Between going out and not going out

Preamble: it will come as no surprise to learn that I have been hard at work on the fourth series of BBC1 sitcom Not Going Out, which we hope will air before the end of the year. I’m pleased and relieved about this, because we imagined it to be all over last March. (As is now well known, the BBC cancelled it and then reinstated it inside a single calendar year, boldly reversing the decision before Christmas – giving hope to anyone else facing the BBC axe …)

The actual physical genesis of a series of Not Going Out has changed beyond all recognition from the first, which Lee Mack and I wrote together in 2006, locked in a rented office in Central London, five days a week, for six months (except for the final episode, when we were joined, vitally, by Paul Kerensa, by which time a forgotten Starbucks cup had made the room smell of rank mould). For greater efficiency, there are now a number of writers, and we each write our episodes remotely, which are then handed over to Lee. (He also writes a handful on his own.) All are “gagged up” by an even bigger team before being put to a small audience. At every stage, they change, and improve. As a writer, you do your best with your two drafts, and then accept that you must let your episode go, into the system. It’s all part of the process. The thrilling reward is half an hour of BBC1 with your name on it.

Anyway, I wasn’t intended to blog about Not Going Out in detail, partly because it’s in pre-production and I can’t give any details away. But if you’re interested in the story of NGO so far, I blogged about the process here, here and, on completion, here. I blogged about the ratings here, rather bitterly about some bad press here, the start of the second series here, and about its cruel cancellation, after our third series, in March last year here.

What I felt like blogging about was this. The episode of Not Going Out I have just delivered is unique among my current scriptwriting work in that it has a healthy chance of being turned into a television programme. Most of my work does not. Or at least, its chances rest in the laps of any number of commissioning editors and channel controllers, any one of whom might change jobs just when things are looking up, or simply change their mind about the viability or desirability of something I’ve been working on. The key to surviving in the fickle world of television comedy is dealing with rejection. The rest is garnish.

Forgive the coy nature of what follows, but I’ve worked out that I currently have six sitcoms at various stages of development. (This is far from unusual. The more irons in fires and fingers in pies the better in the indecisive, slow-moving world of British television.) I can’t name any of my sitcom projects, for self-evident reasons of confidentiality and bad juju, but as a way of illustrating what it’s like to be a writer of television comedy, and of how little of your time is actually spent writing comedy, here’s where they’re all at:

Sitcom A is the one I care about the most. It has been with me the longest (I think I first thought of the premise in 1998), and has travelled the furthest down various roads to fruition. It’s currently in an important in-tray, having been submitted by a production company on my behalf as part of an “offers round” to a broadcaster which has expressed great interest in the pilot script – a script I actually wrote for another broadcaster at the beginning of last year. I was paid to write that pilot, so even if it falls at the next fence, my work on has not been totally in vain. Most of the work I’ve done on it, over the years, has been “on spec” ie. unpaid. I’ve adapted it for a number of different slots – one-off TV film, six-parter, two-parter, one hour, 30 minutes, TV, radio – so if nothing else, I guess it’s a durable idea. Its subject matter and theme go in and out of fashion. One day I will give up on Sitcom A. But not yet.

Sitcom B is a much newer idea, and more of a comedy drama than a sitcom. The original idea came to me in 2000, when I was pitching a sitcom to the Observer, believe it or not – one that could be read, on the page, each week. (I’d been writing quite a few of these mock scripts for the paper around that time, including a reasonably long running parody of Big Brother called Big Brothel.) I later verbally pitched it to David Baddiel, when he was casting around for a film to produce, but that came to naught. (I also verbally pitched Sitcom A, now I come to think about it!) It went into cold storage for years, but I thawed it out again last year, worked it up into a really detailed pitch on my own time, and offered it to another production company, who optioned it, paid me a bit of money, but not much, and pitched it to a broadcaster which said it was looking for hour-long comedy dramas. Then changed its mind about that. So we’re going to pitch it to another broadcaster.

Sitcom C is unusual, in that it’s an existing American property (pilot script only) that I was asked to think about converting for a British audience by another production company. I’ve done this. No money has changed hands. I like it. But the trail seems to have gone cold. (Interestingly, I was asked to do the same thing around the same time with a different US property by a different production company, again on spec, no money, but they turned it down.)

Sitcom D is a co-write. I was brought in by a production company to work with a writer whose idea it originally was. We developed the pitch together, after a period of getting to know each other and agreeing that the chemistry would work. This was pitched to a broadcaster, who seemed interested, but passed on it. To the broadcaster’s credit, they didn’t keep us waiting too long. What we do next with it (we remain very enthusiastic about the idea) is up in the air. Try another broadcaster being the most obvious course. But which one? There really aren’t that many.

Sitcom E is even more unusual, in that it’s a communal effort, currently being developed for a broadcaster through a production company who have assembled a team of writers. We all contributed to the format over a two-day brainstorming session, which was fascinating. That’s coming together. I understand I will be paid for the work I’ve done so far.

Sitcom F recently reached pilot stage, but it is not “mine” so I feel less emotionally attached. I was originally called in – as I habitually am – to help a comedian out with their first sitcom vehicle and provide some clarity and structure. I enjoyed the process, although never got paid for the initial work we did on it together, mainly due to the person who got us together leaving the production company who were interested in it, and the project sort of vanishing. So we took it to another broadcaster, who were keen, commissioned it as a pilot and offered a small amount of money. If it ever does go to series, I suspect I may only be involved in a script editing capacity, which is fine. I script edited The Persuasionists for genial production company Bwark (who make The Inbetweeners), which aired on BBC2 last year before being buried in the schedules after a disappointing reaction from the press and low audience numbers. No matter, I really enjoyed taking on that role, and seeing a sitcom through to fruition, even though it was not mine. It reminded me how much fun this job can be.

But what this job mostly is, is this: constantly trying to come up with ideas; focussing enough to get a pitch document together; pitching that to a production company (I must have pitched about a dozen sitcoms to half a dozen companies over the last couple of years that have been turned down and which I never reignited); developing the pitch further for a small stipend, for which you effectively hand over some of the rights to the production company paying you; pitching the idea to a broadcaster, via the production company; either being rejected, or picked up for further development, which means more money and, hopefully, the change to write a script.

Simon Day and I spent a lot of time after Grass had aired on BBC2 pitching ideas which came to nothing. Having had a sitcom on TV will help you get a meeting, but it guarantees nothing. Fortunately, we both have other work. Irons in fires etc.

I can’t remember a time in the last eight years when I didn’t have my hopes pinned on a sitcom. They will not grind me down. I have three subfolders in the folder marked Telly on my computer:

  • Development
  • Done
  • Dead

It takes an awful lot of rejection for me to transfer a project from Development to Dead. Still, this time next year, I could be a millionaire!


21 thoughts on “Between going out and not going out

  1. Wow. Massive respect for all that hard work, and under your own motivation. As an unmotivated office drone, I am in awe.

    • Wasn’t aiming to inspire awe, Louise. If you are self-employed, you have to work to eat, and if you’re not in there battling with the rest of them, you’re not working, and you’re not eating! Nothing like a gas bill to motivate …

  2. Andrew, thanks for sharing what was a very interesting blog. As one of the ‘mouth-breathing’ millions that stare into our TV screens daily, it is incredibly interesting (for me anyway) to get an idea of the process of how an idea gets on to the screen.

    Did I detect a note of rueful wistfulness (?) when comparing how NGO was written then versus how it is now, that is via committee than two-blokes-stuck-in-a-room clement and frenais style? So much of American comedy is lauded when it reaches our screens here and they seem to use the ‘committee’ system to great affect. Although on a side note, it has to be said, having travelled to the USA a lot in the last decade I can say that *most* of the comedy is bloody awful and we only see the really, really good stuff which does give the impression that the USA is the mecca of sitcom. It really isn’t when taken as a whole.

    I loved the first series of NGO probably more than the others and loved Miranda Hart’s character a lot as a great foil to Lee’s comebacks, but did feel towards the end of the last series it started to get slightly ‘silly’ with the storylines and lost a bit of its pathos.

    Nevertheless I did enjoy it and it was one of the few things I would make an effort to watch.

    • sorry to reply to my own post. I re-read and realise that it sounded like I didn’t realise Miranda Hart came in the later series and that she was not in the first.

      Oh and I mean ‘effect’ not ‘affect’.

      • No room for wistfulness, Adam. It was always a practical decision. The first series nearly killed us. It’s been a lot easier to spread the load, and to widen the geography of where it gets written. Also, we had eight episodes to write for the second and third series. That’s a lot of man and woman hours!

    • I find it interesting that anyone would see the USA as a mecca of sitcom. It’s true that recent things such as Arrested Development and 30 Rock do very well, and deservedly so, along with the animations such as South Park and Family Guy. But look at the vast majority of the output…. Two and a Half Men, King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace etc. etc…. all utter trash. If this is the best stuff I’d love to see the things that don’t make it over here. Or maybe I wouldn’t.

      Of course it is all personal taste and individual sense of humour, but to me there’s a definite trend that the best of both American and British sitcoms/comedy shows are written by one or two people. People with a definite and coherent original vision, not compromised by the “too many cooks” effect.

  3. An interesting insight into a side we don’t often hear about. It’s good to know that (at least some) sitcoms have a lot of effort behind them. Best of luck with all those projects.

  4. A truly fascinating piece Andrew. Thank you for giving us an insight into the jobbing writer. When I look at the current crop of sitcoms I feel there can be no genuinly original idea left. All sitcoms are just variations on 3 or 4 ideas. How do you go about ensuring your pitches stand out? Do you think there are any completely new ideas left? Or is it like us old fellas say when hearing a new band – “ah they sound just like X”?

  5. >That’s a lot of man and woman hours!
    As opposed to what other sort of hours? Cat hours? (Which are, presumably, 50 minutes of sleep and 10 minutes of actual work.)

    I’d just like to add my thanks for this piece too; I am continually amazed that things get made at all – especially something that is new and isn’t built off the back of “well we’ve got X under contract” which must surely be the only explanation of how made it through the whole tortuous commissioning process.

  6. Jesus. That’s a lot of work…

    Enjoyed that behind-the-scenes article on the writing process. Can we have more of this?

    People talking about writing is always grand. Martin Amis babbling on BBC Four the other night was the best TV in ages.

  7. That’s a pretty staggering amount of things to have on the go, all whilst doing the radio and Radio Times stuff.
    Grass is still one of my favourite series. I never could understand why it didn’t get a second series. And yet BBC 3 has recomissioned some utter bobbins over the years… I do love the BBC, but often wonder what motivates it. (aside… Another 73 series of 2 Pints, yes please…6Music…nein danke!)
    Sorry, I’m rambling. I hope that some of your projects get the green light. Could Grass be reborn on Radio 4?

  8. There be will be, Dave. Probably at the Latchmere in Battersea again. I’ll be sure to notify when we have dates.

  9. Fascinating piece (I notice Chortle now have a link to it on their home page…)

    Why do TV Execs insist on changing jobs so frequently? Have they all got ADHD or something? It makes you wonder how many great ideas and potentially classic sitcoms have been lost thanks to this merry-go-round of Execs picking up, then losing interest in, various projects. I’m a great believer that creativity needs stability – it must be very difficult to be creative in that chaotic environment.

  10. Surely the scary thing about your description, Andrew, is that if this is typical of how sitcoms go from idea to broadcast – then that means that all the crap ones that make it to the screen have made roughly the same journey!

    And nobody at some stage screamed – ENOUGH! THIS IS GARBAGE!

  11. A good read – thanks Andrew. Good luck getting some of your dearly-held work ‘birthed’.

    Last night I watched the pilot episode of the NBC sitcom Community. It started in the US last September and has recently finished its first season.

    The episode itself was pretty good. At first glance perhaps not 30 Rock, but I can’t remember if that grew on me or whether I was hooked from the off. (I remember it being your blog which encouraged me to take the plunge.)

    What astounded me was the sheer efficiency of the writing. It was amazing. Within 15 minutes the seven main characters (mostly strangers to each other at first) are introduced and the dynamic between several of them already well established.

    Good US sitcoms are a sight to behold (and, yes, there is a lot of dross but fortunatley we don’t get much of that over here) and what they manage to do in just over 22 minutes each week always fascinates me.

  12. As a stand up and comedy writer this blog is very interesting and part inspiring, part depressing.

    The sheer effort involved in producing work which you are almost certain will not be broadcast is mindboggling but I guess, through necessity, you’ve found a way of at least recycling a lot of the ideas and jokes (something which I’m only just learning to do).

    I’ve got several sitcom ideas in very early stages of development (have written one pilot and several are at the synopsis/basic plot/characters stage) but haven’t, so far, found the connections or motivation to get them on the right desks.

    My ideal job, as a joke writer, would be as the person called in to “gag up” an existing script, as this is what I truly enjoy.

    Excellent blog Mr Collins and I look forward to the new series of NGO, say “hi’ to Messers Mack, Evans and Kerensa for me!

  13. Andrew

    Fascinating read.

    Your tale is a sobering reminder that previous success might get you through the door, but that every project is subject to the prevailing whim. There’s always a reason not to green-light a proposal and it’s never the one you anticipated!

    To amplify the point about pedigree, I was at a talk given by Simon Beaufoy when he moaned about how difficult it was to get anything made – the guy wrote The Full Monty, for Christ’s sake. Oh, and he got an Oscar for Slumdog.

    While I’ve had a modicum of success with BBC projects – one sitcom almost sneaked through BBC1 offers and a series on Radio 4 actually got made – most of the time it’s a case of bashing away at the wall until a brick finally loosens. I’ve got one sitcom doing the rounds at the BBC and there are early favourable mutterings, but clearly I need to have another thirty-six on the go if I’m to have any realistic chance of getting one made.

    Best of luck with all your projects. Regards to Paul who’s a smashing and talented guy – he was a fellow invitee on a BBC writers’ week a couple of years ago. I never heard another word from them!


  14. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for writing such an insightful piece, really helpful as I am wanting to make it as a comedian and comedy writer. I’ve just finished univsersity am I’m struggling to know the right way into it. Obviously I’m doing as much live stuff as possible but in terms of writing I have no idea where to start in terms of getting my writing out there.

    I have several ideas on the go at the moment, for sitcoms and other mediums and I was worried that if I was working on too many it might be less productive than working on one or two, but I can see now that the more the merrier. I realise the chances of getting a script commissioned straight off is next to impossible, as your blog usefully highlights, but how would I go about getting involved with show running and becoming a part of a comittee of writers? Have you got any words of wisdom of finding the right first port of call with a script?

    This is my first visit to this blog but I am going to make it my mission to visit a lot more, keep it up. By the way I’m currently reading Still Suitable for Miners and loving it.


  15. There are no shortcuts, Rob. However, it’s never been easier to get in touch with the production companies that make TV comedies. Just look at the credits of the shows you’re interested in and count the number of writers. If it’s more than six, it’s a committee, and they may – or may not – accept unsolicited material. Don’t send any, just write the sort of stuff you think might fit, and then get in touch with the company and ask if they ever look at stuff by non-professionals ie. people trying to break into the business. Be prepared to be ignore and then told “no.” But they only way to get any good is to write. Just write. Pick the sort of stuff you love and imagine you’ve been commissioned to write a gag/sketch/script. Just have a bash. I hate to say it, but an agent is useful, in terms of being taken seriously, but you’ll still have to get an agent to take you seriously. If you’re already doing live stuff you’re way ahead of where I was at college. Keep doing it. If you love it, you’re in the right job.

  16. Just wanted to say a massive thank you really for helping create, what I think is, the best comedy programme ever (second only to Fawlty Towers!)
    The writing really is excellent, and your episodes especially are just brilliant 🙂
    I just wondered if you can tell me when the next series is being filmed?

    Thanks x

Do leave a reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.