Wednesday, 1 July 2015

There’s a New Podcast In Town

The world probably doesn’t need another podcast about writing, television or sitcoms. But we didn’t ask. I’ve teamed up with Dave Cohen and started one about the art of writing sitcoms for television, with an eye (or ear?) to radio as well. It is kindly hosted by the British Comedy Guide, and produced by Katie Storey. Episode 1 is out now and you can listen to it here (via Soundcloud, iTunes, etc)

The overall theme of our inaugural episode is asking what your sitcom is about – and working out what it’s really about. Like any decent movie, novel or play, a sitcom has a superficial setting, but it’s not ultimately about that setting. It has a theme or an attitude that informs everything. And that is what your sitcom is really about.

It’s important to think about this underlying theme before you launch into plotting and writing a pilot episode, or even an entire series. (Do not write an entire series uncommissioned. It makes you look a little crazy. I know people write entire novels on spec, but it’s not really the done thing in sitcoms. See here.) Here’s why: You’ll be asked the infuriating question ‘Why am I watching this show?’ and the answer ‘Because it’s on TV’ is not good enough.  George Costanza tries that one. It doesn’t work:

You need to know two big things about your sitcom:

1. Why Now?
We all know the secret of comedy is timing. But it’s not just in the delivery of the jokes you need to worry about this. It’s the delivery of the original idea. Ideas have their time. They can capture the mood of a moment, or a new social phenomenon.

This is clearly the case when you watch sitcoms from yesteryear. Hardly any shows are truly timeless. Even fairly recent hits like Men Behaving Badly which is regularly re-run on cable channels feel rather dated at times. And watch the first and last few episodes of Only Fools and Horses. They are very different in tone. Del Boy goes from dodgy market trader selling potentially stolen (‘hookey’) goods to wannabee yuppee and responsible husband and father.

Some show are timeless, especially ones that don’t look like contemporary life. Perhaps that’s why Blackadder is eminently rewatchable – apart from it being staggeringly funny. In Series 2, 3 and 4, they made a virtue of being a historical artificial studio show, even referring to it in Series 3 when Blackadder says he seems doomed to die on ‘this unconvincing grassy knoll’.

But most shows are contemporary – and commissioners tend be very reluctant to commission historical comedy. I’m not sure why. I think they worry that they look elitist. There haven’t been many commissioned since Blackadder, which is a shame because most overeducated comedy writers want to set a show in some obscure historical backwater.

So, given your show is probably set in the here and now, what’s the show really about, and why does it say something about now?

Porridge I mention on the podcast that I recently re-watched the first episode of Porridge. That show too had a resonance with the times. Fletcher points out that life outside prison wasn’t that much fun with cutbacks, strikes and a crumbling economy. So you might as well be in jail. It’s just a throwaway comment, but strikes a chord and gives a clue to the success of the show at the time (as well as truly brilliant writing and one of the best comic actors the nation’s ever seen). That, and the fact that they’re wearing uniforms that means that it doesn’t look so dated making it eminently repeatable without fear of cringing.

Sometimes I look back through old notes books and click on archived folders and stumble over ideas that are perfectly okay as situations for sitcoms, but I just couldn’t go back to because they feel so dated now. Or irrelevant, highlighting a social issue that’s no longer a big deal, or has been done to death. This is one problem with some ideas that have been working on for years. By the time, you’re in a position to pitch them, they feel like their moment has passed. In which case, think of something else.

You may be adapting something that has already found an audience in another medium. Mrs Brown’s Boys was a stage show for many years before it ended up on screen. But when it comes to you, a scriptwriter, creating a show from ex nihilo, it needs to be relevant today, so that when the commissioner says ‘Why am I watching this show?’, you don’t end up walking out and causing a scene, like George Costanza.

Here’s the other question. You may have a brilliant idea that speaks volumes about the times we live in, shining a light on a community of characters we’ve not seen before. But are you the one to write it?

2. Why You?
If you’re wanting to write a sitcom, you aren’t just pitching a 90 minute movie. One script. You’re pitching six episodes, which any commissioner will want to have potential for at least another twelve episodes. You’re essentially saying you can write nine hours-worth of your sitcom idea. Nine hours. That’s six ninety minute movies. Why should they trust you to write this idea?

The only way to convince them you’re the person for the job is to be passionate about it. You don’t need personal experience of what you're writing about, necessarily. I’m not an advocate of the ‘write what you know’ theory. I’ve written sitcoms about management consultants, Bletchley Park code-breakers and bomb-disposal officers. I’ve been none of those things. But I have read an awful lot about them and spoken to people who’ve done those things first hand, so the story ideas have a ring of authenticity about them.

Of course, if you’ve worked in a bookies for five years, you’ll have plenty of insights into life in bookmakers. Then you just need to work out why now is the time to be watching a show set in a bookmakers. Deep down, your show is probably not about gambling at all. It’s a metaphor for something. But what? Who knows? You probably need to.

So there are plenty of questions here – that only you know the answer to. There are plenty more questions on the podcast.

And if you have questions that we might know the answers to, you can email us at sitcomgeeks at the

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