07 Aug 2018

The Monster You Know

dave's picture

If you’d been as lucky as me (or not) to have been invited to attend a big BBC gathering in 2012 in Manchester to discuss the future of TV comedy, you would have discovered from the then controller of BBC1 that what they were looking for, more than anything, was sitcoms “featuring monsters, and larger-than-life characters.”
Instead of accepting this as factually correct and rushing home excitedly to create my new Human Godzilla masterpiece, I smiled indulgently, waiting for the conversation to move on. To provide some context, BBC1 had recently been enjoying the completely surprising success of two sitcoms that had initially slipped quietly into the schedules – Miranda, and Mrs Brown’s Boys.
Forgive my cynicism, I’ve been to far too many of these gatherings over the last four decades to take it at face value, when a genuinely powerful executive has told a gathering that the thing they’re currently looking for is a carbon copy of the current Thing That Is Currently Successful. Maybe there was a gathering I’d missed two years earlier where executives said “We’re looking for sitcoms featuring cross-dressing Irish comedians and larger-than-life posh English gals” in which case I take it back.
The biggest break-out word-of-mouth hits are the shows you least expect. However, the controller had a point. If we look back at our favourite sitcoms, the vast majority have a single character at their heart. A monster, “larger-than-life”, protagonist, antagonist, completely lacking in self-awareness, hideous, unlovable yet compelling misanthrope. Somebody who is always fighting battles without realising their biggest enemy is staring back at them in the mirror. Whatever we write, we are nearly always looking for that character.
If you know someone like that, and we all do, you should think about them. Performers Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, John Cleese and Ricky Gervais all recognised individuals from their lives with those traits, and possessed exactly the necessary amount of self-awareness to realise that there were large elements of their own personalities in these people. Edina, Basil and Alan are Jennifer, John and Steve, placing their own worst faults under a microscope.
They are all writer-performers who remain at various levels in a position to develop their own projects. We mortals, and those for whom writing is the sole occupation, have to look harder and further, and do more work in the creation of our characters.
Do keep as close to your own reality as you can. We’ll be talking later in the week about how your characters must be original yet familiar, and must have contradictory aspects to their personalities, but for now let’s look at some larger-than-life figures created solely by writers, who dominate the shows they’re at the heart of.
In the first episode of One Foot In The Grave, security guard Victor Meldrew is made redundant, and replaced by a machine. Even before we get to know Victor, before Richard Wilson brings the character to life, before we become aware of the writer David Renwick’s complete mastery of the farcical plot, we learn what the show is about. A man whose life has been defined by work, and not especially noble work, suddenly finds he’s out of it. Too old to retrain, or learn new skills, he is now a man living at home with too much time on his hands.
David Renwick is one of the finest writers of our generation, One Foot In The Grave and Jonathan Creek two of the most sublimely perfect comic creations of recent times. We can only dream of writing a quarter as well as he does, but it is possible to look at the simplicity at the heart of Victor’s story to help us define our own monsters.
Victor’s story is familiar, we’ve probably all known someone or someone’s friend or relative who has lost their job while still young enough to find new work, but too old to be considered employable.
It may even be us. We may not be Jennifer, John or Steve but we know who we are, and while others see us differently we probably have some pretty keen insights about our own weaknesses. Which doesn’t necessarily mean your main character has to be a replica of you and your life. Separate that annoying trait about yourself from your personality, leave it for a while, then come back to it and give yourself permission to build a fictional character around it.
Recently someone pointed out that on Sitcom Geeks we tend to talk about the same characters over and over – the obvious ones from the hit shows. It’s useful for us to do this, as most people will understand these reference points – but it’s good to remind us that we have a tendency to fall back on familiar names and faces, so I’d like to talk about two recent shows – one by a writer and one by a writer-performer, and explore the larger-than-life content.
In the same way that Miranda being literally larger-than-life is an important aspect of her sitcom, Tom Hollander’s size is an important feature of Rev, by James Wood (although Hollander is also credited in the early episodes). He’s a small, small-town vicar who has moved to a big church in a big city where he is supposed to be the cheerleader for the Biggest Story Ever Told. In Rev, everything else apart from the main character is larger-than-life.
The show deals with plenty of Big Themes, like race, poverty and of course God: here is a man looked upon by the community to provide all the answers but he’s not even sure he’s in the right job. He’s surrounded by a small family (including a baby), and small-minded colleagues and small issues that take up most of his working life. All the time he is dwarfed by the huge problems of where he lives, the huge church he works in that echoes to the sound of emptiness and his own huge crisis of faith. Everything about Rev is about the exaggeration of size.
Monster is probably too harsh a word to describe Tracey Gordon, the creation of writer-performer Michaela Coel from the recent Channel 4 hit Chewing Gum.  But the world she creates and the people in it are big and broad, and Tracey seems to have one aim in life, which is to lose her virginity, and create the monster with two backs.
It’s a familiar story, but with many twists. It’s unusual for the lead in this kind of show to be a woman, and for such a well-drawn, flawed female character. The show has hopefully blown away the kind of fears well-meaning white liberal producers have had in the past about showing women and black people as classic weak, misanthropic comedy characters.
There are many larger-than-life aspects to this show – at one end of the spectrum Tracey’s devoutly religious sister, who is almost as obsessed with sex as she is, and at the other her friends for whom sexual activity is part of their everyday life. In this sitcom the act of sex itself feels like the monster, our most basic human act that we are expected to treat with religious respect and awe, while all around us it’s impossible to avoid its ubiquitous commodification, and assume that everyone else apart from us is doing it all the time.
As those two examples show, the word monster doesn’t need to be confined to the people in the script. In John Carpenter’s terrifically scary movie The Thing, the monster begins as a terrible beast but for the audience the real fear creeps up when none of the characters know who to trust anymore.
But let’s get back to the people. Your script may have one giant monster, or it might have several. At any given point in Modern Family, every one of the eleven or twelve characters in the ensemble is capable of acting like a monster. To return to that phrase larger-than-life, one of the most frequent problems I see in scripts is their closeness to real life. I’m not asking for cartoons and unbelievable stories, but it’s always worth looking at your characters and seeing if you can’t turn up the volume one or two notches.
There can be few better sources of material for this than the monster you know, staring right back at you in the mirror.

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