02 Mar 2018
dave's picture

You've watched the videos, attended the writing seminars, you've read the blogs and heard the advice. Don't worry at this stage about getting an agent. Don't worry at this stage about someone nicking your idea. All you have to do to make it in comedy is... write a brilliant script.
How? Hopefully this blog offers a few pointers. The first piece of advice I could give you is: don't write your script. You know it's never going to be made, don't you? You know that so few scripts are made, that even if you're a successful writer who has, for example, had a successful sitcom on TV, that doesn't automatically mean another sitcom is about to fall into your lap.
Pete Sinclair, who writes sitcoms with Jack Dee and who has for 35 years been about as successful a comedy writer as it's possible to be, had to wait six years before Bad Move, their follow-up to the successful and much praised Lead Balloon.
I know when I make these counter-intuitive statements, that you are ignoring me. I know you are going to write it, despite all the odds against you, and anyway you think I’m joking, and I sort of am a bit, but I’m also trying to make sure you understand the reality that so little gets made nowadays. Still, if you're lucky, and it's brilliant, that script will at least bring you to the attention of producers and script editors who may be able to offer you work writing on other people's sitcoms. If you carry on producing great work, you may eventually reach a position where you pitch your own idea, and it may get made.
Where do you start? There are so many ways to do this, and it depends on many factors. The late great Carla Lane apparently used to sit down and write. And write and write and write, until eventually her brilliant and/or hugely successful sitcoms took shape. Anyone who has ever produced a finished piece of writing will admit that there is a certain chaos around its creation.
What you’re looking for, usually is a compelling character or pair of characters who want something they can’t have – and usually that failure is down to the flaws in their personalities.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it, but at the start of the process, day zero, I try and separate out a few questions to ask of my idea. It can – and should – take a long time to answer them, but by the end I’ll hopefully be ready to move on to the next phase of writing.
It's almost impossible to answer one of these questions without referring to the others, but they break down into the following. 
1. Who is it about? 
I'm looking for a character that feels like somebody new, familiar in some ways but with one new characteristic. It could be anyone. 
I happen to be a bit of a politics nerd, so that's where a lot of my character ideas come from. In the years before he was Prime Minister, I had a sense that David Cameron was an updated version of Blackadder. He didn't have much, but he used it well, and only succeeded because the people around him were even more stupid and less devious than he was. I couldn't get it to work. Perhaps I misread his character, or I couldn't find somewhere to put him without losing some of the David Cameron-ness that made him funny to me.
Maybe there really was nothing new about him.
My co-writer and I got a little further with a character who was a bit like Mhairi Black, the teenager who became an SNP MP in 2015, and who cited Tony Benn as her hero. Here was someone familiar, a passionately ideological left-winger with the new twist of being a teenager in the House of Commons. And she was set to learn about the compromises of working in Westminster for a less than left-wing nationalist party. The gap between what she wants and what she gets a perfect set-up for comedy.
We got as far as a radio pitch with her, and some funny ideas about the people around her, but that was it. She may yet find a home.
The important point about your brilliant new creation, is that it really helps if they are people or types we already recognise as funny, but have yet to see on screen. And at this stage, it’s okay to think in clichés – too big for her boots, a fish out of water, loveable rogue – as long as you bring something new to the character.
Just because I'm a politics nerd doesn't mean I want to write nothing but scripts about politics. Character is character, wherever you find it. The story is told that as Hancock's Half Hour became more successful, one by one the eponymous Mr H dropped each of his co-stars, so by the final series it was plain Hancock and starred him alone.
Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who by now had had enough of the star they had created, quit the show, took the character of down-at-heel actor Hancock, turned him into a rag and bone man called Harold Steptoe and replaced his snarky sidekick mate played by Sid James with his snarky sidekick dad Albert.
If the character is strong, and works, you can take them anywhere, so take them to a really interesting place that we haven't seen depicted in a sitcom before.
2. What's it about? 
This is a nice simple question, and if you’re writing a sitcom is more ‘sit’ than ‘com’. It’s about the Home Guard during World War 2. It’s about the owner of a hotel in Torquay. It’s about a bunch of friends.
This is the point at which you are still allowed to say “It’s about a couple of 20somethings who share a flat,” without being greeted by the person you’re talking to rolling their eyes and saying “No! Not again.” “But,” you reply, “And here’s the twist…”
3. What’s it really about?
… and this is where we find out that this isn’t any old 20something flat-share sitcom, it’s Peep Show, which was one of the most original sitcoms of the last ten years. It took that one old idea and made it more about the first generation to graduate from college with less prospects than the one before them.
When we ask what is a show really about, we’re looking for things that haven’t been said before. This is the question to which there could be many answers. So Fawlty Towers isn’t only about a hotel owner in Torquay it’s also what happens when you put a misanthropic character with a low opinion of humanity, in a job that requires sensitive people handling.
And Friends isn’t just about a bunch of friends hanging out, it’s about that crucial period in your life when you’re still young enough to have crazy dreams about what you want to do, but old enough to understand that before long you’ll have to decide whether to carry on living on the edge, or settle for that cosy but dull mortgage-paying existence.
We’re also back at the first question, “who is it about?” Almost every creative work, sitcom, novel, movie, starts with a person who needs something urgently, and they’re going to have try really hard to get it. Whether or not they succeed – or rather, because we are in the world of dreams and fantasy, how they succeed – is what your work is really about.
…apart from sitcom. Characters in self-contained dramas and movies change to get to what they want, but sitcom characters don’t change. At the end of the episode they’re back where they were at the start. What your sitcom is really about, if you’re writing one, is how they fail.
Don’t just think “I’ve come up with a funny idea for a sitcom”, explore what it means and how it resonates beyond the world you will create.
4. Why am I writing this?
You may see people at work, or in your family, and spot something about them that's a glaring contradiction, but you haven't seen done in a sitcom or movie before. Tell me who the people are and the settings, and I could probably make a decent fist of creating it - but I probably wouldn’t be able to add the personal detail and unique perspective you could bring to it.
By the way, this doesn’t mean that because I used to be a journalist, I’m the best person to write a sitcom set in a newspaper office. Loads of comedy writers began their careers as journalists, and the first sitcom they wrote was set in their newspaper office (as was mine) and it never got made (as didn’t mine), so I’m saving you the bother.
It’s less important that they were journalists, than that the bloke sitting opposite you was a sexist bully or that the prim woman in accounts was a secret stoner, and that when you went to the pub on Friday afternoon with your expenses tab, unusual things happened.
So many of the stories from shows like Seinfeld and Friends came from the personal experience of the writers. It might have just been a funny comment or a one-off moment, but the fact that it came from their reality made it believable.
One caveat – if you’re going to mine your friends and relatives for comedy gold, be sensitive, creative and intelligent about it. Your interpretation of Grandma’s screaming temper may be funny but the rest of the family might not see it that way. And be careful not to libel people, unless you want to see the millions you make from your big hit show frittered away in legal costs.
5. Why now?
I’ve already told you that your script almost certainly won’t get made, but you’re writing it anyway. But let’s say you write a really brilliant script, and everyone loves it, and it gets sold and made. Even then you’re looking at an absolute minimum of seeing it on screen two years from now. Is it about YouTube video stars? Or the current travails of the Tory government? Or loom bands? In other words, will what you’re writing now be out-of-date soon?
We’d all love to write screenplays that are timeless, but even the ones that stay with us for decades like When Harry Met Sally and This Is Spinal Tap happened to capture the cultural moment. It’s impossible to predict what will happen in the next two minutes, let alone two years, but you should at least try to look beyond what’s already out there, and speculate where we might be heading.
You might not even know you were writing about something, until years later the thing happens and you discover you had predicted it. Take Dad’s Army as an example. The other day I saw a review of the original series, written by Alan Coren in the 1970s, which described beautifully how the show worked because “behind the daftness lies a certain valuable poignancy which is not altogether explained by nostalgia. I suppose what I mean is they would have died too, if the greater folly had demanded it.”
In other words, Dad’s Army is every bit about the horrors of war as M*A*S*H. But how does
that explain why the show continues to be successful almost half a century later, when nearly all of us have lived through an unprecedented era of peace? I think it’s pretty obvious, the show is popular now because it taps in to our obsession with Europe – the idea that Britain once again finds itself standing alone against the rest of the continent. And you will enjoy that premise whether you are the most gung-ho Brexiter or the whiniest Remoaner.
That’s a lot of questions to ask before you’ve even written a word of your show. It may seem an enormous effort to put in, but the more time you spend at this end of the writing process, the simpler your task will be as you carry on.

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