Monday, 5 July 2010

360° Festival 2010, Report 2: Writing Sitcom

After Paul Ashton's great introduction, Humphrey Barclay and Vanessa Haynes were next up with a session on writing sitcom.

Humphrey is a comedy legend who directed The Cambridge Footlights (John Cleese et al) and lots of radio and TV sitcoms, including Doctor in the House, A Fine Romance, Desmond’s, Spaced, etc. He is now, bizzarely, a Chief in Ghana!

Anyhoo, his Q & A was with Vanessa Haynes, who he worked with during the nineties. Vanessa has worked as a script editor on The Bill and now develops comedy and drama for Kudos Generator in the new office they have set up in Belfast, with the hope of finding new writing talent to take to network television and the nation. So, that’s all right then.

So, how did Humphrey start out?

He went to Cambridge, where he joined the drama groups, got lots of comedy parts, and was picked to do The Footlights. It was at about that time that the Monty Python lot came along and they all worked together, with Humphrey taking on the role of director. BBC radio, looking for new comedy talent, turned up and offered them all loads of work. Oh, the good old days! As a result, Humphrey developed and produced a lot of radio comedy. When Rediffusion was setting up (for you youngun’s, Redifussion was one of the original ITV contract holders for London) they offered him a job. Once there, Humphrey helped create shows such as “Do Not Adjust Your Set”. He also got Eric Idle from Monty Python to come up with ideas and people – Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Denise Coffey, David Jason.

Sitcom –there are some great ones and some truly awful ones. What is sitcom? What defines it?

Humphrey came up with a great definition of what makes a sitcom a sitcom. He really nailed it. Except our hero (me) didn’t manage to write it down in time. But it went something like this:

“An open-ended thirty minute TV series of comedy in narrative form, with some characters, in some setting, in some episodes. It’s called comedy because it’s primary intention is to amuse. And situation because it is always held/set in a permanent situation – occupational, familial, etc.”

And there you have it. Now, didn’t you think you knew that already. More to the point, could you write one? There were a few more words of wisdom Humphrey had to impart, which may help you on the way to sitcom heaven.

  • The audience has a deep desire for the familiar. Like chess, like Wimbledon. Now, keep with me on this one, cause Humphrey had a good point here. What he meant was that we all know the rules of chess (errr…) and Wimbledon (err…) and, more to the point, we know what to expect from a game. At the same time, each game is different. So, great desire for the familiar, but surprise them.
  • It has to be enclosed, so that we don’t waste time with setting and setting up. Compare the amount of sets and settings for something like My Family or Gavin and Stacey and dramas like Spooks.


Character based – Fawlty Towers

Relationship – Men Behaving Badly

Team – Doctor in the House

Romantic – Gavin and Stacey

Satire – The Thick Of It

Family – My Family

Occupational – The Vicar of Dibley

Star-based – The Cosby Show

Sci-Fi – Red Dwarf

What do they all have in common? They are all comic stories, featuring funny, original, interesting characters in conflicting relationships, built around a strong central idea that inexhaustibly generates comedy. That’s another sitcom definition in my book!


Humphrey gave the example of Desmonds (have a look at this pronto, young whipper-hipper-snappers). It’s basically a barber-shop comedy, but the barber-shop is West-Indian. It’s a family setup. It’s also a work comedy. And in the tradition of West-Indian barber shops, it’s the local drop-in centre for all and sundry. So far, so great, in terms of having a setting which allows for inexhaustible comedy ideas. A couple of other important points:

  • Universal: you could take that show and set it anywhere. It was universal. And that is another important factor that you should have if you want a hit on your hands and lots of money in the bank – your concept has to be universal. However…
  • Don’t try to appeal to everyone, or it won’t have a voice.
  • Find your producer. They’re all different, and they all like different things. This is a good thing. The producer is out there who is gonna love your idea as much as you do, even when no-one else gets it.

And what makes a bad sitcom?

· Too long.

· Lack of focus.

It really comes down to characters in the end, and the two most important things to realize about character are:

  • When they walk on we should know who and what they are.
  • You, as a writer, walk all around them, and see all the other sides of them. Yes, you have to write types, but not stereotypes. Archetypes. And if you don’t know the difference between the two, don’t worry, that’s why I’m here. Well, that’s why wikipedia’s here. Have a gander at this.


15 page introductions to ideas and scripts are NO GOOD and NO USE. It has to be on ONE (count ‘em…) ONE page.

Look at American sitcoms. They don’t have long speeches. Ours do. Which is better?

What makes the sitcom work has to be in Episode One. ie we have to know why we love it in episode one, and also what we are getting, so avoid making episode one all set up and not funny. It has to be the funniest episode. We will get the premise as it goes along, just give us a typically funny episode.

DON’T put things in brackets that the viewer doesn’t know and can’t see (ie character description). However, write things in the order they are seen. Ie. In the order you want the shots to pan out.


Played like theatre in front of a studio audience, with sets across a stage. There is ONE week of rehearsal and it is played out in real time, like a play, usually with 4 cameras in front of the stage to pick everything up and to move between sets, and then everything is mixed in the control room upstairs. Well, it used to be. Nowadays, it tends to be all recorded at this point and then mixed together later, which allows the director to choose the best shots. There are no LAUGHTER TRACKS, contrary to popular belief. Although, Humphrey did admit that the laughter was sometimes “augmented”.

Studio sitcoms also tend to have more jokes, which you should consider when deciding whether to write multi-camera with an audience or single camera. An audience-based sitcom usually has about 3 jokes to the page – if you have an audience sitting there, you have to keep the laughter coming.

When they were deciding on Spaced they decided NOT to go for a studio audience as the texture of the script was so reverential to film that it had to be cinematic in the way it was shot.


Shot like drama. Often on location. No audience. Not so many jokes.

Last minute advice from Humphrey?

Make page 1 fly!

Make sure your idea is open-ended, so don’t change or develop the situation too much. Surf your franchise – don’t change it!

The ideal pitch? 1 line, followed by a 3 line, followed by a paragraph.

And that's it! Thanks to Humphrey and Vanessa.

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