I read a lot of pitches and scripts for TV comedy, so I thought it would be a good idea to compile some of my most common observations and pieces of advice for you. Though I tried to keep it brief, it ended up being 16 tips, so I have decided to split the post into two. These first eight tips are some of the basics. Next week, we’ll get into some of the nitty gritty. Enjoy!
CHOOSE A REASONABLE LENGTH
Sitcoms, minus the commercials, are typically 22 minutes long – which can be between 25 and 40 pages long. As they’re often fast-paced and dialogue-heavy, lengthier page counts can still sometimes fall in the 22-minute slot. For example, BOY MEETS GIRL episode 1, the shooting script of which is available to read on BBC Writersroom, comes in at 36 pages. A show’s length and format may depend on its genre. A half-hour sitcom, for example FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER, will be shorter than continuing comedy dramas (45 minutes to an hour) such as FRESH MEAT or THE WRONG MANS.
PAY ATTENTION TO FORMATTING
Note that there’s no need for any special script formatting – a regular script programme format will do you just fine. As with any script, there’s no need to add any directorial instructions – just treat it the same as you would any screenwriting project when it comes to formatting rules.
THINK ABOUT SETTINGS (IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BUDGET)
It’s wise to have a few key locations in your comedy script, and base the action in or around them. This way, budget is catered for and filming style can also be ascertained. Some sitcoms like MRS BROWN’S BOYS are filmed in front of a live audience and therefore need minimal indoor settings. Many have a narrative, though, and therefore include various locations. Episode 1 of WITLESS, for example, uses streets as well as the girls’ crummy witness protection house, the flat-share of the man they are meant to have witnessed and a club. Whatever you choose, it’ll need to keep budget in mind. Consider whether indoor scenes be created as a set in a studio.
CONCENTRATE THE ACTION
Keeping the action concentrated into as small a time span as possible is a great way to ensure that pacey style we all know and love in comedies. MIRANDA episodes, for example, usually show Miranda dealing with a problem/adventure of the day. Sometimes, I will read a spec script that has supers such as DAYS LATER or WEEKS LATER, when it’s really not needed. Get to the action right away, or risk losing your audience.
INCLUDE A TEASER
Teasers aren’t just for American TV shows – here in the UK we use them too. In TV comedies, it can be the set-up for the episode and even the series as a whole. Using a teaser can help set the tone from the start, indicate the concept and even get across important character traits before delving into the episode.
HAVE A CLEAR CONCEPT/HOOK
For example, in BOY MEETS GIRL we have a short scene in which Judy reveals to Leo, on their date, that she was born with a penis. We’re left in suspense over his reaction to this, and the scene is picked up again in act 2 for continuation. This teaser may be short, but it hooks us in and pretty much sums up the concept – woman who was a man meets a boy – and asks the dramatic question: will they get together?
BE SURE OF YOUR SUB-GENRE…
Often I’ll read a pitch for a “comedy drama” when in fact what we really have is a blueprint for for a sitcom. Whilst it may seem easy to distinguish between sketch shows, sitcoms and comedy dramas, it’s a little less black and white than we initially expect. This is because sitcoms can still have drama in them – a narrative. MIRANDA is a sitcom in which, throughout the series’, we root for her to bag herself her dishy chef against all odds. A show like BOTTOM, though, or FAULTY TOWERS, doesn’t really concern itself much with any continuing aspects and instead focusses more on the amusing events and the laughs in each episode.
BUT DON’T SWEAT ABOUT GENRE LABELLING TOO MUCH…
I like to think of comedy dramas as drama comedies. If what we predominantly have is a drama – such as LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX or GILMORE GIRLS – which is also light-hearted and amusing at the same time, then it’s a different kettle of fish from the more predominantly comedic shows – such as FRESH MEAT or DOC MARTIN – that also contain continuing/narrative elements.
Next time, we’ll be taking a look at CONFLICT, SUSTAINABILITY, SERIES FORMAT, USING EXTREMES, STRUCTURE, UNIQUENESS, NARRATIVE and AUDIENCE APPEAL.
Want to read more from WRITESOFLUID on comedy? Learning about CREATING A STORY ENGINE can also be really useful for writing TV comedies. Wanna write comedy movies? Why not check out my WRITING AND SELLING ROMANTIC COMEDY SCREENPLAYS book review. Then there’s my INTERVIEW WITH COMEDY WRITER SIMON DUNN.
Want to come to London Screenwriters’ Festival to learn more about TV genres? Use my special discount code: SOFLUID-16X to get a £23 discount!