How Not To Write A Sitcom, by Marc Blake

Book review by Steve Bennett

The first thing to check with any ‘how to…’ guide is the credentials of its author. Marc Blake’s broadcast comedy credits amount to a Radio 2 series 17 years ago and an ITV one 18 years ago. Not a promising start.

For most of the time since then he has taught sitcom writing, as well as being a consultant on various initiatives for new writers, which is where his experience does come in. With hundreds of scripts passing under his nose, he must surely see the most basic errors that novices make time after time. Hence, presumably, why this is a ‘how not to…’ book.

A lot of his tips seem blindingly obvious, sometimes to the point of being patronising. That ungrammatical scripts full of meandering dialogue are likely to end up in a commissioner’s trash; that men shouldn’t write female characters as two-dimensional ‘super-heroines or ball breakers’ and so on. But it has to be assumed people are sending him scripts so ill-conceived that he needs to point out these fundamental points.

Blake has a clear idea of what sitcom should be: a ‘monster’ of a central character with a fatal personality flaw who solely drives the narrative, with each episode ending with everyone back where they started from, no lessons learned. But it’s easy to find examples of hit series that don’t fit his rules – especially when he suggests they not be set in locations such as pub, space or history, or employ devices such as flashback.

We wouldn’t have the Royle Family if Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne had followed his advice not to make mention of other TV programmes; we wouldn’t have had Peep Show if Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong took his advice to shy away from voiceover; and wouldn’t have had The Office if Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had taken note of almost any of his advice.

Blake acknowledges these exceptions, but says it is they which prove the rule. Also, it could well be argued that to break the rules you must first know what they are. So basically, his guidance is to watch lots of sitcoms and be like them – only different.

Nothing here is bad advice, although a lot of it isn’t too revealing. However if you’re one of the thousands of people struggling with an idea, it might focus the mind to read about the mechanics of the genre; to be reminded that sitcoms must always have momentum, with jokes emerging naturally from personality flaws not piled on willy-nilly

There are also practical suggestions, such as writing the first draft quickly and polishing later, and a few examples of situations that far too may aspiring writers try to mine. Plus there are interviews with a few professionals, such as Men Behaving Badly’s Simon Nye, whose opening scenes of How Do You Want Me? are analysed for tips.

But this is, as the title says, definitely a ‘how not to... guide’. It will highlight all the pitfalls, though it’s less confident telling the aspiring writer what they should be doing. Be in no doubt that none of this advice will make you a writer. The BBC Writers’ Room receives thousands of scripts a year and only one – The Smoking Room – has ever been commissioned. Perseverance against the odds seems to be the most important thing to learn.

But while you’re banging your head against the desk trying to get the idea through, How Not To Write A Sitcom might cushion the blow.

  • How Not To Write A Sitcom by Mark Blake is published by A& C Black priced £14.99. Click here to order from Amazon for £8.69.

Published: 31 Aug 2011

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