Friday, 4 December 2009

Thoughts on sitcom

These conversations have been carrying on on the British Sitcom Guide Forum at:

I've chipped in a fair bit, so let's share:

Badge (not his real name I'm guessing) wrote:

I went to see one of the heats, and it was my first experience of the Sitcom Trials. Everyone should be aware how small the stage is! I enjoyed the night and it is a great showcase opportunity, so well done on all that. The one thing that didn't really work for me, though, was the cliffhanger format. I think 10 minute scripts are too short to allow plot and character to develop in sitcom-style, and most the entries I saw played more like extended sketches. Annoyingly, just when things were getting going on a couple of them it was the "cliffhanger moment", and because only one finale was performed, the audience missed out on how the majority of the stories ended. I'd prefer to see four 15-minute entries rather than five 10-minute ones and one cliffhanger finale.

I replied:

Amazingly that's the first complaint about the format that I've had. All the directors, casts and writers very quickly got into the swing of it, and my impression is that the audience loved getting the reward of the payoff. If there were any complaints, nobody's told me.

Of course for the Final we played all 5 sitcoms in full, with no cliffhanger, which was another reward for making it that far. It demonstrated something that we hadn't appreciated but were subsequently glad of - with the cliffhangers, the shows ran to time. Do the whole script every time and the show overran quite a lot.

Actually that is worth noting, and praising James once more for. Every single Heat and Semi ran exactly to time, starting at 6pm and ending at around 7.30, nary over-running by more than five minutes I think. That is all down to having 5 sitcoms of exactly 10 minutes each. Yup, I think if we do it again we're sticking to the traditional Sitcom Trials format with the cliffhanger.*

(*The cliffhanger format is the established format, as used from the earliest Edinburgh Fringe shows, through the TV version to the current season. The full-play version, with no cliffhangers and no payoff scene at the end of the show, was only used in the 2007 and 2009 seasons produced by Declan and Simon.)

I also wrote: I only videod very short clips of every sitcom, in guerilla style from the wings, so what you've already seen online is all you're going to get. We learnt long ago that videos shot of live stage performances are a very poor representation of the live event (unless shot, sound recorded and edited very well), so giving a snapshot is all I ever aimed to do.

To which Bushbaby replied:

Do you think that, that is because the sitcoms are written for stage and as in many cases, a theatre production doesn't necessarily fare well on screen?

So I wrote:

We could be getting into a long discussion here! Stage to screen, both with comedy and other work, is a fascinating transition that we've all seen done well and done badly. Recently Sky Arts did a series of live transmissions of plays from the West End and they came across well, but you had to make an allowance for their context. It was once the case that sitcoms on TV were performed and shot much as stage plays, with the audience audible, and that can still work (IT Crowd, Miranda) but sometimes looks creakily old fashioned (Big Top). Whether that's the script, the style of direction, fashion, it's all a complex thing over which we could pore long and hard.

So sitcoms written for the 'stage' can, indeed, clash in style with sitcoms written for a more filmic treatment (The Thick Of It, Gavin & Stacey, Gary Tank Commander, Curb Your Enthusiasm - to name just four sitcoms I watched last night), they are different animals sharing a zoo.

As for whether the Sitcom Trials stage performances would look good filmed, the answer is that if you just point a single DV camera at a performance on a small stage, be it a stand up or fringe theatre (and the Trials are somewhere between the two), then it's usually going to capture little of what the audience experienced. You'll hear a lot of laughter, as a lot of this season's video clips have done, but you may not have gathered what it was that caused that laughter (it was very rarely a comic line, much more often a reaction or a bit of timing from an actor, or something which, in the context of the narrative, suddenly became clear, but in a 30 second snippet wouldn't).

Watch the Sitcom Trials TV series clips (all clips link to the others) and you'll see how we attempted to make the transfer from stage to studio. In some instances it works well, with the four studio cameras capturing what they were meant to. But then the paucity of the backdrop and the suspension of disbelief required to stop you realising you're watching four actors in close proximity to the audience in a very small studio, is hard to surmount.

Like I say, I could go on about this for ages, without necessarily answering the question. I really ought to concentrate on making good new comedy, always learning lessons from the past.

Then swerytd wrote:

Personally, I found it difficult to write something with the 'cliff-hanger' in mind. It felt a bit forced, rather than natural sitcom

So I replied:

It is, indeed, a contrived format, designed to keep the show involving for the audience while showcasing the comedies. All formats have their pros and cons. Performing full half hour sitcoms, which is what we did in Situations Vacant before I developed it into the Sitcom Trials, gives a better representation of what the writer wants to sell to telly, but half an hour is a bloody long time if your script's not very good. (Those of us from the old days in Bristol still recall Sisters, the sitcom starring 7 nuns, about which the writer famously remarked "I would rather cut off my left arm than lose one of my nuns". That was a very long half hour).

15 minutes of not very good sitcom is an improvement on that, but can still leave the audience impatient, wondering where this will end and what they can do about it. 10 minutes of sitcom, incomplete as that may be, with the audience given the opportunity to choose to see the ending of just one of the comedies it sees, is, I think, the most compelling way of, as I've always said, not wasting their time with anything they don't like, and ensuring they're never more than ten minutes away from something they might prefer.

We now have Sitcom Saturday and Sitcom Mission offering more long-form sitcoms, and if the Sitcom Trials continues, it's got the Trials format. Horses for courses - a group of racehorses apply to a series of Universities, with hilarious consequences... sorry, that's the Sitcom Trials Pitch Fest©, totally different subject.

Then Bushbaby wrote:

Why is it contrived? Don't or shouldn't all stories have a beginning/middle/end? The end in sitcom trials entries being the solution to the cliff hanger

So I replied:

You ask the philosophical ones, don't you? Sure and isn't everything contrived in some way? Why're most TV shows an hour long minus adverts? Why are films too long when you get past the 90 minute mark? Why is the perfect pop song about 3 and a half minutes?

All good questions, and all open to change. We have 30 minute sitcoms on TV because sometime about 70 or 80 years ago someone found that that was how long audiences liked their comedy shows on the radio to be. Then people wrote comedies to that length and we somehow took it to be some ancient law, like the Golden Section or the Harmonic Scale. Or the Rule Of Three, why does that always work? No-one can explain it, but it seems to.

All these formats, like the Three Act Structure, are contrived. But some we don't notice cos we're used to them. In fact if a sitcom breaks the rules, like a double length episode of Friends which starts to unravel through its unfamiliarity from the usual formula, we notice the change far more than notice our complacent accepantance of something that we would, if we were actively participating in the entertainment as thinking individuals, challenge and question every time it was thrust upon us.

So, as I say, the "cliffhanger" format of the Trials is contrived, to serve a deliberate end. What isn't? And why not? And haven't I got work to be getting on with? Stop making me do all this thinking! I don't do thinking. I'm in light entertainment!

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