Really Useful Links for Sitcom Writers

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Paul FitzSimons

We’ve had a bit of a phenomenon on our TV screens recently. An Irish sitcom. More rarely, a well-received Irish sitcom. Even more rarely, a well-received Irish sitcom that we’re not seeing on Channel 4 or Sky – no, this is actually broadcast on our very own RTE. I am, of course, referring to The Walshes.

RTE has had a bit of a love/hate relationships with situation comedy over the years. And with shows like Upwardly Mobile (referred to as one of ‘The Worst Irish TV Shows ever’ by the Irish Independent), the national broadcaster’s reluctance to commission sitcoms is understandable.

The best TV writers in the world say that Situation Comedy is the hardest thing to get right. When it comes to comedy-writers, Ireland punches well above its weight but we seem to lean, certainly in recent years, towards sketch shows such as Republic of Telly or satire like Irish Pictorial Weekly. But those of who grew up on American sitcoms – Cheers, Golden Girls, Friends – know that there is nothing better than a half-an-hour of well-scripted and well-acted character-driven comedy.

With the tentative success of The Walshes and the phenomenal (am I overusing that word?) triumph that is Moone Boy, this might be the time for Irish writers to once again delve into the murky waters of the sitcom.  But, like writing crime or soap or period drama, there are certain guidelines that should be adhered to, or at least observed.

Part of Synonym.com’s excellent Classroom series, writer Dan Richter lays out a step-by-step guide to writing a half-hour sitcom. He tells us that, like any TV show, a sitcom episode has to have a well-thought-out plot with well-conceived characters but, uniquely to sitcom, an episode will have one main story and up to two subplots running through it. He also suggests that the creation of strong and nuanced characters should be achieved before looking at plot.

Regular readers of my column might think I’m on commission from ScriptFrenzy, going on how often I defer to it. But it so consistently offers good writing advice that I’d be remiss not to. And the guidance from sitcom writer Fred Rubin on honing comedy is no exception. Fred offers invaluable nuggets of knowledge on making good comedy great, telling us that anyone who possesses a sense of humour can actually learn to be funny on paper and on screen.

Veteran comedian and writer Barry Cryer has some issue with today’s sitcoms, suggesting on the Daily Mail’s website that modern sitcoms don’t live up to their potential. He targets ITV’s Vicious, saying that a show about an aging gay couple, starring Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi, should have been fantastic but was instead unbelievable and homophobic. He advises that writers should be creating identifiable characters instead of simply focussing on making jokes.

One of the twenty-first century’s first hit sit-coms was The Office and its co-creator Stephen Merchant has taken time to answer questions on how he created the show. He also offers advice on writing sitcoms and emphasises that creating likeable and believable characters is key to a sitcom’s success.

The BBC has long been an advocate of high-quality situation comedy and has brought us such gems as Faulty Towers and ‘Allo ‘Allo. With the addition of its light entertainment channel BBC3, the Beeb has been able to broaden its range and give us more niche sitcoms like Pramface and Him & Her. On its ever-useful Writers Room website, the BBC gives us some invaluable advice on writing sitcoms as well as offering a wide range of sitcom scripts from its archives.

“The writers are the stars of every really successful sitcom.” – Betty White

The 6-Step Program.

Synonym.com’s straightforward guide to writing Sitcom.

“Writing a 30-minute sitcom script is not as hard as you would think.”

http://classroom.synonym.com/write-30minute-sitcom-script-4195.html

Get In A Frenzy.

On Scriptfrenzy.org, Fred Rubin’s secrets for improving our comedy writing.

“I believe anyone who at least possesses a sense of humor, anyone who likes jokes and laughs a lot, can learn to be “funnier”.”

http://2012.scriptfrenzy.org/node/413100

No Laughing Matter.

Comedian Barry Cryer on the serious issue of comedy writing.

“The key is to create characters. Characters people can identify with.”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2343677/Modern-sitcom-writing-laughing-matter-Barry-Cryer-criticises-homophobic-unbelievable-TV-comedy.html

FAQ

Creator of The Office Stephen Merchant answers questions on how to creative a Sitcom.

“Think of a classic moment from a sitcom. For instance, Del Boy falling through the hatch in ‘Only Fools And Horses’.”

http://stephenmerchant.com/faq/

The Beeb.

The BBC Writers’ Room’s advice on writing Sitcoms.

“Situation comedy is in some ways a dramatic form, in that it must tell a story.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/write-a-script/writing-tv-sitcoms

http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/scripts/search/platform/TV/genre/comedy

 

About the author

(c) Paul FitzSimons

Paul FitzSimons is a screenwriter and novelist and has written the novel ‘Burning Matches’ and a number of scripts for film and TV. He has worked as a storyline writer on RTE’s ‘Fair City’. His short stories are published in ‘Who Brought The Biscuits’ by The Naas Harbour Writers. Paul likes crime thrillers, good coffee and Cadbury’s chocolate. He doesn’t like country-and-western music or people who don’t indicate on roundabouts.

Paul also runs the Script Editing service Paul | The | Editor.

paulfitzsimons.com

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