Thursday 22 April 2021

How Sitcom Success Breeds Success

In the last post, I argued that the lack of mainstream rating-grabbing sitcoms is not because of lack of talent. There are dozens of writers capable of writing a successful mainstream sitcom. But they are currently working in Hollywood, writing literary fiction, whodunnits, children’s books, TV dramas or script editing.

There are, of course, a few shows by British writers that are available to watch in the UK, like the delightful and poignant Trying by Andy Wolton, a half-hour comedy on Apple TV that looks a lot like a sitcom. It's a show that could easily sit on BBC1 at 9pm. Why isn’t it?

One pragmatic reason: Scheduling.

Schedulers have an awful lot of power. Listen to Ep 144 of Sitcom Geeks in which Anil Gupte explains how ‘The Office’ came to be on BBC2. You will hear that the reaction of a scheduler was crucial to proceedings.

But you don’t need to be a scheduler to understand this: If you’ve got a half hour sitcom, you’re going to need another one half an hour later. Or least a TV show that lasts half an hour.

TV, these days, last an hour. A while back, I posed the question about the difference between a sitcom and a comedy-drama. One answer could be ‘about half an hour’.

So - and you might need to sit down for this - why not have two sitcoms back-to-back?

From where we are, this is crazy talk. But we could get there. In fact, we need to get there because success breeds success.

But there’s no need to have two sitcoms when you have panel games. Would I Lie To You? – a real funny treat of a show –  or a rerun of Have I Got News For You? can plug any half hour gap created by an incredibly rare pre-watershed sitcom like Ghosts.

Safety First

A new show might stink. So launching a show involves some pre-emptive damage limitation. When it came to launching a show like Ghosts, a scheduler had to think about what the British public would make of a mainstream sitcom by the original actors for the right-lauded Horrible Histories CBBC series? You put something tried and tested before and after. That’s basic common sense.

There is another tried and tested way of launching a new sitcom that the US networks have done for decades. You launch it right after a tried and tested sitcom that everyone loves. Long-running shows like Cheers were used to introduce a new show straight afterwards. Of course, to do that you need a show like Cheers. This is easier said than done.

So how do you get a long-running mainstream sitcom like Cheers? With other sitcoms. Like Cheers. I realise how this sounds. But stick with me.

New writers and bright young things join the staff of an existing show like Cheers, learn the ropes and get experience. (Like introducing new players into a winning sports team). Look at the credits of these big shows and see how the names move around. Even in the UK, look at the writers for The Thick of It when it started out on BBC4, and how they have moved to other shows like Veep and now Succession.

(Except, of course, those shows aren’t on BBC4 – which is no longer making original programmes, despite having the best track record in sitcoms of any TV channel in British history. And those shows aren’t on BBC2 or BBC1.)


I was very fortunate to receive some sort of sitcom apprenticeship. I wrote a sitcom for BBC Radio 4 called Think The Unthinkable, where I met Paul Mayhew-Archer, who put me forward to write episodes of mainstream studio sitcoms My Hero and My Family.

Then after another show on BBC Radio 4 called Hut 33, I was able to help write Miranda for to BBC Radio 2, and then BBC2, and then BBC1, for which I also co-wrote a couple of episodes of Citizen Khan a few years ago.

In 2021, for someone still up for pitching mainstream sitcoms, my CV and experience is relatively unusual, mostly because there just aren’t many mainstreams shows on which to find your feet, cut your teeth or write a script.

The mainstream shows which do tend to make it on air run for six episodes rather than eight, ten or twelve. Most of the work will be done by the show creator who, let’s be honest, needs to make the most of that rare opportunity. And those with experienced garnered over the previous ten or twenty years will look elsewhere for work, and we see that’s been the case.

My point is this. Success breeds success.

Mainstream sitcoms led to further mainstream sitcoms, not just in terms of giving experience to newer writers, but also creating confidence for controllers to commission new shows to be launched by established writers. And for schedulers to find a home for them. That's how you get a Cheers from which to launch another Cheers.

Getting on a Roll

So Esmonde and Larbey could write The Good Life, and go on to give us Ever Decreasing Circles and Brushstrokes – and Larbey could write A Fine Romance and As Time Goes By.

Likewise, Carla Lane, who wrote The Liver Birds and Butterflies, could be given a primetime slot on May 1st 1986, for her new show Bread which peaked two years later with an audience of 21 million viewers.

Yes. 21 million viewers.

The UK population was 55million. So 21 million  is quite a lot isn’t it?

It’s proportionally a lot more than the 9.5m watching Line of Duty live, and on catch-up and on binge-watching a few years later. Look at the figures. Outside of live sport, the biggest mainstream TV audiences are for comedy.

Right now, there isn't much success to breed more success in terms of mainstream sitcoms. But as I argued in the last post, the experience and success is there. One of the men who wrote two of our truly great sitcoms, Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley, is now writing romantic comedies for the big screen. Others like him are developing new shows for HBO or streaming services. Or Apple TV.

Have we asked them to write some shows for BBC1? Do we make it worth their while trying? Do they feel they have a reasonable chance of success, or at least not wasting their time if they do try?

Sitcoms can deliver huge numbers when you get them right. And the only way to do that is to try. Can we try trying?

Times change, but some things remain the same. People like watching TV. They like a good story. And they like laughing. Sitcoms have consistently delivered delight for decades and will go on doing so.

If you want to write a sitcom, you might struggle to get it on BBC1, but you are fundamentally not wasting yout time. But it’s a long road ahead. It’s hard work. And you need to write a pilot script. There’s no way around that but I can help you there.

I’ve broken down the process into twelve steps and put it into a video course called Writing Your Sitcom, which takes you through twelve steps to writing your sitcom script, plus a monthly Zoom chat with me. There's 25% discount code MAYDAY21 valid until end of Bank Holiday Monday 3rd May 2021.

You can find out more info on the course here:

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