Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Ghost of Sitcom Future


Today is a sad day for lovers of situation comedy. Today is the day that Alan Simpson died. He was one half of the Galton and Simpson partnership that gave us Hancock and Steptoe & Son, studio sitcoms that dripped with character, pathos and jokes. When two of their scripts were remade last year – and shamefully hidden away on BBC4 – the actors may have been different, but the scripts still sparkled.

We can celebrate their achievements and look at their legacy, and it feels like we have many times over, but we can also look at the present and into the future and wonder where is the next Alan Simpson coming from? Where are the writers that will pen the next generation of sublime studio sitcoms?

As I hope to explain in this worryingly long article (which you may prefer as a pdf), my concern is this: almost all the pathways into mainstream studio sitcom for writers have been closed off or diminished. It is not at all clear how studio sitcoms will be produced in the future in any great quantity, despite the fact we live in a time where there have never been more production companies, TV Channels, development producers and script executives.

But before I explain the reasons as I see them, it’s worth asking why I continue to bang the drum for multi-camera studio sitcoms. You know the ones. Those filmed in front an audience where you hear the sound of human laughter. The ones that tend to get the largest viewing figures.

Like many people, I love studio sitcoms which is why I struggle against the overwhelming odds to try and write them. I believe there is plenty of life left in those over-lit pantomime contrivances because when they work, they convey a greater truth that transcends the genre. The truly great sitcoms like Hancock and Steptoe demonstrate that, as did the likes of Only Fools and Horses, Fawlty Towers and Porridge; brilliant comedy actors portraying superbly drawn characters, doing expertly crafted jokes, routines and set pieces.

No one is saying studio sitcoms are superior, or necessarily harder to write or make. And I don’t just like studio sitcoms. My favourite shows of all time include single-camera shows like Modern Family, Arrested Development and 30 Rock as well as studio shows like Seinfeld, Yes PrimeMinister and Red Dwarf.

The general trend over the last thirty years, however, has undoubtedly been towards single camera comedy which, I worry, is slowly killing off the studio sitcom.

Look at the BAFTA for Best Sitcom. Since 2000, it’s been won by only two studio sitcoms: Black Books in 2001 and 2005, and Mrs Brown’s Boys in 2012. Compare that with the winner of Best Comedy from 1990-99. Blackadder, New Statesman, One Foot in the Grave, Ab Fab, Drop the Dead Donkey, Father Ted, Only Fools and Horses, and I’m Alan Partridge. All shot in front of a studio audience (yes, even I’m Alan Partridge) and all the better for it.

The Popularity of Studio Sitcoms

Please forgive me while I labour this point since studio sitcoms are just so achingly uncool you might miss this, but despite the trend in the industry, audiences at home still really like studio audience sitcoms.

BBC1 knows this, wants them and likes to broadcast them. When they work they get ratings. The last series of Still Open All Hours averaged 6.3m. The current roster of BBC1 returning studio sitcoms also includes Not Going Out, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Count Arthur Strong and Citizen Khan. And ITV1’s studio sitcom big hitter is Birds of a Feather. And when sitcoms are really working, their Christmas special makes a cracking centrepiece in the TV yuletide offering. On Christmas Day 2016, even though Mrs Brown’s Boys on very late, it still did really well being the “second most popular festive programme” according to the Guardian with 9 million viewers, beating Strictly’s festive special. On that occasion, the Guardian spared us the lecture about why 9 million people were wrong to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Studio audience sitcoms can’t just be found on these mainstream channels. UK Gold is awash with repeats of audience comedy, currently showing Ab Fab, Bottom, Keeping up Appearances, My Family, The Vicar of Dibley and One Foot in the Grave – as well as a bootleg Gogglebox called We Have Been Watching in which you watch famous comedy actors watch sitcoms. Over on Dave you’ll see they’ve stumped up for original episodes of Red Dwarf shot in a studio like they used to.

Look at my Twitter feed most weeks and you’ll see that I take a snapshot (right) of Broadcast magazine’s ratings for all programmes on BBC2, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The best performing sitcom on those channels, almost without exception, is reruns of is Dad’s Army.

On the day of writing this blog, Channel 4’s schedule began like this: 6.45, 7.10 & 7.35 King of Queens; 8.00 & 8.30 Everybody Loves Raymond; 9.00, 9.30, 10.00 Frasier. That’s eight episodes of studio shows in a row on terrestrial TV. None British, sadly. For that you’ll need to go to E4 or More 4, where you’re rarely more than half an hour away from an episode of the majestic Father Ted or Black Books. Plus London Live shows a lot of Desmond’s.

Yes, I know. Still Open All Hours, Birds of a Feather, Red Dwarf, reruns of Dad’s Army, Frasier, Father Ted, Desmond’s are studio sitcoms for nostalgic old farts. They are comforting old shows that remind us of happier, more secure times (like the Cold War, the Miners’ Strike and 9/11).

Except younger people also like studio sitcoms. Loads of young people are discovering timeless classics like Blackadder on cable channels. Bear in mind that some weeks, the most popular sitcom on TV is Big Bang Theory on E4. In the UK at least, Comedy Central’s is mostly Friends, Two and a Half Men and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They are trying to wean themselves off those repeats with original shows many of which are filmed in front of an audience like I Live With Models which has just started its second series.

There is a desire for new studio sitcoms, but where are the writers of those new Comedy Central shows going to come from? Where are they going to find experienced young writers who even want to write studio comedy? (Believe me, I know the rates of pay, and for that money, they’re only going to get young writers.) And where will the Alan Simpsons of mainstream studio sitcoms come from?

But wait? Don’t we already have plenty still in service? In the words of Vizzini in  the Princess Bride, “You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you?” 

But no. Read on.

The Hunt for Studio Sitcom Writers

It is has been said many times in the last decade that decision-makers in the mainstream really want studio sitcoms. But it has also been said many times that they struggle to find new ones because they just don’t get the scripts. A few years ago, one comedy commissioner said that only about a tenth of the scripts they received were for studio shows. The rest (about 200 scripts) were all single camera shows. So where will these new studio sitcom scripts come from?

At the moment, these shows are drawing from a smaller and smaller pool of talent. Shows like Birds of a Feather, Red Dwarf, Still Open All Hours and the return of Porridge are being written by men who got tons of experience in the 70s, 80s and 90s, or reprising old shows or formats. Mrs Brown’s Boys was honed by Brendan O’Carroll in a live theatre context, as was Count Arthur Strong, which went via radio, and was then bolstered by the highly experienced Father Ted/Black Books writer, Graham Linehan.

Other writers in this small pool of talent have moved away from sitcom altogether. Richard Curtis is making movies and saving the world. The rest have moved into high-end, prestigious drama. The brilliant Steve Moffat (Coupling, Joking Apart) is running Doctor Who and Sherlock. The utter genius who wrote One Foot in the Grave, David Renwick, now writes comedy dramas like Jonathan Creek and Love Soup. The sitcom legend behind Men Behaving Badly, Simon Nye, is writing The Durrells.

Who can blame comedy writers for turning to drama? For a start, the money’s better, not least because you’re writing double-length scripts, and sometimes more than six at a time. Drama writers are also treated with greater respect than comedy writers who are regularly treated like errant children. We often hear producers and controllers and channels celebrating the wondrous Sally Wainwright, Russell T Davies and Jed Mercurio. Quite right too. They are also given the space to pursue a vision. In so doing, they garner great reviews from critics. Who wouldn’t want some of that?

Especially when these same critics lie in wait to stamp on any new studio sitcom, and ideally dance gleefully on its grave when it dies. Studio sitcom is a medium they ultimately despise. Whether it’s the sound of human laughter that is such kryptonite to them, or just the theatrical artifice of the genre is hard to say. But who would bother with a studio sitcom when you’ll only ever win begrudging respect from your industry? Or maybe you’ll get lucky and be described as a ‘guilty pleasure’ (as we had early on with Miranda, until eventually some people admitted to just liking it).

Blackwell, Roche & Iannucci. All British.
There are still other writers who could be writing 8.30pm BBC1 shows and are writing situation comedy. Except they’ve been writing and directing in America on Veep for decent money and critical Emmy-winning acclaim.

So there are dozens of people alive today with the ability and experience to write mainstream studio sitcoms. Why aren’t they? What is it about the process, or working conditions that means virtually all of them are doing something else?

And if they’re not going to be seduced back, where are the new studio sitcom writers going to come from? Here’s why I’m not optimistic that many people will emerge to fit the bill and why this problem is not going to be fixed any time soon.

Theatre

Firstly, one previous source of studio sitcoms, both writers and actors, was the theatre, not least rep theatre. Eric Chappell entered the sitcom world via his popular play The Banana Box, which became Rising Damp. He then went on to write shows like Only When I Laugh, Home To Roost, The Bounder and Haggard. Plays like Rising Damp are, I suspect, rarely written these days and yet studio sitcoms are more like plays than anything else. And produced even more rarely. Producing theatres need to make their cultural mark. It seems unlikely they would do that by producing one-room farces that could be turned into a mainstream studio sitcom.

See? I'm not making it up.
If you want that sort of thing, you have to do it yourself, as Brendan O’Carroll did with Mrs Brown’s Boys. The show actually started on radio and became books – and a movie, yes, a movie in 1999 called Agnes Browne with Anjelica Huston. Yes, Anjelica Huston. But it was the touring theatrical version of Mrs Brown’s Boys that was spotted by Stephen McCrum at the BBC and dragged into a TV studio.

Theatre has changed, and there’s not much we can do about that.  A play written for the theatre can still become a sitcom. But it’s interesting that the last play which did that very recently, Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, became a single-camera comedy. And has won every gong going.

Rep theatre, which was essentially knocking out a play every week or two, is the perfect grounding for studio sitcoms, which operate on a very similar basis for writers and actors especially. But rep has gone the way of music hall and variety, and that training ground is no longer there.

This is not to say that theatres no longer have any impact on sitcoms. These days, theatres across Britain aren’t filled with people watching original plays (notable exceptions in London and the likes of Chichester notwithstanding). But they are regularly packed out with audiences watching comedians they’ve seen on Live at the Apollo or Mock the Week. Experience would suggest, though, that there are not many acts big enough to be worthy of a prime-time mainstream sitcom slot. And of those that are, why would they want to expose themselves to such a critical mauling?

And yet these seem to be about the only people that execs and commissioners have confidence in to create a hit studio sitcom. I’ve had conversations about finding vehicles for this name or that name – many of them speculative from development producers casting around for something to say they’re developing so they can continue to say they’re developing something, or from people far more senior with no imagination who really should know better. It is at least an understandable policy because comedians have an on-stage persona that’s been tried and tested in front audiences (at zero cost to the broadcaster).

In one way, this is nothing new. I’m sure that’s how the likes of Sid James ended up in a sitcom like Bless This House. Everyone knew what they were getting, the writers know what they were writing, and the audience had a pretty good idea what they’d be watching.

The trouble with this ‘talent-led’ approach, however, is when it becomes dominant. At the moment, it seems to be. But there are serious drawbacks.

For a start, it means essentially that a comedian, once they’ve done their show about their own comic sensibility, can’t really do another one without it being basically the same show. Whereas a writer can write multiple sensibilities and situations. In the case of Carla Lane, you not only got the Liver Birds, a show very much drawn from her own experience. You also got the sublime Butterflies and the ratings juggernaut Bread.

Another drawback with this ‘talent-led’ approach is that when a comedian isn’t available, or doesn’t want to risk career suicide by being in a duff sitcom, commissioners and development execs might grasp at the next best thing: a real person with a life story. Someone with a unique and interesting ‘authentic’ life experience who gives the show ‘an angle’ that will ‘cut through’.

Again, this approach might work and can probably generate a show or two. But where is the confidence in experienced sitcom writers to come up with an idea from their heads? An idea that they can execute? An idea that will basically work and be watchable?

Do we really think that a modern day Esmonde and Larbey would even get a script commission to write a show about some painters and decorators, called Brushstrokes? What about someone called, say, Michael Aitkens pitching an idea for sitcom set in an old people’s home called Waiting for God? Both of those shows ran for five series, and were perfectly enjoyable. But, you would now be asked, what is the point of them? Faced with that line of questioning, almost everything is impossible to justify.

While we’re about it, right there we have two examples of the talent pool getting smaller. Esmonde and Larbey, who between them also wrote Please Sir!, The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles, A Fine Romance and As Time Goes By, are both sadly dead. And Michael Aitkens moved on from sitcom to write episodes of Midsomer Murders from 2006-2014. Good on him.

But I digress. Where were we? Oh yes. Theatre.

Not Quite Done With Theatre

There is another kind of theatre that almost sounds absurd but it’s had such a big studio sitcom legacy that it would be remiss to ignore it: Entertaining the Troops. Read any history of comedy and you will come across a good number of comedians serving in the war and ending up on stage. Not only did this lead to directly to David Croft writing about his experiences with the Royal Artillery Concert Party in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, it also led to a broad style of mainstream, accessible comedy that was just trying to get a laugh.

Croft also joined forces with Jimmy Perry to write Dad’s Army and then Hi-De-Hi, another gang show about a similar kind of entertaining style in holiday camps. These shows paved the way for the likes of Are You Being Served? and Allo Allo, co-written with Jeremy Lloyd.

My main point, some time ago now, is that the stage, be it in a theatre, holiday camp or war zone, is very closely related to studio sitcom (more on that here). But because of how theatres now operate, the decline in holiday camps and lack of wars, we’re not likely to get any sitcom writers like Eric Chappell or David Croft in the foreseeable future.

But this is not the greatest problem for sitcom by a long way.

Sketch Comedy

The second concern is sketch comedy. There used to be a lot of it about. In fact, one of these sketch shows was called There’s A Lot Of It About but I think that was referring to something else. However, there used to be a lot of sketch comedy on mainstream TV, a key training ground for a number of writers who ended up writing studio sitcoms.

I noted in April last year when Ronnie Corbett died:

Sorry! was written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent. They had written for The Two Ronnies and Ian Davidson had been the Script Editor in 1978. Along the way he came up with a popular vehicle for a much loved mainstream sketch actor. The Two Ronnies was also a place where the likes of John Sullivan (Fools and Horses), David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave), Andrew Marshall (2.4 Children) and David Nobbs (Reggie Perrin) got some TV comedy miles under their belts. Add up the number of episodes of TV sitcoms written by this crowd alone (remembering to include John Sullivan's Just Good Friends, Dear John, Citizen Smith and The Green Green Grass, (and those other shows by those others writers). We have hundreds, possibly thousands, of episodes of TV enjoyed by millions. Sometimes tens of millions. Some of these episodes are truly great. Many other episodes are just watchable and enjoyable. Again, no small achievement.

On the Sitcom Geeks Podcast, I talked to comedy producer Steve Doherty about this. The beauty of The Two Ronnies was the most important thing about a sketch was not an impression, or a persona, or a character but an idea. If the sketch was funny, it went in the show. Today, we have sketch shows – albeit far fewer and in shorter runs. BBC1 has Tracey Ullman’s show, and David Walliams’s. Writing for these shows is a different proposition than writing for The Two Ronnies. On top of this, Tracey Ullman’s show is all shot on location and played to an audience, and Walliams and Friend is about half and half. So the writers of these shows have fewer opportunities to learn that discipline of having to make a studio audience laugh a few times every minute.

There are sketch shows, every now and then, on BBC2 which are mainly based around the likes of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. Again, these are normally character based, rather than idea based. And Channel 4, we are told, have stopped commissioning sketch shows altogether. If true, what a curious decision.

My point with sketch shows is purely this: in the past, there were lots of mainstream, studio-based sketch shows like The Two Ronnies, Little and Large, Russ Abbot, Sez Les et al, which were not as dependent on characters and a central performance. These shows no longer exist in a way that benefits the production of studio sitcoms. And so a second route to the writing of studio sitcom scripts that might plausibly be placed on the desk of BBC1’s commissioner, has been strangled.

Sister Channels

The third obvious source of studio sitcoms for BBC1 is its sister channel BBC2. Traditionally, the sitcoms of today on BBC2 have been the mainstream hits of tomorrow. So what are we looking at down the line? In short, very few studio sitcoms. BBC2 has shows like W1A, Mum, Two Doors Down and Episodes. Since House of Fools and Up the Women ended their brief runs on BBC2, the only returning studio sitcom is Upstart Crow, which is not by a new writer, or even a new-ish one, but sitcom veteran, Ben Elton. And all the better for it. It’s a funny show.

ITV2, which has been running for a much shorter time, has given us Plebs and The Job Lot, but hasn’t yet made a studio sitcom, let alone one that could transfer to ITV1.

What about Channel 4? In days gone by, the sort of people you’d see on BBC2, you’d also see expect to see on Channel 4 and vice versa. (eg. The Comic Strip cast regularly switched between the two) But the story there is the same. In fact, this is the original prompting for writing this article (before it got out of hand), because it was when looking at the job specification fortheir new comedy commissioner that I noticed something that I thought significant. On the job specification, eight sitcoms are listed as examples of comedy they are proud of: Catastrophe, Flowers, Chewing Gum, The Windsors, Drifters, Man Down, Ballot Monkeys and Friday Night Dinner.

Those shows are all very different from each other and have their respective merits, but they are all single camera shows. And that list could also have included Toast of London, Peep Show, Wasted, Crashing, Lovesick and Raised by Wolves. So that’s fourteen half hour comedy narratives. All single-camera.

Likewise, Sky’s returning sitcoms from the last few years include Trollied, Hunderby, Moone Boy, Doll and Em: all single-camera shows. The wonderfully daft Yonderland has the feeling of a studio sitcom, but even that is single-camera when it comes down to it.

None of this is a criticism, but an observation. Channel 4 and Sky are at liberty to do whatever they like. They need to get ratings, balance the books, satisfy numerous criteria, produce returns for shareholders, hit manifold targets and tick all kinds of boxes. Neither channel probably even has a tiny box marked ‘Support Studio Sitcoms’. Why should they? The supply or encouragement mainstream studio sitcom and writers thereof is not their problem. But it does help explain why this problem is not being fixed any time soon.

Which leaves us with the question we began with. Where are the new mainstream studio sitcoms coming from? Where can a new writer learn their craft?

BBC Three

As far as BBC TV is concerned, or at least online, how about banging on the door of BBC Three? Do we really think that BBC Three will commission a studio sitcom any time soon? I’m sure BBC Three would say that they will happily consider any script or idea and execute it in the way that works best for the idea. But let us bear in mind studio sitcoms are more expensive to produce than a single-camera show, and so this will take a bigger slice of budget, come under greater scrutiny and may eventually be deemed not worth the risk.

And who has the experience to get this tricky format to work? How many comedy directors have experience of multi-cam studio sitcom? Not many.

This point about expertise is not an inconsiderable one as the talent base in studio sitcom production is also getting smaller and literally dying out. This means a new writer might end up working with a comedy producer who has never produced a studio sitcom before. Gulp. This is going to be a big worry for them, because in a sitcom, everything has to be alright on the night. You shoot the show in sequence. Maybe a couple of takes. And that’s it. It’s brutal. (As I write here) And if there’s one thing a studio sitcom needs it's this: confidence.

In a way, the single-camera model is easier for a producer, director and editor, who can then assemble, or reassemble, a show in the edit, salvage a storyline that doesn’t work, add a montage or some snazzy jump cuts and some upbeat music to paper over a few cracks. Who wouldn’t? It’s another bite at the cherry. Or another level of interference, depending how you look at it.

Imagine you’re a comedy producer with zero studio sitcom experience, which way are you going to nudge the writer with a script or sitcom idea that could go either way? Will you have the confidence to get it all right on the night, risk the wrath of execs if it goes wrong? Or will you feel happier piecing together a show in a dark room in Soho. The expertise is shrinking and dwindling, and with that goes the confidence you need for a studio sitcom.

BBC Radio

All of the above has put enormous pressure on the only place where studio sitcoms are actively encouraged. Except they are not TV studio sitcoms, because I’m referring to BBC Radio. This is where I started, getting my first break because BBC Radio 4 were actively looking for studio sitcoms, and were prepared to take a punt on a newbie like me. I’d come up with Thinkthe Unthinkable and there was a slot for it. It ran for four series and gave me invaluable experience, and I was mentored by the utterly delightful Paul Mayhew-Archer, a writer who’d co-written episodes of the Vicar of Dibley, and written sitcoms of his own (Office Gossip, Nelson’s Column, An Actor’s Life for Me) – and worked with another great writer who came from radio, Andy Hamilton (Outnumbered, Drop the Dead Donkey)

Through Paul Mayhew-Archer, I was lucky enough to be invited to work on BBC1 mainstream studio shows including My Family and My Hero. But I continued to work for Radio 4 with a shortlived sitcom called The Pits (starring some guy called John Oliver. Whatever happened to that guy?) and then a sitcom set in Bletchley Park called Hut 33. And then work with Miranda Hart, which led to involvement in the first two series of her TV sitcom, which, of course, began life on BBC2 and transferred to BBC1, showing that system can still work.

I’m pleased to hear that BBC Radio is still committed to sitcoms recorded in front of audiences. As a judge for the Writers Guild of Great Britain awards, I listened to a number of decent sitcoms recorded in front of an audience including Ankle Tag, Reluctant Persuaders, The Lentil Sorters and To Hull and Back.

I can also testify from my own experience that competition to get shows on BBC Radios 2 and 4 has never been more intense. So intense, I can’t get one on. At the moment, I’m writing the second series of three-part series for BBC Radio Wales called Be Lucky. And I’m grateful for the opportunity.
This pressure on BBC Radio is no big surprise, though, because as it stands, BBC Radio is the only realistic destination for those who really want to write studio sitcoms. The problem is that it’s a huge jump from BBC Radio 4 to BBC1 where the stakes and budgets are far higher. Helping writers make it across that chasm is a huge challenge, but currently, I don’t see any realistic alternatives.


That is unless Channel 4 appoints a Comedy Commissioner who really likes multi-camera comedy – and goes out of their way to nurture it. Which would at least be a start.

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If, by some freak accident or a cosmic alignment of planets, you ever get to write an actual sitcom, there’s lots of technical writing advice in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Finding The Beat

Happy 2017.

Luther at the Diet of Worms. Yes. The Diet of Worms.
Okay, I’m about a month late on that. I’ve had a strange January, mostly spend trying to write a comedy about the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, called A Monk’s Tale: Relics, Revolt and Reformation. Nobody has asked me to do this. It’s not been commissioned by anyone and I haven’t received a grant. It’s a show that I think needs to be written because I think that the Reformation is significant for so many reason. I’m also trying to follow up the success of my previous live show called The God Particle. All that said, at the end of the day, you’d be perfectly justified in calling it a vanity project. A Monk’s Tale is hopefully going to be on at the Edinburgh Fringe, and touring the UK in Sept-Nov.

The Sitcom Geeks podcast, however, has been ticking over and so in the unlikely even that you’ve been getting withdrawal symptoms from the lack of blogging, do go and catch up on various episodes here.

But for now, let’s answer a question I was asked last year on Twitter by @JoChallacombe who asked:

What are “beats” and why do so many writers fill their scripts with people waiting for them? But seriously, I don’t really understand what the term means.
To be honest, Jo, it sounds like you do what the term means, but for the avoidance of doubt, there are two meanings of the word 'beat' in comedy writing. You’re clearly asking about one kind, but I’ll mention the other in passing.

Story Beats
A beat, in the context of a story, is an event, or a plot development. Sometimes, you talk about beating out a story (snigger), and what that means is working out what happens from beginning to end, figuring out the turning points and the various stages. The Americans tend to call this breaking a story. But at the end of that process, you might end up with what some would call a ‘beat sheet’. You might called this a story outline or even a treatment. I’m never entirely sure which is what. But a beat sheet is probably a couple of pages long and the various progressions in the story might be numbered. If it’s the main story, you might have between 9 and 20 numbers. If you’re a single camera show, you can probably move faster. If you’re a studio show, your beats will probably be fewer. But there will always be exceptions to that.

Pausing Beats
A beat is a pause. It’s a moment, a short delay before someone speaks. And you normally write "(beat)" in the script before the line.

What makes the beat funny? Why do writers litter their scripts with them? I’m not entirely sure, although some scripts have more than others. The beat itself is not usually funny, but it often makes the line it precedes funny.

There are just times when you know, as a writer, that a line will be funnier if there is a short beat before it.

Perhaps some beats are funny because they turn a passive reaction line into an active line for a character. The character has taken a moment, and now is speaking deliberately, rather than just instinctively. Which can be funny in some circumstances, especially when it changes the meaning and the tone.

Perhaps in a busy scene where there are lots of jokes and ideas and concepts flying around, that moment gives our brains all a chance to catch up and get ready for the next joke. Or that beat is functioning as the large patch of white space on the page so that the main thing is obvious and clear.

Overuse
The danger of over-using the beat in a script is that you’re essentially directing the script on the page, rather than leaving the actor and the director to find the funniest version of that line. But, as I’ve said in previous posts, you get so little time to rehearse and ‘find’ the line, that a helpful nudge can be appreciated.

But like most things, if you do them too often, they will be annoying. Hope that helps.

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There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.


Monday, 5 December 2016

The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms - Part 3

I've been writing about The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms. You can read Parts 1 here and Part 2 here.

What should come across is the overwhelming sense of speed. The writing process for months beforehand is agonising, but once it's production week, it flashes past. There just isn't long to read, rewrite, block, rehearse and pre-shoot before the audience turn up. And what you shoot on the night is going to be broadcast to the nation at prime time and burned onto DVDs. It is a high pressure environment.

Like many high pressured environments, you get used to it. Once you've done it for a while, you know what you're getting into, everyone knows that the days might overrun, and people may be tense or short with each other now and then. During the week of production, the director is the key for setting the tone.

Incidentally, this is one of my worries for the long term health of studio sitcoms. There just aren't many people in the industry who have the experience to shoot multi-cam sitcoms. It's not like any other job in television. It's half way been between directing a play and producing a shiny floor entertainment show which has to work in the room to the studio audience, and the viewers watching at home. Tricky.

At the end of the last blogpost on this subject, I brought up one thing that is a temptation that crops up in rehearsal, especially if the writer is in the room, or even in the scene: to keep changing the script.

Miranda rehearsals (Pic from BBC website)
I have been at pains to say that during the week of production, the script can change a lot. Entire scenes might be rewritten, cut or pulled out of thin air in the week. Often, the best scene with the biggest laughs is written during the week of production.

BUT.

In rehearsals, give the actors a chance. Look at if from their point of view. They've been handed a script on day one for the read through. They have to be word perfect in less than a week. Can they start learning this script? No. There'll be notes and changes. They come back the next day, and the script has changed. Time to rehearse. Is this the final version? Maybe. Maybe not. The least you can do, as the writer, is let them have a go at it as written. And try and make it work, because the lines were written as they appear on the page for a reason.

Maybe the actor says the line in a way that just isn't funny or doesn't work or sounds weird. Having said it once that way, most likely they've heard they've done it wrong with their own ears, and will probably do it better next time.

It's possible there have been a number of changes overnight, and the actor doesn't understand what their character is trying to do in the rewritten scene. In which case, that can be figured out, ideally with the director. If you, the writer, are there, you might be able to speed things up with a quick explanation. e.g.
"In the earlier version of this scene, your character came in angry, but we felt that it didn't leave her any where to go. So in this new version, she's starting out frustrated, and when she realises that things are not going to change or improve, she's goes ballistic and does the thing that triggers the next scene. Does that help?"
It probably will.

If it takes a while to go in, with the clock ticking, the temptation is to rewrite the scene again overnight and essentially direct the scene with the script. You give the character lines which are very clear and obvious as to how the character is feeling, but are not very dramatic or interesting. You might have solved a problem, but you've probably also made the show slightly worse. And probably offended your actor who just needed a little time to catch up.

Chopin
Or maybe you change the lines there and then, in which case the actor won't have a chance to make the lines work as written. In the end, it feels like every time they are doing the scene, it's changed and they are essentially sight reading. This might not lead to a satisfactory performance on the night. Or it might be fine, but doesn't sparkle.

Imagine if a concert pianist had to put up with this. The ghost of Chopin at their shoulder, rubbing out notes and putting in new ones on the four days leading up to the big performance. Your script might not quite be Chopin, but let the actors and director find it if you can. Change what you have to, for sure, but there is a law of diminishing returns here.

There are many other pressures of production week in a studio sitcom, and we will almost certainly return to this in the future. Meanwhile:

There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.


Also, listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast, with me & Dave Cohen.


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Hack Joke Amnesty

This blog post should be Part 3 on the The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms but there's been a bit of action on Twitter about hack lines that should be avoided in scripts. Splitsider put out a post based on a tweet by John Quaintance, exec producer of Workaholics.

I've blogged on this before here and here after I listened to John August and Craig Maizin talk about 'clams' on Episode 52 of their Script-notes podcast. They we reading out a list from Go Into The Story and were also referring back to Jane Espenson's blog, including this one from 2007 which says:
A joke that has outlived its shelf-life is consistently referred to as a "clam." I've talked a little about these before, I believe. You know a clam when you hear it. Here are a few of them: "I'm switching you to decaf." "Check please." "Who are you and what have you done with ___?" "Did I say that out loud?" "Too much information!" and its brother (hand over ears) "La la la". Also we have "Was it something I said?" And "That didn't come out right." Or "That came out wrong." And finally "That went well," and its sister, "He seems nice". 
This is 2007. That's nine years ago. And I'm still reading scripts with these very hack, tired, unfunny lines in. And it's really important that if you're an aspiring writer and want to stand out from the crowd, you have to create new speech patterns and ways of talking. You can't just write the first thing that comes into your head, because that has probably come into lots of other heads before yours - and onto a page. So let's have a final Hack Joke Amnesty. Let's hand in all these jokes and lines and allow them to be humane destroyed.

As I write here, the reason these lines come so naturally is because in real life people do sometimes speak in 'sitcomese', saying things like 'Well, that went well' after a disaster or the most irritating 'I could tell you but I'd have to kill you'. Essentially, when people like your uncle and aunts are saying these things, thinking they're jokes, it's time for you realise that these lines are not original and that you need to write better jokes and lines for your characters.

So, as a public service, I'm gathering up all of these that I can find from Scriptnotes, and my other blog posts and John Quaintance, and the writers of Workaholics as a handy reference guide with Jane Espenson's caveat first:
Another way is to use the lines in unexpected way. A character who has been sitting silently and suddenly blurts, out of the blue, "Did I just say that out loud?"-- that's pretty funny. (I bet it's been done, but still, funny.) "That didn't come out right" is pretty funny, too, if it's Dr. House saying it while removing a tissue sample. 

But with that in mind do not use any of the following (although a few of these lines I'm not aware of!):




And here's the list from Scriptnotes - which has a lot of hack action movie lines in:

John: So shall we do this? “Are you ready?”
Craig: “I was born ready.”
John: “Are you sitting down?”
Craig: “Let’s get out of here!”
John: “_____ is my middle name.”
Craig: “Is that all you got?” “I’m just getting started.”
John: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Craig: “Don’t you die on me!”
John: “Tell my wife and kids I love them.”
Craig: “Breathe, dammit!”
John: “Cover me. I’m going in.”
Craig: “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”
John: “No, no, no, no, no, no, I’m not going.” Cut to them going.
Craig: “No, come in. _____ was just leaving.”
John: “You better come in.”
Craig: “So, we meet again.”
John: “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
Craig: “Well, if it isn’t _____.”
John: “I’m just doing my job.”
Craig: “You give ______ a bad name.” / “Calling you a ______ is an insult to ______.”
John: “You’ll never get away with this.” “Watch me.”
Craig: “Lookin’ good,” said into a mirror.
John: “Now, where were we?”
Craig: “What the…?”
John: “How hard can it be?”
Craig: “Time to die.”
John: “Follow that car!”
Craig: “Let’s do this thing!”
John: “You go girl!”
Craig: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
John: “Yeah, a little too quiet.”
Craig: “If I’m not back in five minutes get out of here,” or, “blow the whole thing up,” or, “call the cops.”
John: “What part of _____ don’t you understand?”
Craig: “I’m not leaving you!” “You have to go on without me.”
John: “Don’t even go there.”
Craig: “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
John: “Ready when you are.”
Craig: “Is this some kind of sick joke?”
John: “Oh, ha, ha, very funny.”
Craig: “Did I just say that out loud?”
John: “Wait. Do you hear something?”
Craig: “It’s…just a scratch.”
John: “How is he?” “He’ll live.”
Craig: “I’m…so…cold!”
John: “Is that clear?” “Crystal.”
Craig: “What if…nah, it would never work.”
John: “And there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me.”
Craig: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
John: “Note to self.”
Craig: “Honey, is that you?”
John: “What’s the meaning of this?”
Craig: “What seems to be the problem officer?”
John: “What’s the worst that could happen?” / “What have we got to lose?”
Craig: “I have a bad feeling about this.”
John: “Leave it. They’re already dead.”
Craig: “Don’t you think I know that?”
John: “Whatever you do, don’t look down.”
Craig: “Why won’t you die!”
John: “I eat guys like you for breakfast.”
Craig: “Oh, now you’re really starting to piss me off.”
John: “We’ve got company.”
Craig: “Hang on. If you’re here, then that means…uh-oh.”
John: “Oh, that’s not good.”
Craig: “Awkward!”
John: “What just happened?”
Craig: “We’ll never make it in time!”
John: “Stay here.” “No way, I’m coming with you.”
Craig: “This isn’t over.”
John: “Jesus H. Christ!”
Craig: “It’s no use!”
John: “It’s a trap!”
Craig: “She’s gonna blow!”
John: “Okay. Here’s what we do…” And cut to a different scene.
Craig: “Wait a minute. Are you saying…?”
John: “You’ll never take me alive.”
Craig: “Okay. Let’s call that Plan B.”
John: “I always knew you’d come crawling back.”
Craig: “Try to get some sleep.”
John: “I just threw up in my mouth a little.”
Craig: “Leave this to me. I’ve got a plan.”
John: “No. That’s what they want us to think.”
Craig: “Why are you doing this to me?!”
John: “When I’m through with you…”
Craig: “Impossible!”
John: “Wait! I can explain. This isn’t what it looks like.”
Craig: “Showtime!”
John: “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Craig: “If we make this out alive…”
John: “That’s it! You’re off the case.”
Craig: “How long have we known each other?” “We go back a long way.”
John: “Well. Well. Well.”
Craig: “Ah-ha! I knew it!”
John: “Done and done!”
Craig: “Leave it. He’s not worth it.”
John: “In English please?”
Craig: “As many of you know…” and then a bunch of exposition.
John: “Too much information!”
Craig: “Yeah, you better run!”
John: “Unless…” “Unless what?”
Craig: “What are you doing here?” “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
John: “So, who died? Oh…”
Craig: “You’re either brave or very stupid. “
John: “Oh, yeah? You and whose army?”
Craig: “Now that’s what I’m talking about.”
John: “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
Craig: “It’s not you. It’s me.”
John: “This just gets better and better.”
Craig: “This is not happening. This is not happening!”
John: “Make it stop!”
Craig: “Shut up and kiss me.”
John: “I’ll see you in hell.”
Craig: “Lock and load!”
John: “Oh, hell no!”
Craig: “Not on my watch!”
John: “You just don’t get it, do you?”
Craig: “I have got to get me one of these.”
John: “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Craig: “It’s called _____. You should try it sometime.”
John: “That went well.”
Craig: That did go well.

For further evidence on You Just Don't Get It, Do You?...


And here are some other offerings to my blog via Twitter:

My esteemed co-writer Richard Hurst pointed out the gag when people are looking at porn then turning the picture (or their head) sideways at which point it 'makes sense'. Agreed. Hacky.

Relate to this:
Porn films in sitcoms are always of the Hollywood pornification 'Edward Penishands' variety. @MontyBodkin

Here are some other lines and bits that simply have to go (credited by twitter handle):

"Oh God. Did we...?" Checks under covers to see if clothes are on or off. @ElizabethBower & a variation by @JakeTrusler

I'd never dare do something like that... *Hastily hides the thing they didn't do* @zanPHEE

I'm tiring of 'whole...thing', as in "I hate being stood up" becoming "I hate the whole being-stood-up thing" @simonblackwell

How about a line referencing something bizarre/wacky that happened in the past, what happened to show not tell? @tonycowards

...look up the definition of [a bad thing] in the dictionary; know what you'll find? A picture of you. @philiplarkin

'That's going to leave a mark/that's gotta hurt' and variants... @tobydavies

'You had me at [insert something incongruous that isn't hello]' @ScriptwritingUK & @The_ODonnell

"Who *are* you and what have you done with the real X?"@danblythewriter

"Penny for your thoughts" @RobGilroy Ugh.

"That's what she said. Am I right or am I right?"@AndyGilder

When character drinks frothy coffee and puts cup down to reveal hilarious comedy tache. @ingridoliver100

Not strictly a line, but I don't ever need to see another sitcom character do a doubletake.@revgerald And add to to that the nighttime security guard who sees an odd thing then looks at the cup/glass/bottle in his hand.

When talking about something other than sex: "Tell me one thing, was s/he better than me" @TheSarcasticOwl - I like this observation. They did it in Friends quite a lot (eg. shopping together in Bloomingdales) and it worked for them. But it's done now.

"At least things couldn't get any worse." (Ceiling collapses/thunderstorm starts/etc.) @sleezsisters

"So, you knew? [nods] So, all the time...? [nods] And I was never...? [shakes head]" @mcmwright

I'm here all week. Try the veal. @paultrueman74 Yes, funny in Shrek when you're an ogre who's just beaten up soldiers but that was some time ago now.

A: hi I'm Tom
B: Nice to meet you Tim
A: it's Tom
B: WHATEVER TIM @Direlogue

A character storms out of a room straight in to a cupboard. They stay there. @johnfromsoho

"Why can't X do Y?" "Because (he's) a useless etc. etc. etc. who couldn't etc. an etc." PAUSE "But apart from that?" @SimplerDave

Are we done with all these? Have I forgotten any? Leave a comment if there are still any that need to be shot.


-------------------------------

If you're trying to write a sitcom and need some technical writing advice like you find on this blog, have a look at my book: Writing That Sitcom. It's available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms - Part 2

Last time, I wrote about how the production week of a studio sitcom pans out, and how time to rehearse is alarmingly short. Read that first HERE. Okay? Up to speed?

It’s Day 1 of the production week. Probably a Friday. It’s 10am. The actors are all sitting at tables in a big square. Production staff are sitting one row behind, up against the wall (which is how they feel for most of the week). And so it begins.

Before you get to this point, you need to know this:

The script is going to change

Embrace this. When you read through that script on Day 1 of the production week, there will be problems with it. They may be small, they may be huge. They may seem small at first, but as you try to fix them you end up unpicking an awful lot before putting it all back together. You never know.

There will be notes.

Some will be obvious and you could hear there was a problem as the script was read. Other notes may come from the directors, the exec producer, or someone else important enough to tell you what's wrong with the script. The script will need to be fixed.

Ideally you won’t have to change it much, not least because you probably have some scenes already filmed on location that you have to keep in the show. You just don’t have the time or the budget to chuck entire location scenes, although this can happen (and did happen on a show I worked on recently). Hopefully, there’ll be enough for the director to rehearse with the actors on the afternoon of Day 1 and we’re into rehearsals. But not necessarily. (The worst day of my professional career was a Day 1 serious rewrite which you can read about in my book, Writing That Sitcom). The rewriting job needs to be done. Embrace it.

Also, prepare for this:

The funniest jokes – even the best scenes – might be written from scratch that week.

This is annoying because it makes you wonder why you bothered slaving over this script for months only to rock up and write the killer jokes on the day. But we all know you can’t just turn up to production week with the bare bones of an idea and write it on the day.

Having said that, I have heard stories of this happening occasionally. But apart from the fact that this is a very high wire act, it is not a trick you want to pull very often. It’s just not fair on the crew and the art department and everyone who has to make these ideas conjured up on the day suddenly appear on the screen. They will be very professional about it, and do the best they can, but they will hate you for it and try to avoid working with you again. Which is fair enough.

Fixing the script after that initial readthrough, however, is not the end of the rewriting. During rehearsals, scenes will need tweaking, trimming and tailoring to the actor’s strengths. You might need extra dialogue and ideally a joke to cover some physical business. Once the show is on its feet, a scene might feel like it’s flagging, or too abrupt. Or a line turns out to be a bit of a mouthful. Or an actor suddenly develops a problem with a line. (I’ve written about that here)

There will be changes, and it’s worthwhile being around for these because if you don’t rewrite it, someone else will. This, in my opinion, isn’t fair on the actors because they shouldn’t be expected to be writers as well as performers. (Don’t get me started… but more on that here) And what you may find happens is that a short term problem will be fixed by the actors or director in the moment, but a long term problem is created. You, as the writer, have thought about little else in the last few months. You have the story in your head, and if the rehearsal is a developing with a problem with a prop or a moment, and decide to cut it, they might not realise that this prop will be critical in four scenes time. Or the change will make a pre-shot location scene feel very odd or improperly set up.

This is why it’s worth being on hand during rehearsals (and on set, as I write here) to head off these problems. But if you are around all week, there might be another temptation (beyond eating too much snack food or drinking too much tea): To keep changing the script. We’ll look at that in the next blogpost.

Meanwhile:

There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.


Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms - Part 1

Earlier this year, I tried my hand at directing. It was a play I’d written a few years ago called The God Particle, which had already toured a couple of times. For the third tour, and with a new cast, I decided this was my chance to get a bit of experience doing something I hadn’t done before.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy directing as much as I did, and in the end, I spent two very happy weeks with a couple of actors working through the scenes so that by the time the first previews came, everyone felt fairly well prepared.

The first two performances were to some truly tiny audiences in Twickenham and gradually we all grew in confidence. By the time we filmed the play as a DVD in May, the play had been performed at least 25 times. It was pretty tight.

I mention this for two reasons. One is that I’m subtley plugging the DVD which is out this month and available to pre-order right now. But here’s the main reason:

I’ve just been working on a studio sitcom and, as I’ve said on previous blogs, sitcoms filmed in front of audiences are more akin to plays than anything else. But even the ropiest, most amateur fringe play is rehearsed more than your average TV sitcom. Which is seen by millions.

For a start, there are normally six days allotted for pretty much everything: a readthrough, a rewrite, rehearsing, more rewriting, re-rehearsing, blocking, teching, pre-recording and then finally recording in front of an audience. The only head start you get is you might have a few minutes pre-shot on location. In short, it's terrifying.

But it gets worse.

The script might need a major rewrite. There might have been a readthrough a month earlier where it didn’t quite work and it turns out the rewrite is not much better. Or an actor might suddenly be unavailable and the script needs to change for very pragmatic reasons. Maybe it’s reading very long and there just isn't the time to overshoot.

If the script isn’t quite right for whatever reason on the morning of Day 1, it might take the rest of the day to fix it. The director may send the actors home, because there’s no point rehearsing scenes that are going to radically change, especially not with actors who are tired having been in studio all the day until 10pm or later filming last week’s episode. Either way, that’s a day of rehearsal gone.

Day 2. More rehearsals and a few more changes. On days 3 and 4 the script might seem to be locked down, but lines are still being tweaked. You still might have to write a whole new scene, or cut a scene in half or blend two scenes together. But whatever you do, you’ll have to have it down because on Day 5 there might be pre-records for future episodes.

Day 6 is the day of the recording in the studio front of an audience. (Yes, they are real people laughing. Not sound effects) By now, each scene might have been rehearsed for three days or four days at the most. On Day 6, there’s a slow run through in the morning and early afternoon for the benefit of the cameras, sound, props and the myriad of people who seem to appear from nowhere. Then a technical run through. Even at this stage, lines might be tweaked.

The audience come in, and it’s recorded. On that first take, some actors might be saying new lines for the very first time. Whilst hitting their marks, and getting everything else right. And that’s it. There will probably be a chance to run the scene again. But there just isn’t time to go over it again and again to tweak a performances. And how it’s done on the night is how it will have to be for ever and ever.

The pressure, then, is enormous. And yet somehow every studio sitcom is done this way, and no-one seems minded to change it. This partly because the system works. That said it only works because we still have technical crew who’ve worked on this format for at least thirty years. Moreover, changing the system to allow more rehearsal time won’t really happen because it will just end up increasing costs, and TV budgets faced a constant downward pressure, especially at the BBC.

So how does this affect the sitcom writer? A script that’s been months in the making, and weeks in the rewriting, is blown through in six days and it can be quite alarming to see it all happen so fast. Or it may be even more alarming to see something assembled so slowly and picked apart and pulled around so quickly.

There are some things that you need to know as you go into studio week and in the next blogpost, we’ll look at those.

There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.