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? 
Yes, ma’am. 
Captain Ellen Best. I’m the new ATO with Bluestone 42 who are... (Looking behind her:)
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. 
Come on, Mac! 
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.  
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...? 
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.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Seven Tips For Getting Your Script Ready

A deadline looms large. It's the BBC Writers Room window for submitting comedy scripts. From 9th March to 2nd April 2015, their comedy script room will be open. This is something I advise you to make full use of, not because it will mean that your script will necessarily be plucked from obscurity, rushed to the DG's office by a panting courier and a limo sent to your door to bring you to the BBC as the saviour of BBC Comedy. That is unlikely.

A positive response from the BBC Writers Room is well worth having because it means that some people at the BBC know about you. You might start getting invited to some free workshops at which you might learn stuff and hear about opportunities. You might meet other writers in a similar position and maybe get to know some producers. In short, you might feel like you're getting somewhere.

But it's a long process which starts with a script. Is your script ready?

You want your script to stand out. The best way to do that, boringly, is to have a decent idea about something you're really interested in and passionate about. Create some fresh characters with some original stories and write it. It needs to be about something, like a clash of worldviews or a stage of life. A cynically assembled script, designed to be purely eye catching or 'commercial', will almost certainly read as exactly that. It's hack. And the BBC Writers Room - and Channel 4, ITV, SKY and production companies up and down the land - want new voices, not hacks.

Right now, however, we're concerned with the script we have in front of us, and making sure it's match-fit for the scrutiny of the readers of the Writers Room. Here are seven things to bear in mind when going over your script before you send it in.

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

2. Clarity
There's so much to do on those first few pages, but you're making life difficult for the reader if it's not crystal clear what's going on. Is the situation clear? There is a temptation to create some mystery and do some huge reveal in an attempt to create drama and tension. Well, this is a sitcom script. Clarity is your friend. I'd recommend announcing your comedy themes with a blunderbuss, rather than a cloak and dagger.

3. First Action
Your script will be clear if it's obvious from the start who the characters are and what they're about. What are they doing when we first meet them? And what does it say about them? Sitting, drinking a cup of tea is not a great way to introduce a character. They walk in - what are they holding? What are they wearing? What do they say that gives the reader a clear idea about who this character is and why they are funny? That first action or line for each character is crucial. It should really sum up who they are.

4. Unique Voice
Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear? Reading a new script for the first time - especially when it might be the eighth script that day - makes it hard to retain distinctive characters in your head. Help this along by giving distinctive patterns of speech, or turns of phrase, to your characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

5. Tightly Written
Can every single line justify its place? Delete any line that isn't character, action or a joke. There's no room for 'meh' lines. Or wit. Look at each scene and ask whether it could be shorter. Could you come in later? Could you cut earlier? Do you need every line? Are you repeating information? Every script can be shorter. Make yours shorter, tighter, leaner and meaner. A funny 28 pages is way more appealing than a baggy 34 pages.

6. Typo Free
Are there typos all over the place? Or one or two still lurking around? I find it really hard to see typos in my own writing (as this blog demonstrates), so get someone else to check it over.

7. Funny
Are there enough jokes? Again, it's a sitcom script so are you trying to make the reader laugh at least three times per page? You really should be. Is there any way of turning half-jokes into proper jokes? Or you making the most of each moment? If you've done the hard work of getting your characters into funny situations, make sure you maximise the funny when you're there.

So those are my brief tips. Good luck.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Don’t Writers Just Get in the Way on Set?

Yes, of course they do.

I'm sure many producers probably feel this way. Writers are just one extra voice in the mix which feels like it will just slow things down when time is pressing. Shooting TV is frantic.

But writers can also save the production vital hours if anyone actually has time to listen to what they have to say. The writers have thought about little else for the previous six months so they can be a very useful reference point for props or costume if they have questions, able to give instant answers. And the writers haven’t just written the dialogue. They’ve written the action and the story. In fact, they’ve The Show.

So all questions are relevant to the writer. For example:

How big should the ladle in Scene 7 be? What sort of liquid soap do we need in Scene 3? Does this picture on the wall seem about right? Is this scarf too much? What army rank is this unspecified character? Should they be running, marching or walking? You get the idea.

Writers can also suggest cuts on the fly. It sounds unlikely, but writers often know in their heart of hearts that a scene or a bit of action isn’t strictly necessary. If pressed, they can normally find cuts when faced with the reality of shooting half an hour of television in five and a half days.

Writers can also spot howlers or errors during filming that much cost money to reshoot or fix in the edit.

Moreover, writers can fix script problems quicker than anyone else because, well, it’s their only job. They’re good with words. And when a line doesn’t work, asking a member of the cast, the director or whoever happens to be on hand to fix is unreasonable. Coming up with the right line for the right character in situ is not easy. In the case of Bluestone 42, there was also military advice and technical knowledge to be weighed and considered. It’s a writer’s job to fix it, isn’t it? It seems odd that a director or producer wouldn’t insist the writer is on hand for that.

I’m also surprised when a writer doesn’t want to be on hand for all of the above. (Well, I’m not that surprised. Writers aren’t paid extra for turning up.) The shooting of the script is The Most Critical Stage, isn’t it? You can’t edit pictures and lines you haven’t got. You have to make sure you have everything and have it right. After all, the final broadcast version of the show is all anyone sees or cares about. You’re the writer – you’ve written the Show, not the Script, haven’t you?  Discuss.

Who's In Charge?
Here we dip our toe in the ‘Who’s In Charge?’ question. In America, the Show Runner, who is often the show creator, is in charge and has final say, although they may temper their vision based on the wishes of their paymaster and broadcaster. In UK, things are less clear cut. Is the producer in charge creatively? It seems that we muddled through in the hope that no-one’s going to cause an embarrassing scene. How very British.

A director I spoke to recently was surprised that either Richard Hurst or I were on set for every scene of Bluestone 42 being shot. He wondered why. I replied that we’d spent months of our lives writing these episodes. Why wouldn’t we want to see it through to the very end? It seems to me that if you don’t take the time and trouble to be there on the day and have your say on in the edit, you don’t really have any right to complain if Your Script and The Show are two very different things.

If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.