Wednesday, 7 July 2010

360° Festival 2010, Report 3: BBC Comedy Academy

The day’s first session was with Michael Jacob from the BBC Comedy Academy.

Michael stated off by giving us a bit of his background. He was in a band with Marks and Gran. When they made it big as comedy writers they employed him as a reader in their company. From there he became a Script Editor on their sitcoms Birds of a Feather and then Goodnight, Sweetheart. Since then he has worked on My Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Smoking Room. Recently, he has headed up the Comedy Academy. In the current scheme there are two writers from Northern Ireland and he has also run a BBC Northern Ireland radio comedy scheme.

And he had this to say:

Screenwriting Gurus – he doesn’t hold much store to taking a script and de-coding it. That’s only for people who can’t tell stories very well. So there!

You can write a script but directors and producers and casting can completely alter it. Never mind all the commissioners and controllers who put there tuppence worth in and can ruin it completely.

And with that he showed us an episode of Fawlty Towers, "The Kipper and The Corpse", details of which are here. And God, was it funny! Having not seen it in a while, it was interesting to see how well structured, written and performed it was. Every scene counts, every word, every action. And even though it is, at heart, based on farce, EVERYTHING that happens is character-based. When you look at it, there are actually only two or three true “gags” in the episode. Anyone wanting to seriously write sitcom could do worse than go study those episodes. Except, of course, that’s only for people who can’t tell stories very well….

It was also interesting to compare it to the sitcom we’d seen the day before. Humphrey Barclay had played us an episode of Agony (yes, I know, I didn’t mention that in yesterday’s write-up. So, sue me). Anyway, Agony was so much of it’s time – slow and not very believable and quite a “stock” sitcom. Fawlty Towers could still be shown today (in fact, it still is) and be a huge success. In going through the episode, Michael showed us how the first scene expertly sets up the hierarchy of the characters and the main plots, and is funny at the same time. There is also a sequence of 16 continuous scenes in the middle of the episode which creates huge forward energy and a sense of disaster. Michael described it as writing as choreography, and yet it feels and looks very unforced. Agony, by contrast, had lots of time shifts which really slowed it down.

Oh, and apparently it’s a well-known comedy rule that words with a hard “C” or a “K” are inherently funny. So get plenty of those in your scripts!

Michael then moved on to talk about My Family. Reiterating Humphrey Barclay from the day before, he reinforced teh point that you can’t change the characters too much. The audience wants to see the people/characters they know and feel comfortable with. Familiarity is the name of the game.

Unlike most UK sitcoms, My Family is based on the American model, in that it is team written and has a writer’s room. The creator is an American and was brought over to do just that. The writers all sit around in a big room and pitch in ideas and jokes, which doesn’t exactly allow for the writer’s voice, but should mean a higher percentage of jokes and also allows for more episodes, not just relying on the same writer to come up with all the episodes.

Birds of a Feather, in contrast, also had a team, but individual writers wrote specific episodes.

The writers on My Family get a salary and if they are credited with individual episodes (someone has to write the final script) they get a script fee too. However, there are writers in the room who have been there for years and never written an individual script. The show also has standing sets (as opposed to only putting the sets up on recording days) so that the cast rehearse on the sets all week and change things as they go along, with the writers in the “room” on hand to make those changes.

Finally, Micheal gave us the lowdown on the Comedy Academy.

It’s there to find writers and to give them a push.

Each writer has a mentor and they attend talks and take part in a residency week, at the end of which they all have a showcase of their work (15 minute pieces).

There are 6 places.

It's unclear how the academy will work in the future as funding isn’t clear.

An interesting point Michael made is that there are more sitcoms on CBBC than on BBC1 at the moment, so it’s a good thing to keep in mind when coming up with ideas.

Finally, as a word of warning, everyone is much more cautious at the moment because of funding issues. Sitcoms are very expensive to produce and rarely succeed. They are very hard to get right and you can’t second guess what the audience will go for. There are also more and more layers of people who can stop it at any stage of its development, or ruin it.

But hey, that’s not going to stop you, is it?

Back next time with Tim Loane and his excellent TV Drama writing session!

Be there.

Or don’t.

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