How To Write A Sitcom

From Graham Linehan’s recent “masterclass” in sitcom writing at the Edinburgh International TV Festival:

  • Don’t be afraid to procrastinate: ‘Even playing a computer game is valuable. The subconscious goes to sleep and when it wakes up, it panics. Your subconscious is like a writing partner… but one that’s never there when you need it.’
  • Keep rewriting and rewriting: ‘The first draft is like a bunch of notes, it is just something to work with. Writers should be encouraged not to be so precious in the early drafts.’
  • ‘Censorship is good’. He said thinking of ways of getting around rules meant you had to be get creative. ‘The Two Ronnies had more words for breasts than eskimos have for snow,’ he said. He quoted the Master Of My Own Domain episode of Seinfeld, which was all about refraining from masturbation, but never once mentioned the word.
  • Don’t be afraid to keep cutting, even if it seems painful: ‘When you are losing good stuff, you know you are on the right track.’
  • ‘Don’t do everything a TV executive tells you to do.’ But don’t cause a row, either. Just tell them their ideas are ‘interesting’.
  • Make your own rules and stick to them. On Father Ted he and Arthur Mathews vowed never to show Ted at work, leading to a raft of jokes about his very short Mass in one episode that worked because the actual ceremony was unseen. ‘Rules like that focus the mind. They force you to think in more creative ways to get around things.
  • Find the trap that the characters are stuck in; either physical like Porridge or emotional like Steptoe, and make sure there are no other logical ways out of scenes other than the funny one. ‘Batten down the hatches so audiences never get the chance to say, “Hang on, why doesn’t he…?”‘
  • Think of the classic set-piece moments first. ‘If you can find in every episodes two such moments, then all you have to do is connect them up with a series of gags. The way to write sitcoms is to write these set pieces first’.
  • Show don’t tell. If your character is a cynical lawyer, don’t introduce him as the ‘cynical lawyer’. Show him behaving that way.
  • Write scripts, not treatments, which he called ‘reviews of a show that doesn’t exist yet’. Only when you write will you know what your sitcom is really about.
  • Find someone to work with. ‘Writing with a partner is paid socialising. Writing on your own is work.’
  • Think differently. If everyone is doing silly, do realistic; if everyone is doing sketch shows with recurring characters, write one that doesn’t. ‘The main reason I did the IT Crowd was because everyone said that the silly sitcom was dead.’

Link via Chortle.

 I’m doing all right on the procrastination front, at least. Some interesting tips there, although the “think differently” idea is probably only true if you’ve already got a hit under your belt. If you’re thinking differently to the producers who might buy your scripts they’re probably not going to buy ’em. And currently producers seem to be thinking “silly, studio-based, multi-camera”.

If only they were just thinking: “Funny?”

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