Hat Trick Sitcom Script Competition: An introduction

Hat Trick Productions logo. Copyright: Hat Trick Productions

Ahead of the exciting Hat Trick Sitcom Geeks Script Competition opening in December, Sitcom Geeks hosts Dave Cohen and James Cary will be publishing a number of blogs. Here's the first, in which Dave discusses the tone of show the competition is looking for.

Welcome to the first of our occasional blogs about our brand new sitcom script competition. We're going to start by talking about what kind of script we're looking for.

On Sitcom Geeks we love discussing the mechanics of what it takes to create great comedy writing.

I'd like to think we've helped many writers along the way, that even if you're still a long way from achieving your goals you at least possess more useful signposts than ever existed when we were starting our own careers.

Now we're saying 'over to you'. We're very excited about working with Hat Trick in our search for great new sitcom writers and hit shows. There will be many entries, we're sure, and only one winner, but we're hoping that the journey between now and the end of the year will be one that brings hope, enlightenment and big laughs.

How do you become a comedy writer?

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson outside BBC TV Centre in 1970. Image shows from L to R: Ray Galton, Alan Simpson. Copyright: BBC

We know you're out there, that there are thousands of you who want to be comedy writers. But we're not sure how many of the usual routes still exist for you in the UK.

In the past we could rely on the BBC to bring through a number of new sitcom writers, but in recent years their searches have narrowed down intensely - that is, where they haven't disappeared completely.

Their emphasis has been on looking for writers who also perform - and good luck to them, but most writers don't, at least not to the level required to earn them an interview with TV development teams.

Last year saw the permanent closure of the BBC Writersroom Narrative Comedy window. We were all assured that a new system was being put into place to ensure that BBC Comedy would be recruiting a steady stream of new sitcom writers. They are still asking for Comedy Drama, but the emphasis is more on the second word there.

That was 2019, and as 2022 approaches we're still waiting. Last month BBC Radio closed the door for new topical comedy writers for the first time in 50 years.

If you just want to be a comedy writer - and think about that word "just" for a moment, remember that John Sullivan, Galton & Simpson, Carla Lane, Clement & La Frenais, Jimmy Perry and David Croft, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain were and are "just" writers - the horizons are shrinking.

A few independent companies have attempted to do something about that, we've had competitions asking for treatments, sketches, scenes, but Hat Trick are looking for something that resembles what they're hoping to make on mainstream TV. And, like the BBC of old, they're not asking you to pay to enter.

Artsnight: A Tribute To Carla Lane. Carla Lane. Copyright: BBC

What are we looking for?

Before you write a word, be aware we are asking for a specific type of script. And this is not the kind of script from new writers that James and I are used to reading. I did a quick trawl through the last 25 or so scripts by new writers I have read, and I would say around half of them would not qualify for this competition.

Why is that? The simple answer is that many of the scripts I read these days are very strongly narrative driven. Sure, every script needs to have a story, or it's not a script, it's just a bunch of people talking in rooms. But look at that roll call above of "just" writers and what is the first thing that you can say about their scripts?

It's that they are character driven.

Hat Trick made it clear from the outset that they're not looking for dramatic stories. One of the first things they said was that "every episode should stand alone". That immediately means that you don't have the luxury of sending a pilot script that takes 15 minutes to put all your characters and their tales into place.

We're expecting whole scripts to be delivered but we're only going to read the first ten pages, and in that time we'll need to get to know your main character, or characters.

Here's the start of The Wrong Mans, the 2013/14 series written by and starring James Corden and Mat Baynton:

Pretty exciting. Gripping. And with a bit of fun at the end of it. You might be drawn to this by the star attraction of the leads. You may stay for the high action filming and tension of the story. Somewhere along the way you're hoping that humour will arise from the flawed characters.

But you won't be sending that. We'd rather your opening minute and 12 seconds told us something first about the character, second what it is about them that is flawed, and finally, how this flaw has the potential to cause big problems for them.
We're looking for something to be enjoyed by the maximum number of people. Big audiences. James wrote for Miranda, I wrote for Not Going Out. Shows that can reasonably be called mainstream sitcom.

What is a mainstream sitcom?

It would be simplistic to say "a family sitcom" but we mean that in the broadest sense.

Think of the kinds of shows Hat Trick makes - its two most recent hits are Outnumbered and Derry Girls. It would be hard to imagine two more different sitcoms but they are both about families. But think also about other Hat Trick shows - Father Ted, with its dysfunctional but lovable collection of misfits living under one roof. Or Drop The Dead Donkey, with its extended family of news reporters and gatherers.

You want to establish a sense of place pretty quickly, the home, the workplace, the school, the community.

Derry Girls. Image shows from L to R: Orla McCool (Louisa Harland), Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan), Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn), Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell). Copyright: Hat Trick Productions

What aren't we looking for?

We're not looking for a show about a stand-up comedian, or a show set in the world of TV entertainment. And we're not looking for the next Fleabag.

You could probably argue that Fleabag is a family sitcom - father and sister are two of the more prominent secondary characters - but that would be like saying that Father Dear Father is like King Lear.

We're not looking for performer-led stories. As mentioned earlier there are enough opportunities out there for writer-performers. We're not looking for shows that are narrative driven. We want a show where the audience come back week in, week out, to watch funny characters get into scrapes due to a flaw in their characters, and get out of them without having learned how to change and break the habit. We want the audience to be able to discover the show half-way through series two in the same way they might at the start of the first episode.

And I think it's fair to say that Fleabag is none of the above. But we are looking for something that, like Fleabag, might be described as "a hit show".

What is a hit show?

Outnumbered. Image shows from L to R: Karen (Ramona Marquez), Sue (Claire Skinner), Pete (Hugh Dennis), Ben (Daniel Roche), Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey). Copyright: Hat Trick Productions

It's impossible to know until it happens. We all dream that every show we work on will be the one that everyone's talking about the next day, at work, in the playground, on the bus. James and I talked about this in our last podcast, we've both been lucky enough in the last few years to have been involved with shows like this.

How do you make one?

It's not going to happen overnight. But throughout November and December, we'll be offering you advice from start to finish to help you work that out.

Coming soon: what's the big idea?

The Hat Trick Sitcom Geeks Script Competition opens for entries on Wednesday 1st December, and the deadline to enter is 5th January 2022.