Wednesday 28 July 2021

How to Write A Sitcom Like a Pro

The problem with a sitcom script is that it looks easy. It’s just words on a page. Anyone can type and hit print or send. It’s not technically difficult.

And a good script by a seasoned pro and a bad script by a rookie look the same. Superficially.

The two documents are virtually identical. Except for the words.

Moreover, the act of typing isn’t hard. Your 30 page script is probably 5000 words. That’s about two hours of typing.

But you’re not typing. You’re writing.

You can’t write without typing. But some writing, plenty of writing, maybe up to 95% of the internet, is just typing. Not writing.

Without wishing to toot my own horn too much, I’m a fairly seasoned sitcom writer. I’ve written a lot of sitcom scripts. So how do I do it?

So what’s the secret?

We’ll get to that in a moment. But let’s just reflect on the craft of writing a sitcom.

In many ways, it is no different from being one those artisans you see on The Repair Shop. A host of professionals restore leather bags, mend clocks, re-upholster chairs and fix cabinets.

Each craftsperson has decades of experience but what comes through strongly on the dozens of episodes of that show I have watched is this: they respect the process. They know that if something needs to be done properly, it needs to be taken apart, stripped back, cleaned with the right fluid, repaired, re-sprayed, oiled and re-assembled. That takes time.

New component parts may need to be made from scratch. That takes time.

Glue needs to be allowed to fully dry. That takes time.

Quite often they spend a fair amount of time unpicking someone else’s botched attempts at repairs. That’s how you and I repair things. We normally can’t be bothered to dismantle things and clean them properly. We don’t wait for the glue to dry, or for the paint to be ready for the next coat. We don’t like sanding down or doing the preparatory work. We just want to get on with it.

The professional knows the secret: there aren’t any short cuts. Respect the process.

The Script Process

It’s the same with writing a really good sitcom script. The thirty pages that you end up with and send out are just the visible tip of an iceberg of work. It’s probably a fourth draft, not a first.

That first draft was written from a carefully worked out ‘Scene by Scene Outline’, which in turn was the result of a ‘Beat sheet’, where the story is laid out in a series of beats or moments or twists, as the characters moderate their quest in the light of setbacks and other characters.

The characters themselves come from hours and hours of work and thought, and experimentation with plots and stories that are the results of more hours of work.

All of the above takes time. And a process. And a plan.

Why not take a day to get your head around it all? How about Nov 4th?

I'll be running an all-day webinar, Write a Sitcom In A Day. Which you obviously can’t do. But the idea behind the day is help you understand the process and make a plan so you can get a script written. Not typed. Written. Well. Wanna join me?

It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions. Book details and course info here.

Thursday 22 July 2021

Writing Sitcoms: Hard Work vs Frustration

Your sitcom characters can normally be described using adjectives. In general, you need to think of actions they can take so you are showing us, not telling us. But let’s stick with the adjectives for now. So here’s an exercise for the sitcom characters in your spec pilot script:

Try to think of how the characters see themselves and describe them accordingly:

Here are four characters by way of example.

Sally is super-organised.

John is intellectually curious. 

Isha is big-hearted.

Gordon is a maverick.

That’s how they see themselves. But other characters in your sitcom see them slightly differently.

Try seeing it from their point of view:

Sally sees herself super-organised. John thinks Sally is a control-freak.

John sees himself as intellectually curious. Sally thinks John has zero attention span.

But how characters see each other partly depends on the characters’ own specific flaws and personality.

So push your characters one stage further.

John sees himself as intellectually curious.

Super-organised Sally thinks John is no attention span.

Big-hearted Isha reckons John always has time for people and is a good listener.

Maverick Gordon knows that John is a coward who can’t commit to a single viewpoint and stick to it.

Similarly, Gordon thinks Isha is a pushover. And John thinks Gordon is a fascinating case study in arrogance. You get the idea. Go around your characters working out how they see each other. As you do that, you will see that a handful of characters and characteristics, and some shades of meaning, creating a web of complexity – and comedy – very quickly.

Sitcom Frustration

In the last blogpost, I explained that writing a pilot sitcom script is really hard work. I also used the word ‘frustrating’. What’s the difference between ‘hard work’ and ‘frustrating’? (Not a joke)

If you’re reading a blog like this, you instinctively know that there is a difference, just as there’s a difference between ‘hard-working’ and ‘laborious’ and ‘diligent’ and ‘fastidious’. (You character prides herself on her diligence. Another character would call her fastidious. Another might say she's got OCD.)

Not all hard work is frustrating. There are irritations that aren’t hard work, but are nonetheless frustrating. And some hard work is just plain satisfying.

So what’s the difference?


If something is hard work, you can make a plan to get through the work. It will only get frustrating if you’ve not left yourself as much time as you needed to get through the work or you encounter roadblocks along the way. Frustration here, then, is unexpected work.

The frustration intensifies when you realise you should have seen this coming. Or that you did see this coming but were in denial about it. Frustration can morph into rage, self-loathing and despair rather quickly.

Here are two solutions:

1. Give up. Walk away. Control+Alt+Delete.

2. Adjust your expectations.

Digging the Turf

The other day, I took up some turf on my lawn so we could have a flower bed. I watched YouTube videos to learn how and discovered it wasn’t technically difficult, but just required a lot of hard work. How much? It was hard to say. Once I’d started with my spade (see pic), I realised this might be even harder work than I had thought, and I very quickly adjusted my expectations. I realised this would take all day.

But once I got into a rhythm, I realised I could get it all done by lunchtime, if I pushed lunch back an hour. I did. And I enjoyed my lunch. The work was hard. Expectations had been adjusted. Frustration was low.

Expectation of the process, then, is key.

It's the same in sitcom writing.


So 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 20 July 2021

Climbing The Sitcom Script Mountain

In the last post, we established that writing a spec pilot script is really hard. Why? Because you’re trying to do two very hard things at the same time, from a standing start.

Why am I going on about how hard it is?

We need to be honest about the difficulty ahead in writing a script. If you underestimate the mountain you are about to climb, you won’t even make it to base camp, let alone the summit.

Worse, you might start climbing and the fog descends, the weather closes in and suddenly it’s gone from difficult to treacherous. You’re not going to stroll up a mountain.

But it’s worth the climb. The view from up there is incredible.

The feeling you get from having written a script that you know you’ve given everything is great, even though you know it’s not perfect and could be better. That’s partly why I like studio comedy so much. You hear the audience laugh. In the room. It’s a rush of vindication.

There are few scripts I’m really proud of. Like the first episode of Bluestone 42 where we got that show up and running with jokes. And Episode 1 of Series Three is up there as well where the team are pinned down and think they're going to die. It was our take on the classic 'bottle' episode. There is another script that matters to me, which is a play about science and religion called The God Particle. It’s never been on TV or Radio and probably never will (and you can stream it here). I’m really proud of it. But this is a rare feeling.

If you want to write a script that you’re proud of, it’s going to take work and planning.

It will mean working on the script when you don’t feel like it, and spending time on parts of the process that you find boring, annoying, frustrating or well outside your comfort zone.

There’s a process to it and if you skip a step, you tend to regret it later and unpicking it takes longer.

Need a hand?

If you need a hand with that process, spend the day with me on a webinar called Write a Sitcom In A Day. You obviously can’t write a sitcom in a day. But you can spend a day getting your head around the climb head, working out what you need to do, and when to do it by, so you can get to the top before the weather closes and you disappear into a cloud of frustration and despair. Join me on 30th August or 3rd September (9.30am til 5.30pm) to find out what the key steps are and how to make a plan to get that script written. And for that script to be one you are proud of. It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions. Details here.

Thursday 15 July 2021

Why is writing a Pilot Sitcom Script SO INCREDIBLY HARD?

Writing a sitcom script is really hard.

There’s so much to think about. Situation. Characters. Plot. Pace. Oh, and jokes.

Writing a ‘spec’ pilot sitcom script is even harder. Why? It helps to know, so you can be ready for the long road ahead.

To find an answer to that, we need to understand that in writing a ‘spec’ pilot sitcom script, you have to do two very hard things, rather than just one very hard thing.

Wait, wait. You keep using that word ‘spec’? What is a ‘spec’ script?

A ‘spec’ script is a script that has been written ‘spec-ulatively’. That is, in the hope that it will lead to something. No-one has asked you to write this script. You’re not being paid to write it. You are speculating with your time and effort.

But if you’re wanting to get into writing sitcoms, you’ll find that pretty much no-one is going to commission you to write a script off the back of an idea, no matter how good or original you think it is. You won't get commissioned unless you’ve got a decent track record. Heck, I’ve got a decent-ish track record (Miranda, Bluestone 42, My Family, My Hero, Citizen Khan) and people like me are having to write ‘spec’ scripts. (The reason why is one for another time.)

The reality is that you need to show your sitcom intent by writing a ‘spec’ script. This script demonstrates your skills and talent, proving that you’re ready to be hired for an existing show or commissioned to write five more of your show.

And here we come to the two parts of writing a ‘spec’ pilot script, which I will come to in a moment. But it’s worth looking back to how this used to work and this, I think, will make the point.

What was a ‘spec’ script?

In the USA, at least, it used to be standard procedure to demonstrate your skills as a sitcom writer by writing an episode of an existing show. So you might write an ‘spec’ episode of Seinfeld or Frasier.

Let’s say you write a 'spec' Seinfeld episode in which Kramer (and Newman) persuades Jerry to do  ventriloquist act on a kids TV show, which he would obviously hate, while George and Elaine are having some feud over a recipe for apple sauce.

The aim for writing this Seinfeld was not so that you could send it to Larry David in the hope that they will just buy your script off you, shower you with money and residuals, and make the episode, and invite you to be a regular writer.

No, the aim of that script was to demonstrate to the showrunner of a new sitcom in development looking for writers that you can work with existing characters and find original, interesting funny stories and execute them in a script.

Don’t forget that in the 70s and 80s, there were only a handful of TV networks making original sitcoms and a dozen or so successful sitcoms were actually on those networks. The cable channels were then buying them in batches and repeating them, not making original shows of their own. New shows were being created and piloted – and cancelled – every year, unlike today when there are full series of literally hundreds of scripted shows being made right now.

Back then, your way into the industry, and the best chance of getting work as a sitcom writer, was to write episodes of an existing show, which is really hard. But once you’d done that for a few years, you might get a development deal where you could pitch a new show that you had created. Which is really really hard.

The ‘Spec’ and The 'Pilot’

So here are the two parts of sitcom writing separated out. Let’s spell them out

Part 1 – Writing a Sitcom Episode

This means taking tried and tested characters in a situation people have already decided they like, be it field hospital in the Korean War or a bar in Boston - and giving them new, interesting, funny things to do in way that is fresh but familiar. That’s hard – but write a 'spec', get hired to be in a room of writers for a few years, get really good it and then you’re ready for Part 2.

Part 2 – Coming up with a Brand New Sitcom

This means creating new characters in a new situation – or a familiar situation (see? There’s one variable straight away) – that hasn’t yet found an audience. This is really really hard. And in order prove the concept of your new show, you need to write a 'Pilot' script which is the first episode. It introduces all of the characters and themes in one perfect little story with a beginning, middle and end.

Here’s the difference between Parts 1 and 2.

Part 1 is baking an excellent cake with good branded ingredients you’ve been handed.

Part 2 is baking an original but kind of familiar cake with ingredients that you’ve found, grown yourself or produced that may or may not turn out to be flour, eggs, sugar, butter and whatever else you decide to throw in because, hey, it’s 2021. You put it in the oven and hope for the best.

Except For Writers in the UK

‘Spec’ scripts never really caught on in the UK. There was never a call for them. If you wrote a ‘spec’ script of My Family, that probably wouldn’t open any doors for you, with the possible exception of working on My Family. I was hired to write an episode of My Family because I'd got a sitcom on BBC Radio 4 called Think The Unthinkable in which I'd miraculously pulled off the trick of writing a Spec Pilot Script that went to series. And it did okay. And I pitched enough ideas that they liked and commissioned one of them.

In the past, there were only a few channels buying a sitcoms and a few production companies making them, like Hattrick, Talkback and Tiger Aspect along with BBC in-house production. There was, and probably still is, some nurturing of fledgling talent in big companies like that but things are very different now. There is a still a demand for sitcoms, or comedy narrative, but where is that talent coming from? It’s not really clear, especially if you don’t want to make and appear in YouTube videos or Edinburgh fringe shows. 

So what does a writer need do if they want to get into writing sitcoms?

Bad news: Write a spec pilot script.

Yes, you need to do two those incredibly hard things right out of the gate.

You have to somehow acquire and master the craft of writing sitcom episodes, which is hard enough, and also conceive of a brand new sitcom, which is harder still. And blend them together in your smoking hot, funny, fresh pilot script. All on your own time. It's a 'spec'.

So, is it worth it?

Well, that’s entirely up to you. For me, I couldn’t bear the idea of not writing sitcoms, since that was pretty much all I ever wanted to do. Even when I was applying for jobs in advertising over twenty years ago, it was obvious that this was just a way of writing comedy on TV, and a means to an end.

What about for you?

Is this something you really want to do? If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing that it is.

In which case, good news: I can help.

There’s a lot to do, but it can be done. And has been. And will be. People are doing it all the time. You could give it a go. I blagged my way into this industry with despite being a farmer’s son with no contacts, failing to get into Cambridge (where all the comedians go) twice, and getting a degree in Theology from the University of Durham. I just loved comedy and wanted to write it.

Get Help

So I’m running a day-long webinar called Write A Sitcom In A Day. You obviously can’t write a sitcom in a day.

But you can spend a day finding out how, getting your head around it, and, crucially, making a plan to get a script written. It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions. Details here.