Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Writing on Someone Else’s Sitcom - Ideas Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope that helps. Next time, the gag pass.

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