Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sit-com University course

Have you ever watched episodes of Only Fools and Horses or cult modern comedy The Office thinking, 'I could do that'? If you fancy yourself as the next Ricky Gervais, a new comedy writing course at Cardiff University could be the route to success.

The 10-week course promises to teach the skills which separate a rejected script from a commissioned series. Tutor James Daniel says the death of the sitcom has been prematurely announced on many occasions.

A scriptwriter who has co-written shows for the BBC, he believes it is possible to teach somebody the secrets of comedy writing but only if they have "a spark and a desperate willingness to do it" to begin with. He told BBC News: "It's a lot of work. There are techniques you can use to develop what you are writing by planting humour into the premise of your situation - there are certain tricks.

"A lot of new writers make the mistake of trying to tell a dramatic situation through non-stop funny dialogue."

Mr Daniel said as well as using his own experience from 20 years of writing, he would be able to pass on tips he had learned from industry figures during writing workshops over the years. He stresses he is not trying to create clone writers who all work to the same formula.

"The reason The Office was so successful was it was pushing back the boundaries of the genre," he said. "It's almost impossible to write anything set in a workplace situation now!"

Having said that, Mr Daniel believes the setting is not the most important aspect of a successful show.

"A sitcom is not about the situation, it's about the characters. The setting for the show is really not that relevant. It's an airtight box where you place desperate characters."

He said the first class would focus on creating a character, adding: "Somebody who embodies all of our struggles. Every great sitcom character in this country has had a monstrous element to them."

And the essence of a successful sitcom? "It's the right script with the right actors at the right time."

Welsh actor Rachel Isaac, who played Trudy in The Office, said she could see straight away from the script that the series would be a success. "There was emotional resonance within each scene, not just gags. Sometimes when you read comedy scripts driven by gags, you can see right through it," she said. "Within the confines of comedy, it depends on how see-through the gag is [whether it will work]. As they say, it's best if they don't see it coming."

She believes the best writing has "layers within the scene, layers that reveal human emotions".

She went on: "You see, oh that's a funny line, but if it's something you may have heard in real life - and people are funny - you're able to connect with the reality of it. Comedy's funniest when there's an element of reality in it. If it's all set-ups, you're aware of the falseness of it."

The Writing a Sitcom course runs for 10 weeks at Cardiff University's Centre for Lifelong Learning from 4 October.

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