Attention Writers: Studio Sitcom Needs YOU!
Writer and Script Reader
During the last couple of Comedy Room open submission windows we have noticed a surprisingly low number of scripts which felt like studio sitcoms. This has to change! Well it doesn’t have to, but it would be nice to see more of them, and this is our effort to encourage you to think about attempting to write one.
So let’s start by clearing up what a studio sitcom is. Not to state the bleeding obvious, but it’s a sitcom filmed in a studio. Unlike a single camera comedy, which is normally recorded on a soundstage or on location, studio sitcoms are shot by multiple cameras in front of a live audience. We’re talking about the likes of Friends, Blackadder, Only Fools and Horses, or Jewish supernatural comedy, So Haunt Me. When thinking of classic comedies, you’re bound to name at least two which were filmed in a studio, depending on how long the list was and how absent minded you were feeling that day. Which begs some questions we’ll now break down into three delightfully edible sub-sections: Why aren’t people writing for studio? Why should people write for studio? And how the heck do you write for studio?
Rowan Atkinson as Lord Edmund Blackadder and Tony Robinson as Baldrick in the second series of the comedy sitcom 'Blackadder' (Blackadder II) - Production shot
Why Aren’t People Writing For Studio?
The most obvious reason that we are receiving fewer studio scripts is that it is not as prevalent a format as it once was. There are still some examples out there, such as Upstart Crow, Not Going Out, Birds of a Feather and Big Bang Theory. And it’s important to note that just because there aren’t as many of them, that doesn’t mean they aren’t popular, as all of those shows are on multiple series and draw large viewing figures. Indeed, the most watched comedies of recent times have been Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys, which of course were studio sitcoms. Repeats of old sitcoms like Dad’s Army can draw in large numbers too. But if there are fewer of these programmes on TV that means they may not be influencing new writers as much as they used to. So why has the number of shows dwindled recently?
Ever since The Office it’s argued there has been a move towards more subtle and dramatic forms of comedy, exemplified most recently by hits such as Mum and Fleabag. Meanwhile studio sitcoms have never been particularly adored by the critics, who seem to take particular umbrage with the laugh track, often bandying around the idea of ‘canned laughter’ telling the viewers when to laugh. But this is a false concept, suggesting artificial laughs have been added on, when there is always a studio audience present. Don’t think of the laugh track as an indication of when to be amused, but as a communal experience of shared laughter, much like being at a live show. And though following the trend of single camera might seem hip or groovy, as the kids would say, studio can potentially bring happiness to millions of viewers, so you can probably forget about the six newspaper critics who aren’t so keen. Evidently studio sitcoms can often be perceived as very traditional and lacking innovation, but think of all those sitcoms which have been subversive and innovative, such as The Young Ones, Absolutely Fabulous, Father Ted, I’m Alan Partridge or Seinfeld. In truth a studio show can be whatever you want it to be!
A final explanation could be that studio sitcoms are perceived as more difficult to write. They require high joke counts, are restricted by the practical limitations of regular sets in a fixed location, and it can be difficult to think up a situation which hasn’t been done before. It’s true that a single camera format does allow more freedom to let your imagination run wild, but conversely that means studio sitcoms require a greater sense of creativity to work within their established boundaries. We’ll look at ways of dealing with these issues further on.
It’s worth noting that all of these explanations are based around perceptions, when in reality studio sitcoms are just as valid a format as any other!
Upstart Crow: Behind the Scenes: Will Shakespeare (DAVID MITCHELL) and Marlowe (TIM DOWNIE) with production crew
Why Should You Write For Studio?
The most obvious reason to write for studio is market awareness. We’ve established that these programmes get large viewing figures, but not many people are writing for them, so there is a gap waiting to be filled. Producers often state that they are looking for studio scripts because they know how profitable a hit can be in terms of viewers and multiple series potential. Comedy is diverse and personal, so there is a general desire to provide as many different types as the audience demands, so studio will always have a position in the market place. Studio sitcoms are also one of the few programmes outside of reality competitions that a family can watch together. That explains why Miranda was such a huge hit, because it was completely accessible for kids and adults. This doesn’t mean the comedy has to be tame, think of all the double entendres shoved into Are You Being Served? and the like. Again it’s an opportunity to think creatively about how to amuse a broad audience. Equally if you want to go for an adult audience and mainly come up with jokes about genital areas, then shows such as Bottom or Two Pints of Lager demonstrate that this is viable too.
For all you developing writers submitting to the Comedy Room, writing for studio could be a great calling card. One of our aims is to find scripts which are laugh out loud funny, and if you are aiming for four to five jokes a page, even if only half of them hit that is still more encouraging than a decent joke every two or three pages. It’s also possible that a gag heavy script may demonstrate that you have the potential to write for radio, which is also often recorded with an audience, or even sketch or panel shows, which can be great ways to earn money as a jobbing writer while you work on your sitcom opus. On the other hand a comedy drama script may only indicate that you potentially have a dramatic voice, which can be great, but isn’t ideal if you believe comedy is your destiny. Also, though there are not many opportunities currently, sitcoms can be team written, so having a sample script up your sleeve could be a way to get onto an existing show and learn the ropes. Of course, humongous disclaimers that submitting a studio script to BBC Writersroom doesn’t guarantee success, it’s just something for you to consider!
Practical reasons aside, if you ever get to make a studio show it is such a different and unique experience. It gives you the visceral sensation of hearing a room full of people laugh and respond to jokes which you have created. You don’t get to do that with a single camera show, unless you go peeping into people’s houses while it’s on TV, and even then if they have thick double glazing you might not be able to hear it that well. If you’re a theatre writer then you probably are familiar with writing for a live audience, so studio could be perfect for you! It also provides an opportunity to evolve and adapt through the rehearsal experience and based on audience response. Many classic catchphrases caught on because of how the audience reacted to them!
What Is Needed To Write For Studio?
So now you’ve been entirely convinced what a noble and worthwhile endeavour it would be to compose the greatest studio sitcom ever imagined, let’s move onto what you need to do so. First of all, laughs. Remember that you’re not just writing for your audience at home, but also for a studio full of people who are there specifically to laugh. Wry smiles and gentle titters are delightful things, but they don’t pick up that well on a microphone. As a general rule you should aim for four laughs per page, otherwise an eerie silence will haunt your nightmares for all eternity. Notice that I say laughs rather than jokes. It can be a misconception that you are writing jokes for the characters to tell each other. The comedy should come from the characters. They’re not trying to make each other laugh, they are inadvertently making us laugh due to their quirks, opposing perceptions and their reactions to the predicaments they create for themselves. Also try to generate physical and visual comedy, not only because variety is a beautiful thing, but these big set pieces of action often get big responses and stick with the audience, as a thousand clip shows featuring Del Boy falling through the bar or the Vicar of Dibley jumping in a puddle will attest. And while laughs are vital, they shouldn’t be at the expense of the story. Do your best to make sure the jokes are a part of progressing the plot, rather than long humorous exchanges that don’t really have much to do with anything. And always aim for a punchline at the end of each scene so it has an impactful punch, rather than fizzling away, a bit like the end of this paragraph...
This is true of all comedy, but don’t get fixated on your situation. Of course an original setting that no one has done before can be an easy way to pitch an idea and stand out, but you run the risk of it being an albatross around your neck. You may think to yourself “I’ll set it in a theme park, no one has done that before!” But then what? There’s no point building a huge, fully functioning waltzer set if you’ve then got no interesting stories to tell on it. It’s about finding what is unique about your situation and what kind of characters would be there. Mrs Brown’s Boys is at its core simply about a family and their matriarch, but it is the details such as its Irish location, bawdy humour and breaking of the fourth wall which give it its identity. So don’t worry too much if it’s not the most original concept, as long as it has an individual approach or voice which makes it feel like something only you would have imagined, you gorgeous creative being, you.
Mrs Brown's Boys: IN FRONT Agnes Brown (Brendan O'Carroll), BEHIND Buster Brady (Danny O'Carroll) Grandad Brown (Dermot O'Neill), Dino Doyle (Gary Hollywood) Rory Brown (Rory Cowan) Cathy Brown (Jennifer Gibney) Mark Brown (Pat Shields), Betty Brown (Amanda Woods), Winnie McGoogan (Eilish O'Carroll), Dermot Brown (Paddy Houlihan), Maria Brown (Fiona O'Carroll)
Studio does rely on having a certain number of fixed locations, ideally a maximum of three, as you need those sets to be used throughout the episode and series, rather then building and swapping in new ones every time the whim takes you. These should be hubs where your characters would naturally congregate, which is why we so often see living rooms, pubs or cafes. However, don’t feel that you are stuck in one room and have to create a theatrical, real-time single scene. You can have guest sets, and if these can be used several times over a series, even better. You can also do some location filming which allows for external locations or big stunts which wouldn’t work in a studio. Such pre-recorded scenes are shown to the audience on monitors, and can provide a break from the general filming, but be mindful that you don’t get to a point where people are spending more time looking at a screen than watching the live action.
Studio allows for even more flexibility and adaptation than other types of television, to the point where you could rewrite a joke on the night of filming if the first take didn’t hit the mark with the audience. With that in mind it is useful to always think in terms of pushing yourself to improve what you have. Take the first idea for a punch line then think of more possibilities, maybe the first one was just right, or it could be improved upon. Make sure the first draft is as strong as possible, then aim to better it. Have a read through with friends so you can hear where the laughs are, and when a joke doesn’t land be prepared to cut it or write an alternative. This kind of attitude will ensure that you are always developing, never resting on your laurels and it prepares you for the many production notes you are bound to get.
Beyond that, you need the same basics as any script; interesting characters with unique voices, compelling stories, and a world which feels vivid and intriguing. As ever, a great way to learn is to study what already exists, so watch classic and current sitcoms, go to a recording if you can to experience it for yourself, and have a read of the many scripts available on the good old BBC Writersroom website.
Now by all means, if you think studio isn’t for you and you want to stick to your subtle, dark comedy, then that’s super, we love reading those too! But it can sometimes be useful to think with a studio mentality simply to imagine how you can elicit a response from your audience, so as to push yourself to make those “LOL” moments and memorable visuals or set pieces. And it is possible that a reader or producer will look at your single camera script and think it would be perfect for studio because the humour feels so responsive. If you are now convinced that studio sitcom could be your calling in life, then go for it and give it a shot! You won’t know until you try whether it’s something you can do or not. Then one day your Christmas special could be amusing millions of turkey-bloated family members, to the annoyance of Guardian columnists across the land!