Writing BBC Radio Sitcoms

The BBC Writer’s Room offers these tips for would-be radio sitcom writers:

Avoid characters, themes and situations that have recently been done. Radio is not like film, where a hit will spawn a host of imitators. A successful sitcom series on Radio 4 guarantees the network won’t want anything similar for some time after.

Avoid trying to be too topical, especially given that the length of the commissioning process will make a flash-in-the-pan topic date quickly. Stories and situations that resurface frequently include history, space, the media, parallel universes, school reunions, and the afterlife.

The idea has to be one that genuinely excites you. Bring your own unique comic insight into a particular situation or world, and you can probably only do that if you really care about it.

Having too narrow a theme can be as dangerous as having no focus at all. Many new writers stop at one idea and overwork it – try to work in sub-themes as well as a main theme.

All your characters should have an original slant, comic potential and mileage. They need to have a comic flaw or two – some weakness that keeps getting them into trouble. They should interact with each other to create comedy, but should also remain believable. Characters should be likable, even if they aren’t necessarily ‘nice’. Sympathy comes through making your characters suffer for their mistakes, or by making them blissfully unaware of their faults.

Telling stories is important
. The main story should probably relate to your main over-riding theme.

Make sure the humour is driven by the characters and stories, and not just about funny lines put into character’s mouths. Avoid characters sniping at each other ‘in a funny way’. Many writers assume that writing comedy for radio means just writing gags. It’s worth limiting the number of formulaic lines – eg “That’s like a cross between…” or “That’s about as healthy as…” or “I haven’t seen anything as bad as that since…”

Avoid factual exposition. The audience very rarely needs to know much about a character’s past or how they came to be in the situation they’re in. How much do you know about the pasts of the Steptoes, Basil Fawlty, Del Boy or Blackadder?

(Link found via World of Comedy)


The Sitcom Trials

The Sitcom Trials is the show where new sitcoms compete, the audience vote for their favourite, and they only see the ending of the winner.

Having been in hibernation since the end of 2005, the show they called “Comedy History” returned in 2007 to win the Fringe Report Award for Best Encourager Of New Talent, thanks in a very great partto new producers Declan Hill & Simon Wright, who will be producing the new 2008 season too.

Interested writers and performers jump on board now, it’s all about to kick off again.


Well I’m interested. It’s like Gladiators but instead of hitting each other with big sticks, contenders go head to head with situations that lead to hilarious consequences.

…although the thought of writers hitting each other with big sticks does have its appeal.

The deadline is August the 15th.


I guess we’d file these under “words for things I didn’t know there were words for”. Comedy writers’ jargon, taken from John Rogers’ excellent Kung Fu Monkey blog. It’s fairly US-centric, but the terms and, more importantly, the comedy tropes those terms describe, are incredibly useful for the aspiring writer to know.

Jargon 1: Includes “a Bono”: a place in the script that, no matter what joke you put there, it fails.

Jargon 2: Includes “laying pipe”: writing and delivering the onerous dialogue which provides backstory and the plot facts needed to support the weight of the funny (or interesting). Exposition, kids, and it ain’t fun.

Jargon 3: Includes “the idiot ball”: On a sitcom, demarks the character who’s misunderstanding of a situation or comment – and his predicate bad decisions — fuels the comedy of the episode. That character is “carrying the idiot ball” for the episode.

Jargon 4: Includes “a couplet”: Two lines of dialogue — one character speaks, another responds. Call and response, setup/punch, question/answer. Considered the basic molecule of script dialogue.

And speaking of comedy tropes, I’m currently plowing my way through all the terms listed here

Comedy Tropes

but I still can’t find the word to describe “any sitcom written by or starring Jim Davidson*”. Other than, you know, the obvious one.


*Yes, I can do topical comedy.

What ITV Want

(…apart from a good kick in the Kyle.)

 What works for ITV in scripted comedy


“the focus is on broad appeal – something that viewers could grasp if it was summed up in one line, such as the package holidays of Benidorm or the call centres of Mumbai Calling.

…it is essential that the ITV1 audience already recognises a show’s lead, with ITV2 providing more opportunities to break new faces.”

There’s a current trend whereby if you’re pitching an idea, be it sketch show or sitcom, the producers want you to “cast” it. I find this a bit odd – how am I supposed to know who’s available, who would want to do a sitcom, who’s hot, who’s cheap, etc?

Still, my latest sitcom pitch, “My Two Godfathers”, starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Fearne Cotton, has attracted some interest. Mind, if Fearne Cotton isn’t available the whole thing is fucked.