Wednesday, 1 July 2015

There’s a New Podcast In Town

The world probably doesn’t need another podcast about writing, television or sitcoms. But we didn’t ask. I’ve teamed up with Dave Cohen and started one about the art of writing sitcoms for television, with an eye (or ear?) to radio as well. It is kindly hosted by the British Comedy Guide, and produced by Katie Storey. Episode 1 is out now and you can listen to it here (via Soundcloud, iTunes, etc)

The overall theme of our inaugural episode is asking what your sitcom is about – and working out what it’s really about. Like any decent movie, novel or play, a sitcom has a superficial setting, but it’s not ultimately about that setting. It has a theme or an attitude that informs everything. And that is what your sitcom is really about.

It’s important to think about this underlying theme before you launch into plotting and writing a pilot episode, or even an entire series. (Do not write an entire series uncommissioned. It makes you look a little crazy. I know people write entire novels on spec, but it’s not really the done thing in sitcoms. See here.) Here’s why: You’ll be asked the infuriating question ‘Why am I watching this show?’ and the answer ‘Because it’s on TV’ is not good enough.  George Costanza tries that one. It doesn’t work:


You need to know two big things about your sitcom:

1. Why Now?
We all know the secret of comedy is timing. But it’s not just in the delivery of the jokes you need to worry about this. It’s the delivery of the original idea. Ideas have their time. They can capture the mood of a moment, or a new social phenomenon.

This is clearly the case when you watch sitcoms from yesteryear. Hardly any shows are truly timeless. Even fairly recent hits like Men Behaving Badly which is regularly re-run on cable channels feel rather dated at times. And watch the first and last few episodes of Only Fools and Horses. They are very different in tone. Del Boy goes from dodgy market trader selling potentially stolen (‘hookey’) goods to wannabee yuppee and responsible husband and father.

Some show are timeless, especially ones that don’t look like contemporary life. Perhaps that’s why Blackadder is eminently rewatchable – apart from it being staggeringly funny. In Series 2, 3 and 4, they made a virtue of being a historical artificial studio show, even referring to it in Series 3 when Blackadder says he seems doomed to die on ‘this unconvincing grassy knoll’.

But most shows are contemporary – and commissioners tend be very reluctant to commission historical comedy. I’m not sure why. I think they worry that they look elitist. There haven’t been many commissioned since Blackadder, which is a shame because most overeducated comedy writers want to set a show in some obscure historical backwater.

So, given your show is probably set in the here and now, what’s the show really about, and why does it say something about now?

Porridge I mention on the podcast that I recently re-watched the first episode of Porridge. That show too had a resonance with the times. Fletcher points out that life outside prison wasn’t that much fun with cutbacks, strikes and a crumbling economy. So you might as well be in jail. It’s just a throwaway comment, but strikes a chord and gives a clue to the success of the show at the time (as well as truly brilliant writing and one of the best comic actors the nation’s ever seen). That, and the fact that they’re wearing uniforms that means that it doesn’t look so dated making it eminently repeatable without fear of cringing.

Sometimes I look back through old notes books and click on archived folders and stumble over ideas that are perfectly okay as situations for sitcoms, but I just couldn’t go back to because they feel so dated now. Or irrelevant, highlighting a social issue that’s no longer a big deal, or has been done to death. This is one problem with some ideas that have been working on for years. By the time, you’re in a position to pitch them, they feel like their moment has passed. In which case, think of something else.

You may be adapting something that has already found an audience in another medium. Mrs Brown’s Boys was a stage show for many years before it ended up on screen. But when it comes to you, a scriptwriter, creating a show from ex nihilo, it needs to be relevant today, so that when the commissioner says ‘Why am I watching this show?’, you don’t end up walking out and causing a scene, like George Costanza.

Here’s the other question. You may have a brilliant idea that speaks volumes about the times we live in, shining a light on a community of characters we’ve not seen before. But are you the one to write it?

2. Why You?
If you’re wanting to write a sitcom, you aren’t just pitching a 90 minute movie. One script. You’re pitching six episodes, which any commissioner will want to have potential for at least another twelve episodes. You’re essentially saying you can write nine hours-worth of your sitcom idea. Nine hours. That’s six ninety minute movies. Why should they trust you to write this idea?

The only way to convince them you’re the person for the job is to be passionate about it. You don’t need personal experience of what you're writing about, necessarily. I’m not an advocate of the ‘write what you know’ theory. I’ve written sitcoms about management consultants, Bletchley Park code-breakers and bomb-disposal officers. I’ve been none of those things. But I have read an awful lot about them and spoken to people who’ve done those things first hand, so the story ideas have a ring of authenticity about them.

Of course, if you’ve worked in a bookies for five years, you’ll have plenty of insights into life in bookmakers. Then you just need to work out why now is the time to be watching a show set in a bookmakers. Deep down, your show is probably not about gambling at all. It’s a metaphor for something. But what? Who knows? You probably need to.


So there are plenty of questions here – that only you know the answer to. There are plenty more questions on the podcast.

And if you have questions that we might know the answers to, you can email us at sitcomgeeks at the gmail.com.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Writing Actions Lines and Stage Directions

I think it’s become a bit of a given that someone describing the dream they had last night is intrinsically boring. Dreams feels so real and personal. But there is wide acceptance that you just can't convey that in a satisfactory way.

Stage directions can sometimes feel like trying to describe your dream – and about as pointless, given that anyone reading a script, from actors to producers to commissioners, notoriously don’t bother to read stage directions.

How should we approach actions lines?

Exactly the same way as you’d approach dialogue. Allow me to explain.

Treat Stage Directions Like Dialogue
I don’t mean that you should use the directions as your voice or monologue to the reader. That’s cheating. Especially when you convey something that isn’t visible on the screen, or said in dialogue.
Eg. TOM turns to his most hated younger brother, JOHN. He’s never forgiven him for being so selfish that he drove their mother away.
Maybe in the first page of a pilot script, you might get to do a tiny bit of that, just to establish who’s who so they don't have to refer back to a pitch document. You might get away with:
Eg. TOM turns to JOHN, his younger brother.
All the other stuff needs to be conveyed in dialogue, tone, story, body language, and/or props. The action lines are not a shortcut. They are setting the scene and describing action. But where you stop?

Somewhere.

Frequently earlier than you think. It is easy to write seven lines of continuous action in one dense paragraph. When you have one of those, you should be every bit as worried as if you’ve just written a character one dense seven line speech. Are you sure you want to do that?

People don’t speak uninterrupted that long very often. And even if they do, you want to be very careful about writing a speech that way. The old ‘start later’ or ‘finish earlier’ rule applies. It’s why every movie set in a high school or college, has a classroom scenes which starts with the teacher talking for five seconds before bell rings.

On the rare occasion a scene starts with a class starting, it turns into a dialogue, not a monologue, fairly quickly. Or the scene is totally derailed in some other way.

In the same way, you need to think twice, even three times, before big blocks of uninterrupted action, especially in a sitcom which is normally a talkie format. The expectations of tempo are completely different from movies.

The laws of writing dialogue apply. Do I need to say this here? Do I need to say this now? Could I say this more concisely?

Setting the Scene
The most obvious place to fall into this trap is the first page or two of a pilot script in which you’re setting a scene. Maybe you’re describing the diner or office where our characters are going to be spending the next seven years, all being well. Fine. We don’t need all the details now. The show will not ride or fall on how well you’ve described the background.

The characters are the key. Get them on. Get them talking – and give us the minimum amount of information so that we can follow what’s happening and who these people are.

If your character is a waitress who thinks she’s too good for the grim diner she’s working in, describe the diner in a line (eg. A diner in serious need of redecoration). Describe the waitress in a line (eg. VERONICA looks immaculate, her hair perfect and her apron spotless). And get her talking – and the mismatch between her surroundings and her appearance will be explained. We'll get hooked onto the character, and in time, you can tell us all about the jukebox or coffee machine, when it's relevant.

How much information is ‘the minimum amount’? I would argue it’s different in a movie script from sitcom scripts. In movies, you can build slowly, introduce a location, a texture and tone before anyone’s said anything. You might not have a line of dialogue for a few minutes. Fine. A bit of mystery is okay. Things can be unexplained. The viewer can be intrigued. They’re not going to walk out in the first ten minutes. You get that free pass at the start in movies.

In a sitcom, especially a studio sitcom, you need to get the funny people on fast. And you need to explain your situation and set-up so the audience is not confused. Because, as I say many times on this blog, confusion is the enemy of comedy. But any scene description that can be deferred probably should be.

Alright, Break It Up
Sometimes you’re stuck with needing to have seven or eight lines of action. In that case, look for ways to break it up into more manageable chunks so that it doesn’t look too uninviting. Normally, I try not to have more than three lines of action without a line break or a new paragraph. You might also be able to have a single line of action – especially if it’s action is a physical joke, or a single thought. Which is why I wrote 'Somewhere' above as a single line. To break it up as well as land a joke, albeit not a very good one.

In short, make sure that every line of action needs to be where it is, so that the script is as inviting to read as possible. And as easy to finish once they’ve started.

Even then, some people still won’t read all the action. And that’s fine. But if, after three pages, they’ve already decided they love your script (as they well might if you’ve got a strong start), you’re literally in business.

Monday, 18 May 2015

How to Make a Bad Sitcom

Some sitcom thoughts occurred to me after listening to another fascinating podcast from Scriptnotes -Ep197 How Do Bad Movies Get Made. Movies and sitcoms are obviously very different from each other, not least because a movie is finished work, rather than an ongoing one. A movie that just doesn't work is unsalvageable, where a sitcom pilot, or even a first season, might be 'good enough' to get a second season in which problems can be fixed.

So how does his happen with sitcoms? I've addressed this before in a post entitled 'How did this rubbish get on my TV?', in response to the howling indignation at Ben Elton's last sitcom, The Wright Way. It mainly deals with the emotional response at seeing a poor show on TV - and that feeling aggrieved doesn't really get you anywhere. We're going to take a different approach this time.

You watch a sitcom. It's bad. You ask how it happened. Surely they realised? How did the producer deliver the show to the channel and not know they’ve delivered a stinker? Here are some responses:

1. It’s Not Bad. You Don’t Like It.
The show may be very popular, but not to your taste. Equally, the show may be critically highly acclaimed but, in your opinion, unwatchable. Every year, there are new sitcoms which I don’t like that get good ratings or win awards. That doesn’t mean they are bad. Sometimes I’m surprised that something I think is technically flawed succeeds, but all that really goes to show is how little any of us really understands comedy. And how important taste is.

There are many different types of comedy. Some are quick, and disposable, like fast food. Others are more like fine dining. Which is best? It depends what you’re in the mood for, how much time you have and what you think food is for. Enjoyment? Or energy? Similarly, what is comedy for? Andrew Marshall has argued comedy should be treated as a utility, like water and gas. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I see the point. We all need to laugh, so let’s not be snobby about where we get our comedy from. Maybe the sitcom isn’t bad. You just don’t like it.

2. It’s Not Bad. It’s Good. Too good.
The show may jar with you in someway, but that’s because it’s doing something different. The tempo, or tone is not like anything else you’ve seen before. In a good way. But you’re experiencing the difference in a bad way.
Lots of people didn’t like Arrested Development. The ratings were never great and it was cancelled after only a few seasons. Critics loved it. Every single comedy writer I know loves it. It’s so densely packed with jokes, and moves so fast, playing with conventions of comedy that it might be a hard watch for some. To them, the show might be bad. Not to me. It's too good.

3. Right Show. Wrong Time.
The show is either way ahead of its time. Or way behind. The latter is more likely, having come about by commissioning that is trying to follow a trend (we need a show like The Office, or Miranda, or Mrs Brown!) – rather than setting trends.

4. Right Show. Wrong Cast.
Remember they wanted Michael J Fox to play Marty McFly in Back to the Future? And they couldn’t get him. So they went ahead with Eric Stoltz. And they shot for five weeks. Fives weeks. They realised it wasn’t working. The comedy was not coming across. So they stopped shooting and waited for Michael J Fox to become available. Ballsy.



In a parallel universe, they didn’t do that, and you’ve never heard of the film. So, maybe the sitcom you don’t like is actually working fine on paper. But it’s horribly miscast. Or the lead turned out to be less funny than expected. They might have even realised that, but they couldn’t change it because in TV, believe me, no-one will let you reshoot five weeks of sitcom.

5. Surely This Show Should Exist?
The show isn't funny because it has no soul. That might be because it was talked into existence by someone – an exec, a commissioner, a writer, an actor, a producer – who felt like a certain kind of show should be made. It didn’t need to be made. It was just possible. And somehow, it felt like the right show at the right time, it was greenlit because it had the right cast, the right look or filled a gap. The result can be a show that maybe isn’t bad. It just isn’t any good.

6. Mission Creep
Mission Creep is what happens when soldiers turn up to keep the peace, and end up getting far more involved in local politics or civilian affairs than they ever intended. The stated goals of the operation subtlely changed, week by week, month by month, until the no-one quite knew why they’d come in the first place.

This can happen with sitcoms. A show is dreamed up by a writer, or actor, or comedian – and is about one thing. One character. One concept. But it ends up being pushed and pulled in various directions, usually in order to get the show commissioned, so that it ends up being about something else – and ultimately nothing. And not in a Seinfeld way.

Mission creep can sometimes be beneficial. Some shows end up being about different characters or relationships from what the original writers intended, like Friends, which was meant to be about Monica and Joey. But they quickly realised the show was about Ross and Rachel. At least at that point it was. Other shows are not so lucky.

7. Two Shows in Two Heads
Or even Three Shows in Three Heads. The show the writer has written, and the show the director is directing and the show the channel has commissioned are not quite the same thing in their minds. In an attempt to marry up these false expectations, compromises are made, and the result is a disparate mess.

8. Blame the Writer

‘Who writes this sh*t’ is a common refrain when a show is deemed to be poor. The writers are often the first to get the blame. I hope I've shown how it's often circumstances beyond the writer's control. But there is, of course, a strong possibility that the show stinks because writer has written a lousy script. It happens. How often? Who can say?

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Give Them Hell

Chuck Wendig has a brilliant blog and a recent post is very insightful – and visceral – about storytelling. In short, your protagonist needs to make things worse. And worse. And worse.

It made me think why I find it difficult to think of extreme stories when plotting a sitcom episode and here is one possible reason: the genre. In a sitcom, your characters need to start and finish in the same place. Your show is not a serial, and needs to be viewable out of sequence. That's the commercial reality and the deal. But also the appeal. It’s baked into the art form. In sitcoms, nothing changes and no-one learns. As such, it's a pretty good description of life. Situations may change – like the relationship-flat-swapping in Friends – but no-one fundamentally changes personality.

A sitcom retains the status quo. Your hero wins a million bucks. They need to lose a million bucks. Someone’s house catches fire. Well, somehow, it needs to look exactly the same next week. And so every huge plot twist or story explosion needs to be untwisted or cleared up and put back together.

This can temper your imagination. You don’t give your mind fully to exploring total catastrophe for your characters because you’re worried that you won’t be able to think of a de-catasrophising solution.

Messy Painting
It’s a bit like being in charge of a few small children. Whatever activity you propose, you’re going to need to clear up afterwards. And this will affect the activity you suggest. Want to let them paint with their hands? YAY! But bear in mind, you’ll have a lot of clearing up to do afterwards. Tables. Hands. Items of furniture in other rooms that somehow have blue marks on them.

We have to realise that we won’t think of big stories if we’re worried about how we’re going to put everything back together again afterwards. We need to trust ourselves to figure that out later. I’m sure I subconsciously try to think of a whole plot at once. I need to stop doing this.

So ask the question of your characters: What is the worst possible thing that could happen to them? And how can they make it even worse? What can they do that cannot be undone? In short, give them hell.

Two examples jump to mind, both from Blackadder. In Series 2, Lord Blackadder becomes Lord High Executioner, and in order to make life easier, he executes all his prisoners on a Monday. But the wife of one of them would like to visit him. Except he’s already been executed. That is a huge problem. You can’t get out of that one, or undo it. Farrow is dead. And trying to get out of that leading to farcical scenes such as the ones depicted below containing some of my favourite lines in all comedy. (Including ‘They’ve gone, Percy’).

In all honesty, I don’t quite believe they resolve Blackadder’s problem satisfactorily in that episode, but who am I to question the genius of Blackadder? And you do get some really cracking funny scenes.

The other example if from Blackadder the Third, in which it appears that Baldrick has burnt Dr Johnson’s dictionary. When Baldrick is ordered to steal a copy, Dr Johnson reveals there is no copy. So Blackadder has to rewrite the entire dictionary in one night. Funny.

What is the worst thing that can happen to your characters? How can they make it even worse? Don’t worry about how they get out of it just yet. The blue fingerprints on the piano stool can be cleaned off later. Right now, give them hell.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Hack Scenes - The Betrayal Part 2

Since the last post here, there's been some discussion on Twitter about hack scenes and cliches. Simon Blackwell made the point that you can ultimately do anything by skilled writing. And I agree. The moment you issue a rule or declare an area of limits because it's 'been done to death' (or too offensive), it just makes comedy writers want to disprove that rule with skilled writing. That's the kind of pathetically contrary people we are.

But I've been wondering what's bothering me about that particular 'Betrayal' scene, and why I think it's now hack. Maybe it isn't hack, but here why it bothers me:

I hinted at this before saying that doing a 'cliched betrayal' scene in an archly comedic way undermines the reality of your show, and the rules that you've established. And that alternative reality is really important. So when you parallel it with another reality, the audience will start to become aware that they're watching a sitcom - and that this is all made up.

This in turn undermines credibility - and it's almost never worth doing that for the sake of a few jokes, or a scene that doesn't really have any cast iron consequence in the overall story of the show.

The moment your characters start slipping into a cliched movie scene, I think it causes more problems than it solves. Because this wilful suspension of credibility can creates uncertainty and confusion. How so?

1. In order to achieve your parallel/cliched scene, your characters may have to change their speech patterns - and suddenly they're acting out of character. The other characters would notice this, but they don't - because they're acting slightly out of character too. Now the whole scene sounds artificial.

2. Given that the whole scene is now artificial, it is uncertain as to whether the character realise this. Are they joking? Are they doing this on purpose? Are they referencing a particular scene? Suddenly we're in a world in which comedy characters are aware of comedy cliches and are starting to 'do jokes'. Normally sitcoms are funny because the characters lack self-awareness. Now it's starting to feel self-referential and self-indugent.

Clearly, this can be made to work if you go all in and own it. And you're the kind of show that can do that. Think of the Seinfeld JFK scene. In fact you don't need to. Here is it:


So I'm probably over thinking it. But then, I'm a sitcomgeek and blogging about the technicalities of sitcom. That's what I do.

Hack Scenes - The Betrayal

In the past, I've blogged about hack lines - or clams as they're called in our world, at the moment. That's here and here. And Dan Tetsell has mentioned a couple of hack storylines on his sporadic but lovely blog here. But the other day I was reminded of a hack scene or beat which I find very cliched and tired. It goes like this:

Bob and John both like doing a thing together. Let's say fishing. And recently they've found a particular spot, and it's really special. John agrees to go fishing with Ian. And what do you know? They end up in the spot where Bob and John go fishing. That special spot. Bob finds out and confronts Ian. And the conversation plays out as if Bob and John were lovers, and that John has just betrayed him by sleeping with Ian. And we have lines like 'That's our special thing' and 'We only did it once' and 'It didn't mean anything!' and 'I didn't know what I was doing' and 'I was thinking of you the whole time'. And it's all very arch, and overdone, deliberately.

Just like knowing film parody scenes, which I also have a problem with, these scenes can take you out of reality of the sitcom. You're undermining something that you've worked very hard to create. So you need to think very hard before you do that. But, worst of all, it's just not original. It was really funny when Monica and Rachel had this kind of conversation in Friends:


But this is Season 2 of Friends.

That's 1995. Twenty years ago.

So on the twentieth anniversary of Friends nailing this kind of scene, can we retire this one?

Please leave comments or tweet me (@sitcomgeek) about other hack scenes you liked to see retired, pensioned off or humanely destroyed.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Introducing a New Character

How do you introduce a new character into your sitcom? Quickly. That would be my advice.

Jasmine (Susan Wokoma) rocks
Maybe you have a particular reason to make a new character mysterious and undefined, but as a general rule, you want your new character to hit the ground running. If your audience already know the other characters because they're watching Episode 18, a new character might not be welcome. So you need to hit them hard with something.

You can bring in a new character with an extreme personality and a ton of attitude. We did that with the new medic on Bluestone 42, (Series 3 Ep1) called Jasmine (Susan Wokoma). She turned up in an intense situation with some gallows humour and won the audience over straight away, if Twitter is anything to go by.

I wrote about Guest Characters in a previous blog, here. Jasmine is undoubtedly the Unreasonable Sociopath. However, when we were writing her, we liked her so much, we snuck her into Episodes 2 and 3. Having seen how brilliantly Susan played her, I wish we'd found a way of working her into Episodes 4, 5 and 6.

The other way of introducing a new character takes into account that the audience might possibly be resenting a change of personnel. But you can use the existing much-loved characters to your advantage by showing how this new character is going to impact on the regulars. That's the way we went with Captain Ellen Best (Laura Aikman) on Bluestone 42 who turns up to (WARNING: SPOILERS) take over from Nick.

Ellen is the complete opposite of Nick, whom the team respected and loved, not least because he led by personality, sarcasm and example, rather than discipline or any other way. This will be a problem for Bird, Towerblock, Mac and Rocket. Simon, as it turns out, has been wanting this kind of Ellen-style regime all along.

In her first full episode, Ellen has to try and win over her team (and hopefully the audience). She goes about it the wrong way, trying to draw a line under the way Nick did things and trying to get them to push themselves to be the best. But through the Colonel - and a fridge - she learns that Nick's way could be effective. What's the first rule? Do what works. Ellen learns a lesson, and the team give her the benefit of the doubt when she delivers the fridge, and also proves she's the fittest. (Jasmine's not impressed obviously).

So how did we go about kicking all this off? Well obviously you can see for yourself on iPlayer here.

The script says something like this:

EXT. HILLSIDE - DAY 1, 0900 
It’s a hot day. There is a hill. And not much else. 
ELLEN yomps over the brow of the hill, holding a map in a plastic cover. She stops, looks at the map, then looks around. She see something: 
A patrol of British SOLDIERS sheltering under a tree, brewing up tea. SERGEANT MORRISON is standing up. 
ELLEN (Approaching:)
Brilliant! Found you! Sergeant Morrison, is it? 
MORRISON
Yes, ma’am. 
ELLEN
Captain Ellen Best. I’m the new ATO with Bluestone 42 who are... (Looking behind her:)
Oh. 
No sign of BLUESTONE 42. Then over comes ROCKET, then SIMON, trying to hide his exhaustion, followed by BIRD, red-faced and gasping. Then MAC. TOWERBLOCK is last, looking a bit better than the others. He prods MAC forward. 
TOWERBLOCK
Come on, Mac! 
ELLEN
We tabbed it over. Which was... informative. 
Under the following BLUESTONE 42 arrive at the tree, sink to their knees, get out waterbottles and start to drink.  
ROCKET
Thirsty... 
ELLEN
They’re a work in progress, but excellence takes time. As does fitness. Trust. ...And everything else. So, you found a stash of home made explosive...? 
MORRISON
Just down here... 
ELLEN and MORRISON move away as they talk.
In the script, that's about a page. In screen time, it's about a minute and a half.

What we were trying to  convey to the audience was that Ellen would bring in a new regime that was totally unlike the kind of operation run by her predecessor, Nick. We'd dig into her feelings about Nick later, but hopefully, this one page shows us (rather than 'tells us') a number of things about Ellen, including the following:

Capt Ellen Best (Laura Aikman)
Ellen leads from the front. She's out on her own, leading her team up a mountain to get the job done.

Ellen is physically fit, as she turns up not looking tired at all.

Ellen is positive. Her first words are 'Brilliant! Found you!' And she doesn't mean those words sarcastically, unlike Nick.

Ellen is a Captain, just like Nick was, so she's operating on the same level as he was.

Ellen is optimistic. She assumes that her team are right behind her. She looks round, and they're not there. Oh.

Ellen realises that she will have to knock this team into shape - and you get the sense that she kind of suspected that already.

Ellen realises that she needs to win their trust.

The other point to make is obvious. Ellen is a woman. And Sergeant Morrison isn't surprised to see a female ATO. For us on this show, as in real life, it's no big deal.

Writing a pilot is especially hard because you're introducing multiple characters simultaneously. But whenever bringing in a new character you have to make use of every moment, every line, every prop - and everything that isn't said, as well as what is - in order to tell your audience who this character is and how they're going to affect the existing characters they already love. And hopefully, they'll love them as much as the audience seem to have taken to Captain Ellen Best.