Script Room latest: comedy

Thursday 9 May 2013, 12:18

Paul Ashton Paul Ashton


The avid amongst you will know we are already well and truly stuck into submissions from the latest window, and that we have started out with comedy scripts. Out of the nearly 3000 submissions in total, not far off a third of them are TV and radio comedies – so a big chunk of the work for us that lies ahead. Our team of readers for the comedy chunk - a mix of regulars who can read across forms with those who are comedy-specialists - began the task with a welcome visit from the BBC’s Controller of Comedy Production, Mark Freeland. Mark talked about the kind of shows the various BBC channels have been commissioning, and the readers drew up a big list of current and recent British comedies as a checklist of what’s out there on the landscape. And then down to the task of ploughing through the scripts.

What the readers have noticed so far -

There are a lot of common set-ups – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since a very large proportion of the best comedies ever made might be described as a flat/house-share, or a workplace comedy. But what is it that makes your version of that archetype unique? Unfortunately that’s the unanswered question in many of the scripts…

Beyond this, the main problems tend to be one (or more – or all) of the following:
• No clear protagonist – or ensemble shows where the characters aren’t clearly defined/differentiated from one another
• No real motivation, purpose, conflict or dilemma for the characters
• Not enough development/detail in the character writing
• Not enough story and action
• Shows that don’t really seem to be ABOUT anything
• On the nose dialogue – and lots of it

Before any of you leap into an impassioned response to any of this – yes, there are always going to be examples of current or recent shows made that (from your point of view) commit the same errors, so why on earth were they made while yours isn’t? It’s not our remit to defend or justify what’s gone before – only to try our hardest to spot scripts and writing and writers that interest, engage, excite and entertain us. One thing that gets mentioned a lot when talking about comedy is just how subjective a thing it is. What makes one person laugh, leaves another cold. How do you assess anything when this is true? Well we ask our readers to think and assess beyond their own tastes – and if they feel they just can’t with any given script, to pass it to another reader. And we remind ourselves that we are looking for writers that have potential over and above ideas that might get made. We’re looking for that fresh spark of what a writer does with a character, world, idea, situation. We’re not looking for perfection. We’re not expecting to read finished, produce-able scripts. We just want to be willingly transported beyond page 10 through to the end, and feel like we’ve never quite been on that particular journey before.

Anyway, there are many more scripts to read and a very long way to go. Comedy is a serious business. And subjective. But we’re giving everything a fair go and hoping to find some gold in there. And you’ll be reassured to know that the readers are finding some scripts that do look quite shiny.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    How do you view comedy dramas? They're neither one or the other...there was no specific category when entering the scripts. Will these be put into a sub category or will they be criticised for not being laugh a minute?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Hi, I think this is helpful as it can give you an idea why a script doesn't get past first filter. You got to remember that sitcoms are probably the hardest form of writing there is. Maybe if a script is rejected its back to the drawing board. A writer who can come up with a different slant on something and a situation thats original has a better chance of progressing. If a script isn't recommended for further development then you've just got to move on to the next one :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I think there is also one element that good comedy writing is timeless, I still enjoy Bilko, Laurel and Hardy, Fawlty Towers. Hancock etc etc and find them funny.

    It will be interesting to see if modern comedy stands the test of time?

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    Comment number 4.

    Almost a third of submissions were within the comedy genre! Blimey.

    mhepton - I agree. What is also worth noting about those timeless comedies is that they are not littered with swearing. They are just funny.

    And on that note, I am surprised that DEREK is listed on the poster in the picture. It's a comedy? Nuff said.

    I made some ridiculous formatting errors in the submission I sent to the SR this time around so I'm expecting my script to hit my doormat some time soon. :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    @Youcakeordeath - we view them as drama formally because they tend to be hour-long and demand character development and narrative structure in ways that don't chime with classic sitcom form/structure
    @nick - yes they are very very hard to get right and do well (though there's no 'easy' genre/medium by way of contrast)
    @mhepton - indeed - and for each one you listed there are dozens that didn't spring so easily to mind (or don't bear remembering) - it has always been thus
    @fadein - worth remembering that there would have been stricter guidelines about 'swearing' in the past so these things are all relative, and shows will reflect their time/context. Derek describes itself as a comedy - it won't make all people laugh but it's still 'a comedy' in genre terms. was The League of Gentlemen funny exactly...? Goes to show just how subjective 'funny' is - we can accept/assume something to be 'a comedy' but whether or not it makes us individually laugh is another question altogether

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Hi Paul

    I guess you guys are going to do posts about each catagory? Any idea of the percentage breakdown i.e comedy 29% drama 30% chidrens 5% etc?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I don't wish to bang on about what's right and wrong in comedy today and I do agree that the 'classic' comedies were just that because they are still funny. I watched three episodes of fawlty Towers again last night and still laughed spontaneously.

    I'd like to help you in you quest to 'spot scripts and writing and writers that interest, engage, excite and entertain' so here's the pitch...

    I'd like to submit a treatment for a one-off hour long comedy. the premise is this; Where True Comedy Lies. It's a mixture of fly-on-the-wall interviews with the Head Honcho, piece-to-camera, excerpts from the show under the microscope and some corpsing outtakes from the show in question (may be difficult this bit?) mixed in with background shots of writersroom at work desperately looking for their Nirvana.

    The show in question is The Wright Way.We'll also need Mark Freeland to freely (sic) give up his time to help...

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I went home 'up north' last christmas and was shocked to hear people saying how much they enjoyed Mrs Browns Boys. I've watched maybe 2 and a half episodes and didn't laugh once. Yet all my family love it. I guess people find diffrent things funny. There might be some one out there who laughed at The Wright Way? Comedy is subjective. One mans gold is another's trite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    @denbocheatalot - like I say, it's not our job to defend/justify shows - intriguing concept, but actually that show was produced by an indie so I don't think Mark Freeland was involved (he runs inhouse production). And writersroom wasn't remotely involved. So you'd need to recast your lead characters ... ! That show was recorded before a live audience of real people who really laughed, and was watched by an audience. Not everyone found it funny - but lots did. Subjective business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Yes totally subjective.

    If I were to read the script for The Office, I doubt there would be any obviously funny bits in it because the humour was in the awkwardness of the situations.

    I'm not a totally anti-swearing Nazi, I just don't think it is necessary to include it in everything. I don't swear. No-one around me does. But I do realise that other people drop an 'f' into everything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Subjective business indeed! However, and this is my last comment on the subject, The Wright Way received blanket and universal condemnation in the press and I still cannot for the life of me, understand how someone who co-wrote Blackadder could write The Wright Way?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    @fadein - I agree, less is usually more

    @denbo - looking at it another way, how do you possibly follow something as brilliant as Blackadder?! Scary thought. But I'd also just say that the critcs don't necessarily represent the audience - they've condemned all sorts of things that audiences have loved regardless. In the end, the only true arbiter of whether or not somehing works is the audience - if they're watching, then something is going right.

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    Comment number 13.

    @MrMidnight - approximate numbers: comedy 29%;radio drama 10%; stage 8%; TV drama (includes children's) 25%; film 23%; and some unclear/undecided/unspecified/unclassifiable (!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Those statistics are very interesting, Paul. My first thought was - Comedy 29%, mmm, not that huge a proportion. My next thought was "Aaagh - that's about 900 scripts!" Awesome task for the readers.

    Your specific list of criticisms is helpful to any aspiring writer. In fact, the points listed could be applied to any genre, not just comedy, in my estimation.

    Having said that, I would hope, like MrMidnight, that you will post specific critiques of other genres in due course.

    This is indeed a helpful piece of feedback.

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    Comment number 15.

    @jane - yes we'll have a running (or perhaps sporadic is more accurate?) commentary of what the readers are looking at as we go

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    Comment number 16.

    Hello, will you let us know how many scripts made it past the '10 page sift' in each category?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    It's all so subjective, comedy can be broken down into so many variations and what one script reader may find funny and or good another may find to be utterly shambolic. I would imagine at this stage the sift involves primarily:

    Is the script readable?
    Do I want to jab my eyes out with rusty spoons before the middle of the first page?

    Or is there a more objective criteria that they are judged by at the early stage?

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    Comment number 18.

    @youcakeordeath - there are criteria. Even if you don't find something funny taste-wise you can still objectively ask: can I see a joke/comedy that someone else would find funny? Character and story are always important. So even if it clearly needs 'gagging up', a script that is working hard with character and comic narrative and comedy structure will progress past the first sift. Often just one great idea or moment of execution in a script is enough to get past the first stage. But the writing on the page is more important than the ultimate effectiveness of the idea - a script could quite clearly never be made but if there is good comic writing then it'll progress. We always look for a fresh and authentic perspective on an idea/world - we get lots of solid, quite competent scripts that don't have any real spark of originality - and they will struggle to get through. And something we talk about a lot - scripts that have real heart and warmth, and that are really ABOUT something.

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    Comment number 19.

    I was just wondering what happened to the scripts for the comedy show "the show wot you wrote"...I could not find anything on a BBC search or any update here on writersroom but via google came up with this news...seems they had 15000 sketches sent. It will be interesting to hear who made the grade

    see here

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    mhepton - 15000 comedy sketches were sent!!

    29% of SR submissions were comedy scripts.

    Yet, only 300 or so comedy scripts were submitted to the Trans Comedy Award?

    I think my comedy script won't be bothering anyone at the Beeb any time soon, it'll stay in my metaphorical drawer for a while longer.


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