Ahead of the exciting Hat Trick Sitcom Geeks script competition opening in December, Sitcom Geeks hosts Dave Cohen and James Cary will be posting a number of blogs. Here’s the first, in which Dave discusses the show-stopping tone the competition is looking for.
Welcome to the first of our occasional blogging on our brand new sitcom script contest. We’ll start by talking about the type of script we’re looking for.
On Sitcom Geeks, we love to discuss the mechanics of what it takes to create good comic writing.
I would like to think that we have helped many writers along the way, that while you are still a long way from achieving your goals, you at least have more useful road signs than ever when we started our own careers.
Now we say “over to you”. We are very excited to be working with Hat Trick in our search for new writers for hit sitcoms and shows. There will be plenty of nominations, we’re sure, and just one winner, but we hope the trip by the end of the year will bring hope, enlightenment, and laughter.
How do you become a comedy scriptwriter?
We know there are thousands of you out there who want to be comedy writers. But we don’t know how many usual routes still exist for you in the UK.
In the past, we could count on the BBC to bring in a number of new sitcom writers, but in recent years their searches have shrunk considerably – that is, they haven’t completely disappeared. .
Their focus has been on finding writers who play too – and good luck to them, but most writers don’t, at least not to the level required to earn them an interview with the TV development teams.
Last year saw the BBC Writersroom Narrative Comedy window shut down for good. We were all assured that a new system was in place to ensure that BBC Comedy recruited a constant stream of new sitcom writers. They always ask for a dramatic comedy, but the emphasis is more on the second word.
It was in 2019, and as we approach 2022, we are still waiting. Last month, BBC Radio shut the door on new topical comedy writers for the first time in 50 years.
If you just want to be a comedy writer – and think about that word “just” for a moment, remember John Sullivan, Galton & Simpson, Carla Lane, Clement & La Frenais, Jimmy Perry and David Croft, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain were and are “only” writers – the horizons are narrowing.
A few independent companies have tried to do something about it, we’ve had contests asking for treatments, sketches, scenes, but Hat Trick is looking for something that looks like what they hope to do on mainstream television. And, like the BBC of old, they don’t ask you to pay to enter.
What are we looking for?
Before writing a word, be aware that we ask for a specific type of script. And it’s not the kind of script from new writers that James and I are used to reading. I quickly went through the last 25 scripts of new writers that I read, and I would say about half of them wouldn’t qualify for this contest.
Why is that? The simple answer is that many of the scripts I read these days are very heavily narrative. Of course every script has to have a story, or it’s not a script, it’s just a bunch of people talking in rooms. But look at the above call to “simple” writers and what’s the first thing you can say about their scripts?
is that they are character oriented.
Hat Trick made it clear from the start that they weren’t looking for dramatic stories. One of the first things they said was that “every episode should stand on its own.” This means right away that you don’t have the luxury of sending out a pilot script that takes 15 minutes to set up all of your characters and their stories.
We expect entire scripts to be delivered, but we’re only going to read the first ten pages, and during that time we’ll have to get to know your main character (s).
Here’s the start of The Wrong Mans, the 2013/14 series written by and performed by James Corden and Mat Baynton:
Quite exciting. Striking. And with a little fun at the end. You might be drawn to the star attraction of prospects. You can stay for the intense filming and the tension of the story. Somewhere along the way, you’re hoping the humor will flow from the flawed characters.
But you won’t send it. We prefer your first minute and 12 seconds to tell us something about the character first, second what’s wrong about her, and finally, how this flaw has the potential to cause them big trouble.
We are looking for something that will appeal to the maximum number of people. General public. James wrote for Miranda, I wrote for Not Going Out. Shows that can reasonably be called a mainstream sitcom.
What is a mainstream sitcom?
It would be simplistic to say “a family sitcom” but we mean it in the broadest sense.
Think about the types of shows Hat Trick does – her two most recent hits are Outnumbered and Derry Girls. It would be hard to imagine two other different sitcoms, but they’re both about families. But also think of other Hat Trick shows – Father Ted, with its dysfunctional but adorable collection of misfits living under one roof. Or Drop The Dead Donkey, with his extended family of journalists and rallyers.
You want to establish a sense of belonging, home, workplace, school, community fairly quickly.
What are not are we looking for?
We are not looking for a show about a comedian or a show set in the world of TV entertainment. And we are not looking for the next Fleabag.
You could probably argue that Fleabag is a family sitcom – father and sister are two of the most important supporting characters – but that would be like saying Father Dear Father is like King Lear.
We are not looking for artist-led stories. As mentioned earlier, there are enough opportunities for writer-performers. We’re not looking for storytelling shows. We want a show where audiences come back week after week, to see funny characters get scratched because of a flaw in their characters, and get away with not learning how to change and break the habit. We want audiences to be able to experience the show midway through the second series the same way they would at the start of the first episode.
And I think it’s fair to say that Fleabag is none of the above. But we’re looking for something that, like Fleabag, could be described as “a hit show.”
What is a hit show?
It is impossible to know until this happens. We all dream that every show we work on will be the one everyone talks about the next day, at work, in the playground, on the bus. James and I covered this on our last podcast, we’ve both been fortunate in the last few years to have been involved in shows like this.
What Miranda and Horrible Histories had in common was the singular vision of one person. Miranda Hart and Caroline Norris (the producer of the first five series of Horrible Histories) got to see exactly the show they wanted to create and everything in it was part of their concept.
It’s still not a guarantee that your show will be a success, but you need to be so sure what the show is before you even write a word.
How are you doing that?
It will not happen overnight. But throughout November and December, we’ll be offering you start-to-finish tips to help you resolve this issue.
Coming soon: what’s the big idea?