Friday, 22 August 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - Gag Pass

So we’re thinking about being a writer and working on someone else’s sitcom. How does it work? What normally goes on. Last time, it was Ideas Generation. This time, The Gag Pass.

What is a Gag Pass?
Pic by Snow0810 via Flickr
A ‘gag pass’ or a ‘punch up’ sounds like some dangerous game that squaddies play, but really it’s quite straight forward. It’s just a day or two of making a script as funny as it can possibly be.

The script is probably going to be shot in a few weeks, and overall it’s in good shape, but the writers just want one more pass at the script before it gets locked down. Maybe there’s just been a read-through and some jokes seemed to work and others fell flat, so there are patches that might need special attention. So a few writers are hired for a day or two to sit and go through a script - or a bunch of scripts – to make sure every joke is as funny as it can possibly be.

Some sitcoms do this by correspondence. The script is emailed to a chosen few who write down alternative gags or lines. This has never been an especially satisfactory way of going about it, but it saves schlepping into a stuffy windowless room and trying to be funny.

The more traditional way is that stuffy, windowless room with hard copies of the script printed out so you can jot or doodle on it, and pitch your ideas for new lines. You probably haven’t been sent it in advance and you’re not expected to have done any homework.

In my experience, you need to rely on your instincts for the actual jokes. You need to react to a duff line with a better one, at least in your head, and then make a note of it so you can pitch it when the time comes. When I’ve run gag passes, we’re read a scene aloud amongst ourselves and then stop at the end of that scene to look for improvements.

Etiquette
In general, the rules of ideas generation apply. Don’t pitch something more than once, even ironically.

Pitch lines they can actually use, rather than lines that just make the room laugh – which is worth doing once or twice, but can get out of hand.

Laugh at other people’s jokes and mean it. Don’t be a jerk. If you’re feeling grumpy, fake it. It’s only for seven hours.

Also, it’s okay to defend a joke or bit or moment in the existing script that you really like. It may be the original writer has gone off the joke and just needs some gentle encouragement to stick with it – especially if you don’t have a better one.

You can also pitch sight gags, improvements to props, and anything which adds comedy to the show but doesn’t make it longer. Usually, the script is a little long and needs cutting, so jokes need replacing rather than adding, but a sight gag takes no time at all.

Know the show. It sounds obvious but don't go into a room where you're meant to be pitching jokes and you're a little hazy on the characters and their names. Watch more episodes. Make a little diagram or chart if it helps you. Get into those characters and you'll be able to see scenes from their perspective which will help you come up with characters jokes, rather than just 'funny lines'.

Keep the tone of the show in mind. If it’s not a sweary show, don’t pitch sweary lines. If it’s not a goofy, silly show, don’t pitch goofy, silly jokes or props. If you’re not sure pitch it, maybe with a caveat of ‘This may be too dumb but…’ Or pitch the line and then say ‘Does that work with the show?’ etc. Let the show runner or creator be the judge if you’re not sure. But don’t pitch lines that obviously don’t fit because it wastes time, and shows comtempt for the show and the process.

Work out what the scene is trying to achieve, and make some suggestions for lines that don’t derail that intention. It’s too late for picking apart the scene – unless you’re told otherwise.

The Table
So that’s Ideas Generation and The Gag Pass. What about being part of ‘The Table’? If you’re part of one (or 'a room' of writers), most of your work is Ideas Generation at start, with some episode plotting (or ‘story breaking’) and a Gag Pass on each draft that comes in front of you. Maybe you’ll be part of a discussion about fixing the script if it didn’t quite work at a readthrough. But you may end up writing and episode, so we’ll look at that next time.


But in the meantime, it’s worth pointing out that most British shows don’t have tables – mainly because of expense. After all, why would you spend a penny more than you have on the content of what you’re actually filming and the stuff the actors are going to say? That makes no sense at all. We don’t do tables or rooms.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - Ideas Generation

Despite being the land of the free, America has a fairly set structure for how their sitcoms are written, how rooms are run and how writers progress.  (There’s an excellent summary of that at the brilliant  Children of Tendu podcast here)

In the UK, things are much more haphazard. Especially now. As a rule, it used to be that writers wrote and actors performed. And the writers who came up with the show wrote all the episodes in batches of six or eight. There have always been writer-performers, like Eric Sykes, but, again, they tended to write all of their own material, or used one other writer. (Again we looked at that here).

Things are much more messy now – and I’m pretty glad about that. Although I’ve created a few of my own sitcoms for radio (Think the Unthinkable and Hut 33) and co-created one for TV (Bluestone 42), a lot of my work has been writing with other people – like Miranda Hart or Milton Jones – or existing shows, like My Hero, My Family or a number of children’s shows (Dani’s Castle, Kerching!, Mr Bloom’s Nursery and the legendary Chucklevision). I’ve also spent a day or two here and there on other shows that have not come to fruition.

The point is this: collaboration is normal and more often that not, you’re going to be working on someone else’s show. It seems there are four main ways in which this could happen. Here's the first:

Idea Generation
Maybe a sitcom has been commissioned for a second or third series. Perhaps it’s going to be eight or ten episodes. The writer-performer has burned through lots of material in series one. But they need ideas, stories, plots, moments and set-pieces. You may have been invited to do this because you know one of the other writers on the show, or the producer liked a pilot script you sent them. Or you have a good agent and a decent CV.

You may get to work in
as creative a room as this. I did.
You’ll probably be in a room of three or four others, maybe more, and there’ll be a whiteboard. You’ll probably have to turn up at 10am and pitch ideas ‘til 5pm. I know. Tough life. You should be paid a day rate (a few hundred quid or more if you're experienced) and what you say or pitch is theirs. It goes up on their whiteboard.

Now this could tempt you to clam up. They get your all ideas? Let’s not give them the crown jewels. Well, yes and no. The fact is you’re only going to pitch ideas that are suitable for their show. You may have watched the show and a few ideas popped into your head, so pitch those. And you have a big long list of sitcom story ideas (see here and here) but only a handful are relevant to the show you’re pitching on. And in a day, you’re not likely to pitch more than half a dozen ideas because other people will be there – and you can build on their ideas too.

You want to make sure you pitch some really good, usable ideas because they might be using this day of ideas generation to see if you’re suited to actually writing an episode. They want to see if you ‘get’ the show. Maybe they’re not looking for someone to write at an episode now, but they might be in the future. The main writer might decide to hand one off, and you want to be on the end of that hand, having a juicy script commission smacked into your forehead.

Homework
So, do some homework. Work out the rules of the show. Think of some stories that put the big star of the show in stories that matter to the character – but also involve big funny set-piece scenes. Bear in mind a big funny set piece scene is just that. A scene. It’s not a story. So think about how to get to that scene and what’s at stake for the character. And what happens next. You don’t need it all worked out, but give it some thought.

Some Do's and Don't's
For this reason, don’t pitch ideas that are essentially film parodies, partly because they require little imagination and original thought, but also because they’re not actually stories that sustain. Avoid.

Also, have something up your sleeve for characters that seem under-served by the stories in the last series, or character pairings that are unusual for the show. And maybe an idea or two for some locations or sets that have been built, but seem underused.

Personally, I’d avoid pitching ideas that involve outside characters. “Hey, our hero’s sister shows up and she’s Little Miss Perfect. Played by a famous person.” That may sound cool and exciting, but if I’m the British equivalent of the Show Runner, I’m hearing “Hey, the regular characters are boring. Let’s have someone else. And someone cooler than the show.” No, thanks.

So that would be my advice in addition to the usual stuff like don’t pitch something twice, act normal, and don’t be a jerk (so not normal, if you’re a jerk). Build on other people’s ideas. Don’t talk over other people. And remember it’s not your show.

And if you're not sure of what's expected of you on the day, ask the producer. Email them. They won't mind. They really won't.  They'll probably say that you just need to turn up - and say you don't need to prepare because they don't want to pay you for your preparation time. But prepare anyway. Welcome to the world of not being paid for everything you do. You have a paid days work with funny people. With a chance of lunch thrown in. Rejoice.

Hope that helps. Next time, the gag pass.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Late Great Robin

I don't think any of us were expecting the news about Robin Williams this morning. We knew he had some self-destructive habits, but we wanted to believe that he'd keep it together to do a few more movies, and a few more stand-up sets. And apart from being an astonishing performer - and writer - he seemed like a good person who deserved a happier, longer life.

Most people would settle for a third of his career. A quarter, even. Good Morning, Vietnam; Good Will Hunting; Dead Poets Society; Mrs Doubtfire; The Fisher King; Aladdin; and a load of family comedies like Patch Adams, Hook, Jumanji and the 90 eps of Mork and Mindy that brought a lot of people a lot of joy.  There was probably at least one more Oscar Winning performance in him. If not more.

But for me, he blew my mind when Channel 4 showed his 'Live at the Met' show when I was about 15. I think it's what people mean when they call something a 'Tour De Force'. It's astonishing, fast, funny - and very satirical. Check it below. Hilarious, mainstream, utterly brilliant - but thoughtful and satirical. What a pity we've given up on that in the UK. Thanks for showing us the way, Mr Williams.

Monday, 11 August 2014

A Podcast You Should Know About

Stuart Goldsmith
I've just listened to another brilliant interview by Stuart Goldsmith. This time with comedian, Nick Doody. And it occurred to me that some recent readers of this blog don't know about this podcast. It's called The Comedian's Comedian which you can find on iTunes and various other sites where you get mp3s (I've literally no idea what they sites might be).

I hardly know Stuart Goldsmith and he didn't ask me to put up a blogpost about it! I'm a huge fan of what he's doing. The podcast is exclusively about stand-up comedy rather than sitcom, but it's just fascinating to here people talk at length in detail about comedy in a properly technical way, so it's music to my ears.

There are already 87 episodes to choose from so far, but if you have no idea where to start, you'll probably  want to start with famous people off the telly like Sarah Millican, Alan Davies, Greg Proops, Milton Jones, Jason Manford, Tim Vine, Rhod Gilbert - who all do great interviews. But if you're a geek like me, I'd recommend the podcasts with the real joke technicians: Listen to Ep6 Adam Bloom, Ep26 Stephen Grant and Ep67 Gary Delaney. Then listen to all the rest, and donate some money to the cause.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

All is Not Lost

Life is straightforward in TV drama. Writers write. Actors act. Directors direct.

Sitcoms used to be like this. They were written by great writers like Galton and Simpson or Carla Lane – and then performed by the best comic actors of the age like Ronnie Barker or Leonard Rossiter. And there were plenty of sitcoms written by half-decent writers, and performed by pretty good comedy actors. In short, there were lots of sitcoms. But my point is this: There was a division between writers and performers.

This is no longer the case. The rise of the comedian, as opposed to the comedy actor, or comedy writer, has led to a signficant increase in shows by comedians. (See here for the pros and cons) But looks can be deceptive. Many of these shows are co-written with an off-screen writing partner. Pete Sinclair co-wrote Lead Balloon with Jack Dee. Freddy Syborn co-wrote Bad Education with Jack Whitehall. Dan Swimer wrote Grandma’s House with Simon Amstell. I’ve co-written seven series of radio comedy with Milton Jones. And I met my Bluestone 42 writing partner, Richard Hurst, writing on Miranda

So what should the writer learn from this? Well, that depends on your half-full-half-empty perspective.

Half Full or Half Empty?
Who cares? It's not even beer.
Half Empty
If you tend towards the half-empty, you could conclude ‘What’s the point? Unless I’m a writer-performer, I’m never going to get a chance.’ This is not true. There are still writer-led sitcoms out there. I write one with Richard Hurst (Bluestone 42), but there more of a mixed economy now. You'll need to think outside of yourself. Sorry.

Half Full
If you’re a more of a half-full type, you could decide you’re turn yourself into a performer so you are increasing your chances. That could work. It worked for Ben Elton who realised very early that writer-performers like French and Saunders, Fry and Laurie et al were going to get all the work unless he got in there with a sparkly jacket.

Performing on some level is not alien to most comedy writers. Almost every full-time writer I can think of working today has been in a sketch group in their early years or done stand-up. Pete Sinclair, whom I mentioned earlier, went into full-time comedy writing from music into political/punk poetry and then stand-up. (More on that here) And this is not all that unusual.

At the time of writing, The Edinburgh Fringe is on. If you could get hold of the programme from ten, twenty or thirty years back and look at the stand-ups and sketch groups you’ll see plenty of names and faces that you may not recognise – but who are now making a living as a writer, having given up performing.

So what did these people get out of Edinburgh? Certainly not money. They got a number of things, but let's focus on two main ones.

Experience
The Fringe gives you experience of writing for an audience who don’t know you personally, or you work. If you do shows in your home town or your student bar, your mates will probably laugh, because they're supportive and nice (Well, they turned up, didn't they?). In Edinburgh, your audiences are strangers. They have no idea who you are. And you will soon find out if your material is funny.

Comedy Friends
But the main thing these people got out of Edinburgh is comedy friends. Hanging out in the Pleasance Courtyard or pushing through Late and Live is all about making friends with like-minded people, finding allies who like what you like, and forming alliances and partnerships. You are very unlikely to win an award at Edinburgh, or even be critically acclaimed. You might not even get a Radio 4 series. But you may impress someone who’s being fast-tracked onto the TV, who is looking for back-up and people to cling on to. You could be Larry David to their Seinfeld. Or their Stephen Merchant to their Ricky Gervaise. You get the idea. Or you might create an impression on someone who’s Head of Comedy Development at the BBC in four years time, which means you get the benefit of the doubt when your script hits their desk and could go either way.

All is not Lost
If you’re in Edinburgh, and you’ve already realised your show isn’t what you thought it was, or isn’t quite working, and you know who’s show is going to be the talk of the town, don’t worry.  That’s only a small part of why you’re there. You’re on the scene. You’re in the mix. That’s a start.

If you’re not in Edinburgh, I really recommend getting along there and having a look, watching some shows, seeing what’s possible, and what’s passable, and think about what you could do next year. Like it or not, Edinburgh really is The comedy trade fair.

So this is a way of introducing a series of blogposts about writing for other people’s shows – since, if you make it as a professional comedy writer, this could easily take up the bulk of your time and bring in the lion’s share of your income. Stay tuned.

Friday, 11 July 2014

I Love This Idea - But That's Not How It Sounds

We Brits look at the Americans with envy. In the world of TV Comedy, they’ve given us M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, The American Office and plenty more besides.

Pic by Ricardo Liberato
And some Americans seem look at us Brits with envy even though we only seem to have given them Monty Python, Benny Hill, The Actual Office and some shows that became Sanford and Son and All in the Family.  I’m sure American writers look enviously at the idea of the BBC with its compulsory licence fee, noble aims to inform, educate and entertain and therefore the freedom not to chase TV ratings (don’t tell them).

To British eyes, the American system seems to be very regimented – from the calendar of when shows are pitched, pilots are cast, picked up and shot, to the hierarchy of writer-producers (for more on this, go the brilliant Children of Tendu podcast). On top of all this, The Writers’ Guild seems to have hammered out fairly clear protocol, agreements and levels of payment for all of the above. 

To American eyes, Britain must look like a shambles. Which it is. There is no real system in British comedy, apart from the annual decamp to Edinburgh, which heavily favours the writer-performer. For writers, though, there's nothing set in stone. This is partly because no-one feels there needs to be system, and I applaud that. It seems crazy that the entire US TV industry is trying to make dozens of pilots at exactly the same time.

One way in which this shambles manifests itself is the way in which sitcoms are developed. Again, the differences could not be more stark. In America, a studio decides it likes a writer, who’s probably earned their spurs writing on an established show for a few years. The studio offers them a deal. Money to develop a script. Maybe an office. (Ha! Try even getting a meeting room at the BBC, let alone an office.) You might even get some assistance. In the form of an assistant. And ultimately, you get a deadline.

Notice two things here. Firstly, the deal. And secondly the deadline. Let’s take those in turn.

The Deal
In that studio-deal system, the promise of money come before an idea is even discussed. The studio is buying into the talent of a writer and rather hoping the writer will try and deliver something good. That’s a safe assumption, given the writer wants a good show on the air, for reasons of creative satisfaction, a desire to get rich, to disprove a stupid teacher at school or appear clever to other writers (pretty much the big four reasons, I think. Discuss.)

‘The deal’ almost never happens in Britain. I had something like this with BBC Comedy for a year a while back, which produced a script and a readthrough. It all ultimately died when the exec who had championed it left. And that was that.

The British alternative to a deal is a vague ‘Hey, we’d love to hear some of your ideas’. I’ll bet you would. Nothing like ‘We think you’re a brilliant writer and we want to be in business with you.’ It’s all very low-key and non-committal.

I realise this is part of our British way. We’re suspicious of money, contracts, lawyers, business in general and talking like you’re Alan Sugar. In the main, that’s a healthy scepticism. But it leads to amateurishness, confusion and frustration – of which more in a moment.

The Deadline
Because of the rigid TV calendar in America, there’s a deadline. A line by which a script must be submitted or it is dead. There is no such thing in the UK. New TV series start on all TV channels all year round. And so there’s no hurry. For anything. At all. So everything bimbles along, then drifts…

Until a slot comes up, a new initiative is announced, a pot of money being made available, and then there’s a blind panic to get a script in and you work all hours, unsure if the contracts are going to be signed and you’re going to be paid but you do it anyway and you write and rewrite and scream and rewrite and finished and send.

And then.

The exec who announced that initiative leaves.

The development producer you were working with seems be busy on something else.

Your emails seem to vanish into the ether.

People seem hazy on what was agreed and what wasn’t. 

And it’s hard for people to care because the project is dead.

And you don't get paid properly. If at all.

Why do I mention all this?
Good question. It’s all a preamble to a particular phenomenon which seems to be happening a lot at the moment. And I wanted to get some groundwork done before launching into it, so I don’t seem like a petulant, greedy writer who thinks he’s some kind of writing deity - or at least to disguise this fact.

The phenomenon is this: A producer says ‘We’d love to hear some ideas’. And you go in and mention one or two. They latch on to one and ask to see a treatment – a couple of pages explaining the idea, which may well have been in your brain for months or years. A decent outline or treatment could be weeks of work, reading, research, writing and rewriting.

They want this for free.

*deep breath* Fair enough. You’re wanting them to get behind the idea, commission a script and pester a commissioner or controller to give you a read-through, a pilot or a series. So a treatment is just about okay, given we don’t have a dead/deadline system in place. And we're trying to sell our comedy wordy wares.

If they like the idea, they might ‘option’ it, which is a small amount of money (£500. Told you.) which means you can’t take it to anyone else for a six months or a year or whatever. It’s kind of one-page, memo-type deal. Or at least it should be. This £500 in no way covers the hours, days and weeks you’ve already spent on this idea, but it’s a start.

So. Some has said ‘I like the idea’. So you send them the treatment.

Then they might say ‘I really like the idea’. And then option it. £500 quid. Yours to spend on whatever you like. Like food. Or heating. Or your mortgage. The choice is yours. You’ve got plenty of time to think about it. The money won’t arrive for months.

They have a few thoughts on how the idea could be improved. Some thoughts are good. Others are insane and demonstrate they’ve not really understood the idea or been paying attention. Or they’re trying to turn your idea into something else that they’re more interested in, or watched on TV last night. But they’ve optioned it now. So you decide to tweak the treatment.

You spend another day on the treatment. And send it in.

They say ‘I love the idea.’

But.

Could they have some sample scenes?

FX: KLAXON

This is the bit I’m dwelling on. When I mentioned ‘amateurishness, confusion and frustration’ earlier I was talking about this bit. It’s amateurish because someone’s treating you like an amateur  - ie. not paying you. It’s confusing because no-one quite knows what the protocol should be. And it’s all very frustrating.

Sample Scenes
‘Sample scenes’ don’t just write themselves. They take at least a couple of days. Because it’s new show, and a new idea, and it’ll be ages before I could bare to show those samples scenes to anyone, it’s probably three or four days work, scattered over a couple of weeks. Maybe longer, because you're looking to write scenes that crystal key relationships and are demonstrative of the show as a whole. So, five days. minimum. So, do I want to work for five days for free? Tough one.

“Ah yes,” says the Comedy Exec, “but if a script is commissioned… and then a series… and then repeats… and then…” Stop. True. That all might happen. But the likelihood a script won’t be commissioned. And if it is, the likelihood is that it won’t be commissioned as a series, because most scripts aren’t. It took me twelve years to get a show on TV (Bluestone 42). I fully expect the next one to take at least half that time. If not more. If I’m lucky.

But we all know what’s going on here. Someone’s doing everything they can to get more for less. I understand why people do that. I try to do it at the supermarket. But Tesco is a multi-billion pound retailer. Not a writer. (I might go to Sainsbury’s if I’ve just been paid that £500)

So. A Development Producer or Comedy Executive is well within their basic human rights to ask for yet more work, this time for free. And the lack of system encourages this. But here’s why I don’t recommend it:

It doesn’t sound good. I’ll go further. It sounds bad.

The Joy of Subtext
We writers don’t just deal in text. In fact text isn’t even our main product. That would be subtext. That’s what scripts are: Characters saying one thing and meaning another; and other characters hearing something else entirely.

So, while I completely understand why a Comedy Executive may say, ‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’, this person needs to know that I’m hearing something else. I may well be wrong about most of it, but don’t forget, I’m the averagely paranoid, freelance writer. And I hear a mixture of about 5 things.

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
1. 'I don't love this. If I did, I’d commission a script.' 
Speaks for itself really. If you loved it, you’d commit . But you have doubts. Why would you that be? Onto the next thing that I’m hearing.

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
2. 'I can't really imagine this'.
So I’ve set up the idea, the characters and the setting. I’ve explained how it’s going to be funny – and you seem happy with this. In fact you love it. And the only reason we had the meeting in the first place is because you think I’m a funny, competent writer. So what’s the problem? Your lack of imagination. That’s a shame, given your job in development is to imagine what might be. So, could this be the real problem that:

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
3. ‘I don't trust your ability to make this idea funny.’
The idea is fine. Funny, in fact. Fresh. Modern. Classic with a twist. But how can I be sure this writer - who’s been nominated for a few awards, is well regarded and whom I invited in to my office - can deliver funny scenes around this idea – that they’ve come up with and nurtured?  Maybe it’s borderline but ultimately: 

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ could mean:
4. ‘I don't think you're worth my budget.’
You have a limited budget that you have to eke out over a year so you’re going to make it stretch as far as possible. So you’re going to save your boss some money and make a writer that you want to be working with write for free for even longer. Thanks.

One more thing. Is it possible that:

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
5. ‘I don't have the guts to stand by this or turn it down.’
Maybe. As the writer and creator of this idea, I had the guts to spend weeks of my own time on this, committing to it at the exclusion of other things – because time is finite, remember? – and yet you are unwilling to do this. That's what I'm hearing. Because I'm paranoid. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

It’s not about the money. Okay, it’s partly about the money. But mostly it’s about honesty and respect. I quite like our non-rigid, slightly shambolic system. But this is the downside.

For more on money, have a look here

Friday, 13 June 2014

Top 10 Tips on Dealing with Exposition - Part 2

In the last post, we began to think about the writer's nemesis that he can't live without: Exposition. And I promised 10 tips on how to convey exposition without resorting to dreadful, creaky, crunchy lines where characters just say things that a necessary rather than natural. And actors sometimes spot them and ask, on set, 'I don't understand this. Why is my character saying this? It doesn't feel like something they would say.' If you're answer is 'We need to explain to the viewer x, y and z' then you have failed as a writer on this occasion. Anyway, for the first four tips, go here. Otherwise, read on.

5. Have A Blazing Row
Your character is explaining a plan. The other characters listen. Boring. Annoying. Not funny. Could someone have an alternative plan? And explain their plan, or keep interrupting the original plan – and the two characters have an argument about it. Going back to Blackadder, Baldrick’s cunning plans are always really funny, and gives our hero the chance to explain a decent plan, with jokes. Although sometimes, the plan isn’t even explained. It’s obvious. When Blackadder asks for two pencils and a pair of underpants, we’re intrigued – and then we go straight into seeing them in action (funny), and then the explanation. Which leads to asking:

6. Do you Need to Tell them this?
Backstory and exposition often seems very important when you’re planning a sitcom, or outlining an episode, but when it comes to writing it, you quite often realise you don’t need to explain yourself as much as you might think. This is especially the case with backstory. Newer writers tend to get quite hung up on where the characters have been, and what they did before – but the audience are more interested in where they are going. As I’ve written before on this blog, The Vicar of Dibley just turns up. She just arrives. No back story. No past. She’s the new vicar. (NB. As a church goer, this would never happen without consultation with the church, etc, but that doesn’t really matter. Again, no explanation needed.) If you like, you can reveal backstory and hidden depths later.  In The West Wing, they do at that in Series 2, once we love the characters and want to know a bit more about their past.

7. Is Every Line Pulling Its Weight?
If you’re already got a script and are feeling it’s confusing and needs more exposition, don’t just think about adding lines. Apart from anything else, sitcom is brutal in terms of length. On BBC you’ve 28 minutes. On ITV/SKY, you’re got nearer 23 minutes. In USA, you’ve 21 mins. You don’t have the luzury or more time or more lines. Why are you needing to give the audience signposts? Is every story/routine. Make sure every scene, sequence, line – and every action - is working hard not just comically, but expositionally.

In a sitcom, everything happens for a reason. It’s there because you’ve decided to put it there. So use all these tools to tell your story. Let’s consider the work of some real comedy legends, Esmonde and Larbey and their blissfully odd sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles. (More on the title later)

Every time, Martin Brice walks in and fiddles with the phone in the hallway. He untangles the wire, or turns the phone round. He does this a lot – pretty much every episode. This tells you at least three or four things. He’s essentially obsessively compulsive. His wife, Anne, isn’t, for it is obviously her who puts the phone down the wrong way round. She is clearly happy to do something that she knows her husband will correct. And Martin is prepared to do it week after week and force a smile afterwards.

Anne comments on the phone thing in the first episode – which is well worth looking at. Watch the first bit of the first episode. It’s genius. All you need to know about the show is in the first three minutes. By then, you know all about Martin and Paul, which is ultimately the key relationship in the show. Every line and action builds and builds. He’s shouting cheerfully after the boys who’ve just been thrashed at football. He wipes his feet for ages. He does the phone thing. He talks to Paul in an overly knowledgeable way. He thinks he’s winning at life. There’s an interesting moment at 2.58 when Paul reacts to something Martin says – and looks to Anne who doesn’t see anything unusual in this comment. This is the world we are in. It’s masterful. Please. Take the time. Watch it.


8. Use your Opening Title Sequence
The opening titles of Ever Decreasing Circles (because you watched it, right?) is bold. It’s all metaphor, obviously. You’ve got an opening title sequence. That’s about 20-30 seconds that you can use to explain the premise of your show, conveying a couple of essential pieces of information or highlighting a key relationship. My Name is Earl had a brilliant, lyrical, brief opening about a winning lottery ticket and karma, which includes a car crash. (Have a look here if you like) It doesn’t matter if you don’t catch all of it. What really stand out is the end bit when he says, ‘I’m just trying to be a better person.’ That’s all you need to know. He has some money and he’s trying to be good.

9. Use the Title of your Show
What’s your show called? I’m not referring to the title of the episode, which is largely meaningless. (All the episode title, and one sentence summary, does is tell the audience whether or not they’ve seen the episode before.) I’m talking about the name of the show, as they should do at least some expositional work. If your show title is a reference to an obscure TS Eliot poem that you happen to like, and it doesn't help you, I suggest you change it.

Miranda Hart’s show is called Miranda because it’s telling you the show is about her. She’s in every scene and the show is entirely from her point of view. So the audience subconsciously knows that every character in the show is defined by their relationship to Miranda. Him and Her – is about him and her, and their relationship. Ever Decreasing Circles is telling you this is about a man who’s going round and round and slowly going insane. Your show has a name. It’s another tool in the armoury. Use it.

10. Cheat
If you’ve still got a whole ton of exposition to crunch through, you might just have to cheat. Cheating’s fine. Two of my favourite shows do it. Modern Family and Parks and Rec have a very murky, ill-defined documentary style that is wildly inconsistent with odd looks to camera at very points. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t know why. It just doesn’t. I think they’re able to get away with this because of the language and grammar of television has been heavily influenced by ‘Fly on the wall’ documentaries and reality TV in the last fifteen years, and then The Office.

You can cheat by having a narrator. This is how Arrested Development crunches through an amazing amount of story in such a short time. Ron Howard’s voiceover is never really explained (It is? Does it need to be?) but again, it doesn’t seem to matter. More cunning and less cheaty is the voiceover in Desperate Housewives who is a character speaking from beyond the grave. Nice move.

You can have a character talk directly to camera. Miranda does that, and it’s incredibly useful from a story point of view, as she can relate previous incidents in her life, announce the story of the week and give us a heads-up on foreseeable problems, which will hopefully lead to unforeseen ones. Miranda’s pieces to camera also give her an extremely deep connection with her audience.

Finally, you can cheat in the most brazen way possible by having a character called Basil Exposition. It was only on the third time of what that movie that I got that joke.

So, there are ten tips on dealing with exposition. If you have others, I'd love to hear them.