19 Nov 2015
dave's picture

James Cary and I did a podcast the other day about the first ten pages of your script, and last week I got a chance to see actors performing the opening scenes of several new sitcoms.
We’ve talked a lot about how important the first ten pages are to any sitcom script, and after watching that show I’d like to add a few more points…
In recent weeks I’ve been banging on about how there’s not enough jeopardy for the main character in the scripts I’ve been reading. I’d like to rephrase that slightly, and say that what every episode needs for our main character is a potential life changing moment.
Usually what that means is for the character to be placed in serious jeopardy, but it can also mean something brilliant is about to happen – think of the single line that beautifully sums up what is never going to happen in all but the final episodes of ‘Only Fools And Horses’ – ‘next year we’ll be millionaires.’
Think of Daphne and Niles, how the writers held off for as long as they possibly could from bringing them together, until it was no longer possible to keep them apart – and when they did get together, that effectively killed the show.
Your main plot has to have the potential to change your main character’s life, and as James correctly points out in our latest podcast, it has to start happening as early as possible.
I saw lots of good performing of funny jokes at the weekend. We all like jokes, I can’t repeat enough how often we forget to put jokes in our scripts. But if your script consists just of people talking in jokey conversations, then you might as well be writing a panel show.
One of the episodes I watched was a sitcom about a hostage situation, the premise was clever and there were some very funny twists along the way. But at the risk of contradicting what I said above, there’s a danger here that the story might get in the way of the ‘sit’ and the characters.
One of my favourite recent shows was ‘Dead Boss’, in which Sharon Horgan has been wrongfully arrested, and the main story was about trying to get her out of prison. The characters were all great and the prison sitcom sections worked really well. However the story outside was so different – it lacked the conflict and confinement of the prison and crucially, it lacked Sharon Horgan, comedy superstar – that it ended up being two different shows.
The best show I saw the other night was a small gentle one, involving a young woman whose partner had just died. That doesn’t sound promising but there was a great emotional depth to it, and room for great humour and pathos too.
(By the way, if you’re wanting to write sitcom and you don’t know what pathos is, you’d better find out quick.)
There’s a lot of contradiction going on in this blog. Which is exactly how it should be. If everything I said was right then I’d be far too busy writing episode 250 of my international sitcom hit to be doing this now. I’ve said before that there’s nothing wrong with pitching a sitcom about two twentysomething blokes who no longer have anything in common, sharing a flat, if like Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong you can make it dazzling and original.
But I am coming across more and more sitcoms by twentysomething male wannabe sitcom writers about a bunch of twentysomething layabouts whose lives are going nowhere. I accept that I am having a go at you for trying to come up with the next ‘Friends’ or ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ – but those shows work because they bring something new to a familiar setting.
And a quick word about reality TV show spoofs. I worked up a sitcom loosely based around one five years ago, and one of the notes I got was ‘spoofs of reality TV are old hat.’ I know things come round again, but if that was the first ‘sit’ you thought of (and it clearly appears to be the case for many of you) then keep thinking and thinking until you’re certain it’s the only option for your brilliant idea.
We're two thirds into the movie, all is over for our hero, they've lost everything, and now this is all they need, coach walks through the door, coach who you think got you into this mess in the first place, they're always angry, only now they're angry at you because you've given up goddamit. You're better than that, why do you think I've been pushing you all my life, now get out there and write that script! You can do it!! You can be that lazy movie shorthand trope!!! See you on the other side Buster.

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