Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Finding A Character's Unique Voice

In the last post, I gave some general advice on polishing up your script so that it's ready to send off and out and away. In this post, I'm just looking to expand one of those points with a really good clear example that cropped up when some of us were talking about sitcoms over on the Sitcom Geeks Facebook page. Here's what I wrote:

4. Check That Each Character Has A Unique Voice
Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear and distinct? This will not only make the script more interesting, but will make it easier for the reader to distinguish the characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. Only that one character would say that thing that way, or make that joke. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Eddie and Richie in Bottom don't talk the same way. Nor do Blackadder and Baldrick, or Edina and Sapphie. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

This is hard to do and has to be informed by character, but once you hear the characters talking in your head, you know you're onto something. If it's hard to generate those cadences, imagine a famous actor in the role - it's not cheating. In fact, it might help you fill out the corners or find something new. Or imagine a relative that this character reminds you of and is possibly based on. When I interviewed Eric Chappell for the latest Sitcom Geeks podcast, he was quite clear that Rigsby was based on one particular colleague. Make the most of that.

And here's the example that cropped up on yesterday that made me think of this and a really clear example of what's possible: The speech patterns of Tom Chance (Simon Callow) from Chance in a Million which have stayed with me for decades. The way he talks is simply extraordinary. See below. Never uses pronouns, articles or prepositions unless absolutely vital. Talks in bullet points. No idea why. Just the way it is. Something like that could work too. Didn't mean that Chance in a Million ran for years, but still remember Chance decades later. And that's something.

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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.

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



Here's an episode where it shouldn't be - on YouTube - but makes the point. Get the Chance In A Million - The Complete Series [DVD] Boxed Set here.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Polishing Your Script

Deadlines are like bees. Right up close and in large numbers, they’re horrendous. But from a distance, and overall, they produce good things. If you’re an aspiring scriptwriter, there’s a deadline looming. The BBC Writersroom is accepting unsolicited scripts between now and 15th May 2017. That means a human being will actually read your script. Or at least ten pages of it.

Do you have script? Is it ready to send? Really? I bet it isn’t. Put your hand on your heart and tell me your script is perfect. Of course it isn’t. But that’s okay. You’ve got a bit of time to make it better. Here are some obvious ways of doing that (and you’d be surprised how many people don’t do these things). I wrote a list like this a couple of years ago but I’d like to expand it a little, having read quite a lot of first ten pages in the Sitcom Geeks podcast I do with Dave Cohen.

Let’s say you’ve written a script. You’re happy with it. You’re aware that it’s not perfect, but you’ve taken it as far as it can. Here are some notes I can give you on the script without having read it.

1. Start Your Story Earlier

In almost every single spec sitcom script I read, this is the biggest problem. The script introduces us to a bunch of characters and they talk. And talk. And talk. For about 4-8 pages. There is some backstory. There is setting. There is scenery. Maybe some jokes. There is more talking. Then on page 9, something happens. Someone sets out on a quest (if you’re lucky) but by then nearly a third of the show has gone and I'm a bit bored.

Story is character. Yeah, Rob. We know.
The usual response I get to that is ‘Yes, but I’m setting the scene and introducing the characters’. *takes off glasses* *pinches nose* Yes. I know that. And that is all you are doing. Do more. You don’t just introduce characters by having them talk to or at each other. You reveal character by action. Character is story. That’s the £500 take-home from a Robert McKee weekend. The choices a character makes, the things they want, the goals they go after reveal a character every bit as much as dialogue, if not more. In fact, characters often say one thing but do another. Because they’re delusional. Just like us.

Your first ten pages are not Act 1 of a movie in which you’re trying to establish normality for 10-20 minutes where everything is normal, normal, normal before your hero goes on a quest, finds a dead body, discovers she is a robot, is visited by a time-travelling gecko or is transported back to the Paleolithic period. Sitcom is all Act 2. No real set up. No permanent resolution.

Start your story early. Really early. Your character should be declared banktupt on Page 2 or 1. Not page 9. Your heroine should decide to sail around the world at the start, not after a long discussion with several other people.

Grab the reader’s attention early on. They are reading at least ten other scripts that day. Maybe twenty. Or more. Make stuff happen. If it’s the right stuff, it will show and develop the characters.

2. Introduce Your Characters Faster

A character who wanders into a scene or is sitting drinking tea might take a whole page to tease out. If you have five or six characters, that’s five or six pages of teasing. Make that first impression work harder.

What do they say that gives the reader a clear idea about who this character is and why they are funny? That first action or line for each character is crucial. It should really sum up who they are. If they are a pedant, their first line should be pendantic. If they’re needy, their first line should be clearly seeking approval. Set the tone from the very first line.

When we first meet Janet or Simon, what are they doing? What are they wearing? What are they carrying? Are they making themselves tea? Or are they adding sugar to an energy drink because they have to stay up all-night to do something important. Are they wearing jeans and a T-shirt, or are they only half dressed, or in overalls for some useful reason? Do they start tapping on their smart phone, or do they carry round a list of people who have wronged them?

In the first episode of Friends, Rachel Green turns up in a wedding dress. Bang. You’re away.

3. But Don’t Introduce Them All At Once

With stronger first impressions and more action you can set up your characters faster, but don’t set them up all at once. I’ve read quite a lot of eight pages opening scenes with 6-8 characters, at least three of whom have a name that begins with the same letter. There’s a Steve, a Simon, a Mary, a Mick, a Peter and Jeff. Boring names that meld into one. Have a Steve, sure, but have a Felix too. Have a Mary but also a Persephone or a Serenity.

And don’t have them all in the one scene, unless you make it very easy to follow. Start the show with two or three characters. Get them going. Then introduce a fourth. And a fifth. A script which only has three or four characters in the first ten pages is a lot easier to read and enjoy than one with nine or ten. You may be stuck with ten characters (like we were in Bluestone 42) but be careful and clear about how you introduce your characters to your reader.

If you have to have lots in one scene, make it clear who the important characters and have them drive or dominate that scene so it is clear who is going to be in that whole episode so the reader/audience is not worried about where the action is, or is going to be.

4. Check That Each Character Has A Unique Voice

Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear and distinct? This will not only make the script more interesting, but will make it easier for the reader to distinguish the characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. Only that one character would say that thing that way, or make that joke. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Eddie and Richie in Bottom don't talk the same way. Nor do Blackadder and Baldrick, or Edina and Sapphie. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

5. Look Very Closely At The First Few Pages

Let's be realistic. A reader is going to make up their mind about your script by the end of page 2. If your first two pages are badly spelled waffle, you're going to struggle to make any kind of impact with the remaining thirty pages. You first two or three pages are critical. Focus extra time and attention on those.

6. Be Brutal About Action Lines

People, even professionals, do not read action lines and direction properly. They skim them, if they even look at them. That's just a fact. Nothing is more depressing to read at the opening of a new script is lines and lines of action, scenery and more action – unless it’s very dramatic, or striking, or clearly laid out. Keep the action as simple as possible and don’t try and direct too much on the page, especially when the fine detail doesn’t matter at this stage.

7. Clarity

There's so much to do on those first few pages, but you're making life difficult for the reader if it's not crystal clear what's going on. Is the situation clear? Where are they? Who is there and what are they trying to achieve? Having lots of action lines is not the solution to this (see above) and often just creates confusion, so agonise over action as much as dialogue in terms of brevity and clarity.

You're writing sitcom. Not suspense.
There is often temptation to create some mystery or suspense. That’s not comedy. That’s suspense. You are writing a comedy. This is a sitcom script. Clarity is your friend. I'd recommend announcing your comedy themes with a blunderbuss, rather than a cloak and dagger.

8. Tighten It Up

Can every single line in the script justify its place? Delete any line that isn't character, action or a joke. Every line in fact. There's no room for 'meh' lines. Or filler. Or wit. Or turn a character line into a joke. Or action. Or a joke into something that drives the story along.

Look at each scene and ask whether it could be shorter. It probably could. Could you come in later? Could you cut earlier? Do you need every line? Are you repeating information? Almost every script can be shorter. Make yours shorter, tighter, leaner and meaner. A funny 28 pages is way more appealing than a baggy 36 pages.

9. Check For Typos

Are there typos all over the place? Or one or two still lurking around? Typos are reelly annnoying. And very easily avoided if You just put in a bit of extra tim. Get a fiend to read it. I find it really hard to see typos in my own writing (as this blog regularly demonstrates), so get someone else to check it over.

10. Check for, er, Jokes?

Are there enough jokes? Again, it's a sitcom script so are you trying to make the reader laugh at least three times per page? You really should be aiming for that. I know the current vogue is to have nuanced and noodly comedy drama, but given that it is a comedy, veer on the side of jokes.

Is there any way of turning half-jokes into proper jokes?  Are you making the most of each funny moment? If you've done the hard work of getting your characters into funny situations, make sure you maximise the funny when you're there. Or if it's only a half-joke and it can't be turned into a whole joke, delete it.


Go through the script a few times with all of these in mind. Maybe take a pass for tightness. And again for jokes. And again for typos. And again for speech distinctiveness. It will take time, but you want your script to stand out, don't you? Sure, the basic idea is important, but that's a given. Your script needs to just be better than others.

It may be that the script starts to fall to pieces as you really scrutinise it. Your plot starts on page 12. You have a jumbling open scene and you're pulling on threads and it's all unravelling. You realise you need to start again. In which case, start again. That’s what writers do. If you want to be a writer, get into the habit of starting again.

Quite often you discover that it wasn’t quite a broken as you thought and new version comes together rather quickly – but it only does that when you’ve mentally let go of the previous version.
Then do all of the above again. Then send it. Forget about it. And start the next thing.

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Or you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here. People seem to like it 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

Monday, 17 April 2017

Advice to Writers

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to some university students about writing. Here's the gist of what I said.

1. Write because you want to

Writing is an end in itself. It is not a career, or a living, or a way of getting rich. Look at the numbers. How many people make a decent living out of screenwriting or novel writing for more than a few years?  In the UK, at least, we’re talking about hundreds, maybe dozens, rather than thousands. Sure, you could be one of them, but the road that destination is so long and so hard, you have to love writing so much that it was never about the money and always about the work, and the words on the page. Both in scripts and in life, money is a very bad motivation for anything. If you’re a writer, money is just one of things you need so that you can write. So focus on the writing, not the money or the career.

2. Writers must have a thick skin

If you want to be a writer, you will spend most of your time having your work criticised and critiqued. It may be notes from producers or execs or editors; it may be feedback from friends, or reviews in newspapers, blogs or on Amazon. If you cannot get used to this, writing is not for you. That said, if you’re immune to all kinds of criticism and advice that’s not a good thing either. Listen carefully to notes, advice and reviews, but it will hurt. The only thing that will get you through is a thick skin, and a desire to keep writing (see point 1).

3. Writers must be readers


Read books. Read good writing. Read bad writing. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Read scripts. Read writers you agree with, writers you can’t abide and writers you’ve never heard of. To improve as a writer – and you do need to improve as a writer – you need to be curious about writing and the world around you. If you read widely, you’ll be more interesting in your content and less derivative in your style. And it’s never been easier to get your hands on other people’s writing. The written word used to be precious. Not any more. (Make a note of that when considering how easy and cheap it will be to get hold of your work and the impact that will have on your income).

4. Write what you like

There’s never been more advice out there on how to be a writer, what to write, how to structure it and what to do with it when it’s written. Advice is plentiful. But you must find your own way with your own style and your own angle. You should be writing stuff that only you can write.  Write what you know if you like. But write what you love. Write what you want to read or experience.
Listen, learn, and improve, but stick to your guns. And the reason why is very depressing: Failure is almost certain. Whatever you write is so unlikely to be commissioned or published, let alone be a hit or a best seller that it’s essential that you fail on your own terms. Don’t die in someone else’s war. Die fighting for what you want to write. It was never about the money, or acclaim. It’s always been about the work. About the words. About the writing.

So if you’re a writer, write. Read. Then write some more.

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


"I've worked on sitcoms. I thought I knew about sitcoms. Then I read James's book and I realised I knew very little. Luckily, James knows everything. A must-read for writers, producers and everyone involved in comedy." Danny Stack, UK Scriptwriters

"Absolutely first class guide to writing sitcoms by a master of the art. Really honest and thorough, a guide that has made me think seriously about whether I want to do this (I do!) and then how on earth I go about it, with examples drawn from the world of sitcoms. Can't praise it highly enough." Sevilla

Thursday, 30 March 2017

All Work and No Play Makes Blogging Virtually Impossible

This blog has been dormant for a few weeks. I like to post something every week. But I don't manage that these days. Fortnightly is just about okay, but it's coming on for two months since my last post which, in my defence, was rather epic.

The reason for the lack of blogging is that I'm working on a stage show which premieres on Monday. It's called A Monk's Tale and it's about Martin Luther, celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses. Songs and sketches. It's labour intensive, and exhausting but a lot of fun. I've been relearning the importance of simplicity in comedy, which is trick when you're trying to explain Purgatory, penance, papal bulls and indulgences.

Writing scripts for TV and Radio is nice work if you can get it (and I can (at the moment)), but you can't beat doing your own show your own way in front of alive audience for a change. Instant feedback and reaction from an audience is a real tonic when you're spending two years developing a sitcom script that has never been read aloud by professional actors.

Any spare time I have normally goes into the Sitcom Geeks Podcast. A new episode just went up today, so if you're feeling deprived, listen to that. Or read some of the books we recommend in the latest episode. We also talk about this brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch (see below).

More blogs soon.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Ghost of Sitcom Future


Today is a sad day for lovers of situation comedy. Today is the day that Alan Simpson died. He was one half of the Galton and Simpson partnership that gave us Hancock and Steptoe & Son, studio sitcoms that dripped with character, pathos and jokes. When two of their scripts were remade last year – and shamefully hidden away on BBC4 – the actors may have been different, but the scripts still sparkled.

We can celebrate their achievements and look at their legacy, and it feels like we have many times over, but we can also look at the present and into the future and wonder where is the next Alan Simpson coming from? Where are the writers that will pen the next generation of sublime studio sitcoms?

As I hope to explain in this worryingly long article (which you may prefer as a pdf), my concern is this: almost all the pathways into mainstream studio sitcom for writers have been closed off or diminished. It is not at all clear how studio sitcoms will be produced in the future in any great quantity, despite the fact we live in a time where there have never been more production companies, TV Channels, development producers and script executives.

But before I explain the reasons as I see them, it’s worth asking why I continue to bang the drum for multi-camera studio sitcoms. You know the ones. Those filmed in front an audience where you hear the sound of human laughter. The ones that tend to get the largest viewing figures.

Like many people, I love studio sitcoms which is why I struggle against the overwhelming odds to try and write them. I believe there is plenty of life left in those over-lit pantomime contrivances because when they work, they convey a greater truth that transcends the genre. The truly great sitcoms like Hancock and Steptoe demonstrate that, as did the likes of Only Fools and Horses, Fawlty Towers and Porridge; brilliant comedy actors portraying superbly drawn characters, doing expertly crafted jokes, routines and set pieces.

No one is saying studio sitcoms are superior, or necessarily harder to write or make. And I don’t just like studio sitcoms. My favourite shows of all time include single-camera shows like Modern Family, Arrested Development and 30 Rock as well as studio shows like Seinfeld, Yes PrimeMinister and Red Dwarf.

The general trend over the last thirty years, however, has undoubtedly been towards single camera comedy which, I worry, is slowly killing off the studio sitcom.

Look at the BAFTA for Best Sitcom. Since 2000, it’s been won by only two studio sitcoms: Black Books in 2001 and 2005, and Mrs Brown’s Boys in 2012. Compare that with the winner of Best Comedy from 1990-99. Blackadder, New Statesman, One Foot in the Grave, Ab Fab, Drop the Dead Donkey, Father Ted, Only Fools and Horses, and I’m Alan Partridge. All shot in front of a studio audience (yes, even I’m Alan Partridge) and all the better for it.

The Popularity of Studio Sitcoms

Please forgive me while I labour this point since studio sitcoms are just so achingly uncool you might miss this, but despite the trend in the industry, audiences at home still really like studio audience sitcoms.

BBC1 knows this, wants them and likes to broadcast them. When they work they get ratings. The last series of Still Open All Hours averaged 6.3m. The current roster of BBC1 returning studio sitcoms also includes Not Going Out, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Count Arthur Strong and Citizen Khan. And ITV1’s studio sitcom big hitter is Birds of a Feather. And when sitcoms are really working, their Christmas special makes a cracking centrepiece in the TV yuletide offering. On Christmas Day 2016, even though Mrs Brown’s Boys on very late, it still did really well being the “second most popular festive programme” according to the Guardian with 9 million viewers, beating Strictly’s festive special. On that occasion, the Guardian spared us the lecture about why 9 million people were wrong to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Studio audience sitcoms can’t just be found on these mainstream channels. UK Gold is awash with repeats of audience comedy, currently showing Ab Fab, Bottom, Keeping up Appearances, My Family, The Vicar of Dibley and One Foot in the Grave – as well as a bootleg Gogglebox called We Have Been Watching in which you watch famous comedy actors watch sitcoms. Over on Dave you’ll see they’ve stumped up for original episodes of Red Dwarf shot in a studio like they used to.

Look at my Twitter feed most weeks and you’ll see that I take a snapshot (right) of Broadcast magazine’s ratings for all programmes on BBC2, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The best performing sitcom on those channels, almost without exception, is reruns of is Dad’s Army.

On the day of writing this blog, Channel 4’s schedule began like this: 6.45, 7.10 & 7.35 King of Queens; 8.00 & 8.30 Everybody Loves Raymond; 9.00, 9.30, 10.00 Frasier. That’s eight episodes of studio shows in a row on terrestrial TV. None British, sadly. For that you’ll need to go to E4 or More 4, where you’re rarely more than half an hour away from an episode of the majestic Father Ted or Black Books. Plus London Live shows a lot of Desmond’s.

Yes, I know. Still Open All Hours, Birds of a Feather, Red Dwarf, reruns of Dad’s Army, Frasier, Father Ted, Desmond’s are studio sitcoms for nostalgic old farts. They are comforting old shows that remind us of happier, more secure times (like the Cold War, the Miners’ Strike and 9/11).

Except younger people also like studio sitcoms. Loads of young people are discovering timeless classics like Blackadder on cable channels. Bear in mind that some weeks, the most popular sitcom on TV is Big Bang Theory on E4. In the UK at least, Comedy Central’s is mostly Friends, Two and a Half Men and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They are trying to wean themselves off those repeats with original shows many of which are filmed in front of an audience like I Live With Models which has just started its second series.

There is a desire for new studio sitcoms, but where are the writers of those new Comedy Central shows going to come from? Where are they going to find experienced young writers who even want to write studio comedy? (Believe me, I know the rates of pay, and for that money, they’re only going to get young writers.) And where will the Alan Simpsons of mainstream studio sitcoms come from?

But wait? Don’t we already have plenty still in service? In the words of Vizzini in  the Princess Bride, “You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you?” 

But no. Read on.

The Hunt for Studio Sitcom Writers

It is has been said many times in the last decade that decision-makers in the mainstream really want studio sitcoms. But it has also been said many times that they struggle to find new ones because they just don’t get the scripts. A few years ago, one comedy commissioner said that only about a tenth of the scripts they received were for studio shows. The rest (about 200 scripts) were all single camera shows. So where will these new studio sitcom scripts come from?

At the moment, these shows are drawing from a smaller and smaller pool of talent. Shows like Birds of a Feather, Red Dwarf, Still Open All Hours and the return of Porridge are being written by men who got tons of experience in the 70s, 80s and 90s, or reprising old shows or formats. Mrs Brown’s Boys was honed by Brendan O’Carroll in a live theatre context, as was Count Arthur Strong, which went via radio, and was then bolstered by the highly experienced Father Ted/Black Books writer, Graham Linehan.

Other writers in this small pool of talent have moved away from sitcom altogether. Richard Curtis is making movies and saving the world. The rest have moved into high-end, prestigious drama. The brilliant Steve Moffat (Coupling, Joking Apart) is running Doctor Who and Sherlock. The utter genius who wrote One Foot in the Grave, David Renwick, now writes comedy dramas like Jonathan Creek and Love Soup. The sitcom legend behind Men Behaving Badly, Simon Nye, is writing The Durrells.

Who can blame comedy writers for turning to drama? For a start, the money’s better, not least because you’re writing double-length scripts, and sometimes more than six at a time. Drama writers are also treated with greater respect than comedy writers who are regularly treated like errant children. We often hear producers and controllers and channels celebrating the wondrous Sally Wainwright, Russell T Davies and Jed Mercurio. Quite right too. They are also given the space to pursue a vision. In so doing, they garner great reviews from critics. Who wouldn’t want some of that?

Especially when these same critics lie in wait to stamp on any new studio sitcom, and ideally dance gleefully on its grave when it dies. Studio sitcom is a medium they ultimately despise. Whether it’s the sound of human laughter that is such kryptonite to them, or just the theatrical artifice of the genre is hard to say. But who would bother with a studio sitcom when you’ll only ever win begrudging respect from your industry? Or maybe you’ll get lucky and be described as a ‘guilty pleasure’ (as we had early on with Miranda, until eventually some people admitted to just liking it).

Blackwell, Roche & Iannucci. All British.
There are still other writers who could be writing 8.30pm BBC1 shows and are writing situation comedy. Except they’ve been writing and directing in America on Veep for decent money and critical Emmy-winning acclaim.

So there are dozens of people alive today with the ability and experience to write mainstream studio sitcoms. Why aren’t they? What is it about the process, or working conditions that means virtually all of them are doing something else?

And if they’re not going to be seduced back, where are the new studio sitcom writers going to come from? Here’s why I’m not optimistic that many people will emerge to fit the bill and why this problem is not going to be fixed any time soon.

Theatre

Firstly, one previous source of studio sitcoms, both writers and actors, was the theatre, not least rep theatre. Eric Chappell entered the sitcom world via his popular play The Banana Box, which became Rising Damp. He then went on to write shows like Only When I Laugh, Home To Roost, The Bounder and Haggard. Plays like Rising Damp are, I suspect, rarely written these days and yet studio sitcoms are more like plays than anything else. And produced even more rarely. Producing theatres need to make their cultural mark. It seems unlikely they would do that by producing one-room farces that could be turned into a mainstream studio sitcom.

See? I'm not making it up.
If you want that sort of thing, you have to do it yourself, as Brendan O’Carroll did with Mrs Brown’s Boys. The show actually started on radio and became books – and a movie, yes, a movie in 1999 called Agnes Browne with Anjelica Huston. Yes, Anjelica Huston. But it was the touring theatrical version of Mrs Brown’s Boys that was spotted by Stephen McCrum at the BBC and dragged into a TV studio.

Theatre has changed, and there’s not much we can do about that.  A play written for the theatre can still become a sitcom. But it’s interesting that the last play which did that very recently, Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, became a single-camera comedy. And has won every gong going.

Rep theatre, which was essentially knocking out a play every week or two, is the perfect grounding for studio sitcoms, which operate on a very similar basis for writers and actors especially. But rep has gone the way of music hall and variety, and that training ground is no longer there.

This is not to say that theatres no longer have any impact on sitcoms. These days, theatres across Britain aren’t filled with people watching original plays (notable exceptions in London and the likes of Chichester notwithstanding). But they are regularly packed out with audiences watching comedians they’ve seen on Live at the Apollo or Mock the Week. Experience would suggest, though, that there are not many acts big enough to be worthy of a prime-time mainstream sitcom slot. And of those that are, why would they want to expose themselves to such a critical mauling?

And yet these seem to be about the only people that execs and commissioners have confidence in to create a hit studio sitcom. I’ve had conversations about finding vehicles for this name or that name – many of them speculative from development producers casting around for something to say they’re developing so they can continue to say they’re developing something, or from people far more senior with no imagination who really should know better. It is at least an understandable policy because comedians have an on-stage persona that’s been tried and tested in front audiences (at zero cost to the broadcaster).

In one way, this is nothing new. I’m sure that’s how the likes of Sid James ended up in a sitcom like Bless This House. Everyone knew what they were getting, the writers know what they were writing, and the audience had a pretty good idea what they’d be watching.

The trouble with this ‘talent-led’ approach, however, is when it becomes dominant. At the moment, it seems to be. But there are serious drawbacks.

For a start, it means essentially that a comedian, once they’ve done their show about their own comic sensibility, can’t really do another one without it being basically the same show. Whereas a writer can write multiple sensibilities and situations. In the case of Carla Lane, you not only got the Liver Birds, a show very much drawn from her own experience. You also got the sublime Butterflies and the ratings juggernaut Bread.

Another drawback with this ‘talent-led’ approach is that when a comedian isn’t available, or doesn’t want to risk career suicide by being in a duff sitcom, commissioners and development execs might grasp at the next best thing: a real person with a life story. Someone with a unique and interesting ‘authentic’ life experience who gives the show ‘an angle’ that will ‘cut through’.

Again, this approach might work and can probably generate a show or two. But where is the confidence in experienced sitcom writers to come up with an idea from their heads? An idea that they can execute? An idea that will basically work and be watchable?

Do we really think that a modern day Esmonde and Larbey would even get a script commission to write a show about some painters and decorators, called Brushstrokes? What about someone called, say, Michael Aitkens pitching an idea for sitcom set in an old people’s home called Waiting for God? Both of those shows ran for five series, and were perfectly enjoyable. But, you would now be asked, what is the point of them? Faced with that line of questioning, almost everything is impossible to justify.

While we’re about it, right there we have two examples of the talent pool getting smaller. Esmonde and Larbey, who between them also wrote Please Sir!, The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles, A Fine Romance and As Time Goes By, are both sadly dead. And Michael Aitkens moved on from sitcom to write episodes of Midsomer Murders from 2006-2014. Good on him.

But I digress. Where were we? Oh yes. Theatre.

Not Quite Done With Theatre

There is another kind of theatre that almost sounds absurd but it’s had such a big studio sitcom legacy that it would be remiss to ignore it: Entertaining the Troops. Read any history of comedy and you will come across a good number of comedians serving in the war and ending up on stage. Not only did this lead to directly to David Croft writing about his experiences with the Royal Artillery Concert Party in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, it also led to a broad style of mainstream, accessible comedy that was just trying to get a laugh.

Croft also joined forces with Jimmy Perry to write Dad’s Army and then Hi-De-Hi, another gang show about a similar kind of entertaining style in holiday camps. These shows paved the way for the likes of Are You Being Served? and Allo Allo, co-written with Jeremy Lloyd.

My main point, some time ago now, is that the stage, be it in a theatre, holiday camp or war zone, is very closely related to studio sitcom (more on that here). But because of how theatres now operate, the decline in holiday camps and lack of wars, we’re not likely to get any sitcom writers like Eric Chappell or David Croft in the foreseeable future.

But this is not the greatest problem for sitcom by a long way.

Sketch Comedy

The second concern is sketch comedy. There used to be a lot of it about. In fact, one of these sketch shows was called There’s A Lot Of It About but I think that was referring to something else. However, there used to be a lot of sketch comedy on mainstream TV, a key training ground for a number of writers who ended up writing studio sitcoms.

I noted in April last year when Ronnie Corbett died:

Sorry! was written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent. They had written for The Two Ronnies and Ian Davidson had been the Script Editor in 1978. Along the way he came up with a popular vehicle for a much loved mainstream sketch actor. The Two Ronnies was also a place where the likes of John Sullivan (Fools and Horses), David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave), Andrew Marshall (2.4 Children) and David Nobbs (Reggie Perrin) got some TV comedy miles under their belts. Add up the number of episodes of TV sitcoms written by this crowd alone (remembering to include John Sullivan's Just Good Friends, Dear John, Citizen Smith and The Green Green Grass, (and those other shows by those others writers). We have hundreds, possibly thousands, of episodes of TV enjoyed by millions. Sometimes tens of millions. Some of these episodes are truly great. Many other episodes are just watchable and enjoyable. Again, no small achievement.

On the Sitcom Geeks Podcast, I talked to comedy producer Steve Doherty about this. The beauty of The Two Ronnies was the most important thing about a sketch was not an impression, or a persona, or a character but an idea. If the sketch was funny, it went in the show. Today, we have sketch shows – albeit far fewer and in shorter runs. BBC1 has Tracey Ullman’s show, and David Walliams’s. Writing for these shows is a different proposition than writing for The Two Ronnies. On top of this, Tracey Ullman’s show is all shot on location and played to an audience, and Walliams and Friend is about half and half. So the writers of these shows have fewer opportunities to learn that discipline of having to make a studio audience laugh a few times every minute.

There are sketch shows, every now and then, on BBC2 which are mainly based around the likes of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. Again, these are normally character based, rather than idea based. And Channel 4, we are told, have stopped commissioning sketch shows altogether. If true, what a curious decision.

My point with sketch shows is purely this: in the past, there were lots of mainstream, studio-based sketch shows like The Two Ronnies, Little and Large, Russ Abbot, Sez Les et al, which were not as dependent on characters and a central performance. These shows no longer exist in a way that benefits the production of studio sitcoms. And so a second route to the writing of studio sitcom scripts that might plausibly be placed on the desk of BBC1’s commissioner, has been strangled.

Sister Channels

The third obvious source of studio sitcoms for BBC1 is its sister channel BBC2. Traditionally, the sitcoms of today on BBC2 have been the mainstream hits of tomorrow. So what are we looking at down the line? In short, very few studio sitcoms. BBC2 has shows like W1A, Mum, Two Doors Down and Episodes. Since House of Fools and Up the Women ended their brief runs on BBC2, the only returning studio sitcom is Upstart Crow, which is not by a new writer, or even a new-ish one, but sitcom veteran, Ben Elton. And all the better for it. It’s a funny show.

ITV2, which has been running for a much shorter time, has given us Plebs and The Job Lot, but hasn’t yet made a studio sitcom, let alone one that could transfer to ITV1.

What about Channel 4? In days gone by, the sort of people you’d see on BBC2, you’d also see expect to see on Channel 4 and vice versa. (eg. The Comic Strip cast regularly switched between the two) But the story there is the same. In fact, this is the original prompting for writing this article (before it got out of hand), because it was when looking at the job specification fortheir new comedy commissioner that I noticed something that I thought significant. On the job specification, eight sitcoms are listed as examples of comedy they are proud of: Catastrophe, Flowers, Chewing Gum, The Windsors, Drifters, Man Down, Ballot Monkeys and Friday Night Dinner.

Those shows are all very different from each other and have their respective merits, but they are all single camera shows. And that list could also have included Toast of London, Peep Show, Wasted, Crashing, Lovesick and Raised by Wolves. So that’s fourteen half hour comedy narratives. All single-camera.

Likewise, Sky’s returning sitcoms from the last few years include Trollied, Hunderby, Moone Boy, Doll and Em: all single-camera shows. The wonderfully daft Yonderland has the feeling of a studio sitcom, but even that is single-camera when it comes down to it.

None of this is a criticism, but an observation. Channel 4 and Sky are at liberty to do whatever they like. They need to get ratings, balance the books, satisfy numerous criteria, produce returns for shareholders, hit manifold targets and tick all kinds of boxes. Neither channel probably even has a tiny box marked ‘Support Studio Sitcoms’. Why should they? The supply or encouragement mainstream studio sitcom and writers thereof is not their problem. But it does help explain why this problem is not being fixed any time soon.

Which leaves us with the question we began with. Where are the new mainstream studio sitcoms coming from? Where can a new writer learn their craft?

BBC Three

As far as BBC TV is concerned, or at least online, how about banging on the door of BBC Three? Do we really think that BBC Three will commission a studio sitcom any time soon? I’m sure BBC Three would say that they will happily consider any script or idea and execute it in the way that works best for the idea. But let us bear in mind studio sitcoms are more expensive to produce than a single-camera show, and so this will take a bigger slice of budget, come under greater scrutiny and may eventually be deemed not worth the risk.

And who has the experience to get this tricky format to work? How many comedy directors have experience of multi-cam studio sitcom? Not many.

This point about expertise is not an inconsiderable one as the talent base in studio sitcom production is also getting smaller and literally dying out. This means a new writer might end up working with a comedy producer who has never produced a studio sitcom before. Gulp. This is going to be a big worry for them, because in a sitcom, everything has to be alright on the night. You shoot the show in sequence. Maybe a couple of takes. And that’s it. It’s brutal. (As I write here) And if there’s one thing a studio sitcom needs it's this: confidence.

In a way, the single-camera model is easier for a producer, director and editor, who can then assemble, or reassemble, a show in the edit, salvage a storyline that doesn’t work, add a montage or some snazzy jump cuts and some upbeat music to paper over a few cracks. Who wouldn’t? It’s another bite at the cherry. Or another level of interference, depending how you look at it.

Imagine you’re a comedy producer with zero studio sitcom experience, which way are you going to nudge the writer with a script or sitcom idea that could go either way? Will you have the confidence to get it all right on the night, risk the wrath of execs if it goes wrong? Or will you feel happier piecing together a show in a dark room in Soho. The expertise is shrinking and dwindling, and with that goes the confidence you need for a studio sitcom.

BBC Radio

All of the above has put enormous pressure on the only place where studio sitcoms are actively encouraged. Except they are not TV studio sitcoms, because I’m referring to BBC Radio. This is where I started, getting my first break because BBC Radio 4 were actively looking for studio sitcoms, and were prepared to take a punt on a newbie like me. I’d come up with Thinkthe Unthinkable and there was a slot for it. It ran for four series and gave me invaluable experience, and I was mentored by the utterly delightful Paul Mayhew-Archer, a writer who’d co-written episodes of the Vicar of Dibley, and written sitcoms of his own (Office Gossip, Nelson’s Column, An Actor’s Life for Me) – and worked with another great writer who came from radio, Andy Hamilton (Outnumbered, Drop the Dead Donkey)

Through Paul Mayhew-Archer, I was lucky enough to be invited to work on BBC1 mainstream studio shows including My Family and My Hero. But I continued to work for Radio 4 with a shortlived sitcom called The Pits (starring some guy called John Oliver. Whatever happened to that guy?) and then a sitcom set in Bletchley Park called Hut 33. And then work with Miranda Hart, which led to involvement in the first two series of her TV sitcom, which, of course, began life on BBC2 and transferred to BBC1, showing that system can still work.

I’m pleased to hear that BBC Radio is still committed to sitcoms recorded in front of audiences. As a judge for the Writers Guild of Great Britain awards, I listened to a number of decent sitcoms recorded in front of an audience including Ankle Tag, Reluctant Persuaders, The Lentil Sorters and To Hull and Back.

I can also testify from my own experience that competition to get shows on BBC Radios 2 and 4 has never been more intense. So intense, I can’t get one on. At the moment, I’m writing the second series of three-part series for BBC Radio Wales called Be Lucky. And I’m grateful for the opportunity.
This pressure on BBC Radio is no big surprise, though, because as it stands, BBC Radio is the only realistic destination for those who really want to write studio sitcoms. The problem is that it’s a huge jump from BBC Radio 4 to BBC1 where the stakes and budgets are far higher. Helping writers make it across that chasm is a huge challenge, but currently, I don’t see any realistic alternatives.


That is unless Channel 4 appoints a Comedy Commissioner who really likes multi-camera comedy – and goes out of their way to nurture it. Which would at least be a start.

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If, by some freak accident or a cosmic alignment of planets, you ever get to write an actual sitcom, there’s lots of technical writing advice in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Finding The Beat

Happy 2017.

Luther at the Diet of Worms. Yes. The Diet of Worms.
Okay, I’m about a month late on that. I’ve had a strange January, mostly spend trying to write a comedy about the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, called A Monk’s Tale: Relics, Revolt and Reformation. Nobody has asked me to do this. It’s not been commissioned by anyone and I haven’t received a grant. It’s a show that I think needs to be written because I think that the Reformation is significant for so many reason. I’m also trying to follow up the success of my previous live show called The God Particle. All that said, at the end of the day, you’d be perfectly justified in calling it a vanity project. A Monk’s Tale is hopefully going to be on at the Edinburgh Fringe, and touring the UK in Sept-Nov.

The Sitcom Geeks podcast, however, has been ticking over and so in the unlikely even that you’ve been getting withdrawal symptoms from the lack of blogging, do go and catch up on various episodes here.

But for now, let’s answer a question I was asked last year on Twitter by @JoChallacombe who asked:

What are “beats” and why do so many writers fill their scripts with people waiting for them? But seriously, I don’t really understand what the term means.
To be honest, Jo, it sounds like you do what the term means, but for the avoidance of doubt, there are two meanings of the word 'beat' in comedy writing. You’re clearly asking about one kind, but I’ll mention the other in passing.

Story Beats
A beat, in the context of a story, is an event, or a plot development. Sometimes, you talk about beating out a story (snigger), and what that means is working out what happens from beginning to end, figuring out the turning points and the various stages. The Americans tend to call this breaking a story. But at the end of that process, you might end up with what some would call a ‘beat sheet’. You might called this a story outline or even a treatment. I’m never entirely sure which is what. But a beat sheet is probably a couple of pages long and the various progressions in the story might be numbered. If it’s the main story, you might have between 9 and 20 numbers. If you’re a single camera show, you can probably move faster. If you’re a studio show, your beats will probably be fewer. But there will always be exceptions to that.

Pausing Beats
A beat is a pause. It’s a moment, a short delay before someone speaks. And you normally write "(beat)" in the script before the line.

What makes the beat funny? Why do writers litter their scripts with them? I’m not entirely sure, although some scripts have more than others. The beat itself is not usually funny, but it often makes the line it precedes funny.

There are just times when you know, as a writer, that a line will be funnier if there is a short beat before it.

Perhaps some beats are funny because they turn a passive reaction line into an active line for a character. The character has taken a moment, and now is speaking deliberately, rather than just instinctively. Which can be funny in some circumstances, especially when it changes the meaning and the tone.

Perhaps in a busy scene where there are lots of jokes and ideas and concepts flying around, that moment gives our brains all a chance to catch up and get ready for the next joke. Or that beat is functioning as the large patch of white space on the page so that the main thing is obvious and clear.

Overuse
The danger of over-using the beat in a script is that you’re essentially directing the script on the page, rather than leaving the actor and the director to find the funniest version of that line. But, as I’ve said in previous posts, you get so little time to rehearse and ‘find’ the line, that a helpful nudge can be appreciated.

But like most things, if you do them too often, they will be annoying. Hope that helps.

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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.


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.

BUT.

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.

Chopin
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.