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. Read the first 8 tips here! This week, we’re delving a bit deeper… Enjoy!
THINK ABOUT CONCEPT & CONFLICT
Concept is so important across the board, but sometimes isn’t thought about as much in a spec TV comedy because it’s so tempting for writers to see the quirky characters and the laughs above what will actually sell the idea – the concept. So often I read spec scripts that feature characters bumbling along in life, with no particular drive. Quirky characters and humorous dialogue/situations won’t necessarily be enough. This is why it’s still important to think about the WHO, WHAT, WHY and CONFLICT. Take WITLESS for example. The premise is essentially “two girls forced to live together, hiding from a gang under witness protection”. From the very first episode, we have the WHO (two girls who don’t really gel), WHAT (forced to put lives on hold and live together under new identities) and WHY (because they witnessed a murder and now the gang is out to get them). Conflict comes in many forms, from the silly spats between the very different girls (sensible and ditsy) to the mishaps of the so-called thugs and the unfortunate coincidence that the girls go to a party at the murderer’s flat!
SELL THE SUSTAINABILITY
Sustainability is key – can this series last episode after episode, series after series? Do we have enough to go on? We need to know exactly what we’re dealing with from the first episode, because it is basically a showcase of your concept (which needs to be strong and full of potential conflict). Even if there are plenty of storylines to explore in the future, it will all ride on the pilot – will the audience want to spend time with these characters? You therefore have a tricky task with a pilot, because you need to not only introduce characters that are simultaneously likeable/relatable, interesting and funny but you’ll also need to introduce the setting, concept and even the format.
RINSE AND REPEAT – THINK ABOUT FORMAT
Commissioners want to take on comedies that – if successful – will be able to continue for as long as the market demands it, and in order for it to remain in demand we need a format that can be rehashed again and again. If you’re going for more of a narrative comedy, you’ll need a contained storyline as well as ongoing elements. The contained storyline can be thought of as “the one where…” (FRIENDS episode titles). Basically, there will be a situation/challenge to overcome in each episode, which will be resolved by the end somehow. At the same time, ongoing elements will be developed. In a pilot episode, we are setting up the “formula” of the series – how each episode will work, but we are also “launching” the concept.
USE EXTREMES TO GOOD EFFECT
It can be helpful to think about conflict/stakes/dilemmas. Having characters forced into doing things is always more exciting and amusing than characters who “happen to” do stuff. For example, in spec scripts I often come across characters who simply happen to come up with an idea/scheme, or just happen to meet the co-protagonist randomly, when it would make so much more sense to have the characters FORCED into doing things for a reason. In WITLESS, instead of the show just being about two housemates who live together, it has that fresh twist of two girls FORCED to live together because of the STAKES (their life) after the shared PROBLEM of witnessing a murder.
THINK ABOUT STRUCTURE
When it comes to structure, it’s well worth thinking of the episode in acts one, two and three. Take the first episode of BOY MEETS GIRL for example. First up we have a teaser/hook: quick scene in which Judy reveals to Leo, on their date, that she was born with a penis. The first act focuses on main characters’ setups and “meeting the girl” – i.e. how they got to the date stage. The second act is “the date”, including the lead up to it and how families are supportive/unsupportive of the date, and a continuation from the teaser scene. The third act (which is shorter as it’s more of a conclusion to the episode) focuses on “acceptance” – Judy and her family are elated that she has finally found a decent man, and Leo announces to his family that he thinks she’s the one. It’s also worth thinking about how the following episode will be set up of there’s to be a continuing aspect. In WITLESS we have a teaser: Rhona tells Leanne she doesn’t want to live with her any more. Incident: witness a murder. Situation: forced into witness protection, ruining Rhona’s plans to get her own place and landing her with ditsy Leanne indefinitely. Problem: wind up unwittingly partying at the house of the murderer and chased by young chavs who are out to “finish” them. Hook for next episode: Leanne has left her bag – with a remnant of her personal identity – in the murderer’s house!
MAKE IT STAND OUT
What will make your series stand out from the crowd? THE OFFICE was a mokumentary taking advantage of the realistic minutiae of office life; something Ricky Gervais has done very well in that series and others such as DEREK and which were new approaches. THIS S ENGLAND tapped into the cultural shifts of the different decades; its success no doubt largely due to the nostalgia it creates. Shows like TWO PINTS OF LAGER AND A PACKET OF CRISPS tapped into that stage of life where you’re just starting to navigate adult life with your friends, whereas GAVIN AND STACEY gave us a slice of both the young adults and their older families’ lives – warts and all. GIMME GIMME GIMME was different at the time in that we had a gay main character which showed diversity, and more recently we’ve had VICIOUS and BOY MEETS GIRL, showing how times have changed and diversity is well and truly here to stay. Therefore, consider what your TV comedy can offer that is different to what has come before. How can it be brought to today’s audiences in a fresh way?
DOES IT HAVE A NARRATIVE?
New comedy WITLESS was picked up by the BBC after they requested something from the writers with more narrative – which is where ideas for “drama” or continuing storyline aspects come in handy. Rather than creating a straight up sitcom like some of the classics, a comedy series these days needs that narrative appeal. Consider what your show is really about. In Witless, it’s about two flatmates that are a bad match for one another, and through the conflict of being forced to remain flatmates whilst under witness protection they start to develop a real friendship – realising they need each other.
THINK ABOUT AUDIENCE EMOTIONS
The biggest testament to any TV series is how it affects the audience. DEREK may just be another one of Ricky’s mokumentaries in which he gets to play a fun and silly character, but the series really does pull on the heart strings and highlights some of the serious issues faced in care homes. BOY MEETS GIRL may have cashed in with its fresh and topical take on the romcom genre, in which a transgender character is accepted for who she is, but the series has been reported to have given audience members hope; it actually means something to them. Conversely, sitcoms can be a form of release for an audience. Seeing the characters go through all the embarrassing things you have – or haven’t yet – done is really fun. Will your characters be relatable? Will the audience gain more than just a laugh from watching your series?
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.
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