Help for Frustrated Sitcom Writers: 3) What, Exactly, Do You Want?

Following on from the last blog about inciting incidents and creating a problem for your central characters to solve, the fundamental thing that goes hand-in-hand with that is… what does anyone want?

It’s the first thing that I ask when a scene starts to flounder. We want to see characters with a goal or desire acting under pressure (for example, a writer with a deadline. Just don’t write about a writer with a deadline, far too many people do that.). If a scene isn’t working, it’s often because the goal isn’t clear enough, it’s not being chased or there isn’t enough pressure.

Is This Clear Enough?

Let’s choose a random episode of Friends.

Series 5 Episode 3 The One Hundredth aka The One With The Triplets

Phoebe, Rachel, Joey and Ross enter a hospital waiting room and approach the receptionist.

Phoebe: Hi, I’m Phoebe Buffay and I have babies coming out of me.

Receptionist: Okay. Have you started having contractions?

Phoebe: Not yet. I heard they really hurt. Do they hurt?

Receptionist: Oh, well…

Phoebe: Oh my god!

It appears that Phoebe Wants to give birth in as easy and painless way as possible, but at this late stage is ignorant of the process. The receptionist Wants to do her job as well as she can and without any mishaps. It turns out that Phoebe just Wants to mess with the receptionist.

But she does Want as simple a birth as possible. Cool. What could get in her way? Her doctor has fallen in the shower and hit her head and Phoebe is assigned a replacement doctor who is the head of department and wonderful. And he also loves Fonzie. Ross finds a replacement, who is about 12, so we’re back with the weird Fonzie-loving dude.

This is a scientific way of working. Find a theory and then try to disprove it. Suggest a thesis and then apply plenty of antithesis. Phoebe Wants to have a stress-free birth – come up with plenty of reasons why she can’t or won’t. The weird reason here fits Phoebe’s personality perfectly – a totally random Fonzie-loving doctor wouldn’t have worked for Rachel or Monica.

Phoebe has a goal (have a stress-free birth) and is under pressure (she’s in labour and her regular doctor isn’t here). I’m pretty sure this scenario ticks both boxes.

In this episode…

(A Plot) Phoebe Wants a stress-free birth.

(A Plot) The doctor Wants to watch Happy Days.

(A Plot) Frank Wants all three babies.

(A Plot) Phoebe Wants one baby.

(B Plot) Rachel Wants to go on a double date with Monica and the two handsome male nurses.

(B Plot) Monica Wants to be with Chandler exclusively.

(B Plot) Chandler Wants to be with Monica exclusively.

(B Plot) Monica and Chandler Want to keep their relationship quiet.

(C Plot) Joey Wants to video the birthing process.

(C Plot) Joey Wants to stop the pain from his kidney stones

It’s Not Yes, And… It’s Yes, But…

We can add these Wants together to create conflict:

(A Plot) Phoebe Wants a stress-free birth BUT the doctor Wants to watch Happy Days.

(A Plot) Frank Wants all three babies BUT Phoebe Wants one baby.

(B Plot) Rachel Wants to go on a double date BUT Monica and Chandler Want to be exclusive BUT they Want to keep the relationship quiet.

The C Plot is pretty much a mirror of the A Plot, but with a man giving birth.

Once the Wants and Buts are in place, it’s up to you how long and deep and dirty you go with each one. The clash between Phoebe and the Fonzie-loving doctor could easily have gone on for longer and become more intense and been the whole focus of the episode, and an earlier version of the script apparently had Phoebe more insistent on keeping one of the triplets, but the producers decided it would be more dramatic for her to let them go.

This may seem to be stark-raving obvious, in which case, make sure it’s there in your script, not just in your head. Be prepared to go through it with a fine toothcomb and set it out like the above. Give it to other people to read – as soon as one person flags up that they don’t know what a character wants in a scene, or they think a character isn’t acting based on their desire, that scene needs fixing.

Everybody’s Happy? End of Scene!

Compare all of this conflict with one scene where both characters are in full agreement. Phoebe is thinking of keeping one of the three babies. Rachel thinks it’s a bad idea, but Phoebe asks her to suggest it to Frank, her brother, who she’s having the babies for. We go into a scene where Rachel wants Frank to agree with her:

Rachel: So, Frank, three babies? Whoo! That just seems like a lot, huh?

Frank: Not to me.

Rachel: Yeah, fair enough.

End of scene. Rachel has no motivation whatsoever to convince Frank to give up one of his babies to Phoebe. Had Phoebe said, “Rachel, I want one of my babies. You have to convince Frank or I’ll never speak to you again” the stakes are much higher; Rachel would have a greater reason to talk Frank into it and we would have had a completely different episode altogether.

John Finnemore, author and star of Cabin Pressure and so much more, said that plot was “about [characters] changing each other’s minds.” If both characters are in agreement about everything, then there’s nowhere to go.

Actors and Philosophers Do It All The Time

“What’s my motivation?” “Why am I here?” “What’s my purpose?” – are great questions to ask about your characters in each scene. Each of them has to justify their existence, so try writing it at the top of each scene before you start it and refer back to it if you get stuck.

Help for Frustrated Sitcom Writers 2) What’s the Problem?

Something advertisers do brilliantly is get to the problem and show how to fix it. It’s a thing that sitcom writers often struggle with, spending far too long on back story and set-up.

It’s some skill to tell a story in 30 seconds, and new sitcom writers could learn a lot from advertisers in creating an effective narrative quickly and clearly. I had a look at a few sitcom episodes to see how quickly they set up the inciting incident – AKA the thing that needs to be fixed. Cartoons, written for kids with their terrible attention spans, multi-screening and low boredom thresholds, are the perfect place to start.

The Amazing World of Gumball

Episode: The Puppy

Set Up: Gumball, Darwin and Anais are doing a presentation to their dad on the value of getting a puppy.

Time their Want is declared: 1 minute 15 seconds.

Episode: The Name

Set Up: Gumball and Darwin are playing an amusement arcade game. Gumball wins and has to enter his real name, which he doesn’t know. He vows to find out his real name.

Time his quest is declared: 1 minute 3 seconds.

Teen Titans Go

Episode: Staring at the Future

Set Up: Robin is developing a moustache-growing serum, but is disturbed when Cyborg and Beast Boy smash into the living room on a bull, playing Indoor Rodeo. Robin tells them they need to accept Responsibility and think about their future.

Time the problem is declared: 1 minute 45 seconds.

Episode: Genie President

Set Up: The gang are in the living room, looking into a cardboard box. Robin shows them the contents – a penny. Starfire tells them the story of Abraham Lincoln and Robin has the idea to melt down unwanted pennies for their metal value.

Time of opportunity: 2 minutes 7 seconds.

These episodes are 10 minutes long, so we’re seeing the Problem That Needs To Be Solved on page 2 at the latest. This counters with so many scripts that will be sent to Sitcom Mission, BAFTA Rocliffe and BBC Writersroom this year, many of which won’t have a story at all. I once had a comment from a new writer, “Why do you only want 15-minute episodes? My story doesn’t get going until page 10.” There’s an easy answer to that – cut the first nine pages.

But What About Longer Sitcoms?

The animated examples above usually have a single plotline and are pretty wild and wacky, but what about domestic sitcoms that run to 23 minutes? Ok, let’s look at Friends:

Episode: The One with Phoebe’s Husband

Set Up: Rachel is in her apartment telling her mother not to worry about a recent mugging when she is shocked by a pigeon flying in through the window. She manages to put the pigeon in a saucepan, but unwittingly releases it when a stranger enters the apartment and declares himself to be Phoebe’s long-lost husband.

Time to inciting incident: 1 minute 27 seconds.

Other Things That Happen in This Episode:
Chandler has a third nipple: 3 minutes 38 seconds.
Joey was in a porno movie: 4 minutes 22 seconds.
Rachel is jealous of Julie: 5 minutes 31 seconds.

Episode: The One with the Yeti

Set Up: Joey comes back from an audition and walks in on Monica and Chandler kissing. He tells them that, if he is supposed to be ignorant of their relationship (ie live and tell a lie), he doesn’t want to witness their private displays of affection. They apologise and head off to Monica’s apartment because Rachel is at work. Monica and Chandler’s quest in the cold open (the bit before the opening credits) is to find somewhere private to make out.

Time to reveal of quest in cold open: 59 seconds

Other Things That Happen in This Episode:
Phoebe’s mother sends her a mink coat: 2 minutes 11 seconds.
Ross has to sell his furniture to keep Emily happy: 2 minutes 41 seconds.
Rachel and Monica meet a new resident in the storage room: 5 minutes 2 seconds.

What Can We Learn From This?

Don’t spend pages, time and energy setting things up in the present and lots of printer ink in explaining the past, especially early on. Save it for later.

Get those inciting incidents in early. They don’t have to be huge, life-changing events – they can be domestic, observational comedy subjects that the characters act on.

Try listing ten things (eg, a bird flies in a room, a vegan is sent a fur coat, someone parks their car in front of your drive, someone finds an old doll’s house), then apply one of them to one of your characters. You may find something out about their past that you didn’t know (Phoebe has a secret husband, Chandler has a secret third nipple, Joey was in a porno movie).

Friends Thanksgiving Episodes

It’s nearly the fourth Thursday in November, which means nothing to us in the UK, apart from it’s the day before Black Friday. Even though Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year, it doesn’t get much of an advert break because of the special Christmas campaigns.

Photo: NBC

In the US, for some Thanksgiving is a bigger deal than Christmas, because it’s a national holiday rather than a supposedly religious one. But what does that mean in terms of sitcom episodes? I had a look at the ten seasons of Friends to see if a pattern formed. The episodes are listed below, and Parade have listed their order of favourites here as have Vulture, while Elite Daily matches your favourite episode to your zodiac sign. A conclusion follows and I’ve mentioned the central plot line and any ‘hugging and learning’ that happens at the end of the episode.

SPOILER ALERT: There are spoilers. Quick, go and watch all ten seasons now so that I don’t give anything away.

Season 1 Episode 9          The One Where Underdog Gets Away

Story: The gang end up together because all of their Thanksgiving plans fall through. Chandler hates Thanksgiving because it’s when he was told that his parents were divorcing.

Hugging and Learning: Chandler is able to celebrate Thanksgiving because, even though everyone fights and Thanksgiving is a time of conflict, they’re all there for each other.

Season 2 Episode 8         The One with The List

Story: As far as Thanksgiving goes, Monica has to come up with some ideas for Mockolate, the chocolate alternative.

Hugging and Learning: Nothing. It’s all Rachel being mad with Ross for making a list of reasons to date her or Julie. Thanksgiving is definitely a distant B-plot in this episode.

Season 3 Episode 9          The One with The Football

Story: Joey and Phoebe want to play football. Ross and Monica aren’t supposed to play football because they still have childhood issues over the Gellar Bowl.

Hugging and Learning: Nope. Chandler is happier that he beat Joey to be Margha’s choice than the fact that he self-sabotaged any chance with her. Monica and Ross still hold the football at the end credits.

Season 4 Episode 8         The One with Chandler in a Box

Story: Joey isn’t speaking to Chandler after he kissed Joey’s girlfriend, Kathy.

Hugging and Learning: Chandler keeps quiet in the box in order to prove his respect for Joey, who opens the box and hugs Chandler when Kathy turns up and dumps him.

Season 5 Episode 8          The One with All the Thanksgivings

Story: Flashback episode including the gang’s previous worst Thanksgivings, including when Monica dropped a knife on Chandler’s toe.

Hugging and Learning: Monica puts the turkey on her head. Chandler eventually cracks and tells her he loves her.

Season 6 Episode 9          The One where Ross Got High

Story: Monica’s parents are coming over and she hasn’t told them she’s living with Chandler because they don’t like him.

Hugging and Learning: Monica tells her parents that it was Ross that smoked pot and he is praised by Mr and Mrs Gellar for ‘taking on’ their daughter.

Season 7 Episode 8          The One where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs

Story: Phoebe has a dog in the apartment. Chandler hates dogs.

Hugging and Learning: Chandler finds Clunkers the dog cute after he tries to be a hero and take her back into the apartment.

Season 8 Episode 9          The One with the Rumor

Story: Will comes to Thanksgiving dinner and reveals that he and Ross were founders of the I Hate Rachel Green Club in high school.

Hugging and Learning: Monica tells them they have to let the past go and focus on the fact that they are having a child together.

Season 9 Episode 8          The One with Rachel’s Other Sister

Story: Rachel’s sister Amy comes over for Thanksgiving when her date cancels. Ross and Rachel tell her and Chandler that they wouldn’t be suitable single parents for Emma.

Hugging and Learning: Chandler intervenes in a fight between Rachel and Amy and gets them to apologise to Monica and each other, proving he is capable of being a father.

Season 10 Episode 8       The One with the Late Thanksgiving

Story: Joey and Ross go to an ice hockey match, Phoebe and Rachel take Emma to a baby pageant, meaning they are late for Monica and Chandler’s Thanksgiving meal.

Hugging and Learning: When all the food is knocked on the floor, a usually angry Monica isn’t bothered because she’s just heard back from the adoption agency that they’ve been picked to have a baby.

Conclusion: Chandler’s Journey from Boy to Man

Take a look at Chandler’s through line over the ten Thanksgiving episodes. He starts without being able to celebrate the holiday because of what happened in the past, he grows in confidence by beating Joey to be Margha’s favourite, then shows Joey that his friendship means more by staying silent in the box. He then tells Monica he loves her, is accepted by her parents, proves he is a hero, shows his capability of being a father and is rewarded in the last episode with the news that he’s going to be a dad. Thanksgiving is Chandler’s journey from boyhood to maturity.

It’s A Trap!

A big thing that comes out of this list is that Central Perk only appears in three of them (season 1, 2 and 10), and that’s because Thanksgiving itself is a very small part of those episodes. In each, the episode is about what happens in the lead up to the big day, rather than the day itself.

In many of the other 226 episodes, the gang are spread about the city/country/world in their respective workplaces or getting married in Vegas or London. Thanksgiving episodes are an excuse to trap the six characters in the same room for pretty much the entire episode, meaning that they have more time to affect each other, reflect on the past and deal with their relationships. In this case, it’s very much a chance for Chandler to process the thing that was holding him back in his life and come out the other side.

Help For Frustrated Sitcom Writers: How Sitcoms Are Different to Adverts

1) It’s Not My Fault

In the advert world, characters have problems. Those problems are solved by products or services. The end.

In sitcom land, characters have problems. Those problems are NOT solved by products or services. The person still has a problem – themselves.

In adverts, flawed people are in trouble. Sensible, happy people use the damn products and are smugly content.

In sitcoms, flawed people are in trouble. Sensible, happy people are the enemy. They don’t understand what it’s like to be under pressure. They’ve got it easy with their nice cars and happy, smiling children that are dressed perfectly and do what they’re bloody told when they’re bloody told without being bloody told more than six bloody times.

For mothers like Sue Brockman in Outnumbered, happy people like her perfect next-door neighbour Barbara or perfect sister Angela are the smug, happy ones. In an advert, they’d be the shining example of what you get if you buy the product. In sitcoms, we hate them and anything associated with them.

Mothers like Julia in Motherland have to struggle in her constantly-buttoned mac while the Alpha Mums have it nice and shiny and easy and smiley and chummy and laughy and perfect in their damn perfect world.

In adverts like Capital One’s ‘Check It, Don’t Chance It’, each of the characters sans Capital One have come to the realization that they Wish They’d Checked something. Just like they Should Have Gone To Specsavers.

In sitcoms, our central characters don’t Wish They’d Checked something. And they certainly don’t think they Should Have Gone To Specsavers. It’s someone else’s fault. The timetable for the fitness class wasn’t put up in the right place or the SatNav wasn’t working and they were too busy to check it because someone else did something and it wasn’t my fault because you don’t know how stressed I am!

Each of those Capital One losers has the realization that they did it wrong. That they were the problem. Sitcom characters blame other people, either above them or below them or both. Basil blames Manuel or Sybil. Blackadder blames Queenie or Melchett or Prince George or (mainly) Baldrick.

Blaming other people will always get you a central role in a sitcom. Or a long career in politics. Or both.

Characters – Off The Shelf or Do It Yourself? 3) Jeremy from Peep Show and Tim from The Office

It’s easier to have a character that represents what you DON’T want than what you DO want.

Sitcom characters, because they’re flawed and represent an imperfect life, are useful because they’re relatable. We’re all flawed. We’re all a mess.

The solution to that flaw in a sitcom (or in real life) is self-awareness. Knowing that you’ve got a problem is the first step to solving it. Knowing that YOU are the problem is difficult to take, which is why so many TV characters don’t change. Remember that episode of Friends where Phoebe’s psychiatrist boyfriend tells everyone what they’ve got wrong with them? We never saw him again.

In traditional sitcoms, the flaw – the warped way that people see the world and their place in it – is something that gets the characters into trouble. If the personal flaw is overcome (and it’s rare), it’s done by knowing that they see life incorrectly, changing that viewpoint and freeing them up to leave the series. It’s Ross and Rachel putting their commitments to each other and their daughter ahead of their own egos. Monica and Chandler did the same. It’s rare, but it happens.

In adverts, the flaw is something to be solved by, bingo, buying a product! Humans are faulty, products and services are divine. So it’s easier to have a human being personify the problem than it is to have them personify the solution. If they do, they have to take on a divine, superhero, god-like quality, Winston Wolfe being the obvious example, but there’s also the Flash adverts as well.

Robert Webb and Martin Freeman both played beta male characters in Peep Show and The Office respectively that brought out fraternal sympathy from men and maternal instincts in women. Freeman’s oeuvre is the average Everyman – Dr Watson to Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Dent to, well, anyone. And for the last few years, he’s been the face of Ordinary Bloke That Doesn’t Have Vodafone. And there’s only one solution to that – get Vodafone! Those people that do have Vodafone are portrayed as in a Zen-like blissful calm or state of joyful abundance.

Now Robert Webb is showing up as Television Man That Isn’t Enough, whose flaw of ‘thinking that he is enough’ is solved by applying a Now TV box. Interesting that Engine Creative went straight to showing a fast-moving, bright selection of Now TV channels that come with the package, rather than having a human being to play Perfect Television Person as they supposedly would be when applying Now TV.

Who would you have to play your Perfect Television Person? I’ll start the bidding with Olivia Colman, David Tennant second with Richard Ayoade and Matt Berry in the cheap seats.

And if a Perfect Television Person is someone who embodies perfect TV, what about a Perfect Ad Person? The actor so wonderful you’d watch them read out the telephone directory and then dial up every number they read out just to say hello.

If Winston Wolfe was the Perfect Ad Person to embody Fixing Insurance Claims, who is the Perfect Ad Person to solve boiler breakdowns or choosing wallpaper? Actor or character – you choose. I’d love to know your answer.

Characters – Off The Shelf or Do It Yourself? 2) Chabuddy G

The case for using a ready-made character from the world of sitcom is given a big boost by a number of adverts using People Just Do Nothing’s street trader entrepreneur ‘Dhal Boy’ Chabuddy G.

So we have five episodes:

The One With The Nike Trainers

The One With The GQ Cover

The One With The Cricket (part 1)

The One With The Cricket (part 2)

The One With The Pepsi Challenge.

And I’m not including his British Airways pre-flight safety announcement or guide to Hounslow High Street.

Watching these five adverts, even though they’re for four different products, patterns emerge. In each of them, Chabuds takes on different roles: QVC-style host (Nike), sports pundit (Cricket), YouTube influencer (Pepsi) and publicity agent (GQ).

Fishy and Unfishy Characters

The formats can be put into two groups: Official Imposter Authority Figure (which I’ve shortened to Fishy) and Unofficial Imposter Authority Figure (likewise, Unfishy). In his role as a Fishy character, Chabuds has somehow got himself a job as a QVC-style host selling Nike trainers and somehow got himself a job as a cricket commentator. How he did it, we’ll never know, but he’s blagged himself a position of authority. In his Unfishy roles, he’s a self-appointed YouTube influencer and a self-appointed publicity agent.

The Fishy personas feel heightened in comparison to the Unfishy ones, there’s more of a faux confidence in each. The position of authority has given him a status boost and he’s enjoying every minute that he’s lording it over the plebs.

For the Unfishy, it’s a struggle for him to be taken seriously and there’s no guarantee he’ll be taking any cash home that night. There’s still that desperation behind the eyes and the imposter syndrome comes to the surface a lot quicker.

The Sitcom Bit

Chabuddy is doing something majorly sitcom in each of the five ads – in order to achieve something, he’s lying about who he really is. It’s Del Boy fibbing that he’s a yuppie or a candelabra polisher. At some point, the mask will slip and the truth will come out and it’s no different here. In Nike Trainers, he hangs up on a call from an angry punter; in Pepsi he admits it’s hard being an influencer; Cricket (part 1) sees him trying to steal the Cricket World Cup trophy and in GQ he’s more worried about getting into trouble with DJ Grindah than he is from security.

High Status = Lie Status

When taking on each of the new personas, there’s a status shift up to someone begging for respect rather than commanding it, but Chabuds doesn’t even convince himself that he’s really that person. He’s in it for the short term and whatever he can get out of it.

He’s low status to DJ Grindah and to the GQ office, although he grows in confidence as they get away with acquiring a rack of clothes, but his status drops again when they are asked to leave. In Cricket, even though he takes on an authority role it’s more of a Fan of the People and again the mask slips when he offers to go 50/50 on stealing the trophy. Pepsi sees his status drop when he’s found out by the official taste test team and there’s a flash of David Brent when the punter shows him up in Nike.

What Happens Next?

Asim Chaudhry, who created and stars as Chabuddy G, and his team of writers have hit on a winning formula (Chabuds pretends to be someone respectable, shows off his ignorance, reverts back to type in order to try to get something out of it). Although he’s a niche character, he’s in a tradition of recent Imposters such as David Brent and Ali G, and his associations and branding possibilities haven’t been exhausted yet.  

Thanks to a former student, Ed Ryder, for bouncing ideas around with me for this post.

Creating Characters – Off The Shelf or Do It Yourself?

1) Winston Wolf

There’s currently an interesting episode of Marketing Week’s podcast, Marketing That Matters, in which they talk to the creators of Direct Line’s ‘Fixer’ adverts. You know the ones, with Harvey Keitel reprising his Winston Wolf (or Wolfe, the Internet doesn’t really know) character from Pulp Fiction – the ultimate guy to fix anything.

To cut a medium-sized podcast short, they’d gone down the route of competing on level of service rather than purchase price as they were bypassing comparison websites. And a conversation happened where they hit on ‘wouldn’t it be great if you could get Winston Wolf to fix it when things go wrong’.

The question for me is: when to use off-the-shelf characters like Winston, Chabuddy G or the boys from Red Dwarf and when to create and grow your own, like Aleksandr Meerkat or Gio Compare.

Plus Points

One of the plus points for using a ready-made character is that you can look for someone that embodies the vision you see in your mind. It’s like writing a script with established actors already screen tested and cast – either a wish list like David Tennant and Olivia Colman or an even bigger wish list like turning it into a writer-performer piece (eg Stath Lets Flats, Lee and Dean, This Country, Catastrophe, Citizen Khan, Miranda, Mrs Brown etc).

Using an off-the-shelf character lets you come up with the concept first and then ask, “who would embody this?” or “what would the fantasy version of this be like?” They’re instantly recognisable and your audience will understand the shorthand that the character creates. However, this has possible negative associations, as the Direct Line guys admit. Winston Wolf had some pretty dodgy history in Pulp Fiction and it was a big gamble associating him with their product.

Downside

Another downside is that you may not get the character you’re looking for if they’re caught up in ownership rights or there are issues with copyright. You’ve also got to pay for those rights and the specific actor involved, as long as they’re not incredibly busy and are willing and able to take part.

Or what if there isn’t someone in popular culture that personifies your product? Do you go with a character that’s nearly there but doesn’t make your heart tingle? Kind of like getting hitched in real life and then, like Elvis, lamenting that ‘it’s just breaking my heart cause she’s not you.’

In which case, do you design your own? And if so, what method do you use?

Do you try to create a rip-off character that falls short and can only garner negative comparisons? Or do you take your concept and come up with someone original, with their own history and three dimensions intact. A character that you can know inside out, take ownership of and build a world around?

There’s no easy solution here, and probably more questions than answers. But I’m looking forward to exploring these questions in future blogs.

One question to leave you with – what methods do you use for character creation? Physical looks first or a CV approach or something more holistic?

Diet Coke – Definitely Not The Real Thing

It all feels a bit Blah De Blah as Diet Coke go for Grannies Behaving Badly while the meerkats return with a slightly less controversial car insurance advert than one of their rivals.

Diet Coke have gone for an inter-generational mix of two grannies, Vera and Gladys, as they swipe through a dating app and refer to their prospective dates in yoof and street terminology, like “Total Playa!!!” and “I’m in!”

Having read dozens of sitcom scripts from new writers that try to put yoof words into old people’s mouths, I’m yet to read one that works. And I don’t think Diet Coke have done themselves any favours here either. It really feels like they’ve chucked ideas at a wall and thrown their hands up and said, “We don’t know what Diet Coke means anymore!” Is it for young people or old people or fun people or bold people? Whatever happened to the simplicity of “Diet Coke break” and the shirt-off guy?

Sitcom scripts that have things happen ‘because they’re funny’ create real problems for themselves because it’s the self-indulgent wishes of the writer, not the truth of the story. You can either indulge yourself or the audience, rarely both. Del Boy didn’t fall through the open bar flap ‘because it was funny’, he did it because his self-deluded over-confidence stopped him from checking that the bar was still there before he leant on it. And this advert feels like a case of, “Oooh, wouldn’t it be funny to have two old women checking out old men on a Tinder-esque app?” “Oooh, and then they could speak like urban kids!” “Hurrah!”

So what do Vera and Gladys get up to next? Not much, I reckon, because there’s no particular relationship between them that’s of any interest, no difference of attitude, no status games to be played. Go on, DC, prove me wrong.

Compare the Car Insurance Ads

Showing how it could be done if those things were in place, High Status Aleksandr talks out loud and shares some information that Low Status Sergei accepts as an instruction because it’s his job to follow Aleksandr’s commandments. You don’t have to have a master-and-servant relationship all the time, but comedy relationships are often built on status which can then be inverted.

The latest advert heralds Compare The Market’s expansion of AutoSergei into car insurance and the comedy comes from the confusion between Aleksandr talking about the fully automated search tool on the website while driver Sergei thinks he’s talking about the car. With hysterical results.

And finally…

A rant.

I read an interesting article this week about the great potential loss to the ad industry because men were demanding flexible working arrangements. While obviously flexible working arrangements for men is a brilliant idea, surely this is something women have been banging on about for ages? And if it’s a case of ad agencies being way, way, way behind the times when it comes to reflecting modern life, how about the advertising industry stops patting itself on the back with this idea that it’s all cutting edge and taking massive risks in life. Want to prove how cutting edge your firm is? Employ some working-class people. Or some old people so you don’t come up with car crashes like the Diet Coke one above. Or, heaven forbid, some disabled people so that these demographics are part of your organic makeup and aren’t just focus groups for you to call on when it suits you. This survey just proves that life only becomes visible and change only really happens when white, middle-class, able-bodied heterosexual men are affected and want to finally do something about it.

Rant over.

You Klarna not Be Serious!

I Wish I’d Bought It With Klarna

Ok, so this isn’t strictly sitcom territory, but it looks as though it could be, so here goes.

Celeste Barber, the Queen of Instagram, famous for recreating Insta poses, has done three one-minute episodes of a spoof consumer-rights show for Swedish bank Klarna. If you didn’t know, and I probably should have but didn’t and I do now so it’s done its job, Klarna is a credit facility for the fashion industry.

I’m not their demographic, but no matter.

The episodes each revolve around buying a duff product and feeling the pain of buyers’ regret, and enjoy the tagline “Pay later with Klarna” because Klarna is like a credit card so you only pay when you’re happy. They’re also going straight for the Should Have Gone To Specsavers, Does Exactly What It Says On The Tin and I Bet He Drinks Carling Black Label viral catchphrase with “I wish I’d bought it with Klarna.” Whether it catches on in the same way, time will tell, and it may well do among fashionistas, but I can’t see a tightfist like me using it any time soon.

The adverts all feature purchasing mistakes and end before any real narrative can take off – once again the difference between sitcom in advertising and conventional sitcom is that in the former the story is ended by applying the product.

The presentation is high camp and garish and very suited to the bright colours of Insta. Celeste and her smiling non-speaking sidekick Mary conjure up a very young Dame Edna and Madge, and I can see these two taking off like Aleksandr and Sergei or Alan Partridge and his long-suffering PA Lynn.

So where to go next? I can imagine future campaigns featuring real-life customers who wished they’d Bought It With Klarna; celebs getting in on the show a la Mrs Merton, and Celeste and Mary getting out of the studio and going into the streets and the malls to find fashion faux pas. What could possibly go wrong?

Two Sitcom Staples: The Odd Couple… And the Sofa (Again)

Elvie follows the lead of Rick and Morty and Apple and Onion while Sofology’s Owen Wilson is back to doing what he does best… nothing (in the nicest possible way).

Tech company Elvie have taken the problem of a leaky bladder head on with their three-episode animated campaign, creating a girl-next-door in Bobo and her annoying but lovable friend Bladder who stops her from going out to Giggle Planet, Trampoline Land and Run For The Bus.

Elvie’s creatives Mother put all their effort into a rockin’ theme tune with Friends/Monkees jump-cuts showing us what this crazy pair are like, but all of the anticipation of this week’s episode is lost when Bladder pees himself right in the middle of the opening credits. Fortunately, Bladder is a man and he’s got a lovably forgivable Scottish accent. The theme tune lyrics vary to accommodate the episode, but the line that stays constant is “nothing’s going to hold them back”.

As well as nodding at the scenarios created in other Trampoline-based Leaky-bladder Adverts (I really want this to be an advertising award category from now on), there’s a big sitcom trope here not just of the odd couple, but the surreal odd couple which works really well in animation.

A quick look at the Disney XD playlist gives us Phineas and Ferb, Rocket and Groot and Pickle and Peanut, while Cartoon Network have Apple and Onion and Victor and Valentino. Fans of real-life Disney comedies have Zack and Cody, Coop and Cami and Austin and Ally.

Britain had Peep Show, the Gimmes and Bottom. Different league altogether.

The universe created for Bobo and Bladder is upbeat, funky, positive, go-getting, take-on-the-world stuff, the sort of thing that sells well to children that don’t have mortgages and who still believe in parliamentary democracy. Bobo is an affirmation-following girl and Bladder her hard-drinking roommate, but they get along because they love each other really.

When putting two characters that appear diametrically opposed to each other together in a sitcom, it’s never enough to have them argue and make up for the sake of the show or ‘because it’s funny’. They each have something the other one wants, whether it’s the ability to be neat and tidy or they can teach each other something about being a better person or that they’re both down on their luck and need each other more than they’re willing to admit. Either way, until one or both of them learn to be completely self-actualised human beings, they’re both sticking around.

Or, in this case, until Bobo strengthens her pelvic floor muscles.

Following on from last week’s blog on how the sofa represents the calm before the storm in a sitcom world, Owen Wilson reprises his role as a young Jim Royle in the latest Sofology ad. The emphasis now is definitely on sofa design, comparing it to the sleekness of a surf board. But the tagline/catchphrase brings us back to the safety of comfort with “Feel at home on a sofa you love.” You’re in your castle, everything is safe, go back to sleep America.

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started