Friday, November 25, 2005

Sketches & Sitcoms

Q: I have just written my first attempt at a sitcom - what should I do?

It's great that you've written a sitcom pilot - they're really hard to write - but I think the best advice I could give is to write a half dozen really good sketches to impress potential comedy producers/commissioning editors.

If you'd like to get work writing comedy, this is the best way to go about it. Sitcom scripts are so notoriously difficult to get right, they're unlikely to be looked on very favourably (because so many aren't very good). Sketches, not sitcom pilots, are the currency of the comedy market, especially for new writers. If you can impress and be funny in a few sketches, then you'll get work on sketch shows for radio & TV which will then lead to the holy grail: writing the sitcom.

So many sitcoms rely on the characters and their effective characterisation for most of the humour to work, that’s why sitcom pilots are so hard to gauge if they’re any good or not. A quality gag will always help but it’s very subjective and most jokes we’ll have heard before. Generally, the comedy generates itself from the characters and the situation they find themselves in (a situation that’s usually opposed to the characters’ normal routine).

Check out James Henry's blog (you know the one). He's part of the writing team for Green Wing and he explains how he got the gig (through a sitcom competition I think but after he won that, he was commissioned to write sketches for Smack the Pony before landing Green Wing - both shows are produced by TalkBack).

James has written a very good comedy pilot called Romeo Loves Jools which you can read on his website (or an excerpt I'm not sure). Also check out the Bearded Ladies’ blog. They’re a sketch group currently going through the comedy ranks - expect to see them with their own TV show soon (although they rejected my sketches, godammit). And the BBC have tips about getting started in comedy here.

I worked for Caroline Leddy at Channel 4 back in the late 90s (bloody hell where has it gone?) and I watched her commission Smack the Pony, Chris Morris, The Book Group (not to mention Spaced, fab, and Black Books, also fab, got to work on it). She’s Head of Comedy and Film now - she rocks - and she oversees the department’s Comedy Lab initiative.

As far as I’m aware, the Comedy Lab is still bubbling away. It’s a strand where they're willing to give new writers a break with more original or alternative fare. Still, unless your script is comedy gold, it's best not to submit directly by yourself. Attach your project with a production company first, preferably one of the regulars like TalkBack, Hat Trick or Objective, and your script will have a much better chance of getting through.

When I worked in the comedy department we received a lot of sitcom scripts that were 99% dire (no real understanding of the genre and very far from funny) while those who submitted sketches usually failed to raise a smile because they were sloppy or immature attempts at humour that only drunken friends could appreciate. Those that were clearly laid out in a professional format and had a proper gag or joke within the first page or so were instantly recognised and called in or referred to someone else. But these were literally 1% of the submissions, very few indeed.

So, it’s best to write about a half dozen really good sketches (which is better than a dozen mediocre ones) and then send them to leading comedy producers like the production companies mentioned above. If they're any good, truly, you'll be called in or referred to someone who can give you work and then develop your career so you can eventually write that sitcom. Radio 2, Radio 4 and BBC7 also have regular opportunities for comedy writers (Radio 4 is the usual breeding ground for all the comedy talent we know and love today).

Also, it’s probably worth mentioning that most comedy scripts are commissioned on a comedian’s work or reputation, not a writer’s. TV comedy likes to deal with performers and comedians who can translate their humour and presence to the small screen. That’s why the Edinburgh Festival is such a hotbed of activity for deals and pick ups (whoever wins the Perrier Award usually gets a TV pilot at least). That’s what comedy writers are up against but if it burns in your soul, then there’s no reason why you can’t be the next Graham Linehan, Arthur Mathews or David Renwick - people who let their comedy genius do the talking.

“Dying is easy. Writing comedy is hard.”

Check out the Writers' Guild report on Writing Comedy for the Internet:-

"The future for comedy writers is either incredibly exciting or incredibly depressing. There will be either a huge number of new opportunities or it will become impossible to make a living. The glass might be half-full, but equally everyone in the pub might have finished their drinks and be waiting for you to buy the next round."


James Henry said...

In all honesty, there's probably more useful comedy-writing advice in that one post than in the whole of my blog, which tends to be stupid comics about toys, occasional whinges about busted ipods and the occasional burble about Rufus Wainwright and Sigur Ros.

Didn't want anyone expecting anything, you know, useful...

Anonymous said...

Same principles, longer length. The London Script Consultancy has a few pages of interesting notes on feature comedy writing and I'm sure it's been mentioned but it just so happens the genre for this year's Oscar Moore Screen-Writing competition is Comedy.

The deadline for submissions for the 2005 prize is:

Friday 9th December.

In addition to the £10,000 development funding, the winner also receives a place on a residential writers workshop run by Arista and a professional reading of their script by The Script Factory.