Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Notes on the Trials

(Above: Apropos of nothing, some doodles I've found that I made on a Sitcom Trials programme during a show back in 2009)

From a discussion on the BCG Forum:

evan rubivellian writes:

Just some thoughts on the writing process for Sitcom Trials:

It's got to be a potential 30-minute televised sitcom that could run for at least two series. This means rounded characters, plenty of tension and a world that can generate plots week after week. Many of today's sitcoms, especially the US ones, are fast-paced and feature lots of scenes.

It's got to work as a ten-minute (more or less) stage show. This means no time for rounded characters, and you can't have lots of scenes. Humour that works on stage has different timing to TV comedy. Let's face it, you've got to please a crowd in a pub.

It's got to work as a script read by your peers, some of whom will actually be literate. You have to give the illusion of rounded characters, realistic dialogue and a plot that moves forward. Humour that works well on stage may read badly on the page.

Evil! Evil I tell you!

This has long been a "thing" about the Sitcom Trials (and the Sitcom Mission by extension), that the live environment lends itself to certain styles of comedy more than others, and that the short form of our mini sitcoms differs from a 30 minute pilot. And it is inevitable. The short form developed following our very first shows in Bristol in the 90s when we tried staging full half hour pilots (in the show Situations Vacant) and found that some were less good than others. And although a couple of our half hour pieces worked excellently and held the audience's attention throughout, some were less good and, once you were 5 minutes in, you were praying for it to end. So the 10/15 min mini-sitcom on which the audience could vote was born.

The live atmosphere has a lot in common with the studio audience sitcom, which of course not all sitcoms are. I've long said that The Office, as a script, would have died a death in the Sitcom Trials as it relied so heavily on its reality TV treatment and its filmic pacing. Of course, since we began the Trials, there has been an explosion of online opportunities to showcase your filmed sketches so work like that can get a showcase whenever it likes.

This leaves the live stage show with a vital role in testing the sort of comedy writing not suited or designed for a filmic treatment. So, yes, the Sitcom Trials works best as a showcase for studio-audience comedy that's supposed to have audible laughs throughout.

The online script-reading process is a different matter and, again, I have long been aware that some participants are not very good at reading scripts, noticing superficial jokes more than they will notice good characterisation and plotting. In practice, usually, we get so many script reviews in that this balances out and we find enough people who have read the scripts properly. In the past we used to temper the influence of the online voting process by allowing it to select a shortlist of 10 scripts which were then read at a table reading with actors, after which we chose the 5 best suited to performance. In the case of the recent London and Manchester shows we haven't done this, through pressure of time and cast availability, but the Bristol team (who, you will remember wrote all of the last show themselves with no online contributions) are in a position to do that more readily.

So, the Sitcom Trials process has its quirks, its strengths and possibly some weaknesses, but as long as we remain aware of them and learn from them it's a process I'm delighted to be part of. And with our current ongoing programme of shows in the three cities, The Sitcom Trials of 2012 is the most active it's been for a good few years, once more staging more shows and showcasing more sitcoms than any of its distinguished competitors, which can't be bad.

We all have until Saturday midnight to read the scripts on contention for Manchester, so izzy wizzy let's get... no, bad quote, bad bad quote.

Kev F
The Sitcom Trials

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