Monday, 16 November 2015

Inside Information

A few times a year, there are panels and interviews with Heads of Comedy or Channel Controllers and Genre Commissioners who are routinely asked what they’re looking for. I understand why they are asked this question. The organisation charging money for the panel has to appear to be offering special access or an inside track. And, crucially, we all want to know the answer.

But the particular question “What kind of sitcoms are you looking for?” is surely redundant? Because there’s only one real answer:

Funny ones.

Really. That’s it. They are looking for funny sitcoms.

Or at least sitcoms that they think will be funny because, to be honest, you really can't tell until you've written it, cast it, shot it, edited it and watched it in your own living room.

The problem is that "We're looking for funny sitcoms" doesn’t sound like a very helpful or professional answer, so usually you get answers that include the words ‘smart’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘warm’ or ‘a twist on x’ or ‘a y for the 21st Century’. (The word ‘edgy’ has, I’m pleased to say, been humanely destroyed.) Sometimes you get ‘laugh out loud’, which is the closest to the honest answer of ‘funny ones’. And the mainstream channels are always looking for pre-watershed family comedies because they always have and always will. Because families watch TV and like laughing.

Let's think about this.

Comedy is, by nature, surprising. You, as a writer, are noticing things about the way we live today that not been noticed by others – and then writing about them. How, then, could anyone predict what writers want to write about and can turn into a half-hour repetitive comedy format? It’s not logically possible.

Did BBC1 say, “We’d like a sitcom about a tall well-to-do woman who runs a gift shop with her short friend and is ideally in love with a chef from the restaurant next door.” Did they even say “We’d like a show about a fairly posh woman?” No! And it wasn’t even BBC1 who commissioned the smash-hit Miranda. It was BBC2 who saw a central character and world that might be funny and gave it a shot. Good on them. (I was not involved in the pitching of the show so can claim not credit for that whatsoever)

Sitcoms are not made to order, because nobody knows that they want. And nobody has any way of knowing what they want. Because the audience doesn’t know what it wants. Until it sees it.

The folk that work high up in comedy know all this but they have to say something or it looks like they’re being bolshy or reductionist or not playing the game. They could say what Bob Hope said when he was asked what he wanted on his gravestone. He said, ‘Surprise me.’

What comedy commissioners and channel controllers would say, if pressed, is that they want a sitcom that has passion, and distinctiveness, and ‘opens a window on a world we haven’t seen before’ or feels fresh or modern in some way. Those shows can only be created by writers following their passions. So that is what we must do.

Getting a sitcom on TV is so hard. I’ve managed to get three sitcoms onto the radio, but only got one of my own onto TV in fifteen years (Bluestone 42 which I co-created with Richard Hurst). Each attempt involves an idea, characters, plotting, choosing a pilot, writing and rewriting it again and again, based on notes which are sometimes helpful and sometimes hopeless – and they are almost impossible to distinguish. Then you’ve got to think of who’s going to be in the show, and who will ‘sell it’ to the channel and the audience, and be brilliantly funny it. Then there are more notes. Then probably some terrifying readthrough that will make you feel sick. Maybe even a pilot recorded in front of an audience which might make you actually throw up with nerves. It's hard.

If you’re not in completely love with the idea and passionate about the characters, all of the above is just too hard.

Apart from all this, the current rate of comedy musical chairs means this whole game is redundant. That commissioner who is idiotic enough to say that they’re looking for ‘a sitcom set on a submarine, or possibly an underwater kingdom’ probably won’t be doing that job by the time your script arrives on their desk, given the length of time it takes to develop and write a script worth sending to anyone. So this whole approach is flawed.

The Tactful Turndown
But here’s the thing that makes us question all of the above. It’s the tactful turndown that undoes all the logic that I have just laid out. Here’s how it goes:

Pic by Victoria Padevit Brown
You’ve sweated for months over an idea, about, say, a paintball park, and the dysfunctional characters therein. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, you've produced a script with all the torturous angst that a panda in captivity produces a baby panda. And this creation has been handed over to a commissioner who sits on it for some weeks, possibly months. In the unlikely event they are still in that job a few months later, the verdict comes back. It's a 'no'.

What? No?! You ask why. WHY?! Why did they turn it down?!

You demand answers. They don’t want to give answers. Your producer tries to shield you from the answers.

But you insist. So you get answers. And you hate the answers.

“Thank you for this script, which had some really great moments it, but we’re looking for comedies that have a slightly more contemporary feel than places like paintball parks.”

You’re angry because the idea you wrote was about the very fact that times have moved on and paintball parks are no longer a big deal and that’s the point of the show. Idiot. But your anger subsides, and you’ll start thinking to yourself ‘They want a more contemporary place than paintball. Okay. How about a… pop up restaurant? Or a social networking company? Or… a new political party? Yeah!" and of you go, pouring hours, or days - even weeks - into an idea that you think has a great chance of being commissioned.

STOP.

You’ve misinterpreted the feedback. You’ve failed to read between the lines. Come on, you're a writer. You should be able to understand subtext. Why didn’t they want to make your show?

They didn’t like it.

They didn’t find it funny. It didn’t jump off the page. It didn’t leap through the screen, if you were lucky enough to have made a pilot. They didn’t think their audience would find it funny in sufficient numbers. That really is all there is too it.

But, just as they have to answer the question about what they’re looking for, they have to answer the question about why they turn stuff down. And usually, the only honest answer is:

They didn’t think it was funny.

That’s all there is to it.

This is why I never ask for much feedback on a show that I’ve submitted. It’s not that I have nothing to learn. Far from it. If they pointed out technical flaws in what I’ve written, I could fix those. But they don’t want to do that, because even if I fix the flaws, they’d be left with a show that they still don’t like. It’s just a slightly better show they don’t like.

A while back, I submitted an idea for a sitcom that was set during World War Two. There were some comments of various degrees of logic but the final verdict was “We’re not looking for historical sitcoms at the moment”.

This is not really true, because if a knock-out idea came in that was about The Spanish Armada, or something, and it felt right, or fresh or special, they’d do it. They shouldn't not do it because they didn't do mine. And I should stop moaning that life is unfair. Maybe it is, but they just didn't like my show, so I need to get over it.

Likewise if Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon wanted to do a historical sitcom, they’d at least think about it very hard. And, to be honest, if they didn’t like Coogan and Brydon’s idea, they may well turn it down. Commissioners are not so star struck that they just accept any idea from someone from the comedy A-List. I’ve heard of numerous shows from award winning comedians turned down. So, it’s not even that the stars get special treatment. Although sometimes they do. Because if they're stars, they are special.

So what now?

Write your sitcom. The one you really want to write. Make sure you write it with passion. Make sure it's distinctive. And yes, it's painful and time-consuming and may well come to nothing, but that, unfortunately, is the only way. If they absolutely love it, they’ll break any rule they made up in the last two years to make it. And find the money to make it happen. If they quite like it, or can see the merit it, or just 'admire the writing', it’s not going to happen. Sorry.

It’s painful, but the alternative of creating a sitcom that even you aren’t passionate about is even more painful.

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For more on the pain of writing your sitcom, read Writing That Sitcom, available for the Kindle and Kindle App here. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.


3 comments:

  1. So did you ever write a pilot of that sitcom on the Property Industry which the BBC rejected a few years back? I'm awash with anecdotes for one if it ever comes up...

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  2. ...and what about the Cheshire based police sitcom you once mentioned? Did it ever make its way to being written?

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  3. James, once again it seems you could have addressed this directly to me, it struck such a chord. You are right on the money. It's a fools errand trying to second guess what commisioners (or even producers for that matter) are after.
    I am greatly heartened that your words echo what I had been secretly thinking and I look forward to getting my latest pilot finished. Then I can relax and enjoy the creative ways in which this one will be rejected... What do you mean 'you're just not looking for sitcoms about medieval knights with telekentic powers'?!
    Thank you!

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