Articles Square Eyes Television

The Rules of Comedy

Monday, October 21, 2002

So you want to write a radical situation comedy? It’s got to be ground-breaking and edgy with new settings and scenarios, unlike anything seen before. Father Ted, Seinfeld and Will and Grace all rolled into one.

In that case, you just have to follow the rules. You might think comedy is rebellious, but literary critics will tell you that it’s inherently conservative – it seems like normal customs will be overturned, but at the end of the piece, everything is resolved and things go back to the way they were before.

TV sitcoms show this in their episodic structure – compare them to drama series and see how little actually happens in the long-term plots on the comedies. It’s taken seven seasons for two of the Friends characters to get married.

But they also show their conservatism in the relationships of the main characters. Despite all superficial differences, there’s a basic template that most sitcoms follow, and it’s all about family. Follow this template, and you’ll not go too far wrong.

All you need are a husband and wife, a child and a mad relation. Different sitcoms dress these conventions up in different ways, but that doesn’t change the basic relationships between the characters.

The husband is often the centre of the piece – a reasonably stable character, who reacts to the weirdnesses around him. The audience identifies most with him, and his desire to live a normal life.

The wife is more animated, with set opinions and a more expansive attitude to life. The child is stupid but well-meaning, and the mad relative tends to upset the regular life of the family.

Will and Grace follows this convention perfectly. Will is (if you’ll excuse the phrase) the straight man, Grace his slightly wayward wife. Jack is the stupid child who is good-natured but dumb, while Karen is the mad relative who drinks like a fish and has a foul mouth.

Father Ted also slots right into this. No prizes for identifying Ted and Mrs Doyle as the husband and wife, with Dougal as the child and Father Jack as the mad one.

Seinfeld follows the pattern perfectly as well – Jerry as the straight man, around whom the drama revolves, Elaine his spunky wife. George is the dolt, and Kramer the mad one.

Attentive readers will point out that in none of these examples are the husband and wife actually married, or the child even a child. That’s true, but it doesn?t affect the shape of the drama. Older sitcoms have the characters as really married – Keeping Up Appearances for example – but this tends to limit the flexibility possible.

Not that every show rigorously follows this pattern. Perhaps the longevity of Friends can be put down to the flexibility of the roles among the six characters. By turns Joey and Phoebe can be the children or the mad ones, while at times Ross and Rachel, then Chandler and Monica have been the marrieds.

This set of relationship acts as the framework over which you can build the comedy. You still need to add that infernally hard combination of intertwining plots, character, one-liners and catch-phrases. All in a breezy 18 minutes. So when you’re working on the pilot for your kick-ass new comedy, start by keeping it in the family.

Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Papa’s got a brand new blag – Britain’s Favourite Hoaxer reviewed

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

‘Do you think there’s something wrong with us, doing this, like?’ asks Tommy, just before he and his mates blag their way onto the podium at the British Grand Prix, for a spot of Riverdancing.

Nothing wrong at all.  They’re just living a low-budget heartwarming British movie – The Full Monty for the new century.

Channel 4’s documentary, Britain’s Favourite Hoaxer, showed the effort behind Tommy and his mate Karl ‘Fat Neck’ Power’s sporting stunts, from crashing the team photo at Manchester United’s Champions’ League quarter-final last year, to playing tennis on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

In this quaintly British story, Tommy and Karl are unemployed dreamers from a dodgy part of Manchester, who reckon that high-profile blags are their ticket to fame and fortune.

Karl could have been a contender. He was a successful amateur boxer until his career and almost his life were cut short when he was viciously beaten up in a case of mistaken identity (or mistaken hoodies).

Tommy’s the brains behind the operation while Karl does most of the stunts. Tommy’s girlfriend thinks her forty-year-old should get a real job to support his family, but that’s not for him.

He’s a consummate blagger, and we see him casing the joints the day before. In a smart jacket, with a mobile stuck to his ear, he breezes through security checks and always ends up pitchside having scored an ‘access all areas’ laminate. And one for Fat Neck.

The programme followed their five blags, from the Manchester United photo through going out to bat at a Test Match to performing a Maori haka on the pitch at the Italy vs England Six Nations clash.

And there’s a perfect dramatic shape to the adventures. The early success (United), and the one that nearly goes wrong – at the Test Match, Karl was miscued from his hiding place in the toilets when a friend called to see how the blag was going.

On the ferry to Italy, Tommy and Karl imagine themselves living large. They’re the little guys who might just make something of themselves.

But then come the setbacks – Karl bottles it in Rome, and no-one sees the haka. Tommy’s girlfriend leaves him, and we wonder if it’s all over for the lads. But they keep on going and the Wimbledon stunt works perfectly – they only leave the court when they run out of tennis balls, and the security guards politely escort them off the premises without a mention of criminal charges.

Finally, there’s one last job – the biggest challenge yet. Surely there’s no way they could blag their way onto a Formula One podium just minutes before the real trophy presentation? Kommandant Ecclestone will have them shot, or sent to race CART.

It doesn’t look good. The point man’s phone runs out of credit (BMW lent the blaggers a Mini Cooper for their Italian Job, but they could really do with sponsorship from Vodafone), and there are squads of security everywhere. With just seconds to go they find themselves on the wrong side of one last locked gate.

And a helpful guard opens it for them. Triumph. They jig in their racing overalls, and make the papers again. And Tommy gets back with her indoors.

Our heroes aren’t as smart as they think they are, and it’s less than clear how these stunts will really make their fortunes, but there’s no denying that they’ve pulled them off, one way or another. And presumably got Channel 4 to give them money for the documentary. Now if they could just sell the film rights to their unlikely tale. Nice one. Sorted.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision

Articles Sport Square Eyes Television UK

Losing the Ryder Cup

Monday, September 30, 2002

Spare a thought for Steve Ryder, the journeyman sports broadcaster for the BBC.

He’s just spent the last three days covering the Ryder Cup (no relation), without being able to bring us any live coverage, because the Sky Sports schemers had the rights.

Poor Steve, normally enthroned on high above the 18th green, was left standing beside an outside broadcast truck in a car park, anchoring a meagre late night highlights show.

And his audience fared little better. While Philip Price (voted Pontypridd Man of the Year in 1997) was delivering a big blow of the whoop-stick to Phil Mickelson (ranked no. 2 in the world, more than a hundred places above him), golf fans across the UK and Ireland were pacing the room listening to it all on BBC Radio 5 Live.

Radio golf commentary beats radio tennis but is less rewarding than watching snooker on a black and white TV. Whispering summarisers stalk the players up the fairways, but you never feel you’re part of the action.

The crowd tells you the fate of a putt before the commentators can, and majestic drives or masterful chip shots are reduced to a list of distances and club selections.

When things get tense, you want be shown not told – let me see David Duval hiding behind his Oakleys and Sergio Garcia leaping like a loon. Instead we get Alan Green trying to sound knowledgeable and sundry ex-pros joshing with each other.

And the players aren’t even getting paid for this. They normally work on Sundays for a million dollars a time, but just this once they’re playing for pride. So Sky are the only people making any money.

And going to the pub to watch it was not really an option. If a football match is a poem, this competition is a sprawling Victorian novel requiring a three-day commitment to get a sense of all the characters before the drama reaches its unlikely conclusion. Arriving in time to see Paul McGinley go in the lake would be like only reading the last chapter.

So while the unfancied Euros were beating the odds, we were left to imagine it all in less than glorious MentalVision. Our golfers won, but as viewers we’d already lost the Ryder Cup.

Posted by David in • Square EyesTelevisionSportUK