20 May, 2008

Getting Better versus Getting Angry

The reaction from some of those who didn't make it into the Comedy College has been a tad silly. Read the discussion at the end of Micheál Jacob's last post, if you don't believe me. Phill has written a must-read response regarding the right attitude for us all to have.

According to Jacob, "A few people expressed their disappointment quite forcefully, which is understandable". I reckon a reaction like that suggests what they'd be like to work with. If someone can't imagine there might be other scripts better than theirs then how will they take notes? "It's perfect as it is, just fuck off and produce it!"

One way of channelling that aggression is through an anonymous blog which is closed for comments. That's the Bitterness Speaking by "Failed Comedy Writer" suggests that even the pilot of Fawlty Towers would be turned down by Micheál Jacob/Lucy Lumsden.

That seems unlikely as it is a comedy classic but James Henry reminds me that it was actually turned down once in similarly negative terms. However, let's not pretend Fawlty isn't faulty and couldn't have done with a damn good script editing. I bought the box set excitedly to study the magic and learn from it but it simply wasn't as good as I remembered it was.

This was partly due to the 'reality' thing "Failed Comedy Writer" would like producers to ignore: there is no logical explanation why Basil hasn't sacked Manuel or Manuel hasn't resigned. Their relationship was to enable easy funny foreigner jokes and easy slapstick gags. Would it really have been less funny if they made up a reason why Manuel continued to work there or made him less obviously unemployable? Fawlty Towers is popular in spite of the logic flaws and the obvious contrivance and not because of them. We should still try and get rid of them in our own scripts if we can.

Anyway, I got into the top 40 of Comedy College and was chuffed to get that far. I believe I was number 21 and so just missed out on the shortlist but no-one has told me that officially or unofficially or hinted at it in any way. I just know.

I chose to submit sketches for my application because I had more chance of making them laugh with six different comic premises then with the first ten pages of one sitcom. I actually read a sitcom which didn't make the top 40 but which was very funny and ticked all the other boxes too. It's got the writers a meeting at the networks but the first ten pages didn't really do it justice and needed punching up and being clearer as to what was going on. It was still better than the first ten pages of most comedy scripts but there only had to be forty better out of 1400 to stop them progressing in the competition.

Jacob believes that you can't teach funny. I believe you can teach it as the first draft of my sketches was shite and people can learn how to make things funnier. Even now, I can still see ways of improving them which might have got me one place higher and into the top twenty.

It's true that 'funny' is subjective but only once you get to a certain level. There are no comedic masterpieces rejected at a lower level with a first, second or third stage writersroom letter. We might be able to write witty lines which make us chuckle every time we re-read them but are there several laugh out loud moments a page? Is there a good story and good characters that viewers will want to spend time with? Does it honestly have the potential to be a returnable comedy series worth investing millions of pounds in? Or is it just funnier to you than [insert name of sitcom you don't find funny]?

As clever as I thought I was, for next year's college I'm submitting a sitcom but ensuring a high gag rate as I reckon that will impress more. Nothing slow burn and too subtle that could be mistaken for a comedy drama or a drama - which I've done in the past.

Sometimes with competitions people want to see what the scripts that progressed further than theirs were like. It's only natural. We're hoping that they'll be much worse than ours so we can blame the readers and rest easy. Understandably, Jacob won't publish submissions "because I will not expose writers to trial by Internet, even if they were willing".

While you can't see the top 20, here's what I submitted, number 21.


Tom Salinsky said...

Having hired Manuel on the basis that a) paying more would be extravagent and b) he can speak Spanish perfectly fluently, Basil's pride makes sacking Manuel impossible. It makes perfect sense.

Laura Anderson said...

Well done for getting so far in the competition Robin. I read your script - it was really funny. Cheered me up :-)

(Particularly liked the 4 breast sketch!)

Robin Kelly said...

Tom, those reasons certainly work enough for most people to just accept it but we can't really rely on producers and an audience being that generous all the time.

How cheap would Manuel have to be that Basil couldn't find someone who could spoke English and did a better job? Manuel must have been paying him.

Basil may speak Spanish but no-one else who works there does and the customers are unlikely to. It's not just the language barrier though is it? He'd be sacked from a Catalan hotel.

Laura, thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

Phill Barron said...

Was Manuel bad at his job? I got the impression he would have been fine is Basil had left him alone.

Yes, there was the odd communication issue - but I seem to remember him being generally competent and hard working.

Mind you, I haven't seen any episodes for a long time and may just be talking crap.

Maybe hiring a Spanish waiter/porter was the Seventies equivalent of hiring a Polish cleaner?

Lucy said...

I rmbr Manuel as hardworking and sabotaged by Basil too Phill.

Good Lord, I've just been reading that thread Robin. I'd heard it was silly but blimey! Sometimes I think the internet and its anonymity reduces us to kids in the playground... Not all of us, but it's something that must be fought constantly.

James said...

The Comedy College seems to have unleashed all sorts of demons, I'm almost glad I didn't make it. The six are probably under police guard in a safe house.
Don't remember the Writer's Academy ever producing such a torrent of recrimination. Maybe comedy writers are more passionate. By that I mean crazier.

Helen Smith said...

Good news on getting through to the top 40 - the validation without the hassle (maybe) of having to go through the academy. Competition must have been tough - seems like they were swamped with entries so top 40 is great.

I saw some of the angry comments on MJ's blog. Some people are arseholes, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

I'm nervous now. I sent a sketch off to a competition that was disturbingly similar to your 'free affair' sketch.

Fortunately your post with the link to your script was from today and I sent mine off yesterday, so I can't be accused of nicking it....can I?? I mean I'm not a script-reader for the Beeb, honest....it's just one of those 'great minds' things I swear!

If I get anywhere with it I'll definitely return to this blog and tell the world that as far as the Comedy College you wus robbed.

(But not by me!)

Congrats on getting in the top 40!

Anonymous said...

Re: Fawlty Towers, on the DVD, John Cleese mentions the point of having a Spanish waiter was to show what hotels and restaurants he had been doing at the time by hiring cheap staff, which occurs today.

With regards to competence there is the story with Ricky Gervais where someone from the Beeb asked how someone as incompetent as Brent could still be in employment. His response was: just look at the people working at the BBC.

In both instances, it seems Tom Clancy's quote applies.

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."

Oli said...

One of the few things I am sure is an absolute truth is never, ever go back to someone who's given you feedback or responded to an application with anything other than thanks. You cannot change their mind - especially if you're a dick about it, as it sounds like a lot of the comedy applicants were.

Robin Kelly said...

Ano1, Thanks for the congrats. I really wouldn't worry about it, there is far too much worry about being accused of stealing or about being stolen from. And I'm speaking as someone who had an actual sketch sent to someone on one TV show stolen to be used on another show they worked on, word for word. Good luck.

Phill/Lucy, I've now watched the first few again and while most of the Manuel business is around the communication problems he still functions as the traditional thick character when called on occasionally. Although it wasn't as much as I remember. And I also forgot Polly is fluent in Spanish.

Ano2, Comedy is heightened reality and while I have no problem with him being Spanish and not speaking English properly in an exaggerated way, there is so much misunderstanding and
miscommunication that I can't help thinking there must be someone as cheap and as foreign who at least knows the numbers 1-10. That pushes it too far for me.

Actually, Manuel remembers and forgets English numbers between
episodes and sometimes in the same episode depending on what gag
they want to tell. But that's probably being too picky, even for me.

David Brent was sacked eventually and the threat was there throughout. I think people have to be good at their jobs or give us a reason why they're still there. I reckon we can still have someone acting stupid in their job but ground it in reality by them being related to the Boss or best friend or lots of other reasons.

Helen, thanks!

Oli - Good point. It's like footballers arguing with the referee. Completely pointless.

James - Maybe it doesn't happen with drama so much because comedy is more subjective and everyone thinks they are funnier than what's on TV. No, who am I kidding? You're right - lots of research even says so - comedy writers have "issues" which gives them that distorted comedic view of the world. I'm not a comedy writer so it doesn't apply to me.