Shortlisting Laugh Track

Tuesday 10 April 2012, 11:34

Micheal Jacob Micheal Jacob

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laugh-track.jpg Laugh Track competition image.

 

One of my favourite things (apart from raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens) is to be presented with a large pile of scripts.  Like the late Geoffrey Perkins, I approach every script with the feeling that this will be the one, the game-changer, the next classic comedy.  Although life is full of disappointment, the feeling of potential excitement never goes away.

So it was a real treat to spend a day with the entries for the BBC writersroom Laugh Track competition, along with writer, comedian and podcaster Danielle Ward, radio producer Victoria Lloyd, and writersroom luminaries Kate Rowland and Paul Ashton.

A previous sift had divided the scripts into four categories - yes, maybe yes, maybe no, and no -  so our task was to provide second opinions and come up with, as it were, a long shortlist from which the final candidates would be chosen for a development workshop, leading to rewrites and the final showcase selection.

In the nature of things, people’s opinions of comedy, and of scripts, differ, so in the end the categories became fluid, with some scripts being promoted at the expense of others which were demoted.  What we ended up with was a wide range of comedy styles, from old-style jokey shows to more contemporary pieces.  Some scripts felt more or less like the finished article, while some had tremendous promise but betrayed the writers’ inexperience.

My three favourites, which I hope will make the final cut, were hugely diverse.  One was a first script by a young writer who had come across the competition, undertaken a crash course in how to write a sitcom, and produced a piece that felt genuinely fresh and funny.  The second, with a rather darker feel, was beautifully plotted and very surprising, albeit definitely post-watershed.  And the third made brilliant use of a single setting.

However, for anyone who wants to enter other competitions, or indeed have their work taken seriously, there was some general lessons.

First, the requirement was for an audience sitcom, which means a show where stories are told in a limited number of sets, perhaps with some brief location filming, and recorded in front of an audience.  Nothing could be clearer.  So it was odd to find a number of scripts which couldn’t be made in front of an audience, and in some cases were sit-trag rather than sitcom.

Passing over the script which was obviously written in 2000 and plucked from the bottom drawer without any references being updated to 2012, several submissions were set in research stations at either pole, or in the jungle.  It’s always useful to think about where produced shows are or have been set - home, office, workplace, and so on.  If a setting hasn’t been used, then is it likely that no one else will have thought of it?  Or is it more likely that the setting doesn’t work and is not in demand?

A piece of conventional wisdom is that sitcom characters are trapped, but this doesn’t mean that they have to be physically trapped, rather that they are trapped in their psychological situation.  Harold Steptoe wanted to leave Albert, but he was stuck with a guilt-inducing father rather than unable to leave the scrapyard.

Another piece of conventional wisdom, which many entrants happily ignored, is that every script should have a story, and that the story should begin within the first three pages.  Getting to page 15 without a clue of what was going on and what story I was being told was just depressing.  Funny dialogue is fine, but it has diminishing returns if it’s just people being funny without a context.

And the final piece of conventional wisdom, which again shouldn’t really need re-stating, is that characters need to have their own voices.  If everyone sounds the same, then it’s just the writer’s voice.  There’s a venerable test - if you cover up the character names and just read the dialogue, can you tell who is speaking?  If you can, the characters are clear.  If you can’t, they’re not.

It was a treat to be back within the bosom of the BBC, particularly since we met in a rackety, decaying office of the old style, rather than in a section of an antiseptic, open plan floor, or a glass-walled meeting room with a jokey name and inadequate sound-proofing.

Congratulations to the writers who will be progressing, and the very best of luck.

Micheal Jacobs is a producer and script editor, and former head of the BBC's College of Comedy.

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Comments

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    Comment number 1.

    I entered this competition - as a complete novice I don't expect to get anywhere but I have to say what an educational and enjoyable exercise it was. It really makes you think hard about dialogue and the importance of each word, but more than anything it made me realise just how hard writing comedy is. I have huge respect for all comedy writers!

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    Comment number 2.

    Could I suggest that it would not have been a massive undertaking to have sent a general email to those entrants who were "yes ,maybe yes," but didn't finally make it. Just a few lines to perhaps say "not a bad effort, it might have made it, so keep trying." Or maybe you already do that.(in which case I won't give up the day job)

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    Comment number 3.

    Billy - we'll be letting people know how far they progressed ...

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    Comment number 4.

    Thanks for replying Paul. Maybe, if I got an email that says "Are you SURE that English is your first language?" I'll know that I'll really need to pull my socks up...

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    Comment number 5.

    Really enjoyed the challenge. Although this wasn't the first script I've written it was the first one I've ever submitted anywhere. The general feedback is helpful, thanks, and also hearing about the process for the readers.

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    Comment number 6.

    Should everyone have heard by now? I sent a script, received a confirmation but haven't heard anything yet.

    When should I be worried my rejection got lost?

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    Comment number 7.

    I've seen that a few people have commented that they received confirmation emails when their scripts were received. I didn't get one of these, so does this mean that my script may not have been received/ entered? Would everyone have received a confirmation email as well as the appropriate rejection/ acceptance email by now? Thanks!

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    Comment number 8.

    Guys,

    Really enjoyed writing for the Laugh Track even though I didn't get the call. I always joke that if I ever win something I'll write the speech on the back of all the rejection letters - but I'm starting to realize that with how many I have now I'll be played off long before I finish! I'm keen to develop as a writer and would be willing to share my screenplay with anyone who fancies a read and offer feedback for anyone who wants to send me theirs. Follow me on Twitter (@TedWilkes) and drop me a DM with your email and we can exchange!

    peace,

    - Ted

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    Comment number 9.

    Likewise, I sent a script but never received confirmation/rejection. The postal tracker claims it was delivered. Is this something we should inquire about at the email address?

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    Comment number 10.

    Everyone - we'll advise on receipt/verdict emails etc next week - but if your script was recorded as having been properly delivered then it'll have been looked at

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    Comment number 11.

    By some kind of strange miracle (which I am still considering is a prank) I got through to stage 2. I got the request to RSVP to the workshop on the 24th. I was due to be flying back to M/CR from a break in Dublin on the 24th at 5pm (I didn't check dates because I have never written anything in my life and did not expect to get through!) So I have purchased new flights to go to Dublin the week later. Should we have heard anything yet regarding arrangements? I am just worried the date will change again!
    Thanks

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    Comment number 12.

    Paul,
    Have all succesful entrants benn contacted?

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    Comment number 13.

    I seem to be in the boat as i was last year; never did receive a rejection email following my Laughing Stock entry. Hope the same thing doesn't happen this year...

    Congratulations to ellengrace4, good luck with the workshop.

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    Comment number 14.

    Hi everyone I didnt get a confirmation either, I am beginning to think the postman used my script to wipe his arse on which really that is all it is worth anyway. All the best to everyone who got in. I "knew" this was the wrong place to send a comedy "sketch" show but it was worth a try, looks like I have again got to contemplate selling an organ of mine to put this show on at Ed Fest. I appreciate you will get back to all of us regarding our work, that is a right Brucey Bonus because I need to know where I am going wrong and how to progress because I am never giving up. Here is what I entered, no not the cucumber, have a look if you have half hour to spare, its silly but funny : http://youtu.be/ZG8b1HawO1Q Thanks for the opportunity though and good luck everyone for the next time and nice one to all those who got through. Peace and Muff. Clare. x
    www.youtube.com/yoginiclare

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    Comment number 15.

    Everyone - all the emails have gone out - some have bounced back, and some can tend to end up as spam so you should check your spam folder ... but basically, we have now contacted everyone who's through to the next stage ...we know there'll be lots of disappointed people who aren't - there were only 20 or so spaces for more than 800 people applying. so although not being invited will feel like a rejection, we're not necessarily saying your script isn't any good - only that we've had to choose a very small proportion that we were most excited about ...

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    Comment number 16.

    Hi Paul

    Thank you for this information.
    I didn't receive a confirmation or rejection email either; I supplied the correct email address on my application form and in the header of my script, so it shouldn't have bounced back. I have also checked my spam folder and there is nothing in there.

    I have emailed the writersroom with my details to check if my script was actually received but I haven't had a response. I sent it via special delivery and it was signed for at the address by someone called Adam.

    I understand that if it was looked at my submission must have been unsuccessful, but you have mentioned on here that you would be letting people know how far in the process their script progressed. This would be really useful information for a developing writer.

    Do you know if laugh track query emails are still being answered and if I can expect to hear anything back?

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    Comment number 17.

    I'm in the same boat. I've not had previous problems receiving correspondence from Writersroom before in relation to my email client. Without wishing to be a pain, is there any way we might be able to follow up on the status of our scripts? I appreciate the admin that logging and reading 800 scripts requires...

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    Comment number 18.

    Same here. I have checked my spam folder and not received anything (confirmation or rejection). My email would have been on my script and on the form. I also understand the amount of administration, but it would be reassuring to know if my script was at least read. I can provide further details here or to an email address if the information helps. It would be a shame to miss the chance to be involved in such a great opportunity!

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    Comment number 19.

    everyone - we are slowly working our way through the queries emails we've received into our general inbox so please bear with us ... ! we're a very small team so these things can take some time

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    Comment number 20.

    Hi Paul,

    Sorry to bother you, I didn't receive a confirmation or an acceptance/rejection email either. I'm the writer of Fairy Dust and it's jonathan.james@clipbored.co.uk

    Thanks for your help!

    Jonathan

 

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