Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Best of British Sitcom Idiots

Following on from the last post about idiots in sitcoms, and some ensuing twittering, perhaps it's only fair we pay tribute to the best of British sitcom idiots. Lots of candidates, for sure, but here are, for my money, the most dimwitted of nincompoops who should be recognised for outstanding services to idiocy.

Have missed any prize-winning clots? Sorry Doberman, Coach and Andy Dwyer. This is best of British.

Vote for your favourites on Twitter with #myfavouritesitcomidiot 

In alphabetical order:
Alice from the Vicar of Dibley
Baldrick from Blackadder 2-4

Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous


Dougal from Father Ted

Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.


Howard & Hilda from Ever Decreasing Circles


Manuel from Fawlty Towers
Trigger from Only Fools and Horses

Readers' Qs - Does every sitcom need an idiot?

This question comes from @andyrileyish, aka Andy Riley, an extremely experienced sitcom writer (Black Books, Hyperdrive, The Great Outdoors), a thoroughly nice man, and writer of a new series of children’s book called King Flashypants. He was also a guest with his writing partner, Kevin Cecil, on The Sitcom Geeks Podcast here.

The question presupposes that sitcoms normally benefit from idiots – and this is true. As a rule, I highly recommend any one setting up a sitcom should find room for an idiot.

Why? A few reasons:

1. Idiots are funny. They get the wrong end of the stick, stay stupid stuff and are basically joke machines. They can also say the unsayable, or bring their own weird logic to bear on a situation.

2. Idiots are useful. Given they often don’t understand what’s going on, someone can explain the plot to them so everyone, including the audience, are clear on what’s happening, and what needs to happen next.

3. Idiots are wildcards. They are often ‘off-the-wall’ in what they do, and so can be a very useful for turning plots on their heads, or throwing a spanner in the works for your protagonists.

The downsides of idiots is that they can sometimes feel insufficiently deep or interesting to make frontline characters, especially at first, but this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, it shouldn’t be.
Rocket (Scott Hoatson)
from Bluestone 42

In writing Bluestone 42, our ‘idiot’ was Rocket, a breathtakingly dimwitted squaddie with a very sunny disposition. He was initially a bit of a foil for Mac, who was filthy and didn’t filter anything he said. But as the series went on, we found that Rocket was every bit as funny and interesting. Rocket’s stupidity tipped over into naivety - which is a nice trait for young man with a gun - and we gave him a love of animals too, all of which also produced some nice plots. And a love of food.

Watch the first few episodes of Seinfeld and Kramer is a dimwit, but his character really takes off when the show played up how convinced that Kramer was that he was, in fact, smarter than everyone else. Soon Kramer’s not so much an amusingly irritating neighbour, but a proactive character who leads Jerry, George and Elaine into all kinds of ludicrous situations in which his schemes always sound just sensible enough to succeed at the start, but which spiral out of control.

Nick Harper (Kris Marshall) from My Family
Being merely stupid, then, is rarely enough for a serviceable useful idiot. Joey in Friends is stupid, but he’s also good-looking, shallow and great at getting women. Phoebe is an idiot of sorts, but she’s more of an alternative weirdo. That can work, but can be a bit predictable. Nick (Kris Marshall) in My Family was an idiot, but he was something of an optimist and charmer who always landed on his feet and was a key to the early success of that show.

Tyler, George & Arnie
I used to write episodes of My Hero which had a brilliant idiot called Tyler. What was great about him was that he was the only human in the show apart from Janet who knew that George Sunday was an alien from Ultron and the superhero Thermoman. He was as mad as you like, so no-one listened to him when he gave the game away, and in one respect, he was more sane than anyone. In one episode I wrote, he was successfully defused a nuclear bomb. Because he happened to know the code. And it seemed plausible.

But the question is hand is “Does every sitcom need an idiot?” When I read that question, the word ‘need’ jumps out. So the question is whether you have to have an idiot?

I suspect not, but I’m trying to think of really good sitcom that doesn’t have some kind of idiot, or at least a character that functions as one at the start:

Cheers had Cliff. Frasier had Daphne Moon, (who began life as a quirky English woman with a ‘spiritual’ side and then came to the fore). Bilko had Doberman. Fawlty Towers had Manuel. Blackadder (Series 2-4, at least) had Baldrick. Dad’s Army had the young and naïve Pike (and Jones?). Yes, Prime Minister had the comparatively innocent Bernard. M*A*S*H had Klinger, who was obviously just pretending to be mad. One Foot in the Grave has Mrs Warboys – and the weird neighbour with his mother upstairs.

I suppose there’s no room for an idiot in Steptoe and Son, but then maybe they’re both idiots. In a way, all sitcom characters are, depending on how you definite idiocy. Your protagonist might be defined as an idiot given their lack of self-awareness about their inability to do the task they have set themselves – like David Brent or Captain Mainwairing or Hancock.

So, “Does every sitcom need an idiot?” My official answer is: Probably.

Thanks for you questions, Andy. Keep ‘em coming, everyone.

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.


Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Readers' Qs - How many scenes should there in a sitcom episode?

Good question. And of course that all depends on the sitcom and the story.

In general, sitcoms filmed in studios in front of an audience have fewer than those filmed with a single camera for a variety of practical and tonal reasons. A studio sitcom is more like a play, and for that reason, scenes tend to run longer, and play out in real time, without tricksy editing or cheating jump cuts that you can use in a single-camera show.

Moreover, you can't keep setting up thirty scenes in one evening in front of an audience.  It’s just not practical. There's not enough time on the night. But that’s okay. The audience subconsciously expect studio audience shows to have fewer scenes. And it will. If you have a main plot - with about 8-10 beats, you'll probably need a new scene for each of those beats. If you have a subplot with 5-6 beats, you might need separate scenes for some of those beats, but you might also have those plot developments taking place in the same scene as your main plot. And you might need an extra scene to pay of a C-Plot, which is essentially a running joke. So overall, it's unlikely you'd have fewer than eight scenes in a normal studio sitcom episode. And you might have as may as 16-18, depending on whether you have a couple of pre-shot scenes on location.

So conventionally, you’d probably have somewhere between 8 and 18 scenes for a studio sitcom. For me, 11-16 seems about right.

You might have that number of scenes for a non-audience single camera show too. But you could have much shorter, snappier scenes if you wanted. Maybe as many as thirty. I shudder to think how many scenes the writers of Modern Family cram into their 21 minutes, servicing over a dozen characters with three plots.

Of course, you can make a virtue of having only one scene in the whole show which plays out in real time. We did that on the psychiatrist episode on Miranda. It’s quite common for a sitcom to do that sort of thing on its second or third series for a bit of variety. It’s normally called a ‘bottle’ episode, in which the characters are all trapped or marooned somewhere and it’s quite talky, but often quite revealing in terms of characters. This is when sitcoms become most ‘play-like’. Writers love the challenge of writing them. Audiences could, I suspect, take them or leave them. If they don’t find it as funny as normal, they won’t give you points for trying to be clever. (Critics will, but who cares what they think? They're being paid to watch TV and then write something clever about it. Most people watch comedy because they like laughing.) More on 'Bottle Eps' here.

But it’s not just studio audiences who try to run everything in real time. Some single camera shows like to do this. I seem to remember Roger and Val Have Just Got In did every episode this way, with each episode being set just after work when Roger and Val, er, get in. There's more on this play/film/real-time tradition here.

Again, critics and industry-types go mad for hyper-realism or real time. My own view is that the audience really just like laughing – and if these kind of tricks make it funnier, so be it. But they normally just make it harder to get laughs. So as a rule, I would suggest this ‘one scene episode’ thing should be approached with great caution. Stick to your 11-16 scenes to give yourself the best chance.

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.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Readers’ Qs - When devising a sitcom, do you start with story, characters, or situation?

This question came from @amazingmikeyc
When devising a sitcom, do you start with story, characters, or situation?

I cover this in the first main chapter of my book, Writing That Sitcom, in which I write the following:

One might assume that the trick of thinking of a new sitcom is thinking of a workplace that hasn't been done before. Thinking of an original situation in itself is hard enough to do. Since the 1950s, Britain has produced a myriad of sitcoms, set everywhere imaginable: Funeral parlours (Fun at the Funeral Parlour, Billy Liar and In Loving Memory); spaceships (Red Dwarf and Hyperdrive); vicarages (The Vicar of Dibley, Rev); hospitals (Only When I Laugh, Surgical Spirit, Doctors and Nurses). They've all been done plenty of times. And plenty more times and for longer in America.

A new situation might be appealing or ‘feel funny’, but be careful. A funny situation might sell the show, but people will watch it week after week because of the characters. We're drawn to people and stories, not situations. The best jokes are normally funny because of the character and the story, as well as the situation. Falling over is funny. Sure. But it’s much funnier when the guy falling over is Del Boy, out with Trigger, trying to be a yuppy and impressing girls having said 'nice and cool'.

The characters are the key. If you can, think of characters first. Having said that, the four sitcoms I’ve created or co-created have all started by thinking of the situation first. But each time, the bulk of the development was spent working on the characters. Purely for illustration, let’s look at each of the shows, the first three of which were sitcoms for BBC Radio 4.

Think The Unthinkable
Think the Unthinkable was my first sitcom. The starting point was realising I wanted to write a show about management consultants. In my early twenties, I noticed that people I’d been at university with, people with very little experience of business or life, were telling people three times their age what they were doing wrong. That felt both insane and funny. A fruitful situation for comedy.

The more I thought about the show and developed the idea, the more I realised that it was about change and differing attitudes to it. My original three main characters were all happy about change in their own different ways and they insisted on inflicting this on other people who were more resistant, for a mixture of good and bad reasons.

I worked really hard on getting to know my characters inside out before I worked out the storylines, even though I knew the storylines would probably be funny in their own right.

The Pits
My second Radio 4 sitcom is notable only in that it starred the now very famous John Oliver. The Pits has disappeared into obscurity and I think I know why. It wasn't really about anything. It certainly appeared to be about something. It was about professional musicians who worked for the British Opera Company, a fictionalised version of the Royal Opera House. I researched it a fair bit. There were some decent classical music jokes. Some funny-ish characters doing funny-ish things while saying funny-ish lines. The readthroughs were fairly jolly. The audience who turned up to recordings quite enjoyed it.

But ultimately, The Pits was all about the setting, not the characters. I didn't do it properly because I was over-confident, having done quite well with Think The Unthinkable (which had won Silver at the Sony Radio Awards and was on its fourth series). I knew how to write scenes and jokes and stories, but I hadn't figured out the characters and the central idea behind the show. Naughty.

Hut 33
In Hut 33, I really wanted to write a show about codebreakers in Bletchley Park. The obvious angle didn’t feel like it was going to be all that funny. Hut 33 was full of boffins - and therefore ‘being clever’ was not at all that remarkable. And a show full of super-smart people didn’t seem viable. (This was a few years before Big Bang Theory turned super-smart people into billions of dollars). It felt like the show had to be about something else. But what?

Through talking to my wife, who is much more interested in social history than guns and the bombs (I know. Weird), I learned that World War Two brought together people from very different social classes. Everyone saw how the other half lived. Poverty and privilege living cheek by jowl. It’s why Churchill won the war, but lost the general election that year to Attlee in a landslide. People realised that Britain had to change. Hut 33 became a microcosm of that desire for change. So the show was about class – and a potential upheaval in the class system.

Robert Bathurst played an over-educated Oxford Professor who, like many on the social scene in the 1930s, had been on very friendly terms with the likes of high- ranking Nazis like Von Ribbentrop and Rommel before war broke out. Tom Goodmall-Hill played a working-class Trotskyite from Newcastle. Gordon, played by Fergus Craig, was a 17 year-old naïve genius stuck in the middle, wishing everyone could be friends. They were forced to spend all day every day together in a cold confined space because there was a war on. Bletchley was the backdrop and playground for their stories. If it had been set in a hospital ward, Hut 33 would have been almost identical to Only When I Laugh.

Bluestone 42
Richard Hurst and I met working on Miranda. We had a few ideas for new shows, but wondered if there was anything in a show about soldiers. Nothing new there, given Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, The Phil Silvers Show (Bilko) or the truly great M*A*S*H. There had been a lot of drama and documentaries about the British Army covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but nothing comic.

Our understanding of British soldiers was that a sense of humour is extremely important, so we were interested in thinking up a show that reflected that.

A section of squaddies would be broadly similar in background and outlook – and all male – so we looked for an army unit that would bring different perspectives, backgrounds, genders and expertise together. We arrived at the idea of a bomb disposal squad because it was an inter-disciplinary unit which performed a function that was very easy to understand and show on the screen. There’s a bomb. Deal with it.

We started with the guy who does the long walk, Captain Nick Medhurst. We imagined him to be a cocksure rogue who did a job that made him irresistible to women (Okay, he’s Sam Malone, from Cheers). And then we thought of a character, Mary, who would try harder than most to resist because she’s a padre. (Okay, she’s Diane, from Cheers) And we built the rest of the team around that scenario. But the show developed from there, as the last three episodes of Series 3 contained neither Nick or Mary – because the show is ultimately about something: why soldiers love being soldiers.

A situation can be a good starting point. It can be the reason your characters are together. It can inform the underlying philosophy or point of the show. But a sitcom is not a comedy about the situation. It’s about the characters.

To read the rest, get the book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Readers’ Qs - How do you make sure you don't give all the punchlines to the same character?

@MagsTheObscure asks:
How do you make sure you don't accidentally give all the punchlines to the same character who I will nickname Joe Surrogate?

If this is happening in your script, it's probably not an accident.

Best case scenario: One character having all the jokes is an indication that you don't have a sitcom yet. Just one character.  And that's fine. It's a start, you can build other characters and conflicts around that character.

But it's also asking why your character has all the jokes - and what sort of jokes they are. If they're normally jokes about nothing in particular, rather than character, you've got a bigger problem. In which case, you don't even have a character. You just have someone who pays off jokes.

In Friends, the writers could easily have fallen into this trap with Chandler, because his character's 'thing' initially was 'being funny'. His jokes were the sum total of hours of thought from some of the funniest minds in America. Funny guy. But what the show brought out over time, and what is actually funnier, is that Chandler is coward. Fortunately, they could take their time over this because there were five other brilliant characters who paid off each others' jokes.

Another show that leaps to mind in this case is Shane, a perfectly watchable vehicle for Frank Skinner that didn't do very well when it came out in 2004, despite Frank Skinner being one of the funniest, sharpest guys around. When I saw it, I thinking it was perfectly fine, but also remember feeling that the main character had all the punchlines, and that everyone else's reason for being was purely to lob up set-ups so Frank could smash them. And having just watched a bit on Youtube just now, some characters have some lines that no-one would ever say, but it has to be phrased that way for the joke to work.

It's the exact opposite of what Jerry Seinfeld did in his sitcom vehicle, in which he plays a successful comedian. But he isn't actually the funniest or most interesting character. In fact, he's probably the least funny and interesting - and the worst actor. But we had other characters and conflicts that made the show work.

It may be you have a bunch of characters who aren't quite gelling or fizzing. In which case, there are a couple of things you could do.

Try pushing them to extremes
Let's say one of your characters is a pretty straight and earnest. In which case, make them ludicrously, painfully, infuriatingly straight. And honest. And earnest. And innocent. That will generate jokes for them - and at them.

Try putting your characters on the front foot
So, they become the kind of characters who want everyone to be like them - whatever it is. Let's say another character is fastidious and tidy, and the butt of jokes. Try giving them some attitude and insisting that everyone else be as tidy and uptight as them. That might produce conflict, stories and therefore jokes.

This kind of stuff takes ages, even if you're experienced and doing it full time, so don't get disheartened if it's not happening at the moment. Your sitcom episode is essentially a recipe that can be repeated again and again, producing roughly the same consistent enjoyable result every time. Recipes take a while to perfect, but one you've got them right, they really come into their own.

Hope that helps. Thanks for your question, @MagsTheObscure. Keep 'em coming.

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.


Monday, 15 August 2016

Readers’ Qs - When you write the 2nd draft, do you start with a blank screen again?

@AdamWareham asks:
When you start writing your 2nd draft, are you just editing the 1st draft, or do you start with a blank screen again?

Great question. Everyone has their own styles and ways of doing things, so I can only say what’s normal for me. And, it depends on how good the first draft is.

If you’re lucky, you’re getting notes back on draft one that are essentially asking for tweaks and polishes. Normally, the big notes are asking for improved motivations or great clarity for why a character is doing something ludicrous or insane. And this can be sometimes be fixed by opening up your first draft, resaving is a second draft and then tinkering.

I say ‘lucky’ because getting a script right is as much a matter of luck as anything else. You can be very experienced, or have planned your script in minute detail, and in the cold light of day realise
the script isn’t really working. You’re going to need to do more than change the oil and wash the windscreen. This script is going to go up on a jack. You’ll need to get underneath it. In no time, you’ll be taking it apart and it’ll be in bits before you know it.

If so, that’s fine. It’s all part of the process. I’ve got that with a script I’m working on right now. It’s a new sitcom for the radio, and it’s largely untested, and my first draft of episode 2 has some lovely moments and some funny bits. Overall is looking like it’s going to be fine. But the notes highlighted some serious problems that needed thought.

Here’s what I did:

I printed it out, went to Starbucks and left my laptop in the bag. I wrote down – in pen - a summary of the script on a page of A4, running through the main beats, event and moments. I already had the outline I'd written the draft from, but the script had moved on. So I looked at my new outline and had a good old think about it. Then I thought of some new themes and motivations that would mean some set-pieces would stay and others might have to go. Fine. I then wrote up the new and improved A and B stories that looked broadly like the old ones, but with crucial differences. I send that to the producer and talked it through. And we were both happy.

And now I’m on Draft 2.

I opened a blank document, which is my main script, so I’m not tinkering with Draft 1. But I do have that old draft open on my desktop and I’m using chunks at a time, and writing a new script using the best of the old. I’ve done this sort of things many times before, and there’s just no way of knowing in advance whether you’ll be heavily rewriting the script or tinkering with it.

Sometimes Drafts 1, 2 and 3 all seem fine – and then you have a read-through and it all falls apart. But we can talk about that another time. I wrote a bit about that here.

Thanks for your question, @AdamWareham. Keep 'em coming.

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.

Readers’ Qs - Do I Need Final Draft?

No.

Probably not.

Maybe eventually?

The question 'Do I Need Final Draft' is from @CraigJBeadle.

If someone who's paying you proper money for a script says you need to buy Final Draft because their whole production system uses it, you should probably buy it. It's really not that expensive in the grand scheme of things and it is one of the tools of the trade. You wouldn't want a plumber turning up to your house with a proper toolkit, would you?

But it's not necessarily an essential tool. I only got it about ten years into my writing career when I was working on Bluestone 42 in South Africa. Our production partners, Out of Africa, used it and to make life easier, it made sense to have the same system as we were making changes on set. But the entire first series of eight episodes had been written in Microsoft Word. As has every single script I've written for radio.

The reason people feel they should buy it is because it will make them feel like a proper writer. And, to be honest, if you need a £150 for a morale boost, then there are worse ways of spending your money. But the programme itself really isn't all that brilliant. It's pretty sparse and not especially intuitive. I don't hate it as much as Craig Maizin does - and you can listen to him talking to the creators/owners of Final Draft on the Scriptnotes podcast here. It's great listening.

I think people tend to focus on script software and the look of their scripts because that's something that's easy to control and measure, as opposed to whether the script is any good. When you're starting out, it's hard to know how you're doing, so you want to at least look the part. I'm not saying that's you, @CraigJBeadle, but it's a factor. Hope that helps.