20 Mar 2014
basac's picture

Recently I was asked to read the first ten pages of a bunch of sitcom scripts, then meet and chat with the writers. While it’s impossible to tell from such a small sample of work if your script will be a hit or miss, there are plenty of things a script reader can learn that will tell them whether or not the script has potential.

One of the biggest and most frequent problems I came across was that the main character or characters barely featured. Quite often when I spoke to people who’d spent their first eight pages in one setting I’d talk about that and they’d say ‘well that’s not the main setting and those aren’t the main characters.’ With sitcom, you have to expect that the audience will not come to your show at the beginning of episode one - unfortunately most people who start with a new sitcom are either critics or sitcom anoraks like us – unless you have a big name in the lead role.

So every episode you write has to have as much of the following as possible in the first ten pages. I’d go further and say that when you’re creating a new sitcom, with new characters, and new stories, you should have as much of this as you can in every single scene:

The main character

This should be one of the most compelling reasons for you wanting to write your show. You’ve come up with a character who is so original, and so funny, you want him or her to be around as much as possible. Everything that happens in every episode will revolve around him or her.

The main premise of the sitcom

This is the underlying theme, which I’m hoping you will have spent a lot of time thinking about. It’s usually defined by the flaw(s) in the main character, or them trying to be something they’re not. It’s not enough to say ‘I want to write a sitcom about a bloke who runs a hotel’, you have to want it to be about a bloke who runs a hotel who thinks he’s too good for his customers.

The story

The main character is trying to get something, in the opening ten pages, and throughout the episode, we want to see him or her plotting to get it. We already know they will fail at the end, but the reason we come back to our favourite sitcoms is because we are drawn back to those characters, and we want to know how they’re going to fail this time around.

The ‘world’

By this I mean any combination of factors like the location, the ‘rules of engagement’ between characters (for instance we can tell during any scene between Sybil and Basil what their relationship is like), familiar landmarks that will help add layers of meaning to the show.

Look at a show like 'Bluestone 42', whose second series is currently in full swing on what's left of BBC3: whatever else is going on, you know that every character in that show is aware that they could be killed at any time. This is a great setting for gallows humour, everybody can be as rude as they like to everybody else because fear of the common enemy is bigger than any arguments they may have with each other.

You can’t hope to have all of the above in every scene all the time, but you need at least one of these to be not far away for very long.

I’m hoping that you’ll be so busy trying to get all of that into your opening ten pages (along with jokes, of course, lots of jokes, too many people forget that sitcoms are supposed to be FUNNY), that you won’t have any time to fill your opening episode with that other staple of the first ten pages of every sitcom, the irrelevant landfill that clogs up almost every new script I’ve ever read… backstory.

Backstory is the enemy of comedy. What was David Brent doing before he became the boss at Wernham Hogg? How did he get that job? I don’t know. How did Jez and Mark in Peep Show first meet? I don’t care.

There is a reason that writers put backstory into their sitcoms, and it’s because they believe, mistakenly, that we need to set up the story in order to understand who the characters are. But we don’t. There are three Catholic priests and a housemaid trapped on a remote island as far away from humanity as it’s possible for them to be. We don’t need to know how they got there, it’s the Catholic church and we can all hazard a few guesses. Our enjoyment of ‘Father Ted’ is not harmed by our lack of this knowledge.

The other reason people add backstory is because it’s a substitute for the really hard groundwork you have to put in before you write a single word of the script. You have to land your fully formed characters splat into the middle of a brand new programme, so that we know who they are instantly, why they’re flawed, and that they’re going to mess up every week.

I'm going to tell you a story now about how I got to be writing this blog. About six years ago, the stand-up comedy website Chortle began running a page called 'Correspondents', where people were invited to write anything they wanted about comedy. I read a few articles and realised this was something I could probably do quite well.

Gradually I wrote more and more articles until last year I decided to adapt what I'd already written and turn it into a book about how to do comedy. Since then I've decided that it would be a good idea for me to keep writing about comedy, and so around two months ago I set up this blog.

See how boring those last two paragraphs were?

Backstory? Bin it.