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Friday, January 18, 2008

Comedy and Team Writing

Many thanks to the enigmatic JB who had this to say in the comments thread of my last 10 on TV Drama post about Moving Wallpaper and Echo Beach:

"It has got me thinking about the benefits of the US system of writing teams, especially for comedy, where many minds are likely to be better than one in ramping up the laughter count...What do you think?"

I am undecided about the benefit of team writing, though other bloggers have written about their own experiences of it (thanks James Henry) and others have been vocal in their support or dislike of them. The usual arguments for and against apply: The US does it and does it well. But it means less creative control for the individual writer. It doesn't make sense to have such a fragmented system, sending commissions out to various writers on their own. The writer is always the underdog, it's nice for part of the production to depend on them, without having producers etc LITERALLY breathing down their neck. Two heads are better than one... Stop me if you've heard these. Oh you have? Right, let's move on.

So this is not a post about whether team writing is good or bad, full stop: this is a post about comedy and team writing, as in:

Is a comedy bound to be funnier if produced by a team?

I don't read a lot of comedy, but I do read a lot of romantic comedies. I think it's just the way it's worked out more than comedy being a "dying art" - I have reading colleagues who report they read nothing but comedy. However we all seem to have a similar problem: there's not much that's funny about. Sure, some people might write funny situations, others write funny jokes and/or dialogue. Others have one particular character that's really funny. Occasionally I even laugh when I'm reading and I always thank the writer for that in my reports, since it's a rare occurrence.

But rarely do I read a script where it is simply FUNNY in the same way I might read a thriller that is simply THRILLING or a horror that is simply HORRIFYING. Comedy is such a hard genre to pull off, it seems easier for writers to go off at tangents - sad ones usually, inspired no doubt by Four weddings, though sometimes comedies get exceptionally gross and/or offensive. Other times they seem to forget what they're about and change story or even characters completely. It's like Comedy is the top of the genre mountain and lots of scribes fall short of that final peak. I know I do.

Of course it helps to define what a team actually is. I think of a team as people who have been brought together by an outsider - in other words, writers are hired and put in a room together by a producer and write the producer's concept. I do not count the two/three people who have come up with their own idea on spec, worked on it together, then sold it to a network and had it developed further for example. That's just gthe same as being a specmonkey like the rest of us, except there's two of you.

No, for me team writing is almost a contrivance: a job like any other, bringing people together who may or may not have met before and telling them to write something in particular which is not their own idea. I'm not arguing that team writing is a *bad* idea by the way (some of my fave shows are team-written), but since I think of it as a contrivance, then I don't think I can say comedy *has* to be funnier, even if two heads ARE better than one. Why? Well comedy for me is about heart: truth (and its many interpretations) is funny. Therefore, I don't believe a person being TOLD to write comedy can be as funny as the person who NEEDS to write comedy as their "default" setting, who will write it regardless of whether anyone will make it.

However, the flipside of this argument is the notion that if you don't care about the characters so much because they are not your babies, then you are more likely to put them through hell - which can be the essence of good comedy. Often my Bangwriters love their characters too much to object them to the really funny (horrible) stuff or cut them when they need cutting. Sometimes too they will want to keep flawed scenes simply because of one funny line. In short, they let their heart rule their head, when the opposite would presumably be the case in the team: if it's just a job, then stuff can get chucked out and rewritten at will, there should be no agonising.

What do you think?

While you decide, here's some clips from two of my fave UK comedy shows, one team-written, the other not. Can you tell? Which is best? Is this another "commerce vs. creativity" argument? Whatever you think, let us know.

Click here for MY FAMILY, excerpt of The Christmas Special

BOTTOM

10 comments:

Paul M said...

I think that "My family" is the team written one, therefore it's "Bottom" that is written by a team. They are equally funny, for me, although I prefer Bottom (for the anarchic violence of course).

Neither a "team" or an "individual" effort necessarily produce the funnier comedy. But I reckon team efforts tend to try to hard and be too clever for their own good. The individual will usually produce a more personal kind of comedy, for obvious reasons.

Paul M said...

shit, the spelling and grammer! I know.

darren aka eat my shorts said...

You're not intimating Lucy is obsessed with grammAR and spelling are you Paul?!? ; P

As for me, I don't think it matters whether it's written by a team, one person or martians. All good comedy has to be is funny. I mean, how hard is that?!

But I think teams will take over eventually. End of it's about commerce, no question. And what's funny is decreasing anyway. We've broken too many taboos.

Dom Carver said...

Two minds are always better than one when it comes to comedy. You need the other person to stop you going too far.

I've been looking for a partner to write comedy with for ages. I even tried to bribe Mr. Arnopp to join me as we have a similar sense of humour. Alas, he's a big scaredy cat and too in awe of my comedy talent to feel able to write with me.

ed said...

Like Dazza I reckon we've already gone too far, so unsure why Dom would need a writing partner on that basis, though I actually agree with him that two heads are better than one for comedy - or in fact any genre. All the scripts I've read on Triggerstreet etc that were written by duos were better than those written by one person.

Good Dog said...

Giving the Comedy Keynote speech at De Montfort’s Television Scriptwriting Workshop last February, Laurence Marks talked about the time he and Maurice Gran worked at Paramount Studios, writing sitcoms.

Once the scripts were written, the day before filming a chap known as The Punch-Up Man would arrive at the offices and go through the pages, coming up with alternative lines of dialogue and wisecracks. PUM was guaranteed to make the episodes 75% funnier. Once he’d done his job, he trouser a massive cheque and then piss off until next week when he would be needed again.

For him that was just dandy. LM also noted that of the writers that worked for Alomo, some were good with the jokes but didn’t have the talent to create their own comedy series.

In this country we have a couple of good solo writers/writing partners, but the rest of the shows could certainly do with a Punch-Up Man.

Paul M said...

I thought that was common knowledge Darren. Thanks for the correctiON! :D

Anonymous said...

Is there really a comedy genre in modern cinema? Films like Epic Movie and Little Man probaby are just straight comedy but anything close to good is generally a drama cross. As for romantic comedy I'd hold up Eternal Sunshine, still, as one of the best of the last few years yet I can count the laughs in it on two hands. I always thought comedy and tragedy were pretty closely linked...

Lucy said...

I thought there was a lot of pathos in Eternal Sunshine, especially at the house at the end. Comedy/Tragedy - we're getting back onto Shaw again though! Where's Anya when you need her?

SK said...

I think I said all I have to say about this in the previous topic, but just to recap I think that comedy -- at least, a certain style of comedy -- is where team writing works, because the inevitable homogenisation of voices is less of a problem than it is with drama and can be outweighed by the extra gags that some fresh eyes can bring.

I think the 'punch-up man' style is not quite the same as 'team writing'. I'd say that 'team writing' is when you have a conveyor-belt process from the initial idea of each story onwards, the point of which is to produce episodes with a single 'voice'. Someone who comes in at the end of the process and makes a few suggestions is a totally different kind of role to a team writer who helps to plot the story out (I hate the term 'breaking') and then helps rewrite it at the end, all the while trying to subordinate their sensibilities to those of the 'show-runner'.

When I say 'a certain style of comedy', I mean that which is driven by gags (whether verbal or visual) as opposed to, say, that where the humour comes from a quirky way of looking at the world (I don't think the gem that is 'Jam And Jerusalem' could have been written by a team, for example -- though if it was then I might have to do some rethinking!)