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The formula of funny

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Down the phone line, Bafta-winning comedy writer Graham Linehan is telling ShortList a tale involving two ladies, a cat and a piano. Don’t worry, it’s not a bawdy joke passed to him by a rib-nudging cab driver, but a true event that inspired part of a Father Ted script.

“My mum was visiting someone when she was left in an empty room with an open window and a piano with the lid up,” recalls the man who also brought us The IT Crowd and Black Books. “A cat jumped in through the window, sniffed my mother’s hand and then went mad. It ran around the circumference of the room and went, ‘Dun! Dun! Dun!’ on the piano keys. Then did it again before jumping out of the window.”

Linehan fights giggling to finish the story. “The woman my mother was visiting came back in with cups of tea and looked at her like she was this maniac who’d just been playing the piano like a six-year-old. Mum went, ‘Oh no, it was your cat.’ And the woman said, ‘We don’t have a cat.’ So not only did Mum look mad, but she also looked like a liar.” Craggy Island obsessives will note this tale didn’t make it to screen, as it was deemed implausible by the show’s producer. But it’s illustrative of a perceived truth of sitcom-writing.

Perfectly drawn moments of farce, slapstick and general silliness occasionally enter all our lives. So how difficult could it be to hammer these thoughts into a laptop and turn them into an audience-tickling TV script?

Rightly or wrongly, sitcom-writing seems like an attainable art form. It’s public humour without the need for a stand-up comedian’s extreme self-confidence. What’s more, according to Linehan, the line between having a great idea and triumphantly brandishing a Golden Globe award is surprisingly slender.

“A lot of the time, the only difference is that aspiring writers get to a difficult part of a sitcom script and stop,” he explains. “A professional will push through. Some people call it writer’s block, but there’s no such thing. It’s the process of writing.”

CHARACTER is key

However, sitcom-writing is commonly thought of as the toughest version of this process. The subjective notion of ‘what’s funny’ makes critics of us all. And nothing gets TV reviewers gleefully reaching for their knife-sharpeners quite like the words ‘brand new sitcom’. “I don’t think you’ll find anyone who’s done it that wouldn’t say it’s the hardest thing to write,” agrees Andrew Ellard, script editor and writer who has worked on Red Dwarf, among other shows. “Sitcom is tough. It can’t just be people doing jokes at each other. It has to do what any other narrative show does and make you laugh.”

Linehan, currently in the early stages of writing a new show based on fellow comic Steve Delaney’s faded variety act character Count Arthur Strong, ruefully concurs. “It’s difficult and it doesn’t get any easier,” he admits. “The key is to create characters who’ll bounce off each other in an interesting way for a period of six weeks.”

This component – memorable characters – is what unites all great sitcoms, whether they’re set in south London flats or suspiciously huge New York apartments.

“There’s an element of luck to all successful TV shows but, very broadly, it’s all about character,” adds Ellard. “It’s about people’s reactions to extraordinary events. It’s the difference between what happens if Del Boy finds a suitcase full of money versus Father Ted finding it. You can imagine it – it doesn’t even need a joke. That’s the joy of great characterisation.”

It’s what makes the actions in sitcoms funny. “People always go, ‘You should set a sitcom in a post office’ or whatever,” offers Linehan. “That’s not the crucial thing. It all comes down to character. People might say ‘Oh, The IT Crowd is just about IT guys.’ But it’s really about a woman disrupting this male world.”

The right setting

Location in sitcom is a thorny issue. ‘Write what you know’ may be familiar advice, but is there a setting that’s sure to get your script hurled in the bin? “It’s dangerous to say ‘avoid this subject’,” says Lucy Lumsden, Head Of Comedy Commissioning at Sky1, whose run of hits stretches from Spy and Stella through to The Mighty Boosh and Gavin & Stacey during her time at the BBC.

“There was a show called Office Gossip on BBC One in the spring of 2001. That summer, The Office came along and I remember people going, ‘Haven’t we done the ‘sitcom set in an office’ thing?”

Linehan meanwhile, um, gently suggests that you should avoid the mockumentary. “I’m so f*cking sick of [comedy] shows where people do interviews to camera to further the plot,” he says. “It’s lazy and the ultimate negation of ‘show don’t tell’. It’s just people looking into the camera telling you what’s going on and I don’t like it. Look at Monty Python. They never stayed still. They reinvented comedy every week. That’s what you should aim for.”

The intricacies of plotting and TV trends are one thing, but first you need to turn your jumble of ideas into something workable. Linehan offers a method. “I collate unconnected ideas,” he explains. “Dialogue, funny set pieces, characters… I buy index cards and write them on. Once I’ve got 100 or so, I spread them out on the floor and see if they connect and form stories.”

This haphazard approach fits with Lumsden’s criteria for a great sitcom script. “I need that fizz of surprise,” she says. “If you’ve seen it all before, it’s so disappointing. Laughter comes from having your expectations tripped up so, right from page one, that’s important.”

Another plus point of sitcom creation is that it’s often collaborative. “A co-writer is worth considering, as a lot of the best comedy is written by partnerships,” says Ellard. “But be aware that just because you make each other laugh in the pub doesn’t mean it will work for an audience.”

And we’re back to the original question. Can a normal person, without a history in comedy, really turn everyday humour into a script-writing career?

“Yes,” is Lumsden’s unequivocal answer. “Simeon Goulden, who created Spy, had never written before. He gave up a career as a lawyer and started writing scripts. It’s about raw talent, enthusiasm and taking the initiative.”

So there you have it. Mastering sitcom-writing is far from easy, but plenty of box set-viewing research, a bit of boldness and the odd story involving a wayward pet can make the dream come true. Turning on your computer and opening a blank document could be the start of something special.

(Image: All Star)

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