Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Make the Most of Your Freedom

Blogging is easy. You write. You post. And it’s there for all the world to see, should they choose to. Access to the audience is free. There are no barriers. For some, this direct, open connection feels like the norm, and the way things should be.

But this arrangement is because blogs don’t really cost anything. The blogging software is free. I have a laptop and broadband. The only thing that this blog post is costing me is time, and possibly a little sleep. (It’s 11pm as type, and I should go to bed, really. I have meetings tomorrow).

Sitcoms, however, are not blogposts.

They cost money.

Lots and lots of money.

Round about £300k an episode if they’re being shot properly. You might be able to get that down if you’re creative or clever – or you don’t care if it’s badly shot or not funny – but sitcom is an expensive medium. If you’re making six episodes, that’s at least £1.5m being poneyed up right there. So people think hard before spending that kind of money.

Getting a sitcom on TV, then, is difficult.

This is exacerbated by the number of people trying to do it. And therefore failure isn’t just an option. It’s almost a certainty. Some sitcoms get through and get made. Of those that do, many don’t last. Either way, the chances of getting your sitcom on air are slender.

And so it seems frustrating that, for lowly writers, it doesn’t seem to be a level playing field. The latest crop of successful sitcoms are almost entirely by writer-performers. Peep Show, by Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong, is the exception. Although the stars are themselves writer-performers. But let’s just take the nominees for the Broadcast awards just announced: Car Share; Catastrophe; Detectorists; Inside No. 9; The Keith Lemon Sketch Show; People Just Do Nothing. All of these shows are by writer-performers. And on TV tonight as I type, is Josh, and Toast of London. Channel 4 also has Chewing Gum. And you can see reruns of Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Not Going Out on other channels.

If you’re not a performer, then, it can seem that odds are stacked against you getting your own sitcom on air. On the latest episode of the Sitcom Geeks podcast this week, we talk about the rise of the Writer Performer sitcom.

I’ve written about it before (HERE and HERE), so there’s no point in repeating myself. But to summarise, I’m not saying that commissioners shouldn’t have commissioned those shows. All those ones I’ve mentioned are loved, respected and enjoyed by enough people to tick the boxes. And you can see how a show with a strong, tried and tested central performance would appeal to a commissioner. Stand-up comedians who can play large venues have a following and give you an audience, at least at the start. They can go on the radio and Graham Norton and promote the show. And they're probably very good at comedy. It all makes complete sense.

I have also point out these shows still often need writers. Look at the credits and you’ll see lots of famous comedians regularly collaborate with other writers, and once a series gets going, there might be three or four other writers. Maybe more. So there’s work to be had, and a job to be done, even if there might not be a format to be owned.

Freedom. You get the idea.
But here’s the one advantage the writer has over the writer-performer. The writer can write about anything. Anything at all. Any one. Any time. Any place. Any where. You have freedom. FREEDOM! A stand-up comedian with persona built up over five years, or twenty years, of gigs and panel games is largely hostage to that persona. And that’s the persona the commissioner wants. They really don’t want to see that persona playing against type. Not initially, anyway. But as a writer, you should make the most of that advantage. You can write with ambition and passion, rather than your own acting ability or alter-ego.

Plus you have the freedom – FREEDOM! – to work on other people’s shows. And those shows don’t even all have to be comedy. You could write a drama.  There are no writer-performers in drama. And writers seem afforded greater respect, and more creative control. But then again, the grass is always greener. And I just love jokes. I suspect you do too.

Listen to the podcast HERE. Buy my book HERE. And for more information on the First Ten Pages challenge, go HERE.

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.


Thursday, 12 November 2015

What Has Happened to Geoff and Lynette?

I'm still thinking about possible stories for Geoff and Lynette, who are the key protagonists in a sitcom I'm developing on this blog, called Third Time Lucky. In the last blog post on this subject, I wrote about putting your characters in various situations to see how it goes, before committing to your characters fully and fleshing things out. I used a technique for generating random stories just to get things going. I left unfinished. I'm finishing it below, just to show my working. It's not terribly inspiring at the moment, but it might show what the kinds of things go through my mind as I'm developing characters and sitcoms. If this list is baffling, look at this link first.

Chiropodist (or Chiropractor?) – Geoff has stinky feet. Or maybe Lynette does and she’s very ashamed of that. Or not ashamed enough? For chiropractor, see Healthy (below)

Damsel in Distress – Geoff is not chivalrous. But he’d like to be. Maybe he doesn’t want to do something chivalrous because he thinks Lynette wouldn’t like it or would find it patronising. Her old mates from Greenham common would be appalled. But when he confesses this, Lynette is surprised and appalled. How could he have misjudged her – when they’ve been married? Twice?!

Elephant – There’s an elephant in the room. Something about their relationship – or one of their children, maybe? – that they never mention. Or maybe one of their kids confronts Geoff and tells him that he’s a hoarder. Which he kind of is.

Giraffe – Geoff has been hiding something on a high shelf where he knows Lynette won’t even see it, let along reach it. Until spring cleaning day. Lynette gets out the step ladder – and to avoid her from finding the ‘thing/macguffin’, so Geoff gets involved in the cleaning, much to Lynette's surprise and delight. But he falls off the ladder (which he has set up incorrectly), and hurts himself – and then has to sit on the sofa helpless, while Lynette climbs the ladder to continue cleaning and finds ‘the thing’. When she opens it, all hell breaks look, but not in the way Geoff was expecting.

Health – Attitudes to health and medicine is a tricky one because Lynette could be probably pro-complimentary medicine, or she could place so much faith in nature that she believes the human body essentially heals itself. Or maybe Geoff is against all medicine and won’t take a paracetamol unless he’s dying.

Another health story here is that one of them might have a significant health scare – which really does focus the mind and force you to work out what’s precious. Geoff or Lynette has a scare, and then draws up a bucket list that is ludicrous. This could be a trigger for them both drawing up bucket lists to make sure they don't waste this part of their life, while they do have the means and the health to enjoy the world. And the lists are very different and they realise they want completely different things. But, somehow, they still want to be together. That made me think of this:


Igloo – There are disputes about the level of the thermostat. Or, better, the boiler is broken and Geoff is trying to fix it himself, but failing. All the while, Lynette is freezing, so Geoff's unwillingness to get help is impinging on the one he loves. Will his love of tinkering or love of his wife win out?

Janitor – Isn’t it about time Geoff tidied up his collection of old technology that is the garage? If so, what does he find?

Knight – subliminally, I think I wrote ‘Knight’ because I was still thinking about the Damsel in Distress, so I'm going to pass on this one.

Lemur – Lynette and Geoff have to look after a lemur for a friend who’s going on holiday. Geoff is not keen, but Lynette is pro-nature and animals so agrees. Geoff is struggling with a piece of technology, maybe, and when the lemur escapes, it shows that the technology is easy enough for a monkey/lemur to operate. (Lemurs aren't technically monkeys, are they? Or are they?)

Mauve – the living room (or bedroom?) needs repainting. Or the outside of the house. What colour should it be? And how do they decide? What different things do they associate with colours? Through the course of this, we see how incompatible they are. Something as trivial as this leads to the need for mediation.

Notebook – a note in a pad is found and heavily misconstrued. As a rule of thumb, I tend not to like stories like these where a character gets the wrong end of the stick because it means the plot is based on ‘lack of information’ rather than purely character. Sometimes, the partial information confirms a prejudice, which can be okay, but overall, I try to avoid these sorts of stories. This sort of thing could work for a beat, or scene. Geoff finds a note left by Lynette, which makes it look like she’s leaving him, when she’s actually nipped to the shops. Geoff is devastated – and maybe moves on a bit too quickly and Lynette returns, Geoff is surprised and it triggers a proper story, or feeds into something else.

Where are we?
From the list we've got, I like bits and pieces. I like the boiler story, because Geoff's passion to fix and tinker affects his other passion, his wife. I like the clash of bucket lists. I like Geoff being called a hoarder, and having to prove he's not, whilst being in denial. I like the falling out over the colour of the house. It's a common domestic dispute that could escalate.

Overall, it's still early days. It does feel like there's a show here, which is encouraging. But at the moment, lots of the stories are feeling a bit trivial and I have no idea what a pilot episode could be about. I think I now need to go back to the characters and interrogate them, which I wrote about here. Maybe I do need to figure out a bit of backstory (warning! Backstory! Handle with care) and work out where the primary battlegrounds are. So that's a job for next time.