Thursday, 13 August 2015

Writing the Pilot

In the latest Sitcom Geeks podcast, we talk about writing the pilot episode. I talk about stuff that I also cover in my book, Writing That Sitcom.

Here's an extract:

Your sitcom pilot is the first episode, and it contains the First Act of your show. The only question is how long you want the set-up to last. There are a number of schools of thought on this whole issue about how ‘set-uppy’ the pilot episode should be. So let’s look briefly at the options available for the ‘set-uppy-ness’ (‘expositionality’?) of your pilot episode:

The Whole Episode Set-Up
A character wakes up one morning and decides he’s going to do something different. He’s going to move to the country. She’s going to quit and start her own business. They’ve lost everything and have volunteered to be the first settlers on the moon. Or, in the case of The Good Life, for example, you turn forty and wonder if you’re just a cog in a machine. In To The Manor Born, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton attends her husband’s funeral and loses her enormous house.

Back in the day, the BBC used to confidently churn out big sitcoms, often committing to eight episodes or more in the first series, so maybe they felt they could take their time setting up. Clearly, The Good Life and To The Manor Born have very watchable first episodes, but they are very set-uppy.

My instinct is that writers, especially inexperienced ones, can easily get hung up on this kind of pilot. They often worry about building the world and setting up characters. But I’m not sure you have time for that these days. You’re under quite a lot of pressure to get on with it. And that may be no bad thing. There are many dangers of a pilot episode that is strong on set up. You may well be establishing characters and settings that we never see again. If you’re a studio show, there might be lots of location shooting. Not ideal. Plus, you’re creating an episode which is going to be unlike all future episodes.

I would suggest two alternatives:

The Quick Set Up
In this kind of pilot, you set up the premise fairly quickly, maybe in the first third of the episode, and then spend the rest of the episode on a regular, but mini-episode. The best example of this I can think of is My Name Is Earl, in which Earl J. Hickey, a small-time thief, wins $100k on a lottery ticket and is immediately hit by a car (four minutes in) and watches the ticket blow away. In hospital, Earl’s wife Joy divorces him, and Earl hears about the concept of karma via the TV (six minutes in). He resolves to try to make up for all the bad things he has done and writes a list of 259 items (seven minutes in). At 07.25 his life quest is clearly stated: “That Karma stuff is clearly gonna kill me unless I make up for everything on that list.” Thirty seconds later, he picks an easy one off the list. Number 64: "Picked on Kenny James." Earl figures he needs to help Kenny to have friends. And we’re off. We’ve now got a 16 minute, mini-episode which will be a taste of the series to come. Brilliant. It hooked me and I watched every single episode (including the lousy prison ones).

The other option is:

The Newcomer
Someone arrives who changes everything. Or at least acts as a window on the world. This is quite useful in that you can explain stuff to the newbie, as Fletcher does to Godber in Porridge. Fletcher’s been transferred from another prison and Godber is new to the whole thing. It’s quite a common trick and can work well. In Ever Decreasing Circles, Martin Brice walks in and Paul is in the kitchen. Nothing will be the same again. In The Vicar of Dibley, a new vicar arrives in, er, Dibley. And it’s a woman. Shock, horror. In Miranda, Gary has returned. In Bluestone 42, a new Padre has arrived. And an American guy is shot in the head. In Hut 33, the Oxford Professor arrives.

You can combine the Quick Set Up and The Newcomer. For example, in Yes, Minister, Jim Hacker, the new Minister, has arrived at the Department of Administrative Affairs, and an episode plays out that beautifully sets the tone for the series.

What’s left? A couple more pilot options for those feeling brave:

The Opening Titles
Every week, the opening titles play – and you can make them work really hard for you. In fact, you can pack your show’s entire premise into the opening titles and forget pilots altogether. In fifteen seconds, you have all you need to know about the main character and situation of Veep. Graphs and headlines show that she ran for president but didn’t make it. So she’s vice president. The audience is smart enough to fill in the gaps, suspecting that it’s a bit of a non-job. Apart from that, there’s very little set-up in that show. Another example of this is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s all in the opening theme, rapped by the hero, Will Smith. Here's the slightly elongated version:

However you set up your premise in the pilot, reminding your audience of the headline idea week after week isn’t a bad idea. Even though the first episode of Arrested Development sets up the demise of the Bluth family, and how Michael ends up taking charge, it doesn’t hurt to remind people of this each week. My Name is Earl has a similar premise recap, as does Porridge.

The Show Title
Who needs explanation, set up and backstory when the title of the show says it all? My Family. It’s a family. Job done. Keeping up Appearances; dinnerladies; Men Behaving Badly. The central idea and theme is clear from the name of the show. The rest is detail.

A wiser and more experienced man than me (Paul Mayhew-Archer, in fact) says that if you want to know how to set up a sitcom, watch the first episode of Cheers. That’s good advice. Watch that. In fact, watch as many first episodes as you can. Shows you loved. Shows you hated. Sometimes, the first episode bares little relation to the show you remember, or came to love (or hate) – but usually all the key ingredients are there. They may just be a little undercooked.

To read the rest of Writing That Sitcom on Kindle or the Kindle App, click here or, if you're in USA, here. To listen to the podcast, click here.

To attend a two-day sitcom-writing course in November with me and Dave Cohen, click here.

My Top Ten Favourite Sitcoms and the Glaring Omissions

Anyone who's been looking at this blog over the last few weeks will know that I've been going through my favourite ten British sitcoms. These are not shows which I think are objectively 'the best', or most technically brilliant, although I'd argue that on some of them. They are shows which I've grown up with, fallen in love with or which have inspired me to start writing, or, more likely, try harder. I explain more here. So here are my ten favourite shows:

1. Yes, Prime Minster
2. Blackadder
3. Porridge
4. One Foot in the Grave
5. Hancock
6. Red Dwarf
7. Mr Don and Mr George
8. Black Books
9. Allo Allo
10. Bread

Yes. Bread. And there have been some glaring omissions. (I know. Glaring Omissions sounds like the kind of band a politician was in during their University days.) But no Fawlty Towers? No Only Fools and Horses? No Spaced? No Young Ones? NO HITCHHIKERS? NO DAD'S ARMY?! What on earth is going on?

I'm not sure which of those would make it into my Top Twenty. I'd certainly take Reggie Perrin, which was a huge hit in my household growing up, and frequently quoted. So sad to see David Nobbs' recent passing. I'd also take Rossiter in Rising Damp, which is majestic, and bears re-watching. Rigsby's pettiness and racism are written with brilliantly by Eric Chappell who also penned Only When I Laugh, which I really enjoyed for its simplicity. But then I also used to love Duty Free, Chance in a Million and Home to Roost but they're probably not Top 20 material, much as I liked at them at the time and can see their virtues.

A show that's improved with hindsight and my own aging is Ever Decreasing Circles, which is just brilliant, deranged and very special. And I've not even mentioned I'm Alan Partridge, which was hugely significant at a time when I was starting to get into comedy writing. And of course Fools and Horses would have to be in the Top 20. I'm not insane.

But Fawlty Towers? There are a couple of episodes I really enjoyed, the one with Mrs Richards most of all ("Is this a piece of your brain?"), and the one with the Germans, obviously. But overall, Fawlty Towers is just too farcical for me. It makes me want to curl up into a ball and block my ears. Also, if we're being mega-critical, the script doesn't serve Polly or Sybil well.

And Dad's Army? I admire it, but never found myself wanting to watch the endless repeats on the BBC. I always preferred It Ain't Half Hot Mum, especially the bits where Windor Davies shouts.

This could last for days, and ultimately won't get us anywhere. (Gah! I'd COMPLETELY forgotten about Dear John!) But what it is worth noting is how important sitcoms are; how dear to our hearts they become; how long we cherish them for; how many times we're able to watch them. TV Commissioners take note. Panel games do not have the same effect, must as I love Would I Lie To You?

One more thing. How many of these great shows are written by writers? Writers rather than writer-performers. Maybe there's nothing in this. Back in the day, writer-performers did sketch shows and variety show, not sitcoms so much. Eric Sykes was a rare exception. As is Fawlty Towers. I make this point here.

Writers don't give you a performance, but maybe they give you a greater chance at longevity or something more elusive and ethereal. Today, the majority of shows are at least co-written by the star: Bad Education, Man Down, Toast, Miranda, Mrs Brown, Not Going Out, Car Share, The Trip, Detectorists, People Just Do Nothing, Yonderland, Brian Pern, The Wrong Mans. I could go on. For a bit longer anyway. The Revs, the Peep Shows and the Uncles are rarer than ever.

As the Edinburgh Fringe get bigger every year and more and more producers attend looking for the next big thing, my worry is the writer-only talent is getting over-looked, but it needs nurturing and encouraging as much, if not more than, the writer-performer talent. That's what I'm taking away from this arbitrary exercise and blast of nostalgia. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

If you'd like to listen to me and Dave Cohen discuss comedy for half an hour as a podcast, I suggest you click here.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 1 - Yes, Prime Minister

The sixteen episodes of Yes, Prime Minister are, to me, perfect situation comedy. Because I’ve always been such a sitcom geek, whenever I watch any sitcom I sometimes get itchy and think that the writers have missed out a joke, or have let a weak scene get through, or there are plot holes that need fixing. I watch Yes, Prime Minister and my sitcom geek alarm never goes off. It powers down and goes into sleep mode. Because Yes Prime Minister is perfect.

I know some think that Yes, Prime Minister is a shadow of the original Yes, Minister series. I don’t see it that way. Yes, Minister is brilliant, but it can be a bit messy and ragged. Too many location scenes, which for some reason I always regard as a failure in studio sitcom writing. Plus Hacker’s original political advisor is really annoying and not funny, sucking energy out of every scene he’s in. The ‘dear lady’ in Yes, Prime Minister is much more fun.

The show has two perfect characters – an odd couple – who lock horns every week. Hacker is the Political Will versus Sir Humphrey, the Administrative Won’t. They both think they’re doing the right thing as they see it, trying to change things for the better, or preserve things as they are. But Hacker is too worried about his popularity. And Sir Humphrey too obsessed with the Civil Service staying big, slow and magisterial. So they are perfectly calibrated for maximum comedy conflict.

Stuck in between is the delightful Bernard, who sees both sides and pulled in both directions, and sometimes has to be set straight by Sir Humphrey. Like this:


And that’s about it. You have other characters, like Arnold or Mrs Hacker, and the occasional guest like one of my favourites, Sir Desmond Glazebrook. But mostly it’s a two hander, where the one with the upper hand changes each week.

The show has characters as strong as Hancock’s Half Hour, is plotted as brilliantly as One Foot in the Grave, has the distilled perfection of Porridge and glories in the English language and has all the set pieces like Blackadder (see below). It’s a masterpiece that continues to inspire me. One day I hope to write something that might even be half as good.

So that's my Top Ten. I'll write another blogpost about glaring omissions like Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army, and Only Fools and Horses. But this is a list of my Ten Favourites, not necessarily the best, most successful or well-respected. It just so happens Yes, Prime Minister is the best.

For help in getting the sitcom from your head into a pilot script, have a look at Writing That Sitcom. To listen to a podcast about all things sitcom, called Sitcom Geeks, go here. And to do a two-day sitcom-writing course with me and Dave Cohen in November (Not Going Out, Horrible Histories), go here.


Oh, alright then. Here are some more clips. Here's one with just the three of them. Wonderful:

And a superb set-piece scene about who reads the different newspapers.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 2 - Blackadder

How can anyone not love Blackadder? We may be divided about which series we like the most (I’m a 4, 3, 2, 1 man), but we all love the characters and the stories, but most of all, we love the jokes, the memorable, lovely, wordy jokes that draw on the richness of the English language.

I've been obsessed with the show from the first time I saw Blackadder II on BBC2 when I was fairly young. I remember the excitement of Blackadder III coming out, and the jaw-dropping Blackadder Goes Forth a few years later. Since then, I've seen and heard every episode so many times, I've essentially memorised them. Or at least, I've memorised the ones with the Baby-Eating Bishop of Bath and Wells, The Duke of Wellington, The Puritan Aunt and Uncle, Flash, Dr Johnson and many others besides. If only I could remember useful information so easily.

What can we learn from this show? 
You can see that the writers and performers all had a background in sketch comedy. And the show does, if you were really struggling to find things to criticise, feel like an elongated sketch. But the key to its consistent funniness is that each scene is like a little sketch, with a premise that is then mined for every possible joke before moving on. At the end of each scene, you know they haven’t left anything on the table.

For example, the huge intelligent but pompous Dr Johnson walks in having just written the first dictionary:

So what do we learn? Get into sketch comedy. Go to the Edinburgh Fringe. Watch Mitchell and Webb, Fry and Laurie and The Two Ronnies. See how it works. Try writing sketches. Write for Newsjack. Get into that discipline of writing tight three page scenes packed with jokes around one simple idea. It will stand you in good stead for sitcom writing.

Being Ruthless
In Blackadder, we can also see ruthlessness with scripts and editing at work. The scripts are extremely tight. Every line is either a joke or a set up to a joke. Very few British shows match the joke rate of American hits like Friends. But Blackadder can. It’s a relentless stream of brilliant jokes that are used on every occasion. In my book, Writing That Sitcom, in the context of using jokes to stop expositional lines from being boring or eggy, I write this:
A few decent jokes go a long way and cover a multitude of exposition. And there’s no better than Curtis & Elton on this. A certain Blackadder line could read: 
George: Are we going to attack the enemy? How exciting! 
Blackadder: Yes. And we’ll all die in the process. This war is a complete waste of time. 
That’s exposition. And not funny. Here’s the same exposition with jokes: 
George: Great Scott sir, you mean, you mean the moment's finally arrived for us to give Harry Hun a darned good British style thrashing, six of the best, trousers down? 
Blackadder: If you mean, "Are we all going to get killed?" Yes. Clearly, Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin. 
Not only is the latter version 1000% funnier, it also gives us so much more information about their characters. We’re only four minutes into the series when these lines crop up and these are brand new characters for us, since the previous series was set a hundred years earlier where George was the Prince Regent and Blackadder was the butler. Now Blackadder is a Captain. And we know George, a lieutenant, is a lower rank because he calls Blackadder ‘sir’. 
We also learn in the few lines that George is insanely patriotic, overly optimistic and probably a bit thick given how previous attacks have gone. 
We learn that Captain Blackadder is a realist, cynical and unimpressed with the general directing the battles and their futility. This isn’t just exposition.
So Captain Blackadder. I salute you. You’re my second favourite British sitcom of all time.

To buy Writing That Sitcom or a for a free sample, go here. Or here if you're in USA.
And the Sitcom Geeks Podcast is here or look for it on iTunes.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 3 - Porridge

How good and well regarded is Porridge? Here’s how. Google it. The TV show comes out ahead of the food.

Porridge is an all-time copper-bottomed will-be-repeated-forever classic. And quite rightly. It's my third favourite (British) sitcom ever.

I have a theory on sitcoms, that they need Characters, Conflict and Confinement. Plus Casting is crucial. Porridge gets all of these exactly right from the start. Okay, not quite from the start. There was a pilot in which Fletcher was a little darker and more menacing. But when the series started, it was an instant classic. Here's why:

Norman Stanley Fletcher is a superb character that we’ve not really seen before – or since. Somehow, Clement and Le Frenais created a character who is a selfish every-man-for-himself criminal who knows how to survive inside – but is also likeable, funny and always able to win little victories. And we have Godber, a repentant criminal who made a mistake and is paying the price. Fletcher’s only regret is being caught, and yet we still love him. Add to this a stern, suspicious Mr Mackay and a soft, trusting Mr Barraclough and you’re already in great shape with four superb characters with very different perspectives on life.

I’m not the first to spot this, but you’ve also got a family right there. Stern Dad (Mackay), Kind Mum (Barraclough), Worldly-wide Older Brother (Fletcher), Innocent Younger Brother (Godber). Given we're hard-wired for families, this kind of arrangement gives you a really good chance of success.

You have ultimate confinement: prison. And with prison comes a world of rules, regulations, dos and don’t: perfect sitcom territory. Lots of measurable and trackable successes and defeats. Lots of chances for pettiness and sticking it to the man. Plus you have uniforms, where it’s easy to see who are the good guys (the bad prisoners) and who are the bad guys (the good prison wardens).

Fletcher is clearly the epicentre of the show, and his relationships with his cell-mate, Godber and his nemesis, Mr Mackay, are crucial and unavoidable. He has a love-hate conflict with Godber, whom he wants to help, but also has to put up with in very close proximity. Plus Godber asks Fletcher difficult questions, and challenges his criminality and cynicism. It’s a beautiful, perfectly calibrated relationship.

Then there’s the relationship with Mr Mackay – a game of chess where the pieces are tins of pineapple chunks or rolls of toilet paper. They are both at the top of their game and have a begrudging respect for the other. And we love to watch them fight it out every week.

It really helps if you cast one of the greatest comedy actors this country has ever produced. Ronnie Barker is up there with Peter Sellers and Leonard Rossiter. Richard Beckinsale was pretty good to hold his own, as he did along side Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp (for which there is sadly no room in my Top Ten, but gets an honourable mention here. I went back to it a few years ago, and it really holds up well. And Rossiter is just stunning. To be Rigsby and Reggie Perrin is astonishing)

And on top of all the above, the writing is simply first class. Every line counts. Every moment is full of atmosphere, character and meaning. And lots of jokes, little ones, big ones and very memorable ones. It remains a joy to watch. And it's great sitcom homework. In fact, it's a masterclass.

For more on Character, Conflict and Confinement, have a look at Writing That Sitcom, available for Kindle/Kindle App now in UK, USA and Australia.

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 4 - One Foot In The Grave

One Foot In The Grave is a modern classic and the one show that gives me hope for the modern-day, mainstream sitcom. It appeals to all ages with its mix of recognisable situations, absurdities and tapping into the frustrations of modern life and bad service. The show is permanently waving a defiant fist at the universe.

One might make the mistake of thinking that Victor Meldrew is a grumpy old man. He isn't. He's a perfectly pleasant senior citizen who likes to be polite, always calling Mrs Warboys by her formal title and name. Even though he finds her annoying. And selfish. Which she is. But she is also vulnerable, so we feel sympathy with her.

Meldrew just likes things done properly, but most of all, he would like to be treated with respect. And when he is ignored or taken for a ride, he causes a scene or creates a plan for revenge which usually backfires on him, even though he morally on the side of the angels, and his anger is righteous. He is turned into a monster by society.

Margaret, Victor's wife, is stuck in the middle, dutifully helping her friend, Mrs Warboys, trying to be a good neighbour but generally trying to cope with the vortex of chaos in her house - when a plant is potted in the downstairs toilet, or Victor is buried up to his neck in soil.

So it's worth noting that this show is successful because we have true sympathy for the main characters, including their long suffering neighbours. It would be easy to create a monster like Victor Meldrew and omit to make him likeable, which would make him far less appealing and funny.

The other genius of this show is its physicality. Added to all of the above, and the verbal rants, are strong physical jokes, both big and small, like this one:

It's not just small moments of slapstick, but elaborate set-ups and pay-offs that are works of genius. David Renwick is able to conceal the big reveal until the last possible moment for full impact, ensuring there are no ambiguities or lose threads. It's like a carefully stage-managed magic trick. So it's no wonder that Renwick also wrote a comedy drama about a magician and illusionist, Jonathan Creek.

It's a masterclass in plotting and one to learn from when writing our own sitcoms. Often, a script isn't going well because it's not been adequately plotted. In order to keep things jolly and funny, you've panicked and gone for short term jokes rather than playing the long game. But you need to think all the way to the end and go back and cut material, routines and jokes if they're not adding to the whole. It's painful but you sometimes have to throw out really funny stuff.

Because the plots are so well crafted and paced, with the reveals coming at exactly the right moments, with physical jokes along the way, and sympathetic characters who can boil over, you don't need that many jokes. Looking back over episodes, there are lots of lines which, on reflection, could be funnier. But Renwick doesn't need them. He is a master, holding back until the right moments, and then going all in.

So, what can we learn from this modern masterpiece? Sympathy for characters, more time on the plot. Take care of that and the comedy takes care of itself.

For more sitcom advice, and how to get the idea from your head into a pilot script, have a look at Writing That Sitcom, available for Kindle/Kindle App.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 5 - Hancock's Half Hour

Tony Hancock is the ultimate British sitcom character, almost the original on which all others are based.

His name tells you quite a lot. The character’s full name is Tony Aloysius Hancock. Two regular, everyman names, with pretention stuffed inside. Hancock is pompous, self-important and has no self-awareness. And, most crucially, his expectations exceed his ability, just like Captain Mainwairing, David Brent, Basil Fawlty, Arnold Rimmer et al.

He attempts numerous projects, jobs and schemes to unlock his genius, pull himself up by his boot straps or make a name for himself. They always end in failure. Hancock is insistent that the world is against him. Which it is. And that’s how it feels to us. But we can at least comfort ourselves that none of us are as deluded, frustrated and bitter as Hancock.

The central character is so strong that he works in almost any setting, which is handy because the show is very erratic in its situation. Given the sitcom form had not really settled down, it seems no-one felt any need to impose any kind of continuity between episodes. The result, looking back over the  TV episodes that survive, is that you’re never quite sure whether the guy who’s gone to give blood one week is the same guy with all the radio kit another week. But you don't care. It's just funny.

The central character is so strong that he works with any characters, which is also handy given the real Hancock was so paranoid and insecure that over time, he had every regular cast member removed, most notable being Kenneth Williams and Sid James. But it didn’t matter, because the character at the centre is rock-solid – a small-minded, moralising also-ran who embodies all of our prejudices, neuroses and cowardice. And yet somehow, you care.

The central character is strong, but he doesn’t work without the writers, Galton and Simpson. The star killed the geese that layed the golden eggs, firing Galton and Simpson, who’d written 150 episodes for TV and Radio. So they'd probably had enough anyway. But from that moment on, Hancock’s days, comedically, were numbered. And sadly, literally, as it turned out.

For more sitcom analysis, and how to get the sitcom from your head onto a page, why not have a look at Writing That Sitcom, available for Kindle/Kindle App now?