Wednesday 12 December 2018

5 Mistakes In The First Ten Pages Of Your Sitcom Script: Mistake 4

I remember listening to an episode of Friends from another room. I couldn’t hear the dialogue. All I could hear was the audience laughter, and how frighteningly regular it was. It seemed every other line was getting a laugh. The metronomic frequency of those laughs is an astonishing achievement, given the writers are weaving story and character on top together at the same time.

But it’s easy to think about this the wrong way. I just did at the end of that last paragraph. I set up story and character as enemies of jokes, as if characters just say funny things regardless of situation or context. No, the context and the characters give you the jokes. Static characters that don’t move or have quests are merely spouting jokes. This can sustain for a while but only if the jokes are really funny.

Insert Name Here is a properly funny panel game
Panel games do this. Half a dozen people are rooted to chairs being asked questions or set challenges. There are different rounds to give some variation – and normally there’s a clever one (Stephen Fry or Richard Osman) and a less clever one (Alan Davies, Josh Widdicombe). And even those are artificial personae to some extent. Alan Davies is no fool!

They normally record panel games for two and a half hours, and only very best is selected and broadcast. The show is assembled in the edit.

You can’t do this in a sitcom. You can’t afford to shoot even 50 minutes and put it together in the edit for a number of reasons. Firstly, you don’t have the luxury of paying dozens of people thousands of pounds to produce television that’s going to be cut. There just isn’t that much money in the system, especially when you have a timeslot to fill.

Sure, you can shoot a movie thinking it’s going to be two hours. In the edit, you may discover it’s better at ninety minutes (most movies are). No-one really cares about the final running time because that money has been spent, and the cinema chains aren’t bothered if the movie runs at 87 minutes or 140 minutes. (The movie that is 87 minutes will probably be better, especially if it’s a comedy. Yes, I know, The Godfather blah blah blah.).

In TV, you have a slot to fill and you have to deliver the show to the right length, not just once but six, ten or 24 times over. And you can't afford to over shoot by ten minutes 24 times. That's four hours of television that's going in the bin without seeing the light of day.

Mistake 4: You’re writing a panel game, not a sitcom.

It’s not just about time and money (although there’s never enough of either, especially in a studio sitcom which I write about here, here and here). The other issue is storytelling. If you're writing and shooting long, your episode won’t make sense at 28 minutes. If the show is plotted properly the show should almost be uneditable as stories relate to each other, running jokes are established and the final third pays of the first two acts of set-up. You’re only recording 32 minutes if you’re filming in front of an audience. Maybe 34 if you’re shooting single camera. It has to be tight. Ask Jerry Seinfeld.

Remember, you’re trying to write a sitcom, not a panel game. You need to tell a story with a beginning and a middle and end. Get on with it. Be clear about who the story is about and what their goals are. The jokes then come as a result of that.

The mistake that is often made is that the first ten pages of a script are filled with jokes – essentially banter – and no story or character. This won’t do. Jokes without a context don’t really sustain or build momentum. You only need one joke that misfires and the atmosphere dips and the audience (and cast if you get that far) start to panic. Essentially, we’ve all looked down and seen we’ve run out of bridge and we’re all standing on thin air. We will fall to the ground like Wile E Coyote.

Make sure your characters have quests and attitudes, and trust that the comedy will come from that, rather than a string of one-liners and zingers, that often feel like they’re borrowed from other sitcoms anyway. (Side note, if you see any of the lines from your script on this list, delete and replace at once).

Next time, Mistake 5.


Have you written a sitcom script? Would you like me to have a look and give you some notes? That can be arranged.

Or 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.

Monday 3 December 2018

5 Mistakes In The First Ten Pages Of Your Sitcom Script: Mistake 3

This blogpost is now also a YouTube Video:

In a sitcom script, especially the pilot, you’re trying to focus the audience’s attention on your lead characters. We don’t want the audience worrying about who the story is really about. Of course, if you call the show Miranda, and there’s a character called Miranda, then the name of the show and opening titles are doing a lot of heavily lifting for you. Same goes for Veep or My Name is Earl. It’s about the Vice President. Go it. It’s about Earl. Right.

So far, so clear. But even here it’s easy to slip up as you make mistake number 3 where it turns out that:

You’re Basically Writing A CV, Not a Sitcom

The temptation is always to focus on who the main characters are, where they are and where they have come from. Some of that detail is useful. But it’s a lot less important and compelling than who they want to be and where they want to go. The desires and dreams of your characters will probably tell you a lot more about their personality than their past. And their present situation will be obvious to see from their surroundings and their status clear from the way people interact with them.

If your character is a wannabe philosopher-poet, great. Let’s see them trying it out, and let’s see their flat or the work colleagues demonstrate how likely that goal is to be attained. Maybe they already think they are a philosopher-poet and the world is all wrong. Even better. What we don’t need to know is what GCSEs they got and what they’ve been doing for the last ten years, unless it’s strictly relevant to the plot going forward.

What did Captain Blackadder do before he ended up in the trenches of World War 1? We hear one tale of how he saved the future Field Marshall at the Battle of Mboto Gorge, but that’s about it. How did Alan B’Stard come into being? We don’t really care. We just know that he exists, that he rings true and that he is only interested in using the fig leaf of Thatcherism to promote himself.

Why is Edina a grown-up child? What as the Vicar of Dibley doing before she was even allowed to be a vicar? Why is Father Ted on Craggy Island? Who knows? Maybe we find out in Series 4 when writers are casting around for anything to spark a new plot. But what we don’t need is some sort of list of achievements (and failures) of the characters up until the time we're encountering them.

Your character needs a goal. We don’t need to know where they’ve come from, just where they’re going. Or at least, where they’re truly longing to be. Everything they do and say will be subsumed by that uber-goal. All their mini quests are taking steps along that road, even though they always end up back at the beginning.

So we’re not writing a Movie, a Murder Mystery or a CV. You’re writing a sitcom. So here’s something else to bear in mind:

Is it funny? If not, be funny!

But there a pitfalls to that. Welcome to the fourth way of falling off the horse. You’re galloping along, the horse pulls up and over you go. Not quite sure how that fits into this metaphor from the last two posts, but I just wanted to prove there are four sides you can fall off a horse. We’ll look at that in the next post.

Details on my new forthcoming video series are coming soon, but why not get hold of my free handy download called 7 Ways To Improve Your Sitcom Script Right Now?