Thursday 14 January 2021

Reinventing The Sitcom

It’s tempting to try and reinvent the sitcom.

You are welcome to try. Far be it from me to stop you.

Writing a ‘traditional’ sitcom is already hard enough so trying to reinvent this genre is going to be even harder. But it might not feel like you have any choice. How else can you make your script stand out? Everyone's a writer. There are new platforms, and lots of money sloshing around. One way to break through could be to come up with a sitcom that isn’t a sitcom, or is a new kind of sitcom.

Maybe. But probably not.


In episode 153 of the Sitcomgeek podcast, Dave Cohen and I spoke to Jasper Rees who wrote a brilliant biography of Victoria Wood, Let's Do It. It’s easy to forget that Victoria Wood – among her many successes – wrote and starred in a sitcom called dinnerladies. On 30th Dec 1999, this show drew in an audience of 15 million. That’s a lot. This must surely make it broad, safe and mainstream?

Watch it again and you’ll see it’s far more subversive and edgy than it looks. And very rude. And dinnerladies has a lower case ‘d’ so something’s going on.

Jasper Rees says that the moment Victoria Wood saw The Royle Family, she wished she had done everything differently. It felt like the world had changed with this low-key, less-is-more kind of show from Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash.

Artistically, the look and format and tone of a show like The Royle Family can be really exciting, but if you scratch beneath the surface, you normally find that the story and narrative and jeopardy are very traditional. You still have a main plot and a sub plot with a quest and obstacles along the way, but the goals are smaller and more subtle. The pace is slower. Maybe the dialogue is more naturalistic. There’s no laugh track. But the principles are the same.

The Royle Family paved the way for The Office and then The Smoking Room, Him and Her, Early Doors and Roger and Val Have Just Got In. A very modern-day legacy of those shows would be This Country which has done very well in the UK.

But there’s a danger here.

Characters Looking for a Story

I often read scripts by new writers who are going for this low-key approach. But rather than go down the ‘less is more’ route, the script is just less. They write scenes were people are just talking. And talking. There are long scenes with no actual drama. Which means there's little comedy either.

The only clear quest on display is the characters in search of a story.

You need a story.

That story needs a beginning, a middle, some escalation, short-term victory, defeat, disaster and then some bitter sweet triumph.

You don’t need to do all this in an overlit-studio-sitcom-style like Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em where everything comes crashing down. But the story is key. Those more subtle sitcoms that look like comedy dramas, have every bit as solid and compelling a story as the more traditional hits.

The Tarantino Mistake

Quentin Tarantino has something to answer for here. He inspired writers to create scenes that are ‘Tarantino-esque’. One way his films felt so fresh was the occasionally ponderous realistic dialogue in movies where people are arguing over petty and mundane details.

It’s easy to miss that its assassins or villains doing that, so you get that comic juxtaposition there. The banality is mixed with the high drama, which creates the comedy.

Also, Tarantino is writing movies. He has two hours or more to play with. And if the movie just gets crazy long, he can slice it in half, like Kill Bill. You’re writing a sitcom. Not a movie. (Read this.)

If you like that ‘less is more’ style, you need to know that it’s not as easy as it looks. Study those shows that you like, and maybe read some Pinter plays which are low on action and big on subtlety and subtext.

The Mother of Reinvention

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel if you don’t feel that’s something you have to do. If you have a story, a situation and some characters you want to tell, and then do it by whatever means you think are necessary. If your script executes the story in a conventional but compelling way, it will stand out and do well.

No-one is asking you or anyone else to reinvent the genre. But if you can think of a different way of telling the story of you characters, with carefully timed flashbacks, or subtitles, or some other format, great. As long as it helps tell the story, rather than changing the format for the sake of it.

Dream On

Look at Dream On (1990-96), an early HBO show from the duo who went on to create Friends. Dream On made it to the UK on ‘edgy’ Channel 4 where I saw a distinctive format point. Okay, there were two. The first was a slightly shameful and pragmatic one: female nudity. (Discuss.) Being a cable show, it didn’t have to play by the rules of NBC and CBS. Although perhaps we could concede the point that this was an attempt to make the show more ‘adult’ as it also made use of profanity. This was to establish that it was different from the goofy mainstream fair on network television. This wasn’t The Cosby Show. This was about a divorcee who could never compete with his ex-wife’s new husband.

In a way, that ‘adult’ theme is a counterpoint to the stylistic format which is clips of old black and white movies that punctuate the narrative. That's the second distinctive format point. This is baked into the opening titles where we see the protagonist dumped in front of the TV as a child. He clearly drinks it all in. The implication is that the stuff we watched as kids really affects the way we think as adults.

The Lesson of Dream On

Figure out what your show is really about.

And then work out the best way of telling that story, or showing those characters or capturing that mood. You probably don’t need to change much to make it feel distinctive and original and it will appear you have reinvented the sitcom. In fact, you probably shouldn't. Innovation is normally what went before but with one single change, or extra ingredient.

Not everyone is going to thank you for doing this. Or tune in, stream, download or whatever people do now. At the time lot of people didn’t like The Royle Family, which they thought was slow and boring. I remember watching a Royle Family Christmas Special with my parents one year. They were baffled by it and couldn’t understand why it was billed as a comedy. Given it ended with the dad (Ricky Tomlinson) crying his eyes out in the bathroom, I could see their point.

So maybe it’s for the best that Victoria Wood didn’t give us the low-key, less-is-more dinnerladies. But knowing her, she probably would have made it work.

Getting Your Story Straight

If you want to build your own sitcom, you really need to get the story right and know what the show is about. That is emphasis of my sitcom video course, Writing Your Sitcom. Spec scripts are almost always deficient in the storytelling, and if you can get that right, your script really will stand out from the huge pile of other scripts. Why not find out more about the course here?

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