Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Thoughts on the Sitcom Trials

I do a show called The Sitcom Trials and it puzzles me. I began it ten years ago, stopped doing it three years ago, and have just finished hosting its 10th anniversary season. And still I wonder what I do it for.

It's a show which pits one sitcom against another, the audience votes for their favourite and they see the ending of the winner. A brilliant format, it got made into a TV series and did moderately well for a few years at Edinburgh. I stopped doing it in 2006 after it spawned the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, who proved very popular and worth doing more of. I returned to the Trials this year, because somebody else did all the hard work and all I had to do was present it, promote it and underwrite it. And it was great fun and, just as happened every time before, I got the Sitcom Trials bug. There's something about the show I've always loved, and I think its very existence can only be a good thing. I got to watch some brilliant comic actors performing scripts, some of which were enviably good, and to meet some folk from the TV industry who acted as judges and said nice things about the show (though any of them who voiced an opinion thought the format wouldn't work on TV).

But this year's Trials was frustrating in a way that no previous Trials has been, because I had no writing in it. You see I created the Sitcom Trials essentially to test out my own writing. By putting it in competition with others and, back in the day, developing team-writing and collaborations, I hoped to better my writing, prove its worth, and of course showcase it. Ultimately I hoped to sell myself as a sitcom writer. But the more the Trials went on, the more people loved the format and my own writing took a back seat. To my credit, my writing did regularly fare well, but not so well that any of it ended up with its own series on the telly. (One sitcom, Come Together, which I co-wrote got made as a pilot by BBC radio but never broadcast, and a second, Meanwhile, did likewise). And it was the format itself which made it onto TV, with me presenting, and only one sitcom script by me was included (even then it went in under a pseudonym because we thought it unfair that I should enter the competition).

And so it was with this year's Trials, which were run as a competition with an outright winner. Though I toyed with the idea of entering material of my own under a pseudonym, you can only imagine the bad press I could have got if I'd done well. So, what do I hope to get out of the Trials? Obviously developing the format for telly remains a prospect, and I have meetings lined up. But is my heart truly in it, or do I secretly agree with the producers who say it won't work on TV? And would I like to revive it in a way that would allow me to showcase my own sitcom writing again, or would I be better off just knuckling down to some writing on spec and sending it off, like all the other hopeful wannabes, 360 of whose scripts alone were rejected in the selection process for this year's Trials?

Or should I concentrate on the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre and put the Trials out of my mind for the time being?

I think I find some clues towards a likely answer on YouTube. Every week I filmed the Heats of the Sitcom Trials, interviewed judges, and edited together a 5 minute mini documentary which I put up online. I was trying to get a feel for how the Trials might work as an educational X-Factor style docu-contest show (which is, I think, how it will work on the telly, when its time comes). All this work meant that I had no time to make any Socks videos, the longest time I've gone without doing Socks videos for nearly two years. Then, with the Trials out of the way, and the Socks last gig of the year performed, I made some new Socks Christmas videos and put the up there. And it's the ratings that give me my answer.

The Socks singing Away In Pret A Manger has 915 viewings after 2 days, and the 12 Days Of Christmas has notched up an astounding 34,425! Meanwhile the most popular of the recent Sitcom Trials videos, the Grand Final, has only managed 544 viewings after a week, and some Heats have been watched a little over 200 times.

And when I look at all the videos I've put on Youtube over the last three years, and view them in order of popularity, the top end of the charts is dominated by the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre (they hold 45 of the top 50 viewed videos) And at the bottom end? The Sitcom Trials. Videos from The Sitcom Trials TV series and live archive occupy 18 of the bottom 50 videos (the Socks are responsible for 26, so that blows that theory).

Popularity isn't everything, and I think the Sitcom Trials format is brilliant, the live shows are very good, and it should be on the telly, regardless of how few people share the vision yet. Okay, just sharing some thoughts, on with your life.

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