13 February, 2006

The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh was a reality TV show where viewers were invited to compete to win a commission from BBC3 by finishing in their own way one of eight sitcom pilots from established writers. One of those pilots would become a broadcast pilot. (Although the only BBC3 style script is Love for Sale).

Almost as an adjunct the series also contains some information useful to new writers. So far this tends to be about 5-10 minutes out of a 60 minute show. As a comedy fan it’s interesting, as a comedy writer however it’s very disappointing.

Last week’s episode had this useful bit from writer and stand-up Judy Carter who wrote The Comedy Bible.

‘If you’re a young writer and you’re watching TV and go “Oh, I could write funnier stuff than that.” Your first step – get off the couch! Move! Take the joint out of your mouth! Put the beer down! And you actually have to write something. The difference between people who go, “I’m funny, I could be great…” You have to write something. So I think the first step if you’re a writer, take a little…They have these great digital tape recorders and take them to parties, and just…In the middle of the sex, just go “Wait, hold that thought one second”, “You know women are weird, because they want blah, blah, blah…”. And tape it. And then write it because it will have the energy of the moment.

‘Stand up comics are never like, “Oh, I’m so together. It’s great. I’ve reached cosmic consciousness, I studied with the Maharishi” No! We’re really screwed up people but what we are willing to do is take it open, expose it and put a humorous spin on it. And if you can do that and really come from your gut and don’t try to go: “let me decide on a persona…”, the audience will decide what persona you have.’

Incidentally you’ll notice I deliberately transcribed it the way she said it without editing it. That’s how people talk, with incomplete sentences and errors and slang and so on and so forth. If you’re having trouble with your dialogue – or, more pertinently, if script readers are having trouble – I'd suggest getting a digital recorder, as our Judy says, and just randomly tape conversations and listen to them. As well as learning how to write better dialogue, they may spark ideas for stories and characters and, if you’re really lucky, your secret recording may even be helpful in extorting money off people.

The other useful thing from that show was something the writers of the original script, Ian Brown & James Hendrie, said:

“It’s not the situation, situation comedy is a misnomer because the situation is the least important thing about it.”

“It’s funny people doing funny things.”

The winning ending for the script dealt with on the show is being posted each week at the official site.


Jason said...

You're right about it being disappointing how little useful 'writery' information there is in the programmes, though they are still pretty interesting. With all the documentaries pulling sitcom inside out, and now Armando Iannucci's lectures at Oxford, it's quite an exciting time for sitcom geeks like me.

It's striking what Brown and Hendrie say about the situation in sitcom; I've heard the exact opposite said before, though the feedback I've had over the years suggests that a good situation will look after itself and the characters and their behaviour are the key.

Robin Kelly said...

Yes, I've also heard the opposite and possibly part of the problem is the very wide spectrum the word 'sitcom' covers now. The approach to writing an audience family sitcom for peaktime BBC1 is completely different to a single camera post-watershed one for BBC3.

Personally I find people doing 'funny' things for no reason boring and not particularly funny. I need to have a hook and that hook is the situation or the story.

So whether you start off with character or start off with a story, I think the ideal is to get them both working in harmony.