This week’s Therapy Tape is about writing scripted narrative comedy, so I suppose is angled at those readers that also have an interest in that, which I think is a small but healthy pocket of subscribers. I always feel a bit funny writing about writing, because I’m generally pretty sceptical of all those “This is how writing works” newsletters and workshops and courses. There are a million different ways to write a story, and I generally think it’s better to absorb the material of life and then just practise expressing it in the way that comes naturally to you over and over again, and learn that way. I don’t think someone “teaching” how it works for them is of all that much value, frankly. But this newsletter has always been a place for me to explore thoughts as they occur to me and see what you guys make of them, rather than a place with any “shoulds” attached to it, so let’s take all this with that in mind.
Anyway, this week I reached a bit of a milestone in my writing career in that I started, for the first time ever, writing Episode 2 of a sitcom I’d created. I’ve been writing pilot episodes for sitcoms at a rate of roughly one per year for the last five or six years, one of them very good, a couple of them good, a couple of them not so good, all of them teaching me a lot and helping me learn and improve. I’ve never had the opportunity to write an Episode 2 before, but the radio sitcom I’m working on at the moment, The Dream Factory, is a commission for two episodes with a view towards their maybe commissioning a whole series further down the line. Episode Twos are a funny thing in sitcom writing circles, in that you’re very often encouraged to start with them, and it’s advice I’ve always struggled to get on board with.
A lot of the received wisdom around writing narrative scripted comedy is focused on the “classic” sitcom, where everything resets at the end of every episode, where the characters don’t change or grow or learn anything because they represent archetypes, where the status quo must always be restored. Because of that, when you’re trying to pitch a sitcom around, you’re often encouraged to start with episode two because it demonstrates what the show will actually be like week-on-week, without the set-up and clutter of introducing the characters or setting in motion whatever story beats cause the events of the show to happen. It’s solid advice if what you’re writing explicitly aims at being one of those reset-button, classic sitcoms, but I think it’s advice that’s slightly out of touch with the nature of a lot of scripted comedy being made these days.
Throughout my life, a lot of my formative comedy influences have come from “classic” sitcom – The Mighty Boosh, Peep Show, Garth Marenghi, Alan Partridge, Flight of the Conchords, etc, shows where the characters essentially don’t grow or change or learn and each episode is a self-contained mini-narrative playing with the established constants of the characters or setting. But the shows that have punched me in the gut the most, and actually made me stop and think and wonder at what scripted comedy can do, have been the ones that allowed their characters to grow and change and that therefore told a more compelling story – Marion & Geoff, The Trip, Fleabag, Flowers, Mum. This, I suppose, is “comedy-drama” as opposed to “sitcom” and I think more and more of the most exciting stuff being made today – This Way Up, Ladhood, Catastrophe, Detectorists etc – is made following this model rather than the traditional “and then everything went back to how it was, and everybody reset to their archetypes” mode of writing.
For all these reasons, I always resisted the idea of writing an Episode 2, because the stories I was trying to tell were more comedy-drama at their heart, and involved telling a story that incorporated growth and change, because those are the stories I like telling and seeing. I always needed to write an episode 1, not because it would set up the archetypes that I could then play with in episode 2, but because without an episode 1 I barely even knew what story I was really telling. I suppose at some point I could have had a go at writing an episode 1 and 2, but I never did this because, I suppose, in comedy development you’re often doing all this virtually for free with the promise of maybe an option or a commission at the end of the road if a channel goes for it, and I guess I always resented the idea of doing twice as much work for the same amount of money, which sometimes was no money at all. Perhaps what I’ve found this week exposes this for the bad attitude it surely was.
A quite nauseatingly generic picture of some scripts, just to break up the text a bit, and so that you all have a mental image of what a script looks like, I guess? I mean, honestly. The state of this. It might as well have “alamy” written across it. Worst image I’ve ever inserted into a newsletter. Sorry.
Having now had a crack at an episode 2, I can finally see the value in it, and wonder actually at what sort of storytelling options I could’ve opened up for myself if I’d had a go at writing one for one of my earlier pilot projects. The example I’ll give is super basic, as to more or less be an obvious fundamental, but it was one that really got me thinking about the applications of writing more material than you’re actually being asked to write. The first episode of The Dream Factory has one scene with an incidental “colleague” character, who in the first draft was incredibly functional, just there to facilitate the scene, really. That was fine for a first draft and I moved on to do a first draft of episode 2, with the aim of going back and fleshing out those characters in subsequent drafts. Episode two has a completely different character in a different setting, but in the same workplace. This character has a specific brand of eccentricity that energises the scene in a specific way, and while writing her I suddenly thought “There’s no reason why this can’t be the same colleague as in episode 1, and if that’s the case, then the energy she’s bringing to this scene needs to be the same energy she brings to the scene where she’s currently just a functional character.”
Without writing an episode two, I would still have gone back and fleshed out that character, but it would certainly have been a more arbitrary process – “How do I make this character into more than just a bit of exposition?” But now, knowing that this character returns later and brings a specific set of qualities to the scene, I’m fleshing her out not just for the sake of it but in order to create a coherent world across multiple episodes, with the sense that we could choose to focus in on any bit of it and find interesting personalities and stories to tell. This has been a really valuable lesson in how to approach character-building, I think, in that previously I might have had the mindset of “What do I need to do that gets me successfully to the end of this episode having achieved all I wanted to achieve?” This new mindset is more akin to “What can I do here that gives me a canvas to expand upon in future episodes in a way that’s consistent?” This really ought to have been a mindset I adopted sooner, considering I was specifically trying to write more long-form narrative stuff rather than self-contained episodic stuff, but as it turns out, it took actually being asked to write an Episode 2 for me to really internalise that lesson. As ever, the lessons we learn are often ones that were entirely within our power to have been learning all along, but it takes some sort of external permission from the rest of the world for us to actually notice them and pay attention to them.
What do you guys think? Any other aspiring writers out there who deliberately write multiple episodes of things in order to help them out with this stuff? I’d love to hear from you guys about your methods and approaches to writing if you’d like to share them with me!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The amazing Ada Player, a good friend of my girlfriend Miranda’s and an excellent clown and artist, just won the Funny Women Award for Best Short for the wonderful Johnny And Tommy. Give it a watch, it’s a really excellent little thing.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I just met my friend’s baby and it got me thinking about how babies always cry when they poo, and that got me thinking about how funny it would be if adults did that, and it made me laugh a lot.
Book Of The Week – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Only just started this and it’s looooooong, so God knows if the amount I’m currently enjoying it will sustain itself for the whole thing. But so far it’s great! It’s about a Korean girl in the 1930s who gets pregnant by a married Japanese yakuza, and I think it’s all about to kick off.
Album Of The Week – Bright Magic by Public Service Broadcasting. This is their first album since the disappointing Every Valley in 2017, so I was really pleasantly surprised by how good it is. They’ve largely ditched the gimmick of using fragments of archive audio, replacing them with robotic-sounding sung vocals, which is appropriate for an album about Berlin that frequently apes Kraftwerk and krautrock in general. The best song is the menacing “Der Rhythmus Der Maschinen,” which has Blixa Bargeld from Einsturzende Neubauten and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds popping up on vocals.
Film Of The Week – Might have to retire this segment before long because my film-watching just falls off a cliff when there’s loads of good reality TV on. Honestly, at the moment every week has Bake Off, Drag Race, Taskmaster and Strictly, when am I supposed to fit films in? It’s an abysmal failure of TV scheduling, quite frankly, and somebody should’ve thought about it before slotting them all in, I’m rushed off my feet with all this stuff to watch.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you did want to share this newsletter with a friend or encourage them to subscribe, I’d be hugely appreciative! Have a lovely week and take care of yourselves,
PS Here’s my favourite artwork from the public sculpture exhibition in Regent’s Park at the moment: