08 May 2014
basac's picture

It’s always been hard to get your comedy writing broadcast, it’s getting harder now and BBC Radio are even cutting back their comedy slots. The BBC has been making cuts as long as I’ve been writing for them (first credit November 1983) but this feels more like amputation.

One form that will continue is the 15 minute comedy slot. It’s been running for almost 20 years, I know this because one of the first shows they commissioned was a series I wrote and performed in 2000 called 'Travels With My Anti Semitism'.  They obviously loved the format more than they loved 'Travels With My Anti Semitism': I didn't get a second series, but the form has continued to grow successfully.

It's become a home for left-field comedy, surrealism and experiment, a chance for well-known performers like Phil Cornwell and Matt Berry to explore the extraordinary recesses of their strange imaginations. But it's also a place for more conventional takes on tried and tested formats: Adam Bloom's highly individual stand-up works well here, Richie Webb's tragi-comic series 'The Music Teacher' fits perfectly, and Frank Skinner has used it to play out his mini sitcom ‘Don’t Start’, about a couple who are always arguing.

In a typical week there can be anything between two and six 15 minute shows on Radio 4, they run on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 to 1130pm. That's an awful lot of new shows every year, but there's almost nothing, anywhere, examining the form and offering new writers and performers hints about how to write for that length.

Perhaps there's only one thing you can say, which is 'write the same as you would anyway, only less', and there is an element of truth to that. But there are already many different ways to write sitcom, not least the BBC versus everyone else. A BBC sitcom episode, lasting around 27 minutes, needs to work differently to a half-hour show made for commercial TV. These can be anything between 20 and 24 minutes, and unlike BBC shows, they demand a cliff-hanging moment about halfway through to make sure the audience don't turn off during the ad break.

Having co-written more than 50 episodes of '15 Minute Musical' since 2004, I feel reasonably qualified to talk about the form and how it compares with writing for longer. You can still tell a complex story in 15 minutes (actually it's more like 14), but your level of plotting has to be extremely tight and there's very little room to add extra layers once you have written your scene-by-scene breakdown. 

Structurally our shows are pretty easy to define - every episode tells a story based on something that has featured prominently in the news that year. Each one has five songs, so you rarely have more than a minute between them to move the story on while making big jokes for the studio audience. So we spend an awful lot of time planning the story, working out how much plot we can push into the songs to allow the narrative more space for gags.

Many writers and performers enjoy the discipline, it's a great length of time for a stand-up, most of whom are used to performing sets around the 15-20 minute length. (Although at this point I'd also like to mention Susan Calman and Sarah Kendall, their 30 minute stand-alone monologues are as good as any comedy I've heard on Radio 4 in the last 20 years).

When I was writing Travels, I was just discovering Seinfeld, and became quite conscious of how that show was so perfectly constructed - around 22 minutes long, but still managing three or four quite intricate character-driven plots that would all resolve towards the end.

Every episode of Travels had a strong narrative, and at least one and sometimes two subplots. And there had to be a big twist towards the end, something that would switch the story around and propel us to the finale. In 15 Minute Musical, that twist nearly always comes around song four, and it's no surprise that song four is usually the hardest part of any episode to write.

You could describe the 15-minute show as something that's halfway between a sketch and a sitcom. In the case of 15 Minute Musical, it's like five sketches, each of which has to build on the previous one. We're lucky in that our characters already exist, and each episode stands alone. Single episodes seem to suit the format, and having one main character also works well.

The Music Teacher features Richie Webb as an instantly recognisable character - obviously talented, but not enough to make a living at his work, so he's stuck in the role of teaching others to become like him. He voices his internal monologue of failure in muttered asides while trying to keep a cheery disposition during the lessons.

Whatever your premise, it needs to be clear and straightforward. I've not heard many episodes of Frank Skinner's show, but it seems to consist entirely of a married couple arguing, making up, and arguing again. So there are two main characters, but the story is stripped down to that one element.

There is something to be said for the 'write what you normally do and divide by two' approach – though I’d advise against cutting every other word or letter. You can still have a plot and a subplot, but you have much less time to tell each story. Your main plot needs to play out clearly and quickly - and your characters must remain consistent.

Clarity is one of the hardest things to achieve in comedy narrative. You want to create twists and turns, and send the audience off in silly directions, but you have to maintain the credibility of your characters, and you can never stray too far because there's very little time to draw your audience back in. Our favourite sitcom characters often have several flaws and weaknesses, especially the ones in long-running shows, who have to fail in a different way every week. For the 15-minute format, it's probably best for your lead character to have one strong fundamental flaw.

Another reason you should attempt to write sitcoms that come in at around 15 minutes is because of Sitcom Mission, the annual competition held by Declan Hill and Simon Wright that you can read about on the British Comedy Guide website. Your script has to come in at around 20 minutes for that.

But don’t just feel you have to restrict yourself to sitcom. I may be wrong, but as far as I know no-one has ever attempted a 15-minute radio panel show. That feels to me like an ideal length for some of the quizzes that end up being stretched over half an hour at 630pm, shows that are very funny but become repetitive quite quickly.

The main reason, I think, you should come up with ideas for 15 minute shows, is because the form is still relatively novel. It’s yours to do with as you wish. No one will criticise you for setting a 15-minute episode inside an ant’s brain, or on the moon, or writing a hybrid sitcom/panel/sketch show – because the form has yet to throw up a definitive check-list of what can and can’t be done.