Monday 5 December 2016

The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms - Part 3

I've been writing about The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms. You can read Parts 1 here and Part 2 here.

What should come across is the overwhelming sense of speed. The writing process for months beforehand is agonising, but once it's production week, it flashes past. There just isn't long to read, rewrite, block, rehearse and pre-shoot before the audience turn up. And what you shoot on the night is going to be broadcast to the nation at prime time and burned onto DVDs. It is a high pressure environment.

Like many high pressured environments, you get used to it. Once you've done it for a while, you know what you're getting into, everyone knows that the days might overrun, and people may be tense or short with each other now and then. During the week of production, the director is the key for setting the tone.

Incidentally, this is one of my worries for the long term health of studio sitcoms. There just aren't many people in the industry who have the experience to shoot multi-cam sitcoms. It's not like any other job in television. It's half way been between directing a play and producing a shiny floor entertainment show which has to work in the room to the studio audience, and the viewers watching at home. Tricky.

At the end of the last blogpost on this subject, I brought up one thing that is a temptation that crops up in rehearsal, especially if the writer is in the room, or even in the scene: to keep changing the script.

Miranda rehearsals (Pic from BBC website)
I have been at pains to say that during the week of production, the script can change a lot. Entire scenes might be rewritten, cut or pulled out of thin air in the week. Often, the best scene with the biggest laughs is written during the week of production.


In rehearsals, give the actors a chance. Look at if from their point of view. They've been handed a script on day one for the read through. They have to be word perfect in less than a week. Can they start learning this script? No. There'll be notes and changes. They come back the next day, and the script has changed. Time to rehearse. Is this the final version? Maybe. Maybe not. The least you can do, as the writer, is let them have a go at it as written. And try and make it work, because the lines were written as they appear on the page for a reason.

Maybe the actor says the line in a way that just isn't funny or doesn't work or sounds weird. Having said it once that way, most likely they've heard they've done it wrong with their own ears, and will probably do it better next time.

It's possible there have been a number of changes overnight, and the actor doesn't understand what their character is trying to do in the rewritten scene. In which case, that can be figured out, ideally with the director. If you, the writer, are there, you might be able to speed things up with a quick explanation. e.g.
"In the earlier version of this scene, your character came in angry, but we felt that it didn't leave her any where to go. So in this new version, she's starting out frustrated, and when she realises that things are not going to change or improve, she's goes ballistic and does the thing that triggers the next scene. Does that help?"
It probably will.

If it takes a while to go in, with the clock ticking, the temptation is to rewrite the scene again overnight and essentially direct the scene with the script. You give the character lines which are very clear and obvious as to how the character is feeling, but are not very dramatic or interesting. You might have solved a problem, but you've probably also made the show slightly worse. And probably offended your actor who just needed a little time to catch up.

Or maybe you change the lines there and then, in which case the actor won't have a chance to make the lines work as written. In the end, it feels like every time they are doing the scene, it's changed and they are essentially sight reading. This might not lead to a satisfactory performance on the night. Or it might be fine, but doesn't sparkle.

Imagine if a concert pianist had to put up with this. The ghost of Chopin at their shoulder, rubbing out notes and putting in new ones on the four days leading up to the big performance. Your script might not quite be Chopin, but let the actors and director find it if you can. Change what you have to, for sure, but there is a law of diminishing returns here.

There are many other pressures of production week in a studio sitcom, and we will almost certainly return to this in the future. Meanwhile:

There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.

Also, listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast, with me & Dave Cohen.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Hack Joke Amnesty

This blog post should be Part 3 on the The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms but there's been a bit of action on Twitter about hack lines that should be avoided in scripts. Splitsider put out a post based on a tweet by John Quaintance, exec producer of Workaholics.

I've blogged on this before here and here after I listened to John August and Craig Maizin talk about 'clams' on Episode 52 of their Script-notes podcast. They we reading out a list from Go Into The Story and were also referring back to Jane Espenson's blog, including this one from 2007 which says:
A joke that has outlived its shelf-life is consistently referred to as a "clam." I've talked a little about these before, I believe. You know a clam when you hear it. Here are a few of them: "I'm switching you to decaf." "Check please." "Who are you and what have you done with ___?" "Did I say that out loud?" "Too much information!" and its brother (hand over ears) "La la la". Also we have "Was it something I said?" And "That didn't come out right." Or "That came out wrong." And finally "That went well," and its sister, "He seems nice". 
This is 2007. That's nine years ago. And I'm still reading scripts with these very hack, tired, unfunny lines in. And it's really important that if you're an aspiring writer and want to stand out from the crowd, you have to create new speech patterns and ways of talking. You can't just write the first thing that comes into your head, because that has probably come into lots of other heads before yours - and onto a page. So let's have a final Hack Joke Amnesty. Let's hand in all these jokes and lines and allow them to be humane destroyed.

As I write here, the reason these lines come so naturally is because in real life people do sometimes speak in 'sitcomese', saying things like 'Well, that went well' after a disaster or the most irritating 'I could tell you but I'd have to kill you'. Essentially, when people like your uncle and aunts are saying these things, thinking they're jokes, it's time for you realise that these lines are not original and that you need to write better jokes and lines for your characters.

So, as a public service, I'm gathering up all of these that I can find from Scriptnotes, and my other blog posts and John Quaintance, and the writers of Workaholics as a handy reference guide with Jane Espenson's caveat first:
Another way is to use the lines in unexpected way. A character who has been sitting silently and suddenly blurts, out of the blue, "Did I just say that out loud?"-- that's pretty funny. (I bet it's been done, but still, funny.) "That didn't come out right" is pretty funny, too, if it's Dr. House saying it while removing a tissue sample. 

But with that in mind do not use any of the following (although a few of these lines I'm not aware of!):

And here's the list from Scriptnotes - which has a lot of hack action movie lines in:

John: So shall we do this? “Are you ready?”
Craig: “I was born ready.”
John: “Are you sitting down?”
Craig: “Let’s get out of here!”
John: “_____ is my middle name.”
Craig: “Is that all you got?” “I’m just getting started.”
John: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Craig: “Don’t you die on me!”
John: “Tell my wife and kids I love them.”
Craig: “Breathe, dammit!”
John: “Cover me. I’m going in.”
Craig: “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”
John: “No, no, no, no, no, no, I’m not going.” Cut to them going.
Craig: “No, come in. _____ was just leaving.”
John: “You better come in.”
Craig: “So, we meet again.”
John: “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
Craig: “Well, if it isn’t _____.”
John: “I’m just doing my job.”
Craig: “You give ______ a bad name.” / “Calling you a ______ is an insult to ______.”
John: “You’ll never get away with this.” “Watch me.”
Craig: “Lookin’ good,” said into a mirror.
John: “Now, where were we?”
Craig: “What the…?”
John: “How hard can it be?”
Craig: “Time to die.”
John: “Follow that car!”
Craig: “Let’s do this thing!”
John: “You go girl!”
Craig: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
John: “Yeah, a little too quiet.”
Craig: “If I’m not back in five minutes get out of here,” or, “blow the whole thing up,” or, “call the cops.”
John: “What part of _____ don’t you understand?”
Craig: “I’m not leaving you!” “You have to go on without me.”
John: “Don’t even go there.”
Craig: “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
John: “Ready when you are.”
Craig: “Is this some kind of sick joke?”
John: “Oh, ha, ha, very funny.”
Craig: “Did I just say that out loud?”
John: “Wait. Do you hear something?”
Craig: “It’s…just a scratch.”
John: “How is he?” “He’ll live.”
Craig: “I’m…so…cold!”
John: “Is that clear?” “Crystal.”
Craig: “What if…nah, it would never work.”
John: “And there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me.”
Craig: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
John: “Note to self.”
Craig: “Honey, is that you?”
John: “What’s the meaning of this?”
Craig: “What seems to be the problem officer?”
John: “What’s the worst that could happen?” / “What have we got to lose?”
Craig: “I have a bad feeling about this.”
John: “Leave it. They’re already dead.”
Craig: “Don’t you think I know that?”
John: “Whatever you do, don’t look down.”
Craig: “Why won’t you die!”
John: “I eat guys like you for breakfast.”
Craig: “Oh, now you’re really starting to piss me off.”
John: “We’ve got company.”
Craig: “Hang on. If you’re here, then that means…uh-oh.”
John: “Oh, that’s not good.”
Craig: “Awkward!”
John: “What just happened?”
Craig: “We’ll never make it in time!”
John: “Stay here.” “No way, I’m coming with you.”
Craig: “This isn’t over.”
John: “Jesus H. Christ!”
Craig: “It’s no use!”
John: “It’s a trap!”
Craig: “She’s gonna blow!”
John: “Okay. Here’s what we do…” And cut to a different scene.
Craig: “Wait a minute. Are you saying…?”
John: “You’ll never take me alive.”
Craig: “Okay. Let’s call that Plan B.”
John: “I always knew you’d come crawling back.”
Craig: “Try to get some sleep.”
John: “I just threw up in my mouth a little.”
Craig: “Leave this to me. I’ve got a plan.”
John: “No. That’s what they want us to think.”
Craig: “Why are you doing this to me?!”
John: “When I’m through with you…”
Craig: “Impossible!”
John: “Wait! I can explain. This isn’t what it looks like.”
Craig: “Showtime!”
John: “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Craig: “If we make this out alive…”
John: “That’s it! You’re off the case.”
Craig: “How long have we known each other?” “We go back a long way.”
John: “Well. Well. Well.”
Craig: “Ah-ha! I knew it!”
John: “Done and done!”
Craig: “Leave it. He’s not worth it.”
John: “In English please?”
Craig: “As many of you know…” and then a bunch of exposition.
John: “Too much information!”
Craig: “Yeah, you better run!”
John: “Unless…” “Unless what?”
Craig: “What are you doing here?” “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
John: “So, who died? Oh…”
Craig: “You’re either brave or very stupid. “
John: “Oh, yeah? You and whose army?”
Craig: “Now that’s what I’m talking about.”
John: “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
Craig: “It’s not you. It’s me.”
John: “This just gets better and better.”
Craig: “This is not happening. This is not happening!”
John: “Make it stop!”
Craig: “Shut up and kiss me.”
John: “I’ll see you in hell.”
Craig: “Lock and load!”
John: “Oh, hell no!”
Craig: “Not on my watch!”
John: “You just don’t get it, do you?”
Craig: “I have got to get me one of these.”
John: “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Craig: “It’s called _____. You should try it sometime.”
John: “That went well.”
Craig: That did go well.

For further evidence on You Just Don't Get It, Do You?...

And here are some other offerings to my blog via Twitter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Penny for your thoughts" @RobGilroy Ugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: hi I'm Tom
B: Nice to meet you Tim

A: it's Tom
B: WHATEVER TIM @Direlogue

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

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

Are we done with all these?

If you'd like some help writing a better script that you're proud of, let me help you out.

How to supercharge your sitcom script

You probably know a bit about story, situations and character, and how scenes should work. So you don't need to start from scratch. (For that sort of thing, take a look at my video course, Writing Your Sitcom)

In my Sitcom Supercharged course, I talk about story and plots – and a bunch of other things.

I run through some highlights and what script readers and producers are looking for from a ‘spec’ pilot sitcom script. It might not be what you think.

Then I give some concrete advice on how long each stage might take, and how to make sure you’ve got time to not just write the script, but rewrite and polish that script so that by the time you’re submitting it, you can honestly say that it’s the best you could do - and we avoid the wailing and gnashing of teeth of regret that another opportunity has been missed.

Sitcom Supercharged short and punchy, big on practical advice based on two decades of experience of writing, and the UK sitcom world. Find out more here.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms - Part 2

Last time, I wrote about how the production week of a studio sitcom pans out, and how time to rehearse is alarmingly short. Read that first HERE. Okay? Up to speed?

It’s Day 1 of the production week. Probably a Friday. It’s 10am. The actors are all sitting at tables in a big square. Production staff are sitting one row behind, up against the wall (which is how they feel for most of the week). And so it begins.

Before you get to this point, you need to know this:

The script is going to change

Embrace this. When you read through that script on Day 1 of the production week, there will be problems with it. They may be small, they may be huge. They may seem small at first, but as you try to fix them you end up unpicking an awful lot before putting it all back together. You never know.

There will be notes.

Some will be obvious and you could hear there was a problem as the script was read. Other notes may come from the directors, the exec producer, or someone else important enough to tell you what's wrong with the script. The script will need to be fixed.

Ideally you won’t have to change it much, not least because you probably have some scenes already filmed on location that you have to keep in the show. You just don’t have the time or the budget to chuck entire location scenes, although this can happen (and did happen on a show I worked on recently). Hopefully, there’ll be enough for the director to rehearse with the actors on the afternoon of Day 1 and we’re into rehearsals. But not necessarily. (The worst day of my professional career was a Day 1 serious rewrite which you can read about in my book, Writing That Sitcom). The rewriting job needs to be done. Embrace it.

Also, prepare for this:

The funniest jokes – even the best scenes – might be written from scratch that week.

This is annoying because it makes you wonder why you bothered slaving over this script for months only to rock up and write the killer jokes on the day. But we all know you can’t just turn up to production week with the bare bones of an idea and write it on the day.

Having said that, I have heard stories of this happening occasionally. But apart from the fact that this is a very high wire act, it is not a trick you want to pull very often. It’s just not fair on the crew and the art department and everyone who has to make these ideas conjured up on the day suddenly appear on the screen. They will be very professional about it, and do the best they can, but they will hate you for it and try to avoid working with you again. Which is fair enough.

Fixing the script after that initial readthrough, however, is not the end of the rewriting. During rehearsals, scenes will need tweaking, trimming and tailoring to the actor’s strengths. You might need extra dialogue and ideally a joke to cover some physical business. Once the show is on its feet, a scene might feel like it’s flagging, or too abrupt. Or a line turns out to be a bit of a mouthful. Or an actor suddenly develops a problem with a line. (I’ve written about that here)

There will be changes, and it’s worthwhile being around for these because if you don’t rewrite it, someone else will. This, in my opinion, isn’t fair on the actors because they shouldn’t be expected to be writers as well as performers. (Don’t get me started… but more on that here) And what you may find happens is that a short term problem will be fixed by the actors or director in the moment, but a long term problem is created. You, as the writer, have thought about little else in the last few months. You have the story in your head, and if the rehearsal is a developing with a problem with a prop or a moment, and decide to cut it, they might not realise that this prop will be critical in four scenes time. Or the change will make a pre-shot location scene feel very odd or improperly set up.

This is why it’s worth being on hand during rehearsals (and on set, as I write here) to head off these problems. But if you are around all week, there might be another temptation (beyond eating too much snack food or drinking too much tea): To keep changing the script. We’ll look at that in the next blogpost.


There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms - Part 1

Earlier this year, I tried my hand at directing. It was a play I’d written a few years ago called The God Particle, which had already toured a couple of times. For the third tour, and with a new cast, I decided this was my chance to get a bit of experience doing something I hadn’t done before.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy directing as much as I did, and in the end, I spent two very happy weeks with a couple of actors working through the scenes so that by the time the first previews came, everyone felt fairly well prepared.

The first two performances were to some truly tiny audiences in Twickenham and gradually we all grew in confidence. By the time we filmed the play as a DVD in May, the play had been performed at least 25 times. It was pretty tight.

I mention this for two reasons. One is that I’m subtley plugging the DVD which is out this month and available to pre-order right now. But here’s the main reason:

I’ve just been working on a studio sitcom and, as I’ve said on previous blogs, sitcoms filmed in front of audiences are more akin to plays than anything else. But even the ropiest, most amateur fringe play is rehearsed more than your average TV sitcom. Which is seen by millions.

For a start, there are normally six days allotted for pretty much everything: a readthrough, a rewrite, rehearsing, more rewriting, re-rehearsing, blocking, teching, pre-recording and then finally recording in front of an audience. The only head start you get is you might have a few minutes pre-shot on location. In short, it's terrifying.

But it gets worse.

The script might need a major rewrite. There might have been a readthrough a month earlier where it didn’t quite work and it turns out the rewrite is not much better. Or an actor might suddenly be unavailable and the script needs to change for very pragmatic reasons. Maybe it’s reading very long and there just isn't the time to overshoot.

If the script isn’t quite right for whatever reason on the morning of Day 1, it might take the rest of the day to fix it. The director may send the actors home, because there’s no point rehearsing scenes that are going to radically change, especially not with actors who are tired having been in studio all the day until 10pm or later filming last week’s episode. Either way, that’s a day of rehearsal gone.

Day 2. More rehearsals and a few more changes. On days 3 and 4 the script might seem to be locked down, but lines are still being tweaked. You still might have to write a whole new scene, or cut a scene in half or blend two scenes together. But whatever you do, you’ll have to have it down because on Day 5 there might be pre-records for future episodes.

Day 6 is the day of the recording in the studio front of an audience. (Yes, they are real people laughing. Not sound effects) By now, each scene might have been rehearsed for three days or four days at the most. On Day 6, there’s a slow run through in the morning and early afternoon for the benefit of the cameras, sound, props and the myriad of people who seem to appear from nowhere. Then a technical run through. Even at this stage, lines might be tweaked.

The audience come in, and it’s recorded. On that first take, some actors might be saying new lines for the very first time. Whilst hitting their marks, and getting everything else right. And that’s it. There will probably be a chance to run the scene again. But there just isn’t time to go over it again and again to tweak a performances. And how it’s done on the night is how it will have to be for ever and ever.

The pressure, then, is enormous. And yet somehow every studio sitcom is done this way, and no-one seems minded to change it. This partly because the system works. That said it only works because we still have technical crew who’ve worked on this format for at least thirty years. Moreover, changing the system to allow more rehearsal time won’t really happen because it will just end up increasing costs, and TV budgets faced a constant downward pressure, especially at the BBC.

So how does this affect the sitcom writer? A script that’s been months in the making, and weeks in the rewriting, is blown through in six days and it can be quite alarming to see it all happen so fast. Or it may be even more alarming to see something assembled so slowly and picked apart and pulled around so quickly.

There are some things that you need to know as you go into studio week and in the next blogpost, we’ll look at those.

There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Writing That Sitcom

About a year ago, I released a book based on this blog called Writing That Sitcom. Up until today it has only been available for the Kindle, or the Kindle App for the iPad via Amazon. And it still is. Go and look. Here Go on. It's here. HERE!

Maybe you don't use Kindle, or won't use Amazon, or want to print it out. Or maybe you just really like PDFs. Whatever. You can now buy the book as PDF to read however you want to read it. That's the beauty of PDFs. So you can buy that HERE.

And here's the product info in case you'd forgotten:

Writing That Sitcom is part handbook, part pep-talk, part intervention, helping you get your sitcom idea from your head and into the script. Working through developing characters and stories that jump off the page, Writing That Sitcom is a step-by-step guide which includes advice on generating ideas, writing original dialogue and editing your draft so that the script makes maximum impact when it’s pulled of a pile by a jaded but desperate development producer.

Crammed with plenty of practical and realistic suggestions, as well as chapters on writing for children and radio, this book is bursting with realistic advice from someone who’s actually been there and done it plenty of times.

James Cary, writer of the popular Sitcomgeek blog, has co-written episodes of Miranda, Bluestone 42 and Another Case of Milton Jones. He has created sitcoms for BBC Radio 4, including Hut 33 and Think the Unthinkable, and written episodes of existing sitcoms like My Family, My Hero and Citizen Khan.

"It is not often that you find "how to books" written by people with such a pedigree in writing for radio and TV. I always look for books written by people who have achieved success numerous times. James has many times and is very inspirational" Dr RW Fallon

"no guff or waffle!" Matt White

"Excellent. Gives you so much real advice and things to think about, including aspects you'd never have thought of by yourself, which is why it is so valuable." Amazon Customer

Buy Writing That Sitcom

Thursday 22 September 2016

Readers' Qs - Random Background Props

@JoChallacombe asks:

Often random background props make me laugh. Do I try to write these into the scene descriptions, or do I chat to the producer about how funny I think that novelty mug on the desk could be later on?

Good question. I’ve written a bit about props before. About the significance of props here and the mechanics of checking the props on set here and here. But these don’t really answer Jo’s question, which contains a couple of phrases that worry me. The first is the reference to the novelty mug. The second is the phrase ‘random background props’. Let’s start with the novelty mug.

Novelty Mugs

You probably already know this, Jo, and you're using shorthand but it’s just worth being sure about it. Things that are meant to be funny in real life are not funny in sitcoms. Amusing T-Shirts, “I’m Only Here For the Beer” hats, and novelty mugs are broadly off-limits in sitcoms.

It sounds a bit bizarre, but in sitcoms, your characters are not trying to do jokes. They are jokes. They don’t have the self-awareness to be funny in their own right. As a rule, they say things and do things that are unwittingly funny. Sheldon in Big Bang Theory doesn’t think he’s funny. He thinks he’s the smartest guy around – and kind of is. His ego is funny. His pride is funny. His lack of appreciation that’s its not good to brag about how clever you are is funny.

That said, if Sheldon tried to prove he had a sense of humour, he might well reach for standard ‘comedy’ tropes. But he would get them wrong, or try to improve them in some way, but in a way that says more about him than anything else.

Props should only really be an extension of character. Or part of a story. If your character is wearing a T-Shirt with a slogan, what does it say about them? Or how does it provoke a reaction? If your character takes a mug around the office, in what way does it augment their own unique brand of paranoia or idiocy? Or mean the start of an all mug war?

This whole area is related to why I’m normally against characters using standard comedy lines you hear in every day life like ‘I could tell you but I’d have to kill you’, or ‘Did I just say that out loud? There’s much more on that sort of thing here.

Now let’s turn to the other issue – and again, I’m sure you’re only using shorthand again, Jo, and I’m not picking on you (honest)

Random Background Props

Some of the props from the old Croft and Lloyd sitcoms like Are You Being Served? and Allo Allo were really comic, and downright silly. The props can sometimes be a joke in their own right – and often become running jokes (eg. flashing knobs) But those were foreground props, to do with mannequins or escaping from the Germans. And they certainly were not random.

The main problem is this: If something in the background is meant to be funny, it’s distracting from the foreground. So one needs to be very careful here.

The best book I’ve read about writing comedy is Jonathan Lynn’s book on rules of comedy. It’s part autobiography and part how-to guide. Not only is he the co-writer of my favourite sitcom of all time (Yes, Prime Minister) and the writer/director of one of my favourite movies (Nuns on the Run), he’s also a theatre director. He really shows in his book how comedy is all about stage management, and directing the audience’s attention. Comedy is almost like a magic show where it is critical to ensure the audience sees what it needs to and is not distracted. Unless of course the distraction is very intentional.

There’s a really nice example of this in My Family (a show which people regularly forget got several millions viewers every single week – over a hundred times). In Series 4, when Kriss Marshall was still in at as Nick, a puppy dog-type who had a different job every week, there was an episode in which he became an extra. This triggered a hilarious scene in which Nick and his fellow ‘acting extras’ practised their background acting while Ben and Susan, in the foreground, were talking about something or other on the sofa. It was critical they didn’t say anything of any importance or plot significance because the audience weren’t listening to a word they were saying.

In your script – and in your sitcom – you need to be sure where your audience is looking and not looking. The only time background jokes can really work is in between scenes or moments. The camera can linger on them for a moment and then move on. Or they’re so subtle and in the background that is very likely the audience will miss them and it won’t matter. This is the sort of thing Arrested Development did. While Arrested Development is a masterpiece of joke density, a personal favourite, and bears much repeat viewing, it never got much of an audience. Perhaps this is an indication as to why.

You can’t do two different jokes at the same time. You can do a joke that works on a few levels, but you can’t do one joke in the foreground and another in the background simultaneously. The audience won’t know which to look at, or laugh at, or know which is more important. They will become confused. And if I have one catchphrase it’s this:
Confusion is the enemy of comedy.
Stuffing a scene with background jokes also could stem from a lack of confidence in the foreground jokes. The audience should really be transfixed by your characters and the story.

Having said all of this, there’s something about animation that means you can get anyway with lots of background jokes. I think that’s because the simplicity of the picture means that your brain can process everything faster and switch between background and foreground. That’s my theory, anyway.

As far as writing the scripts goes, put in whatever you think is necessary. In the first instance, focus on using props to tell your story and develop character. They really can be tangible ways of doing that.

Writing about props in scripts is tricky. You don’t want loads of action lines getting in the way. It’s hard to write that stuff economically and accurately, especially as it won’t show up in the show the same way as dialogue. Like most of things, it just takes time to do well.

Thanks for you question, Jo. I hope that helps. Keep 'em coming.

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 here.

Alternatively, 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

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

You Can't Have Your Sitcom Cake and Eat It

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a sitcom will never get 10m+ viewers. Not outside Christmas. And certainly not on at 9pm on a Wednesday night in late August.

The Great British Bake Off does. It’s a truly astonishing monster hit. It really shouldn’t work that well, but it does. They’ve found the perfect recipe. Good for them.

The whole edifice now appears to be crashing down in a bit of TV brinkmanship, but one of the products has been the revelation that the BBC were prepared to pay £15m a year to keep the Bake Off for three more years.

Why did the BBC want to keep the Bake Off so badly and pay a huge sum for it? Is it committed to the propagation of excellence in amateur baking? Is it trying to find a new generation of bakers to feed the nation? No. Did I mention it gets 10m+ viewers?

That’s interesting. The BBC clearly has some hidden war chest containing £15m to throw at something to get 10m+ viewers for one series. So here’s my question:

Why doesn’t the BBC throw that kind of money at trying to find some new mainstream hit sitcoms? 

I would argue that a decent mainstream sitcom will last longer than almost any reality show. Most of these reality juggernauts run out of steam after eight years or so, and then limp along for a couple more. A sitcom can last so much longer.

Exhibit A: Still Open All Hours

The BBC has just commissioned a third series of Still Open All Hours. Quite right too. It’s got characters people love, a truly great central performance in David Jason, and it gets really decent numbers. All this with relatively little press and fanfare, as opposed to the Bake Off, which is teaser-trailed like a Hollywood blockbuster weeks in advance. Maybe Still Open All Hours would get 10m midweek if it got that level of hype.

The show began life, of course, as Open All Hours, a pilot in 1973. Let’s take a moment to savour that. 1973. That’s two years after we in the UK went decimal. That’s a long time ago. And yet Granville and the Ghost of Arkwright will be on TV again in 2017, 44 years later.

That’s an extreme example, sure, and there were only 26 episodes of Open All Hours, but look at Exhibit B.

Exhibit B: Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather began life in 1989 and ran for nine series until 1998. And we’re not just talking standard series of six episodes. Series 2 was 16 episodes. Sixteen. Series 3-7 had 13, 14, 14, 14 and 12 episodes respectively. That’s a lot of telly. (They had writing teams. TV Execs, please take note. It can work. It does work and it has worked.) By 1998 they’d notched up a 100 episodes. And it’s still on and doing just fine on ITV, 27 years after the original episode aired on BBC1.

As if further proof were needed, let’s look at Exhibit C.

Exhibit C: The Landmark Sitcom Season

The Landmark Sitcom Season resurrected 7 shows, including Hancock’s Half Hour, a show that premiered on BBC Radio in 1954. Yes. 1954. What the series proved is clear: Mainstream sitcoms hits last for generations.  Not only can you keep making new episodes. You can keep repeating old ones.

Exhibit D: Dad’s Army

I tweet this all the time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Easily the most successful sitcom on BBC2 and Channel 4 this year has been reruns of Dad’s Army. It’s beaten the competition almost every single week all year. A show that began life in 1968.

What’s the lesson? Stop showing reruns because it’s not fair? Or invest in mainstream sitcoms that will outlast this current baking fad, and almost every pop career launched by Popstars, The Voice and X-Factor combined?

Let’s re-examine Exhibit C, The Landmark Sitcom Season, a little further, shall we? There was a huge song and dance about it in the media, but in what way has it helped?

I don’t want to be overly critical of it. In a way, a celebration of sitcom is an end in itself. I personally enjoyed some of the remakes, Hancock especially. But in terms of laying the groundwork for the future, the Landmark Season gave us four new pilots on BBC2. Four is not many compared to the four BBC1 reboots and three BBC4 remakes. Plus a panel game for some reason, and a one-hour documentary that was more about changing attitudes than sitcom itself.

Only time will tell what becomes of the new BBC2 pilots, but, erm, shouldn’t BBC2 be making sitcom pilots anyway? Of course, BBC2 comedy is an end in itself, and that’s fine. But its role in finding hits for BBC1 is crucial. Mainstream hits like Miranda and Ab Fab started on BBC2, as did the slightly more nuanced The Royle Family.

What It All Comes Down To

I don’t want to get too bogged down in commissioning policy and scheduling because ultimately it all comes down to one thing:


And it turns out the BBC have £15m to spend on a baking show (that began life on BBC2) that is at its peak – and probably wouldn’t have lasted more than another couple of years, even if they’d managed to hold onto it.

Now, I know that £15m is just a figure that probably covers making the show and masterclasses and Comic Relief versions and the Extra Slice for a whole years. You’re quite a fair bit of TV for your money.

But let’s be honest. It’s dead money. People will not be watching Bake Off Series 10 Episode 3 in 2026. Not in any significant numbers. And they won’t even be watching this year’s Extra Slice next year. My argument is purely that reality/entertainment doesn’t last in the way that characters and stories do.

A Modest Proposal

So, here’s my proposal. Rather than spend £15m one one year of Bake Off, how about spending £10m  over three years on finding a sitcom that could last as long as Open All Hours? Or that people will want to remake and watch in 40 years time.

A sitcom pilot can cost anywhere between £180k and £400k. Let’s not muck about here. Let’s go to the top end, to attract top talent and do this properly. In a studio. There is plenty of top talent around, both writing and performing. The problem that this talent is winning Emmys in USA, not BAFTAs in UK. Or they are engaged rewriting shows they started in the 1970s.

So let’s push the boat out here. Let’s fund each pilot to the tune of £400k. And how about BBC1 makes eight pilots a year for three years? One more than the seven pilots they did with Ronnie Barker in 1973. And one more than the seven pilots they did the year earlier in the Comedy Playhouse that unearthed Are You Being Served? So five more than they did in the Comedy Playhouse of 2014 and 2016.

Eight pilots a year. At £400k. Insist that most are multi-cam studio shows. That’s £3.2m a year. Let’s do it for three years. That’s £9.6m for 24 fully funded pilots. So £5m cheaper than a year of Bake Off, for something that could last much longer. And you could have all the press and hype and national debate to go with it. Even have audience vote on their favourite. Have an Extra Slice-type show to discuss what worked and what didn’t. We take our sitcoms very seriously.

And Then What?

I’m pretty sure I can predict the results of these 24 shows. Not because I’m smart, because this is just how the numbers seem to shake out when you look back over the hundreds of pilots that have been made and how this tends to work.

18 of these 24 pilots will be, on first inspection, dreadful. Critics will hate them and make the usual snide and sneery comments. But that’s okay. It’s just telly. No-one died (hopefully). Let’s not get too upset. But the audience will like two of those ‘dreadful’ 18 shows, and one will go to series and do fine, like Brushstrokes or Three Up, Two Down. They were good shows at the time, but not hits. And the other one will go to series and be a huge Mrs-Brown-style hit.

Of the remaining six episodes that weren’t ‘dreadful’, one will be a timeless classic like Porridge or Only Fools and Horses, go to series and run and run. And three should’ve worked but didn’t quite. Two of those three will be deemed fixable and go to series. One will do fine. And the other won’t. And two probably shouldn’t have worked, but did. And go to series. One will work. And one won’t.

And there we have it. For a £9.6m investment, and a lot of work, 24 pilots should generate five or six mainstream sitcoms. One crowd pleaser that will get Bake Off numbers. One transcendent classic. Two other solid performers and one or two that won’t quite go the distance.

Of course, this is all on top of the pilots and new shows that are commissioned anyway.

But wait:

Objection, Your Honour!

I can already hear the defenders of the BBC saying they already do almost exactly what I’ve just outlined. Add the four BBC2 pilots from the Landmark Season to the three from this year’s BBC1 Comedy Playhouse and hey presto! A seven episode Comedy Playhouse split over two channels, fully funded, promoted and broadcast.

Yup. Fair point. I’m glad I thought of it. But I’d reply with the following.

Firstly, that my suggestion is this be a BBC1 thing, front and centre. And it should focus on mainstream studio-audience comedy. We can still make that stuff and it’s what audiences really like, so I think we should focus on that.

Secondly, my plan is a three year commitment to BBC1 studio audience comedy.. BBC1 had a three-ep Comedy Playhouse in 2014. But not in 2015. Why not? Don’t know. And again in 2016. Only one was a studio audience show. And they were all broadcast at 22.40. Schedulers really should have more confidence in the sitcom talent that’s out there.

And finally, the Comedy Playhouses of the 1970s were in addition to the dozens of new shows being piloted and tried out only three channels. Except in comedy terms, there were more than three channel because in those days, ITV regions like Central and Anglia were making sitcoms of their own. Hits like Rising Damp were commissioned and made by Yorkshire TV. Which also means there was an awful lot of expertise around and plenty of experience to draw on.

The landscape was very different then, and yet they still made seven pilots a year in their playhouse series. They just knew how many flops you had to make before you found the hit.

I love the Bake Off, but Channel 4 can have that. Can we have some new classic sitcoms, please? You can have them, BBC. If you want them. But do you want them?

Wednesday 31 August 2016

The Best of British Sitcom Idiots

Following on from the last post about idiots in sitcoms, and some ensuing twittering, perhaps it's only fair we pay tribute to the best of British sitcom idiots. Lots of candidates, for sure, but here are, for my money, the most dimwitted of nincompoops who should be recognised for outstanding services to idiocy.

Have missed any prize-winning clots? Sorry Doberman, Coach and Andy Dwyer. This is best of British.

Vote for your favourites on Twitter with #myfavouritesitcomidiot 

In alphabetical order:
Alice from the Vicar of Dibley
Baldrick from Blackadder 2-4

Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous

Dougal from Father Ted

Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.

Howard & Hilda from Ever Decreasing Circles

Manuel from Fawlty Towers
Trigger from Only Fools and Horses

Readers' Qs - Does every sitcom need an idiot?

This question comes from @andyrileyish, aka Andy Riley, an extremely experienced sitcom writer (Black Books, Hyperdrive, The Great Outdoors), a thoroughly nice man, and writer of an excellent new series of children’s books called King Flashypants. He was also a guest with his writing partner, Kevin Cecil, on The Sitcom Geeks Podcast here.

The question presupposes that sitcoms normally benefit from idiots – and this is true. As a rule, I highly recommend any one setting up a sitcom should find room for an idiot.

Why? A few reasons:

1. Idiots are funny. They get the wrong end of the stick, stay stupid stuff and are basically joke machines. They can also say the unsayable, or bring their own weird logic to bear on a situation.

2. Idiots are useful. Given they often don’t understand what’s going on, someone can explain the plot to them so everyone, including the audience, are clear on what’s happening, and what needs to happen next.

3. Idiots are wildcards. They are often ‘off-the-wall’ in what they do, and so can be a very useful for turning plots on their heads, or throwing a spanner in the works for your protagonists.

The downsides of idiots is that they can sometimes feel insufficiently deep or interesting to make frontline characters, especially at first, but this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, it shouldn’t be.
Rocket (Scott Hoatson)
from Bluestone 42

In writing Bluestone 42, our ‘idiot’ was Rocket, a breathtakingly dimwitted squaddie with a very sunny disposition. He was initially a bit of a foil for Mac, who was filthy and didn’t filter anything he said. But as the series went on, we found that Rocket was every bit as funny and interesting. Rocket’s stupidity tipped over into naivety - which is a nice trait for young man with a gun - and we gave him a love of animals too, all of which also produced some nice plots. And a love of food.

Watch the first few episodes of Seinfeld and Kramer is a dimwit, but his character really takes off when the show played up how convinced that Kramer was that he was, in fact, smarter than everyone else. Soon Kramer’s not so much an amusingly irritating neighbour, but a proactive character who leads Jerry, George and Elaine into all kinds of ludicrous situations in which his schemes always sound just sensible enough to succeed at the start, but which spiral out of control.

Nick Harper (Kris Marshall) from My Family
Being merely stupid, then, is rarely enough for a serviceable useful idiot. Joey in Friends is stupid, but he’s also good-looking, shallow and great at getting women. Phoebe is an idiot of sorts, but she’s more of an alternative weirdo. That can work, but can be a bit predictable. Nick (Kris Marshall) in My Family was an idiot, but he was something of an optimist and charmer who always landed on his feet and was a key to the early success of that show.

Tyler, George & Arnie
I used to write episodes of My Hero which had a brilliant idiot called Tyler. What was great about him was that he was the only human in the show apart from Janet who knew that George Sunday was an alien from Ultron and the superhero Thermoman. He was as mad as you like, so no-one listened to him when he gave the game away, and in one respect, he was more sane than anyone. In one episode I wrote, he was successfully defused a nuclear bomb. Because he happened to know the code. And it seemed plausible.

But the question is hand is “Does every sitcom need an idiot?” When I read that question, the word ‘need’ jumps out. So the question is whether you have to have an idiot?

I suspect not, but I’m trying to think of really good sitcom that doesn’t have some kind of idiot, or at least a character that functions as one at the start:

Cheers had Cliff. Frasier had Daphne Moon, (who began life as a quirky English woman with a ‘spiritual’ side and then came to the fore). Bilko had Doberman. Fawlty Towers had Manuel. Blackadder (Series 2-4, at least) had Baldrick. Dad’s Army had the young and na├»ve Pike (and Jones?). Yes, Prime Minister had the comparatively innocent Bernard. M*A*S*H had Klinger, who was obviously just pretending to be mad. One Foot in the Grave has Mrs Warboys – and the weird neighbour with his mother upstairs.

I suppose there’s no room for an idiot in Steptoe and Son, but then maybe they’re both idiots. In a way, all sitcom characters are, depending on how you definite idiocy. Your protagonist might be defined as an idiot given their lack of self-awareness about their inability to do the task they have set themselves – like David Brent or Captain Mainwairing or Hancock.

So, “Does every sitcom need an idiot?” My official answer is: Probably.

Thanks for you questions, Andy. Keep ‘em coming, everyone.


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

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Readers' Qs - How many scenes should there in a sitcom episode?

Good question. And of course that all depends on the sitcom and the story.

In general, sitcoms filmed in studios in front of an audience have fewer than those filmed with a single camera for a variety of practical and tonal reasons. A studio sitcom is more like a play, and for that reason, scenes tend to run longer, and play out in real time, without tricksy editing or cheating jump cuts that you can use in a single-camera show.

Moreover, you can't keep setting up thirty scenes in one evening in front of an audience.  It’s just not practical. There's not enough time on the night. But that’s okay. The audience subconsciously expect studio audience shows to have fewer scenes. And it will. If you have a main plot - with about 8-10 beats, you'll probably need a new scene for each of those beats. If you have a subplot with 5-6 beats, you might need separate scenes for some of those beats, but you might also have those plot developments taking place in the same scene as your main plot. And you might need an extra scene to pay of a C-Plot, which is essentially a running joke. So overall, it's unlikely you'd have fewer than eight scenes in a normal studio sitcom episode. And you might have as may as 16-18, depending on whether you have a couple of pre-shot scenes on location.

So conventionally, you’d probably have somewhere between 8 and 18 scenes for a studio sitcom. For me, 11-16 seems about right.

You might have that number of scenes for a non-audience single camera show too. But you could have much shorter, snappier scenes if you wanted. Maybe as many as thirty. I shudder to think how many scenes the writers of Modern Family cram into their 21 minutes, servicing over a dozen characters with three plots.

Of course, you can make a virtue of having only one scene in the whole show which plays out in real time. We did that on the psychiatrist episode on Miranda. It’s quite common for a sitcom to do that sort of thing on its second or third series for a bit of variety. It’s normally called a ‘bottle’ episode, in which the characters are all trapped or marooned somewhere and it’s quite talky, but often quite revealing in terms of characters. This is when sitcoms become most ‘play-like’. Writers love the challenge of writing them. Audiences could, I suspect, take them or leave them. If they don’t find it as funny as normal, they won’t give you points for trying to be clever. (Critics will, but who cares what they think? They're being paid to watch TV and then write something clever about it. Most people watch comedy because they like laughing.) More on 'Bottle Eps' here.

But it’s not just studio audiences who try to run everything in real time. Some single camera shows like to do this. I seem to remember Roger and Val Have Just Got In did every episode this way, with each episode being set just after work when Roger and Val, er, get in. There's more on this play/film/real-time tradition here.

Again, critics and industry-types go mad for hyper-realism or real time. My own view is that the audience really just like laughing – and if these kind of tricks make it funnier, so be it. But they normally just make it harder to get laughs. So as a rule, I would suggest this ‘one scene episode’ thing should be approached with great caution. Stick to your 11-16 scenes to give yourself the best chance.


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 here.

Alternatively, 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

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.