Keith Lindsay has very kindly written a guest post for us.
Keith is a TV comedy writing veteran. He has worked on projects including Birds of Feather, Green, Green Grass, TV sketch shows and he has also written for stand-ups.
Keith’s thoughts on sitcom collaborations
To be perfectly honest all Situation Comedy is collaboration; yes there’s an initial script that may or may not have been written by one person but before the show hits the small screen there’s much creativity to be added to the mix. From the director and the actors, through the make-up, wardrobe and set designer to the final editor, there are many talented people who have a share in getting you to laugh.
That said, comedy, more than any other genre lends itself to collaboration during the writing process. It’s pretty obvious really, writing comedy means, first and foremost making yourself laugh and the bonus of having a writing partner who also laughs at the jokes is that it is less likely that you are not simply a sociopath, albeit only fifty percent less likely.
Initially at least then two heads are better than one, or if you’re a hydra six heads are better than one. However finding a writing partner isn’t that easy, you need to search out someone whose company you can stand for long periods of time, someone who shares a similar sense of humour with you and someone who has skills that compliment your own.
When I jumped into the whirlpool that is comedy writing I did so with a partner, his skills were, a great ear for dialogue, no fear of the blank page and more importantly he could type: my skills were ability to create characters, tell good stories and my ego. The fact that those skills eventually became interchangeable is probably the reason we eventually split up, much like many marriages.
Once you have a partner it’s up to you to find how the writing process works best for both of you. Galton and Simpson, writers of Hancock and Steptoe and Son, say that usually one types and one walks around a lot, in the same room I should point out. My first mentors Marks and Gran (Birds of a Feather, The New Statesman, Goodnight Sweetheart) had their own version of working in a room together. Laurence and Maurice would sit at their own computers with the same page open, one would type a line or a stage direction in and the two of them would discuss its inclusion in the script until a decision was reached – in or out. These could be pretty long discussions.
Of course there are those writing partnerships who don’t need to be, or can’t be, in the same room for the writing process, my partner and I were one such partnership. Oh we tried, but found that we spent too much time arguing over the minutiae, like how to spell Ok, and not enough over whether a joke or character worked or not.
We quickly found what worked for us was for me to create the basic character bible and plot and then hand them over to Martin so that he could write a first draft; no fear of the blank page remember. The draft completed it was then my job to re-write it and, as Martin used to put it, leave out all his best lines.
Yes it led to arguments but it did not lead to one of us being banged up for murder as working in the same room must surely have done.
And for those who like their irony; many years later when I wrote with the late great John Sullivan on his spin off from Only Fools and Horses, The Green Green Grass, I was the one to write the first draft which John would then turn into a proper John Sullivan script. Ironic maybe, but still one of the best experiences of my life.
A writing team who also decided absence made the script grow funnier were Richard Curtis and Ben Elton when they worked on Blackadder together. Elton and Curtis would take three of the six scripts each to write and after writing each one would post it to their partner. Once received and read they then employed to double tick system; if a joke got two ticks, one from each writer, it stayed in, if only one, well ‘they’d discuss’ it.
So I’ll repeat, you have to find a system that works for you and doesn’t clog up the already overcrowded criminal justice system.
The other thing that should be said about partnership writing is that you shouldn’t expect it to necessarily last forever. I’m not trying to naysay the practice just because I no longer write with a partner, but because for every continuing Marks and Gran marriage there are divorces, or at least separations, for the likes of Grant and Naylor, Renwick and Marshall and Linehan and Mathews.
My advice would be to find ways to enjoy your collaboration, find the fun in it for as long as you can and, just like a marriage, work at it. If you can, then the work you produce will be better, your quality of life will be better and should your wife/husband/life partner begin to suspect you of having an affair you’ll know you’re doing it right.
Keith R. Lindsay