Updated : Tue, 28 Aug 2012 09:53:42 +0000
Pramface writer, Chris Reddy, stopped by to give us some top tips and insight into the world of sitcom writing:
Hello. I've been asked to do a blog about my writing experiences on Pramface, so here goes...
In brief, an average day would consist of me sitting in a room, staring at a white board covered with illegible scribbles, grinding out pages of scripts late into the night to ever diminishing deadlines while stuffing my face with sugar rich-foods, trying to stay awake.
The next day I would typically wake up to notes from my producer telling me it was 'not good enough' and to 'go back and rewrite... and hurry up'. This went on for months.
So, no, there was not a lot of hanging out in the British Library having lattes, or Soho lunches with glamorous actors talking about how much they love my work. It was basically just one very long slog of writing, rewriting and rewriting again.
Have I put you off yet? If you're still reading, my guess is you're a writer because, let's face it, no normal viewer would be reading this.
So rather than ramble on I thought I'd try to share some of the stuff I've learnt and a few things I'd like to have been told when I was starting out. I'd also add that none of what follows is original, it's just stuff that has struck me as useful along the way. It's all in the many screenwriting books and courses out there already, which brings me to my first point.
1. Read the books
I am always amazed by how many scriptwriters haven't familiarised themselves with the basics of screenwriting technique. In no other profession (like dentistry for example) would you expect to just walk in and have a crack at it without any schooling.
Six episodes of a mid-priced sitcom is going to cost over a million pounds to produce. So when you pitch a script to a broadcaster, you are essentially asking them to spend a million quid on your idea. Whilst they're making this decision, it's probably in your interests for them to feel you have some idea of what you're talking about.
If you are a genius, then spending a couple of weeks reading won't stop you being a genius. You can then happily reject everything the experts say as formulaic nonsense and move on to collecting your armfuls of Oscars, Baftas and Emmys relatively untroubled. If, on the other hand, you're just a regular hack like me, you might find something useful in there.
Everyone bangs on about the importance of structure, and who am I to question them. Half hour narrative comedy is in some ways the most demanding dramatic form (that's right, I'm saying Keeping up Appearances was a tougher gig than Hamlet).
If you're making an art-house film, you've got time to go wandering off on a twenty minute philosophical tangent. The Everyman matinee crowd will love you and your rambling, ambiguous, anti-structure masterpiece.
TV audiences, however, are less tolerant. In television comedy you have to tell funny, coherent, integrated stories in a very compressed time frame. This requires discipline and practice, but you've chosen to write in a populist medium so, no pouting - get used to doing it.
And the truth is, learning to write structurally is actually one of the most rewarding bits of the job. And, when it comes to the dreaded rewrites, I've found having a strong grasp of my story allows me to work more efficiently and approach the task with more confidence.
So how do you structure your comedy script? Well first, don't start with the script...
Classical narrative sitcoms are made up of two acts, but they are acts ii and iii. What? All this means is that the de facto first act of a sitcom is the premise of the show itself. And I don't mean just the backstory; I mean the cast design, the character relationships, and the arena of the show. This is the real root of the comedy.
Make sure you spend time designing your premise rather than just churning out thirty-odd pages of script, hoping your natural gifts will carry you through. Been there, done that, my natural gifts carried me through to a forty page confusing mess that still hasn't been shot. No surprises there.
Writers' tendency to skimp on the design of their premise is the reason script development and script editing in half hour comedy is such a difficult job. By the time a new project makes it into development with a production company, it's often already broken.
And since TV production companies typically develop scripts rather than premises, the structural elements causing the problems will always be out of their reach. This is why, despite the best efforts of talented people, TV shows can still arrive on screen hobbled by the inherent weaknesses of the initial design.
4. Funny stories.
So now you've designed a robust narrative machine, you're going to need a funny story to feed into it.
It's important that the events of the story themselves are funny (or at least dramatically interesting) prior to the inclusion of any dialogue or action. The individual scenes should be amusing just by dint of their position and context in the overall narrative.
I go to my big whiteboard and start by plotting out the events I know I want in my story, putting them in approximately the right position, then I try to connect them up in an interesting way. It's somewhere between doing a jigsaw and drawing a picture. You try to see how the pieces you already have slot together, and then fill in the gaps.
Do this for your A plot and any subplots until you have an interesting, escalating story with promising comic scenes, and a strong payoff, then fill in the dialogue and action.
The benefit of this approach is that when you write your actual script, the dialogue magically improves because it's been released from the burden of carrying the plot.
Conversely, a properly positioned scene becomes much funnier because it has the full weight of narrative behind it. The comic tension is generated by the entire story rather than disconnected bits of business in-scene, or superficially 'comic' dialogue.
You should aim for about 35 pages in standard feature screenplay format. It'll be around six thousand words give or take a couple of hundred depending on how verbose you are with your stage directions.
5. Why won't they call?
So you've written your spec and sent it out, and now everyone is ignoring it. When you first start out, the industry can seem to take an age to respond. Sometimes it never calls back at all. It's easy to feel isolated and get frustrated when everyone seems to be ignoring you or, worse, deliberately excluding you. However, your fears are unfounded. Conspiracy implies a degree of organisation that is absent from most of the organisations you currently believe to be maliciously ignoring you.
If you have talent, then you will get through eventually. In the meantime, don't waste your time and energy getting angry and despondent. Get better at your job. The truth is that writing talent is relatively commonplace, craft is rare. If you develop your technical abilities, you will instantly distinguish yourself from 90% of the writers in the marketplace.
Very few people can write at a professional level, very few do. Most of the television being produced today is written by a small group of people. This group has three subsets made up of the supremely talented, the moderately talented who have learned some craft, and a bunch of people who you could supplant if you write a decent script.
Now stop browsing the Internet and go and do some writing.
Publ.Date : Tue, 27 Mar 2012 15:00:00 +0000
If you were visitng the internet yesterday, you may have heard about our new show for 2013 It's Kevin, starring and written by comedian Kevin Eldon.
You may have heard that it's sketches, it's songs, it's characters, it's guests, and it's a man who's old enough to know better mucking about, with help from a number of his comedy friends.
What you have probably not heard until reading it just now is that you can watch a clip from the show as a taste of things to come right here, right now!
It's Kevin: The Perspective Twins
Publ.Date : Tue, 19 Jun 2012 15:30:00 +0000
Ashley Blaker, series producer, co-creator & co-writer of The Matt Lucas Awards stopped by Comedy Towers to talk to us about making the final episode of series one.
Everyone was very excited about making this episode of The Matt Lucas Awards and there was a fun end-of-term feel around the studio. For starters it was the final recording of an incredibly intense period that should have carried a government health warning. We were also really looking forward to having Ruth Jones, David Baddiel and Griff Rhys Jones on since not only are they three really funny people, but they are also seldom seen on other comedy chat shows so we were thrilled they'd agreed to do this.
A few days before filming, the final Lucas was going to be Most Baffling Song and of course everyone would have to perform their nomination. However, locked in my office at Television Centre at around 2:30am - high on chocolate and processed food - Matt and I agreed we'd already had people singing and wanted to do something a bit different. So we changed the award to 'Most Baffling Campfire Song' and decided we'd like to build an actual campfire in the studio and get everyone to sit around it chatting and singing with the lights turned down. I'm sure the Health and Safety people were tearing their hair out, but credit to our amazing art department and in particular Production Designer Dennis De Groot who made it all happen.
A reason for personal excitement was also the fact that we managed to track down our former swimming teacher Mr Keith Talbot. The first award is the Lucas for School Subject Most Likely To Induce Severe Depression and David Baddiel - who went to the same school as both Matt and myself - nominated swimming. So it seemed only fair that the man who depressed David all those years ago should have the right to reply!
We asked fans of the show to send in their questions about The Matt Lucas Awards for Ashley to answer:
Who was Ashley's favourite guest/anecdote?
Favourite guest is a tough one. We really were blessed with having great guests who got into the spirit of the show and were happy to sing, perform magic tricks, eat cakes, perform gangster raps, wear silly wigs and anything else we asked them to do. So forgive me if I don't annoy 17 guests by picking one favourite.
One of my favourite anecdotes was one we didn't have time to hear in the end. In the recording of episode four we had a Lucas for Most Embarrassing Item of Clothing Ever Seen In A Guest's Wardrobe and Johnny Vegas told a story about how he wasted his first ever student grant cheque on a poncho in Camden Market. We brought out models wearing all the nominations but in Johnny's case it was a very large woman and when she appeared it was a very funny moment. Sadly there just wasn't time to have it in the final show.
What are the possible pitfalls of transferring a comedy from radio to TV? How have you avoided them?
That's a good question. On the one hand you run the risk of pointing a camera at the exact same show and having people criticise you for just making a radio show on TV. On the other hand, if you change too much you run the risk of ruining the show and losing what was good about it in the first place.
I'm sure there will be people who say they preferred the show on radio just as I know others who have told me they prefer the TV version. I think one needs to view them as quite distinct entities because there are things that we can do in one medium that we can't do in the other.
Where do you get all the sofas from?
Why? Do you want to buy one? Our Art Department did a great job on the set and in the weeks before filming they would constantly show us photos of sofas they had seen to find out if we liked them. They seem to be able to find anything although I genuinely have no idea where they get all this stuff. If we ask them for twenty 1970s annuals for a shelf they seem to magically appear.
Would you ever consider making it more spontaneous where for example the audience could shout out categories and the panel would then have to come up with things on the spot?
Absolutely, why not? Hang on, if we do that now you're going to say it was your idea!
Make sure you tune into the final episode of series one of The Matt Lucas Awards on Tuesday 15th May at 10.35pm on BBC One. There will also be a compilation episode on Tuesday 22nd May.
Check out Ashley's post on the TV Blog: Making the Matt Lucas Awards with my childhood friend Matt
Publ.Date : Fri, 11 May 2012 18:00:01 +0000
Up in Edinburgh, the BBC's College of Production (COP) has been talking to comedians about online shennanigans. The COP's Catherine Scott writes...
Yesterday saw four of comedy's bright new stars share their thoughts on how to be 'funny and multiplatform', during BBC College of Production's live podcast from the BBC Edinburgh Festival base in Potterow. The panel consisted of Daniel Berg, the comedy writer and developer who specialises in viral video, Bec Hill, named one of the "Top 10 Funniest Comedians on Twitter", Arron Ferguson of alternative comedy duo Not The Adventures of Moleman and Iván González, one half of Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award 2011-winning duo Max and Ivan.
Prolific Tweeter Bec Hill told us how she started using online platforms simply to share her comedy sketches and cartoons with her friends, and was pleasantly surprised when it snowballed into a 3000+ Twitter following. Bec also noted that her online audience has grown much faster than her live audience – "I've reached 100,000 views on YouTube, I certainly haven’t got that in Edinburgh yet!".
Daniel Berg's passion for viral videos was evident when a strong gust of Scottish wind blasted through the pink tent and he remarked "Film that, that'll go viral!". Daniel spoke of how social media and online platforms give new acts the chance for exposure without the need to be commissioned. When wrangling with the shorter attention span of the internet audience, Daniel’s advice to comedians was "Keep your content topical, and keep it short."
Ivan Gonzalez sang the praises of online platforms such as YouTube for giving comedians creative control, and also gave a shout-out to BBC's iPlayer and Feed My Funny for allowing viewers to access comedy outside the restrictions of viewing schedules. Like Bec Hill, Ivan also enjoys the immediacy of 140 character jokes on Twitter – and if the #EdFest feed this week is anything to go by, so do a lot of us (“Just been to a lecture on how to build a ship. Riveting!")
Arron Ferguson's two-man sketch troupe Not The Adventures of Moleman actually began as a solely online act, only venturing out onto the live circuit once they had built a large online following. Noting that "some people think you need to be live to be comedians", Arron pointed out that a lot of NTAOM's sketches actually work better online, because film can provide subtle shots that might be missed in onstage comedy. Arron also gave us possibly the most useful piece of advice on treating online platforms with respect – "Don’t use Twitter to invite all your fans to KFC!"
Although the public passion for live comedy gigs remains strong, any new comedian entering the industry should remember that there is a plethora of other options available to them for making their name and getting their work out there. It might take a while to build up 100,000 hits on YouTube or 1000 followers on Twitter, but as our guests concluded “As long as you’re having fun, that's what matters."
Listen to the full podcast.
Follow College of Production @BBCCop
Publ.Date : Thu, 23 Aug 2012 13:48:00 +0000
Armando Iannucci's award-winning political comedy series The Thick Of It returns to BBC Two this autumn.
Coalition rows take their place alongside Government embarrassment, ministerial cock-ups, backroom deals, policy U-turns, spin-doctoring, political back-stabbing and wild media speculation
Roger Allam returns as Peter Mannion MP, the new Secretary of State for The Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (DOSAC), supported by his team of special advisors, commanded by Number 10's Director of Communications Stewart Pearson (Vincent Franklin) and thwarted by his new Coalition partner, DOSAC's Junior Minister Fergus Williams MP (Geoffrey Streatfeild).
BAFTA award winners Rebecca Front and Peter Capaldi reprise their roles as Nicola Murray MP and foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, both now consigned to the Opposition. The ensemble cast is completed by Chris Addison, Joanna Scanlan, James Smith, Olivia Poulet, Will Smith, Ben Willbond, and Rebecca Gethings.
Armando Iannucci says that this series takes us into exciting and uncharted territory: "A new Coalition Government, and Malcolm and Nicola fretting in the wings. For the first time too a storyline takes us all the way through the series right to the bitter, bitter end, with Government and Opposition convulsed in an incident that questions every political convention imaginable, but in a funny way."
BBC Two Controller Janice Hadlow says she is delighted to welcome it back, "A new Coalition government, what better time for a new series of The Thick Of It?"
Head of Comedy Mark Freeland is excited to see The Thick Of It return too - "No other show could coin the term 'Omnishambles' and see it become part of the political lexicon."
Publ.Date : Thu, 12 Jul 2012 07:00:00 +0000