Shortlist magazine and Comedy Central UK are running a sitcom-writing competition. The prize for the winner is a development deal with Big Talk, which is the production company behind sitcoms like Spaced, Friday Night Dinner and Rev. A development deal doesn’t sound quite as good a prize as the one offered by the BBC in their sitcom-writing competition 6 years ago (which was, as I recall, to have the pilot filmed, although I’m not sure it was ever broadcast), but it’s still not to be sneezed at. It’s the kind of thing that proper, established, professional sitcom writers would be extremely grateful for. In fact, given that the competition is open to ‘reasonably experienced screenwriters’, it would seem likely some proper, established, professional sitcom writers may use it as a way of trying to get a development deal for a script. Something may have gone wrong inside the industry if people like this have to use a public competition to get their script attended to, in the same way that something seemed to have gone wrong in West End theatre when the only way for an established West End actor to build his career was entering a public competition. But never mind that.
The title of this post is a quotation from the ‘Writing Tips’ section of the page announcing the competition. They are identified as words for budding sitcom creators to ‘consider’, not qualities a script must possess, but the obvious implication is that entries that are not ‘real’, ‘warm’, etc. will be looked on less favourably than those that are. Now, I’ve given this a small amount of thought, and I can only really think of one current sitcom that matches these criteria: Mrs Brown’s Boys.
I’ll be honest, I’ve only seen one episode of MBB, but based on that limited experience I think it would be fair to describe that show as bawdy, lively and big, and it also includes something else the competition organisers indicate is a plus – ‘physical humour’. Calling it warm might be stretching things a bit, but the episode I saw had an ‘awww…’ subplot, which might count. As for ‘real’, well, it depends how we’re defining real: at it’s heart it’s a broadly plausible scenario, but events and characters are heightened and caricatured in a way that makes them utterly unreal. But then that’s a standard feature of almost all comedy – Basil Fawlty and Patsy Stone are exaggerated versions of recognisable characters, but they aren’t ‘real’ in the sense of being true to life.
Anyway, here’s the thing about Mrs Brown’s Boys – I really don’t like it. In fact, in the whole half-hour I watched I didn’t laugh once, not even at an ‘old man sits heavily on painful object’ joke, which had the studio audience in paroxysms. I realise it’s a popular show, but it’s not my personal cup of tea, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. In fact, I know I’m not alone in thinking that, because there are so many other popular sitcoms that are nothing like it. I don’t even have to go far to find supporting evidence for that assertion – I can back it up just with reference to the sitcoms that are listed as the existing hits for Big Talk.
Spaced is pretty much the antithesis of the kind of sitcom that the competition is seeking (I think the only one of the adjectives that applies is ‘lively’, and then only because of the characters’ fantasy lives). Rev is certainly warm, but it’s not especially lively (large chunks of screen time are given over to prayer represented as interior monologue), and it’s certainly not big – it tells small, intimate stories. As for bawdy, well, there is Adoha Onyeka who has a crush on Rev Smallbone, but personally I’d describe her as blousy before I’d describe her as bawdy. Real? – well, they employ a lot of real-life priests as consultants, but what’s commonplace in the experience of a vicar may not be quite so commonplace for the rest of us. Friday Night Dinner I’ll admit I don’t know all that well – I’ve seen, I think, three episodes. From what I know, it could justifiably be called real and lively, but it’s not big (the action’s almost entirely confined to a house with usually only 4 people in it), it’s not bawdy, and if it’s warm it’s a very different kind of warmth to that of Gavin and Stacey.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realise that none of my favourite sitcoms adhere to this formula. Yes Minister/ Prime Minister doesn’t, Black Books doesn’t, The High Life comes closer to adhering to it, but it’s not really warm, and more surreal than real. The same point about surreality applies to Father Ted and Ab Fab; Grandma’s House (yes, I’m the one person who liked Grandma’s House: sue me) has precious little warmth, and The Thick of It has even less – in fact, it replaces warmth with misanthropy. The IT Crowd is small, not big, as are Still Game and Getting On. These sitcoms are all, I think, lively and energetic in their own way, it’s just that they find their liveliness and energy in the things the characters say, not by having them say stale and predictable things while hitting each other on the arse with an inflated pig’s bladder.
In one of those interesting coincidences, Armando Iannucci – a man who, unlike me, actually does know something about TV comedy – gave a speech the other day about the problems he saw in the UK TV industry, and the ways they could be overcome. He spoke about the over-involvement of commissioners in the creative process, and suggested that the solution was for the ‘creatives’ rather than the executives to take the lead in developing new shows. And he also advised the industry as a whole,
Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Make good programmes, and they will come.
I think some of the ‘writing tips’ suggested by the competition organisers are fair enough. The instruction to make a submitted script ‘laugh-out-loud’ funny is a good way of reminding entrants to focus on the thing that matters most in a comedy script, and the instruction to ‘think mainstream’ is a good way of preventing people from submitting scripts that are only hilarious to, say, campanologists (“Oh no! The toy aeroplane I bought for my son’s birthday has blown out of the church tower window, and I can’t see where it’s flown to!” “Don’t worry, we can always ring a Plain Hunt…”).* But I worry that seeking out sitcom pilots that are ‘real’, ‘warm’, ‘bawdy’, ‘lively’ and ‘big’, and rely heavily on ‘physical humour’, is exactly the sort of thing that a TV producer who’s anxious about the intelligence of their audience might do.
I can’t help feeling it might be better for the future of the sitcom if prospective new creative talents were just told “be funny”, not “be funny in this particular way we’ve predetermined is best”. It seems to me that the former is the way to bring forward fresh and original comedy, while the latter is a recipe for the same old same old, which gets progressively less funny each time it’s repeated. A competition seeking entries from outside the industry is ideally placed to find new people being funny in new ways – which is why it’s rather a shame to see the competition organisers steering entrants in the direction of the safe, boring and predictable hit of the moment.
* – If you knew how proud I am of this joke you would be thoroughly ashamed of me.