Monday, 31 January 2011

Getting Arrested

Since the show started, I've always been a big fan of Lee Mack's BBC1 sitcom, Not Going Out. In fact, I was so keen that I pestered them to allow me to write for it. It never quite happened, although I ended up writing a storyline that they used in Series 3 called 'Speech', for which I am bizarrely credited as 'Additional Material'. If we definite a story is 'additional', we have some problems.

I pitched that story in particular because I wanted to give Lucy a strong story in which she could be really funny - a speech for a business awards-type thing would be a big deal for her charcter and something she would take very seriously. And therefore Lee would have take it seriously too in order to stand a chance with her. I'm not sure how successful I was in that, but since I merely submitted the storyline rather than wrote the episode - I wasn't even 'in the room' - I'm not sure what the other writers thought the story represented.

I remain a big fan of the show and I watched the show again the other night, catching up on the first episode - and laughed out loud, very loud, several times. But I was wondering why I still didn't love the show. In some ways, the show isn't dissimilar from Miranda, being big, brassy and silly. The show is also told from one character's point of view in which the character's name is the actor's name. Despite the similarities, Miranda seems to have invoked an affection that Not Going Out hasn't yet managed - although Not Going Out, being a BBC1 show, has the larger audience.

The missing ingredient is, I think, pathos. Dave Cohen has written an excellent piece on Chortle on this subject here. He is kinder to Not Going Out than me saying that Lee's "character’s attempts to win his flatmate evoke sympathy as well as laughs". That is right. But for me, this relationship and quest for Lee is never quite consistent enough. In the first episode of this latest series, Lucy is away for the whole episode, which removes that strand of pathos - and it became a farcical (in a good way) caper between Lee and Tim.

Lee and Tim are a really strong duo. They play off each other really well. But perhaps the drugs story might have had more resonance if Tim, playing very prudish and respectable, had a particular reason not to be caught in possession of drugs. Daisy's disapproval was funny and provided some character-based context for the story - and silly cartoon-ish ending involving a nail gun.

Getting Arrested
The 'getting caught' story crops up in many sitcoms, but for some reason getting caught by the police doesn't have enough comic punch. Being arrested isn't funny in itself. Being arrested by a child is funny. Or an ex-wife. Or a policeman who's arrested you nine times before is funny. There always has to be a reason why this particular arrest is funny. Or perhaps our character doesn't want to be arrested because his Uncle Tom is a magistrate. Or it means our hero will be asked to leave the golf club that he has finally been allowed to join. You get the idea.

Cue Music
But let's just end with more pathos for a moment. It can, and should, start with the opening music. Not Going Out has a brassy, upbeat opening theme, very much in keeping with the upbeat, gag-heavy nature of the show. Miranda has a lovely, cheerful theme too, by the splendid Alex Eckford - but Miranda has pictures of her growing up and we begin the theme of family embarrassment and we're already beginning to invest in her emotionally.

Some sitcoms, especially in the 1980s, ladelled on pathos with opening titles. So let's finish with a few of real humdingers, where pathos is positively gushing out of the television.
Here's Ever Decreasing Circles. Yes, this bizarre, complex piano solo really is the opening music for a mainstream, BBC1 comedy show.

How about this one? Hospital comedy, Only When I Laugh (can you imagine ITV1 commissioning this show, let alone allowing this opening sequence?):

And finally watch a man's life fall apart in the opening titles of the extraordinary Dear John:

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Give 'Em What They Want: Sitcom

So, lots of media pundits are reacting, or being paid to react, to the news that BBC1 would like a 'blue-collar' sitcom. It isn't clear exactly when, where and how Danny Cohen said this, although he's made no secret of this desire over the last few weeks. But rather than fly reporters to North Africa and report on armed uprising, our media has decided to talk about situation comedy.

Why wouldn't Danny Cohen want a down-to-earth working class sitcom? Another Only Fools and Horses, Bread or Royle Family. Let us not forget that at its peak, Bread pulled in about 22 million viewers. Let us also not forget that To The Manor Born pulled in 24 million viewers. Was it the same 20-odd million watching both programmes. Probably. I used to watch both of them. I didn't care. They were both brilliant.

And this is point that rings loud and clear from all the media chats and discussion: as long as its funny, no-one much cares where the comedy is set, and how rich our characters are. So far so predictable.

Moreover, Danny Cohen isn't proposing to jettison middle-class settings for comedies too. He's not going to commission a factory canteen sitcom by Harry Northerer and not commissioned a boutique hotel sitcom by Harald South-by-South-East. But here's the thing. There's so little situation comedy on television that he may have to chose between.

I find this whole area very hard to understand. The audiences love sitcoms. They adore them. It's interesting that Miranda won the King/Queen of Comedy award at the comedy - against Harry Hill, stadium-filling Michael McIntyre and ever cheeky Ant & Dec. And David Mitchell is probably more associated with being a panellist and all-round good egg than Mark in Peep Show. But from almost a standing start Miranda Hart went and won.

Sitcoms sell DVDs - and decent ones continue to sell years after transmission. People are still buying Blackadder, Yes Minister and Porridge. They are not buying '1994 Compilation Have I Got News for You', or 'Call My Bluff: The Arthur Marshall Years - Uncut and Uncorked'.

And yet, the TV channels seemed determined not to make scripted narrative comedy - even though there are endless other scripted narrative things like soaps, hospital 'dramas', detective shows and those things that aren't really anything (I'm thinking Hotel Babylon?).

Let's look at the evidence. BBC1 tonight showed no comedy at all. None. Or last night. On Sunday night, there was a repeat of Gavin and Stacey at 10.30 (how many repeats, now?). And repeat of My Family at 4.25pm. On Saturday night, Come Fly With Me - a repeat from Thursday. On Friday night, a panel game and a chat show. On Thursday, Not Going Out. That's not a lot of comedy - and I wouldn't be able to tell you when I could regularly tune in to a sitcom. It used to be Friday night at 8.30. Not now. So when?

Over the same time period, BBC2 have finally repeated the wonderful The Great Outdoors from BBC4, and launched a new panel/improv game and shown a new series - Episodes. And that's it. And Buzzcocks on Wednesday.

So, between BBC1 and BBC2, in the last week, new episodes narrative comedies are: Episodes and Not Going Out. And Come Fly With Me (which is more of a sketch show in one setting)

Come on, BBC. More sitcom, please. I love cooking shows as much as the next man, but I'm pretty sure that everyone who wants to learn to cook has learnt by now. Can we have some funnies now?

Maybe I'm just being overly biased in favour of narrative comedy and want everyone to like what I like. But let's not forget that on Saturday night, after a repeat of Dad's Army, BBC2 also repeat a retrospective of Allo Allo - for an hour and three quarters. Now, I love Allo Allo. All 80-odd episodes of it. But I continue to be staggered at the sheer number of documentaries, re-enactments and pickings overs the bones of old sitcoms like Allo Allo. It reinforces my point about sitcoms being what people really want, since they are so powerful and memorable.

So my plea is not for more working class comedy, or middle class comedy - but more comedy. It really is what the viewers want. It's why they made Miranda their comedy Queen. And why they'd rather talk about Del Boy and Steptoe than uprisings in Tunisia.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

They're Nice And All, But We Don't Care

And so we reach the age old debate about 'likeable'.

I've heard it said (either by Goldman or Long) that networks want a Mickey Mouse. But comedy writers want to write Bugs Bunny. Let's not beat about the bush on this one - Mickey Mouse just isn't as cool, as funny or even as 'likeable' as Bugs Bunny, who torments, frustrates and bullies his assaillants and walks off with lines like 'Ain't I a stinker?'

Bugs is cowardly, brutal and mean. And yet, as a child, every time cartoons came on, I would cheer if it was Bugs Bunny and switch off mild-mannered-middle-of-the-road Mickey Mouse. Unless Donald Duck was around who as, at least, a comically hyper-charged ball of rage that would at least pass the time.

Let's keep going with this. One of the most appealling characters of British TV of the last ten years is Gene Hunt - a sexist, homophobic, xenophobic throwback to the bad old days of dodgy policing. He was literally head and shoulders above all others in that show because his character was larger than life in every way. Five series later, he's bigger than ever.

Previously I've blogged about the wonderful Damned United (here) in which the incorrigible Brian Clough is portrayed, a man who got under your skin and intentionally set out to annoy people - like Gregory House, MD. Or, for that matter, Gordon Ramsay on his TV shows.

And yet, in a way, we care about Bugs Bunny, Hunt, House and Clough - even though they are sadistic monsters. In pure sitcom, we have the likes of Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave. In 30 Rock, we have Jack Donaghy and Tracey Jordan who are both rich and arrogant monsters in their way.

In my own limited experience, we have Penny and Tilly in Miranda who say and do outrageously unlikeable things, but we love them all the same. In writing Hut 33, I created a character called Professor Charles Gardiner, ultra-conservative Oxford don who was on first name terms with Rommel and Von Ribbentrop when war broke out. Played by the delightful Robert Bathurst, he often had the best jokes and zingers, and was a lot of fun to write for. In fact, the most popular character of that show was the Polish psychopath called Minka, voiced by Olivia Colman. She always brought the house down with her tales or threats of sustained and imaginative physical violence.

The common stereotype of the TV Commissioner is that they want someone 'likeable'. Or think other people think they want someone 'likeable'. This is sadly often true. But let's not confuse 'likable' with 'engaging' or 'absorbing' or 'charismatic'. The audience and the commissioner want the same thing - characters they keep coming back to. We need compelling characters, not necessary likeable ones. Miranda is very likeable. So was Del Boy. But Gregory House isn't likeable. He is an utter jerk, and cruel to anyone who shows love or affection for him. And yet, I've seen every single episode up to the middle of Series 6.

Conversely, the problem of Episodes is that we have a perfectly likeable couple at the centre of the show - but we don't really care about them, as I said here. They're nice and all, but we don't care.

Ultimately, we live with a paradox. We are able to love people we dislike. (Think of your own family). The skill, the trick, the art of writing is to make characters compelling, so that we have sympathy for them. It make be that we make them Mr Nice Guy. It may be that we can relate to them. Or it may be that we understand them, see the world through their eyes, but realise we would dislike them if we met them - but we just can't look away. eg. David Brent, Captain Mainwairing, Victor Meldrew, Tony Hancock.

It seems surprising that writers keep being asked for 'likeable', when that is not, ultimately, what the audience, the commissioners or any of us want.

Of course, Mickey Mouse made Disney and lots of other people hundreds of millions, so we can probably ignore all of the above.

But come on, who wants Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Pluto, when you can have Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn and Elmer Fudd?

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Episodes

So, Episodes.

Let's begin with the caveats. Let's bear in mind that my opinion doesn't matter to anyone; I'm an inexperienced comedy writer compared to the stupidly experienced David Crane who co-writes Episodes; I've read no reviews of Episodes and have no idea if it's already deemed a hit or a smash, so my opinion may be way off those of others, or blandly the same. My instinct is that critics will broadly be in favour of Episodes because it's about the media and they love self-parodying, industry stuff, even though most TV audiences show themselves to be consistently uninterested in this kind of thing. There. Caveats done. (and yes, 'caveat' is 3rd person present iussive subjunctive, and yes, I do have an A-Level in Latin and yes, I am keen to use it.)

Let us recall that scene in Seinfeld when Jerry and George pitch the idea for the show. George says it's about nothing. And the exec says one of those incredibly annoying things that execs say which is 'Why am I watching this show?' George tersely replies, 'Because it's on TV', implying that people will watch whatever's on.

Except George is wrong. And, it pains me to say, the exec is kind of right. "Why am I watching this show?" is one of those annoying questions to ask, but there's something in it.

And so I ask myself the question, Why am I watching Episodes? Well, I'm watching it because it's new, so I ought to watch it. It's written by one of the creators of Friends and bunch of other things. It's got Stephan Mangan and Tamsin Grieg in it - what's not to like? And, most of all, it's sort of about my job. There are four or five reasons right there.

And I'm glad I watched it. The performances were good. There were some jokes that made me laugh out loud. And before I had looked at my watch, it ended, which is a good sign.

But am I going to keep watching it? Am I excited about watching it again next week?

I have mentioned William Goldman's The Year of the Comet before on this blog. It was, apparently, the next screenplay he wrote after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Goldman knows how to write a really decent movie. And yet, he wrote The Year of the Comet, which vanished without trace. Why? Because nobody cared. Why did nobody care? Because it's a romantic comedy about a couple who are trying to track down a bottle of wine. Seriously. The trailer for it is here: (sorry if there's another ad first)

YEAR OF THE COMET: Movie Trailer. Watch more top selected videos about: Movie Trailers, Year of the Comet


Have you seen the trailer? Doesn't it look dreadful? 'From the writer of The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy' says the voiceover... William Goldman laughs about it now. He writes about it in his excellent and compulsory follow-up to Adventures in the Screen Trade called Which Lie did I Tell? But the point is this: Who cares about a couple who's quest is a valuable bottle of wine? Could we be made to care about them? Maybe. Do we? No. And I think this is my main problem with Episodes. I don't really care. And that makes a big difference.

Caring about these people is going to be a tall order, since this is a sitcom about wealthy successful people, who are about to have mildly annoying things done to them buy even wealthier more successful people. And the problem is what I'm really meant to care about is an abstract sitcom. This sitcom of theirs is set in a boarding school and Richard Griffiths is in it. It's won some awards. That's all I know about it. I don't get any sense that this is a prized and loved thing that I should care about. This sitcom should be their baby. It should be a part of them. Changes to it should be excruciating. But I don't quite buy that the characters really care about their baby all that much.

Maybe their sitcom should be based on themselves in some way - about a married couple - or some personal experience - and therefore tampering with it causes serious personal trauma and pain, and a clash in their relationship. The cabbie who took them home from the BAFTAs could have quoted a line or a catchphrase from the show or something. Please, just make me care about the things the characters care about. Otherwise, all they're going to do is walk away quite wealthy and slightly tanned from a failed american sitcom.

I'm sure I shall watch next week - but partly because I want to know more about the original show of theirs, just like I've always wanted to see Ricky Gervais write a whole episode of When The Whistle Blows. Writing comedy about the comedy industry is one thing. Writing a character-based sitcom for a mainstream studio audience is another. Crane can obviously do that. His awards and record prove that. He probably has two personal assistants, three homes and four yachts to prove that. This is not a bad show at all. I laughed along, and it was easy to enjoy. But I don't love it. Yet.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

What I learned from Seinfeld

Occasionally, I watch a TV show that is so good and perfect that I'm at a loss to know what I can learn from it. It's like looking at a Picasso or, my personal favourite, Claude Lorraine.

I mention this because recently, my latest TV treat has been Modern Family and I have almost nothing to say about it. It's an astonishing piece of work, reviving the family sitcom like a whiff of smelling salts. It has all the verve and brio of Arrested Development, and all the heart of, well, Arrested Development. And yet it's a domestic family sitcom, split over three households, with familiar storylines, retold in a stunningly original way.

Some time ago, I had similar feeling about Seinfeld. I've got every single on DVD (or at least I did until my friend Luke lost my Series 7, even though he swears I loaned him Series 5. It's okay, Luke. I forgive you.) I'm a huge fan and was always sad that BBC never committed to showing it at a decent time on BBC2, when the show has such British anti-sentimental sensibilities ('No hugging, no learning'.)

After multiple viewings and thinking about things, I spotted one thing that Seinfeld has the courage to do that no-one else seems to do. It makes peripheral characters funny. Really funny. In most comedies, the regular cast are the funny ones, and anyone else who is brought in for the week is normally played, or scripted, very straight. Harrassed shopkeeper, or disgruntled customer or whatever.

A good comedy actor knows the importance of playing straight, so that the comedy in the established funny character is heightened. But Seinfeld showed that his doesn't always have to be the case. Who can forget the Soup Nazi? Or the Bubble Boy? Or the infuriating Bania? Or Kramer's insane lawyer Jackie Chiles? Some of the characters, like Bania or Chiles, were so strong, they could recur again and again. And many recurred in that final (ill-advised) courtroom episode and we had no problem remember who any of them were and why they would be happy to stitch up the regular characters.

In some ways, the strength of these minor characters is typical of the show. Despite being a successful comedian, and having his name on the show, Jerry Seinfeld did the smartest thing he could have done: he effectively gave the show away to George, Elaine and Kramer - and to the comic genius of Larry David. Jerry is almost the straight man in the show, since he is always reluctant to get involved in Kramer's schemes or humiliate himself. The comedy world revolves around Jerry - his parents, his Uncle Leo, his nemesis Newman among others. You know you've got a hit on your hands when you create a 'world', and find yourself smiling when you even start thinking about it. (How many people reading this thought to themselves 'Hello Newman'.

There's no doubt that creating this kind of world is easier when you're doing 26 episodes in a run, and after four years find yourself shooting episode 100. But it is still easier said than done. Conventional wisdom says that all comedy should be focussed on the regular characters, since they are the ones that the audience have invested in. This is true - but there is another way. If you can get it to work.

So that's what I learnt from Seinfeld - and one day, I'll learn something from the flawless Modern Family.

In the meantime, here's Jackie Chiles in all his glory.

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For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.


People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:


"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Business of Not Getting Paid

Earlier today, I retweeted a link to an extract of a film about Harlan Ellison - in which he talks about many things, but in the clip he talks about how writers are often treated.

In America, writers seem to be held in far higher esteem than over here in the UK. In America, writers don't just write, but produce and cast and everything and make a ton of money. And yet American writers still have stories of injustice and being cheated out of money. They even go on strike. The extraordinary thing is that they're often legitimate complaints, and their money is being creamed off by people who have done nothing to make the hit in question such a success.

We have a long way to go over here. If it's not bad form to quote oneself, here's something I've said in a previous post:
The fact is that if you're a writer, you will write. No-one will be able to stop you. And nothing else will matter to you. Getting paid is great. And is essential every now and then. But the money is always secondary to the project - or at least it should be. If you're a writer, money is something you need to help you write.

There is no doubt that this desire to write is regularly abused by our paymasters. Here is my greatest frustration, which I will paint as a generic and regular scenario.

I'm sitting in a small conference room talking about a new idea for a sitcom with a producer, their boss, the executive producer - and maybe an assistant. Maybe I'm at the BBC. Or an indie. It rarely makes any difference, sadly. This is the fourth meeting I've had now. At the first, I pitched the initial idea, which they cautiously said they might like if they could see more of it. At the second we talked about the treatment that I worked up over a few days. I was told I'd need to come up with some more storylines. At the third meeting, having spent two or three more days on storylines, we talked about which channel this show would be suitable for, who could be in it, how to sell it. And all that.

And here I am at the fourth meeting, and it's being suggested that we'd need script samples and that kind of thing. There's talk of a 'taster' tape. And that more work will be needed in order to bring a channel on board. And I can't help noticing that so far, the only one coming up with any ideas, fleshing them out and doing all the work is the only one who has not been paid a penny. Everyone else in that room - who's livelihood depends on writers coming in and pitching ideas that they will go off and be paid to make - is on a salary, gets paid holidays, sick leave and pension contributions. Their office expenses are covered and it doesn't really matter if they bunk of early now and then. And then there's me.

How is that right? No money is ever available for scripts from indies until they've managed to the money off a potential broadcaster. Even multi-million pound companies that have six or seven different series in production, swanky offices in Central London and several layers of management. Trying to pin down the company for an option is barely worth the bother since it's only a few hundred pounds and is a pretty poor deal anyway.

Why more money isn't made up available up front for writers is baffling to me, since it is they who generate the ideas. The current business model for most indies and producers is akin to a pharmaceutical company who are rather hoping a scientist will wander in and tell them all about their cure for cancer. But that is the insane world we work in.

Anyway, if you've ever had the feeling that I've had in scenario painted above, you'll feel better after watching this clip in which an angry, wealthy, talented writer swears a lot and sticks it to the man. Enjoy.