Great Britain

How to write a self-isolation sitcom – according to an Inbetweener

Not Going Out? Stuck indoors with the same old people every day, life under corona lockdown probably already feels like a perpetual – albeit rather dark – sitcom. So what better time to try to actually turn it into one? But how do you ensure you’re a Royle Family and not a Mrs Brown’s Boys? We grabbed Iain Morris, co-creator of The Inbetweeners and brand new football-based sitcom The First Team, for some handy dos and don’ts of penning the perfect laughfest during lockdown.

Do think of some characters

If you are looking for comedic characters, your very own family is a great place to start. “Friday Night Dinner is a perfect example of how you could write a sitcom about a family in lockdown,” says Morris. “If you said they were in lockdown, you wouldn’t be far off half the episodes. Good sitcom characters often feel like they’re stuck in a situation that they are too good for. Basil Fawlty, Captain Mainwaring and Alan Partridge all think: ‘I’m better than this.’ Foibles are good, especially when the characters’ self-perception is totally misguided. Just look at David Brent.”

Do write about what you know

Maybe you are a long-distance couple like in Gavin & Stacey or a gang of friends like in Friends? Experiences are ideal. “Damon [Beesley, Inbetweeners and The First Team co-creator] and I worked as producers at Channel 4,” says Morris. “We lived together and would regale each other with embarrassing stories from our youth. That became The Inbetweeners. I thought of the idea for our new sitcom The First Team when I sat next to a professional footballer on a flight to LA to see my now-wife. He was really nice and told me lots of things I didn’t realise. Footballers only train for a few hours a day, so he had all this money and time. And he couldn’t play any extra sport in case he got injured. He was just hanging out at libraries with all this energy, trying to work out what to do all day. I thought the idea of living in a gilded cage was really interesting.”

Don’t get distracted

Working from home is a cinch. Provided you don’t have children or access to Netflix, or plan to actually do any work. “I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to write a novel,” says Morris. “I still haven’t got round to that. I have done a Zoom kickboxing class. I’ve been trying to teach my four-year-old son the piano, even though he’s never expressed any interest in playing the piano and I don’t know how to play the piano myself. We’ve done a lot of Lego. If you want to test your patience, try doing Lego with a young child. Not interfering takes a Zen-master level of patience. We also tried papier-mache modelling, which ended up as this half-collapsed, wet balloon. I had to beg him not to show it for Show and Tell and reveal what a complete failure his father is at arts and crafts.”

Do get a good writing partner

Humour is subjective, but it can be helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off, and tell you whether it’s a good idea to introduce, say, a new catchphrase. (“Hello Newman” – yes; “Bazinga” or “Ooh Betty” – definitely not!) “Writing a sitcom with someone else means you can always ask them whether something’s funny,” says Morris. “Damon and I have definitely fallen in love with the characters we’ve created, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. When we’re writing, we can’t wait to hear the words coming out of their mouths. I still think of ideas that would have been perfect for The Inbetweeners. Like a story about someone who lived in the countryside and couldn’t buy condoms, so he used those plastic bag wrappers you get around bread. I was like: ‘Yep. Maybe we should bring the Inbetweeners back just so we can hear Jay suggesting this!’”

Do beg, borrow or steal!

Remember: Peep Show’s creators and leads met during a failed sitcom writers’ project. People Just Do Nothing was on YouTube because Asim Chaudhry had a video camera. If you’ve got mates that can help you – famous or otherwise – get them on board! “Ten or so years ago, there weren’t that many people doing comedy, so you’d end up working with lots of the same people,” says Morris. “I’d got to know David Walliams and I didn’t have anywhere to live, so he said: ‘Why don’t you come and live with me?’ I’m sure he took pity on me, and I’m eternally grateful. He lived in Supernova Heights, which he bought off Noel Gallagher. Damon and I worked with Ricky Gervais on The 11 O’Clock Show, and produced his spoof chatshow, Meet Ricky Gervais. In Extras, when Ricky’s character Andy Millman gets his own sitcom, his producers are called Iain Morris and Damon Beesley. Damon’s mum phoned him and said: ‘Your Gran said you were on TV last night.’ And Damon was like: ‘I definitely wasn’t.’”

Don’t listen to the press

The press are all a bunch of nobodies who get paid to find everything a disappointment. Fact! So should you pay any attention to them? “The trick is to tell everyone that you don’t read reviews, but then read every review you can possibly find, search desperately on Twitter for more, and take all the bad reviews to unbelievable heart and cry,” says Morris. “The first proper review of The Inbetweeners was in the Guardian. It said: ‘You could forgive Iain Morris and Damon Beesley’s new sitcom for being puerile as it is about teenage boys. What is unforgivable is that it is not funny.’ Eleven years later, I’m still trying to forget that. Before the third series, we did an online Guardian chat. It said: Iain and Damon are going to be here from 1pm till 2pm on Thursday; you can ask them questions then or leave questions now.’ If you asked a question immediately, it got put up ready for us to answer. For about three days, the only question was: ‘Why are you so shit?’”

Do enjoy the premiere

Hurrah! You have successfully written your first sitcom. It should be on any minute now. But be careful who you show it to. “I took my mum to the premiere of the first Inbetweeners film,” says Morris. “I was so embarrassed by the content I made everyone shuffle down so I could sit at least eight seats away. At the start of the film, Jay wanks into some sliced ham, which is embarrassing enough. At the afterparty, I was talking to the head of Film4 and my mum came over and said: ‘I always wondered why we got through so much sliced ham when you were a teenager.’ I was like: ‘No! I was drunk and hungry … ’ and she was like: ‘That’s what you say now …’ It was mortifying, but fair revenge.”

The First Team starts Thursday 28 May, 9.30pm, BBC Two and iPlayer

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