Monday, 5 December 2016

The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms - Part 3

I've been writing about The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms. You can read Parts 1 here and Part 2 here.

What should come across is the overwhelming sense of speed. The writing process for months beforehand is agonising, but once it's production week, it flashes past. There just isn't long to read, rewrite, block, rehearse and pre-shoot before the audience turn up. And what you shoot on the night is going to be broadcast to the nation at prime time and burned onto DVDs. It is a high pressure environment.

Like many high pressured environments, you get used to it. Once you've done it for a while, you know what you're getting into, everyone knows that the days might overrun, and people may be tense or short with each other now and then. During the week of production, the director is the key for setting the tone.

Incidentally, this is one of my worries for the long term health of studio sitcoms. There just aren't many people in the industry who have the experience to shoot multi-cam sitcoms. It's not like any other job in television. It's half way been between directing a play and producing a shiny floor entertainment show which has to work in the room to the studio audience, and the viewers watching at home. Tricky.

At the end of the last blogpost on this subject, I brought up one thing that is a temptation that crops up in rehearsal, especially if the writer is in the room, or even in the scene: to keep changing the script.

Miranda rehearsals (Pic from BBC website)
I have been at pains to say that during the week of production, the script can change a lot. Entire scenes might be rewritten, cut or pulled out of thin air in the week. Often, the best scene with the biggest laughs is written during the week of production.


In rehearsals, give the actors a chance. Look at if from their point of view. They've been handed a script on day one for the read through. They have to be word perfect in less than a week. Can they start learning this script? No. There'll be notes and changes. They come back the next day, and the script has changed. Time to rehearse. Is this the final version? Maybe. Maybe not. The least you can do, as the writer, is let them have a go at it as written. And try and make it work, because the lines were written as they appear on the page for a reason.

Maybe the actor says the line in a way that just isn't funny or doesn't work or sounds weird. Having said it once that way, most likely they've heard they've done it wrong with their own ears, and will probably do it better next time.

It's possible there have been a number of changes overnight, and the actor doesn't understand what their character is trying to do in the rewritten scene. In which case, that can be figured out, ideally with the director. If you, the writer, are there, you might be able to speed things up with a quick explanation. e.g.
"In the earlier version of this scene, your character came in angry, but we felt that it didn't leave her any where to go. So in this new version, she's starting out frustrated, and when she realises that things are not going to change or improve, she's goes ballistic and does the thing that triggers the next scene. Does that help?"
It probably will.

If it takes a while to go in, with the clock ticking, the temptation is to rewrite the scene again overnight and essentially direct the scene with the script. You give the character lines which are very clear and obvious as to how the character is feeling, but are not very dramatic or interesting. You might have solved a problem, but you've probably also made the show slightly worse. And probably offended your actor who just needed a little time to catch up.

Or maybe you change the lines there and then, in which case the actor won't have a chance to make the lines work as written. In the end, it feels like every time they are doing the scene, it's changed and they are essentially sight reading. This might not lead to a satisfactory performance on the night. Or it might be fine, but doesn't sparkle.

Imagine if a concert pianist had to put up with this. The ghost of Chopin at their shoulder, rubbing out notes and putting in new ones on the four days leading up to the big performance. Your script might not quite be Chopin, but let the actors and director find it if you can. Change what you have to, for sure, but there is a law of diminishing returns here.

There are many other pressures of production week in a studio sitcom, and we will almost certainly return to this in the future. Meanwhile:

There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.

Also, listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast, with me & Dave Cohen.