Filming the Funny: BFI Future Film and BBC Comedy Sitcom Workshop

Sitcoms have been my bread and butter for as long as I can remember. I’d rush home from school to watch the likes of Kerching! and My Parents are Aliens, spend Friday nights watching the now forgettable My Family and My hero and designate Saturday tea times and festive periods for watching re runs of Only Fools and Horses. Let’s be honest, if you don’t watch a bit of Del Boy and Rodney at Christmas, are you really British?

My teenage years were when I started exploring both a mix of the latest American outputs (including The Big Bang Theory, before it all got tiresome) and back catalogues of British comedy genius from the eighties and nineties. Red Dwarf became my obsession (and still is my favourite TV show of all time)  as an awkward thirteen year old, exposing me to mild innuendo before I was to progress onto the more grown up Gavin and Stacey and The Inbetweeners two years later. I actually used to sit down and watch The Inbetweeners  with my family, which all my friends found horrifying, but I’ve acquired my great sense of humour from my parents, so I never found it that weird.  I was lucky enough to be getting into sitcoms at a time in the late noughties/ early tens when the BBC and Channel Four were exploding with new writing: Miranda, The IT Crowd, Outnumbered, Extras and Not Going Out all filled my head with wonder and my belly full of laughs.

At uni, due to a considerable lack of new British treats that took my fancy and a Netflix account, my tastes went stateside, and I fell in love with the work of Micheal Schur and Rachel Bloom, with Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine Nine becoming new favourites.

Sitcoms have been like a third parent during my twenty or so years on planet earth and have taught me many valuable lessons along the way. Despite my tastes changing over the years, I still watch the actors land excellent writing in awe; how can someone write something that good, but know it’s going to be funny? Even as a comedy writer, it boggles my mind. Comedy writers will always be the sorcerers of my world.

As an aspiring comedy wizard, I’m dying to discover this elusive magical formula that my sitcom heroes seem to be gifted with. So when I saw that BFI were teaming up with BBC Comedy as part of their BFI future films initiative to run a workshop on scripted sitcoms I just had to go.

As I arrived at Waterloo Station, my journey marred by inevitable rail delays, I had a mixture of nerves and excitement in my stomach. Since I graduated and decided to take any opportunity I could to gain experience and knowledge in screenwriting as a career, I have been to a couple of workshop and networking things and the introverted side of me finds them terrifying. I love speaking to new people, especially fellow creatives and content makers, but I never know how forward I should be when networking at these things. I don’t want to be the one who is obviously buttering up the panellists, but I don’t want to miss out on opportunities due to shyness. In this case though, I needn’t have worried. As the workshop was exclusively for 16-25 year olds, I was surrounded by fellow enthusiasts who were all starting to work out what they wanted to write/ act in/ produce etc. And once we had played a couple of games that included sharing our taste in films and TV shows, and I discovered that I’m not the only one on the planet who thinks James Corden is massively overrated, I felt at ease and ready to connect and create.


Mecca for film and TV nerds.

The workshop was hosted by Tyrell Williams, creator of the hilarious mockumentary #Hood documentary, which went viral on YouTube and was eventually picked up by BBC 3, who commissioned six episodes as a web series. Having worked mainly in drama and documentaries beforehand, Williams wanted to use his storytelling skills acquired in documentary making to try his hand at a mockumentary.

Teaming up with actor Kayode Ewumi, they created the arrogant, clueless, but somehow lovable Roll Safe (A.K.A R.S.) on vine and developed the hilarious show from that. Their budget was non existent, and they relied on favours and friends to make it happen. But make it happen they did, and it has since become an internet sensation.

William’s venture is a key example of the D.I.Y. comedy coming out of the internet in recent years, and it was great to have a workshop with someone that has got his name out there in the way most accessible to upstarts on a budget like myself.

During the workshop we looked at two scripts written by this year’s winners of the Felix Dexter Bursary, a scheme set up by BBC Comedy and BBC Writer’s room to help new BAME  comedy writers find their way into the industry. After looking at clips of sitcoms and discussing how the camera plays a part in the comedic tone of each piece, we were then split into small groups and given a part of the sketch to bring to life. We each chose different parts to play and I decided to push myself and have a go at directing. I’ve directed comedy before, so I didn’t find the process of directing the actors and getting then to hit the beats too difficult, but bringing together all the technical elements of filming was tricky and I struggled to know exactly what I wanted. Still, I really enjoyed seeing our work come to life on screen, and directing comedy shorts and filmed sketches is definitely something I want to gain more experience in.

After the workshop, we were treated to a discussion panel with industry professionals which was all about getting into comedy and finding your voice as a comedy writer. Panel contributors included Amy Annette, producer for Tiger Aspect, Lydia Hampson, producer of BBC’ss latest smash hit, Fleabag, Akemnji Ndifornyen, actor and writer on BBC3 sketch show Famalam and Adi Bryant’s co-star in Shrill, and Sarah Asante, commissioner for BBC Comedy and new talent finder. I enjoy discussion panels, because it’s always interesting to hear the diverse ways people got into the jobs they’re doing now, but they’re also an incredibly useful source of information and advice.

Here’s what I learnt from the discussion:

  • Have an overall vision with how you want your finished product to look and try and do as many parts of the creative process yourself. An idea is always a lot stronger if it has a singular voice.
  • It’s important that you make yourself laugh, but do also keep the audience in mind when writing.
  • Throw everything you’ve got into the pilot to get people hooked. There’s no point saving things for future episodes or series. It might not get that far if the pilot isn’t strong enough.
  • The best comedy comes from personal experience; the truer, the funnier.
  • Don’t second guess yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid of being rubbish. (Definitely one I need to work on atm).
  • Read as many scripts as possible and watch as much stuff as you can. It’s important that you come across as someone who knows the current scene well.
  • And probably the most important: Don’t try and emulate anyone else in your work but yourself. 

Overall, I really enjoyed the workshop and gained some more handy hints and contacts to add to my ever growing collection. Having a diverse panel of contributors, with 75% being women, made me feel that if I keep working at it, there’s no reason why I can’t breakthrough one day.

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