? My worry is that if they have, and they’ve started, say a bed and breakfast, then it looks like a sitcom about a bed and breakfast. Or worse, becomes a sitcom about a bed and breakfast. (And let’s face, Constant Hot Water already nailed that.)

Other Notes at this stage
I nearly called Lynette ‘Sam’, short for Samantha. Here’s why I didn’t. Before this is a TV show, it is going to be a pilot script, which has to be read by someone who is tired, busy and possibly finds reading boring. So I want to make the character names as easy to grab onto as possible. I don’t want any confusion, like thinking Sam is a man. So I’ve called her Lynette, which also begins with a different letter from Geoff which, in turn, is an unmistakably male name.
Watch out. Series 9 has a PG rating...

Also the names indicate they are not in the twenties or thirties, but their fifties, or possibly older.

In my head, this is going to be a mainstream studio audience show because that’s what I can write, have experience of writing, like writing and, crucially, is where the opportunities are.

So, I’m thinking of this in terms of Terry and June for the baby-boomers. Fresh Fields Revisited. George and Mildred Reloaded.  Now there’s something you don’t hear very often. Watch this space.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Why My List of Top Ten American Sitcoms Is A Bit More Complicated Than It Sounds

A few weeks ago, I posted details of my favourite British sitcoms of all time. These are not shows that I necessarily think are technically the best, or most popular, but shows which I love, highly rate and made a lasting impact on me. My favourite is Yes, Prime Minister.

I thought about doing the same with American sitcoms, but realised this isn’t as straightforward as it seems for many reasons. The first is that my list isn’t very original. The shows I like and admire the most, and that have shaped me and my thinking about situation comedy, are pretty much the same as everyone else’s: Friends, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development and my favourite of all American sitcoms, Seinfeld. And what can I say about these shows that hasn’t already been said? Not very much.

The other problem is that my judgment on American sitcoms is very patchy and affected by my circumstances, age and what British TV channels chose to import in the last forty years.

There are loads of classic sitcoms I don’t think we ever got here in the UK, like Murphy Brown, Family Ties and All in the Family. (The latter was based on Til Death Do Us Part, which was a British show anyway). And there are classic sitcoms that were just before my time and may well have been repeated in UK but I never saw them, like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners,The Bob Newhart Show and Soap.

Then there are classics that I first saw when I was too young to fully appreciate them, like M*A*S*H, Cheers and Taxi. And then there were sitcoms that I liked because they were on and I was young and fairly easily pleased, so that would include shows like Perfect Strangers, Head of the Class and Different Strokes. Included in that should be Golden Girls, The Cosby Show and Happy Days, which I’m pretty sure are important shows and classics. But would they make it into my top ten? I’m not sure. Maybe.

Then there are sitcoms that were perfectly enjoyable and I really got into and happened to catch me at time when I watched a lot of TV and a UK channel decided to broadcast it. Like Caroline In The City. Yes. I really got into the will-they/won't-they unrequited love storyline of Caroline in the City. What of it?

Then there are other shows that looked good but I never got into them like Spin City, Mad about You, and My Two Dads.

Then there are the sitcoms I really like now, but have no idea if they’ll stand the test of time and be deemed classics like Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99 and The Goldbergs. I also love Modern Family, which I’m pretty sure is going to be deemed a classic, so should that be on my list? Probably.

Then there are the sitcoms that I liked, but stopped watching when they seemed to lose their way, like Scrubs and Roseanne. And then there are the sitcoms that everyone else seems to rave about but have somehow never done it for me, like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Community. And what about the sitcoms that I enjoyed enough to watch in their entirety, like My Name Is Earl and 30 Rock?

So, what shows remain? One is a comedy drama, which, if we’re being technical about thing probably isn’t a sitcom: The Wonder Years. There was a show that just nailed a stage of life – being a kid in an adult world. All the while I was watching when I was fairly young myself, I was aware that this show was a class act. But it’s not a sitcom. So it's not on the list.

Then there’s The Simpsons. Is that a sitcom? Yes. It must be, but it hardly seems fair putting it on this list because it’s been hailed, for good reason, as the best TV show of the 20th Century. But it’s an animation. And given there are no rules and it’s my blog, I’m excluding it.

So what’s left?

The Phil Silvers Show aka Bilko. Much unloved and overlooked in the USA, but broadcast by BBC2 in the 1980s and 1990s in the daytime. The show is an astonishing mix of great writing, pacey directing and a central performance that may have been equalled, but never better: Phil Silvers as the grasping, gambling, slippery but loveable Sergeant Bilko. So lovable, he became Top Cat. And was this a boutique show? Distilled brilliance that couldn’t be rushed, like the 24 episodes  of Blackadder? (18 great episodes if we’re being honest about Series 1)


They made 142 episodes of Bilko. 142 episodes in 4 years. FOUR YEARS. From 1955 to 1959. (Winning three consecutive Emmys for Best Comedy Series in the process) That’s 60-odd years ago. And it’s still funny. Really funny.

Okay, then. Since we're here, let’s just knock out a top ten of my favourite American shows in no particular order: Friends, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development, Seinfeld, Modern Family, Cheers, MASH, The Phil Silvers Show and, what the hell, Caroline in the City.

Yes. Caroline in the City. Deal with it.