Sit-Coms are, love ’em or hate ’em, a lasting style of comedy and one in which, if you’re fortunate enough to be good at, can provide work that lasts for many years. Comedy writer and director Paul Basset Davies (Spitting Image, Alas Smith & Jones) hosted a discussion with Pete Sinclair (Lead Baloon, Never Mind the Buzzcocks), Karol Griffiths (How I Met Your Mother, Friends) and John Lloyd (Blackadder, Not the Nine O’clock News) about comedy writing and the waning art of the sit-com.
As a writer who wants to write sit-com Paul suggests we have to immerse ourselves in the craft, but what is a sit-com? What are those unique qualities that make this particular sub-genre work? In sit-coms, people first and foremost are usually trapped in a situation they can’t escape. Maybe they are trapped in an awful marriage or business like Fawlty Towers, or confined to prison for a long time like Porridge. Writing for that comedic clash is about finding the comedy in those things in life that don’t readily change and that provide ongoing conflict.
There are some rules to sit-com writing, but its worthwhile noting that many shows will break a rule at some point. For example, mostly you’d be looking to a handful of regular characters that your show is always about but Dads Army had a very large cast of characters and worked well because of it, and Blackadder introduced a new major character each week which was kind of it’s thing. Writing comedy certainly tends to be a community effort, many lines made funnier by actors thoughts and improvisations, and in terms of the process it helps to have a writing partner, team or someone that you can bounce stuff off. Cost however means UK writers rooms are unlikely to become a reality nowadays with management looking for predictability in what will grow audience and commissioners finding it a struggle to get fresh shows agreed.
Styles of comedy will differ. It’s our job as the next generation of comedy writers to give people half an hour a day where they can leave aside their problems and feel better. The writers submit that sit-com in essence needs, even in it’s darkest form, to be dark and jolly rather than dark and edgy. Shows like ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Yes Minister’ were examples of comedies that made bleakness their thing. Even they can be a little heavy to watch if you just want some light relief at the end of a hard day. Pete Sinclair comments on how comedy at the moment trends towards being very overt with shows like ‘Mrs Brown’ being very popular for their brashness, but he’d like to see new writers bringing forth shows that are more subtle and intelligent to balance that. Karol Griffith thinks a lot of sit-coms are really mean these days, she’s even left a few shows that felt mean preferring to work instead on things that move her and have a lot of heart.
There’s been some change in recent years with the way television is managed and there are far less comedy producers than we had in the days of prominent popular shows like ‘Dads Army’ or ‘Porridge’. Comedy writing is hard there’s no doubt. Good one-liners are hard to write for anyone, to write a bunch of them to turn into sketches is really difficult and not every writer will be capable of doing that. Comedy, John Lloyd points out is a rare gift. There are more brain surgeons in the world than good comedy writers. In the US Karol tells us there are more comedy pilots than ever being made these days, although with just one episode to grab an audience before they’ve had time to get to know the characters it’s still tough to get a pilot to series.
With the changing ways content is delivered now there’s a real possibility that comedy channels will emerge for new comedy with producers and commissioners that understand comedy specifically and can support emerging work as it should be supported. Writing as much as possible, taking the money jobs to hone skills and meet contacts and future collaborators, then grow those skills enough to be able to write entire shows. Or make content yourself, it’s so much easier these days with crowd-funding or online platforms. Watch out on comedy websites like the QI website to see when they’re looking for new writers. If you can write something really funny then it will get picked up. Skills will out is the message of the day. Opportunity exists, and that’s no joke!