Most great ideas start with a great idea (I’m amazing at this, I should do a workshop and charge one million dollars). But they also start with an absolute bucketload of terrible ideas. Or average ideas. Let’s call them meh-deas and that could become another brilliant media term for tossers like me and you to use. What may come as a surprise is that there are some very commonly pitched meh-deas.
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I had an email from someone recently with their idea for a sitcom. I won’t say what it is or who it came from as that would be unfair and just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of brilliance. You should see my folder ‘Awful Pitches of Yesteryear,’ it makes for terrifying reading.
What I don’t want to do is tell people is they’re wasting their time and not to darken my door again. Working on the characters, story and script can be a useful exercise, but to get any interest in an idea it has to have something unique about it. Does it generate a genuine reaction of interest when you mention it to someone? If so, that’s a good sign. You have to be a good reader of facial expressions or learn which friends or family members actually give you an honest opinion.
So here are a few concepts or settings that seem to occur regularly…
- An amateur dramatics society.
- Struggling actors in some way shape or form. I have a lot of sympathy for actors, it’s incredibly hard, the constant rejection is possibly even worse than it is for writers. Still, write about something else. No one cares. Except me. I care.
- A struggling indie band (or other genre, but indie bands seem to be a common one. Maybe that’s because the writer was once a songwriter in an indie band who wrote moderately amusing lyrics in a sub-Jarvis Cocker style. That was the kind of band I was in, anyhow) or a once successful band whose members are now living ordinary lives.
- The open mic comedy circuit. Loads of wannabe comedians are also wannabe writers, so it makes sense that they’d come up with this idea and there are loads of crazy characters on the open mic circuit, but… no one cares. I’m happy to admit that when I was a factual television producer and doing open mic stand up in London I thought it would be a good idea for a documentary series. It was not a good idea. It was quite dull and I quickly gave up on it.
- Two guys in their late twenties or early thirties who are getting nowhere in life. They probably share a flat and one of them has an ex-girlfriend who has moved on, but is still around. Or there’s a girl they’ve known for years they both fancy.
- A bar or pub. This is one where, of course, several comedies of various quality have been made. I really liked Early Doors, for example, and I have vague fond memories of World of Pub, which I should refresh. I also remember getting a script set in a bar which had something different in the writing — funny, weird and slightly surreal. I did develop and pitch it and it did pique the interest of a commissioning editor, but ultimately didn’t get through.
- A hotel or guest house. The legacy of Fawlty towers over this one (see what I did there, I should work in comedy). The really annoying thing about this setting is that, like the pub, it does frequently reoccur — there was Heartburn Hotel in the late nineties and more recently the children’s comedy All At Sea and comedy drama Edge of Heaven. Even more annoying for me is that I’ve got one. Yes, commissioners, I’ve got a guest house comedy and it’s, like, totally brilliant and I grew up in a guest house and then a small hotel, so it’s authentic and everything. I think mine is an interesting take on the situation (of course I do), but I’ve held back on pitching it at times because of all the above. Anyhow, you can see that I feel your pain.
There are probably many more and if anyone can think of any then do let me know. It’s not surprising that many of the ideas above get pitched frequently. Several involve links to other creative fields; so an actor, comedian or songwriter is probably more likely to want to create a sitcom than someone else. Others are simply recognisable, everyday places.
It can be a tricky conversation to have, because the writer might wonder why they haven’t seen the idea on screen. I think it’s a kind of self-fulfilling vortex of doom; because that concept has been pitched before and rejected, it’s more likely to be rejected when it comes through the door again. That doesn’t mean to say it can’t and won’t happen, but (and I know this is vague) it has to have something amazing about it. Eddie Redmayne has decided he wants to star in a sitcom set in a Plymouth guest house? Yes! (‘Oh, hang on, mine has a female lead character. No, it’s okay, we can change it. Or you can wear a dress, Eddie, it’ll be fine. Oh, you want to? That’s great Eddie, it’ll work perfectly.’).
As well as my list, often there are concepts that seem to be ‘in the zeitgeist’ (apologies for using the word and the quote marks, but it seemed the only way). So, you’ll be pitching an idea to a commissioning editor only to find there’s already something similar in development or there are other similar scripts floating around. For example, a few years ago there seemed to be quite a few stories involving young people moving back in with their parents – Hebburn was one of those of course, but a combination of a brilliant pilot script, the North East setting and a couple of other elements, such as the young couple having already married in secret, helped set it apart.
Others can be surprising. There was a period when I talked to a couple of writers who had really good scripts set in an arctic station or a moon base — it turned out there were a few similar scripts floating around and I don’t think any got made. A while ago I had an idea for a comedy set on a submarine. I was thinking about female personnel being allowed on board Naval vessels and how that would be interesting if it was the enclosed space of a submarine. Maybe I’m wrong, but I never pitched it because I started to think that a submarine is probably one of those settings. And I realised I didn’t really care that much about submarines and submariners — screw them and their hilarious life-threatening undersea shenanigans. Maybe I should just go back to the Plymouth guest house thing. Shit.
My advice is to either look outside what’s close to you or examine what’s around you more closely.
And does anyone have a number for Eddie Redmayne? Or an email would be fine.